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NASA shows off best Mars orbiter images from the past 15 years

A dust devil, an avalanche, a moon and a crater all made the cut of top Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter images.

This false-color image shows rippling wind-blown dunes on Mars in 2009.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

NASA's Mars rovers might be glamorous attention-getters, but they have a quieter sibling in the martian skies. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) left Earth 15 years ago on Aug. 12. NASA celebrated the anniversary this week by highlighting some of the spacecraft's finest images of the red planet.

Mars doesn't have the blues. Some of MRO's images appear in distinctly un-martian colors thanks to the use of false color, an image processing technique that helps certain details stand out.  

A large meteor smacked into Mars and created this crater. MRO's Context Camera instrument spotted this crater and NASA originally shared this HiRise image in 2014. The colors are processed to highlight the crater's features.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

This crater is 100 feet (30 meters) in diameter and is one of many impressive craters found on Mars. The thin martian atmosphere doesn't burn up meteors the same way Earth's does. 

MRO is equipped with three cameras. The Mars Color Imager takes fisheye images, the Context Camera snaps the surface in black and white and the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRise) delivers most of the knockout views we've come to expect from the orbiter.

MRO's HiRise camera caught this view of a towering dust devil in 2012.


This image of a dust devil on Mars comes from the HiRise camera in 2012. It was big. "The length of this whirlwind's shadow indicates that it was more than half a mile (800 meters) high -- about the size of the United Arab Emirate's Burj Khalifa, the tallest building on Earth," NASA said

The MRO anniversary highlights collection is beautiful through and through, from a view of Earth from a great distance to a shot of a the small moon Phobos. 

MRO may be one of the oldest spacecraft at the red planet, but it isn't thinking about retirement. Here's to more years of gorgeous images of Mars.