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Photos: Mars orbiter's abstract impressions

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter dispatches more than 1,500 new high-resolution close-ups of the Red Planet, though many of the images are really studies in blue.

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Jon Skillings
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1 of 16 NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Terra Tyrrhena Knob

NASA this week began showing off more than 1,500 new images of the surface of Mars, taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRise) camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. In browsing through the cropped detail images, we couldn't help but be struck by the sense that we were wandering through an art gallery of striking, and often abstract, impressions of our next-door neighbor in the solar system.

This image, according to NASA's terse caption, is of potential high-temperature mineral deposits in the Terra Tyrrhena Knob.

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2 of 16 NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Putative Paleolake

We may know Mars as the Red Planet, but many of the HiRise images are studies in blue. NASA titled this one "Putative Paleolake"--a name suggestive of the theory that liquid water once could be found on Mars.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been circumnavigating its namesake planet since early 2006. It sent back its first high-resolution image in March of that year.

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3 of 16 NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Translucent Ice

Titled "Translucent Ice," this image is a reminder that the Mars Phoenix Lander in June 2008 uncovered a white substance that scientists believed must be ice. In November, using a surface-penetrating radar, the orbiter spotted what could be glaciers of water ice on Mars.

This batch of HiRise pictures was taken between April and early August of this year.

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4 of 16 NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Hydrate-rich terrain

NASA says this image shows possible hydrate-rich terrain. The HiRise camera can show details as small as 1 meter across, even though the orbiter it's riding on is somewhere between 125 and 250 miles above the surface. Like human eyes, HiRise operates in visible light, but it also works at near-infrared wavelengths to investigate mineral groups.
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5 of 16 NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Hale crater

Dry gullies show an edge of the Hale crater, which is in the southern portion of Mars. Like the other images in this slideshow, this one is a fragment of the full HiRise image, which you'll find in the next frame.
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6 of 16 NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Long view of Hale crater

The full HiRise images are all long, rectangular shots, typically covering an area about 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) wide, with the length being somewhere between two to four times that distance. This long view of the Hale crater area, NASA says, covers an area about 1 kilometer (0.6 mile) across.
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7 of 16 NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Two gullies

NASA's terse caption says only: "Two types of gullies identified in west half of crater." But no, it's not Hale.
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8 of 16 NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Crater with gullies

This is the full HiRise image from which the "two types of gullies" picture was cropped. It clearly shows about three-quarters of the crater's circumference.
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9 of 16 NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Sharad feature

NASA says "interesting SHARAD feature." To which we might reply "spooky, even."

Sharad, by the way, stands for "shallow subsurface radar." One of six science instruments on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter along with the HiRise camera, it uses radar waves within a 15- to 25-megahertz frequency band to penetrate up to 1 kilometer into the crust of Mars in the hunt for liquid or frozen water. We're not sure why a Sharad image is included with the HiRise pictures, but we like it anyway.

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10 of 16 NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Pit crater chain

This HiRise image shows a pit crater chain south of Arsia Mons, NASA says.
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11 of 16 NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Sinuous ridges

Here, in brighter colors, we see sinuous ridges in Northeast Meridiani Planum.
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12 of 16 NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Seasonal haloes

Once again, NASA's caption--"Seasonal Haloes and Fractal Patterns"--leaves much unsaid, and much to the imagination.
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13 of 16 NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Residual cap monitoring

This study in brown shows "South Pole Residual Cap Monitoring and Change Detection." NASA says that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, in its two-and-a-half years in business, has returned more data about Mars than all other missions to Mars, past and present, combined.
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14 of 16 NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Cryptic terrain, close-up

There's much that we don't know about Mars, which leads inevitably to NASA's caption for this image, "Cryptic Terrain Type B."
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15 of 16 NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Cryptic terrain, long view

This full HiRise image puts the cryptic terrain in a larger context, not that it helps us lay folk very much.
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16 of 16 NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Alunite-Kaolinite

We close with this image of a layered alunite-kaolinite mineral deposit.

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