Martian Point ‘N Shoot

Martian Point ‘N Shoot

Earth comes closer to Mars on August 27 than it has in nearly 60,000 years, but one new opportunity for seeing details on the red planet comes from a vantage point much closer.

Mars makes its closest approach this year in the last 60 millenia
Credit: NASA/JPL Viking

The public has an unprecedented opportunity to suggest places on Mars that should be photographed from a spacecraft orbiting that planet. Camera operators for NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft are ready to take suggestions online for new places for images from the Mars Orbiter Camera.

The spacecraft, managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif., has been orbiting Mars since 1997, with more than 20,000 orbits so far. The Mars Orbiter Camera has already taken more than 120,000 pictures of Mars. Many of the camera’s images have sharp enough resolution to show features as small as a school bus. The images have revealed relatively recent gully erosion, ancient sedimentary rocks and many other spectacular scientific surprises.

"We’ve only covered about three percent of the surface area of Mars with the high-resolution camera. We want to be sure we’re not missing some place that could be important, so we’re casting a wide net for new suggestions," said Dr. Ken Edgett, staff scientist at Malin Space Science Systems, the San Diego firm that supplied and operates the camera for NASA. "We’re looking for excellent suggestions of areas on Mars that we have not already imaged," Edgett said. "We’ll look at every request that comes in."

Erosion patterns
Erosion channels from the dune fields of Mars’ Russell Crater, MGS-MOC image, M1901170Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems,

"NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft team will examine each request to ensure the safety of this priceless ‘eye in the sky’ above Mars," said Dr. Jim Garvin, NASA’s Lead Scientist for Mars Exploration at NASA Headquarters, Washington.

Information about how to submit requests is online at the new Mars Orbiter Camera Target Request Site.

Requesters should describe the purpose for the suggested image. Suggestions for target sites already imaged by the camera will be disqualified unless there is a convincing reason for repeating the target. An online gallery of pictures taken by the camera is available.

"Some of the best requests may be places nowhere near any site the Mars Orbiter Camera has imaged before," Edgett said. As with pictures desired by Mars scientists working with the camera every day, new suggestions will need to wait until the Mars Global Surveyor flies directly over the selected target, which could be several months or longer. The first images from this public suggestion program will probably be released this fall.

What’s Next

The Mars Orbital Camera experiment on the Global Surveyor is in excellent health and continues to return a wealth of new information every day. The Global Surveyor will support the planned landing missions by observing the sites on Mars.

Two Mars Exploration Rovers (MERs) have been launched by NASA so far this year. Experiments performed by the MERs will help to determine whether water might have once existed in volume on the red planet. The two Mars Exploration Rovers are targeting what imagery indicates might have been ancient dry lake beds and other geologically interesting sites in early 2004.

Pathfinder landing image
Artist conception of dramatic airbag landing Credit: NASA.

Compared to previous landers, one enhanced feature of the MER mission plan is more mobility for its rovers. Compared to the stunningly successful Pathfinder mission in 1997, these bigger Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) can trek up to a football field–330 feet (100 meters)– per Martian day. Making remote manuevers over those distances means getting very good topological maps, while knowing where every interesting rock or hazard might tip and block the rovers’ paths. Seen globally, the darker areas on Mars are generally more rocky while the bright areas are dusty, but a much enhanced topography goes into site selection beforehand, and then much later after landing to roam the surface. Potentially hundreds or thousands of pebbles and boulders can pock mark a landing site on the scale of a 100 yards per day. In total, the football field milestone is almost as far in one Martian day as the 1997 Sojourner rover did over its entire, many-month-long lifetime.

Starting in January 2004, MER surface operations will last for at least 90 Martian days, or longer if hardware health is maintainable.

Once an interesting target is identified on the ground, the Mars Rovers’ will employ what is their primary science payload, a collection of 5 instruments (and a rock abrasion tool) called the Athena package. Mission planners look forward to even more close-up views of the two primary sites slated for the early 2004 rendezvous.

The European Space Agency also launched a mission in 2003, a combined orbiter/lander. Current plans are for its lander, Beagle 2, to contain biological experiments designed to search directly for evidence of life on Mars.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages Mars Global Surveyor for NASA’s Office of Space Science in Washington. JPL’s industrial partner is Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, which developed and operates the spacecraft. Malin Space Science Systems and the California Institute of Technology built the Mars Orbiter Camera. Malin Space Science Systems operates the camera from facilities in San Diego.

Related Web Pages

Mars Exploration, JPL
Evidence for Snow on Mars – and Perhaps an Abode for Life?
Mars Odyssey web site (with new images)
MARIE instrument
Valles Marineris
Mars by Stories
Impact Crater Landing Sites for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers
Mars Exploration Rover Homepage
2003 Mars Exploration Rover Mission