Martian chronicles: Western researchers eye the Red Planet in a new way

Illustration by Frank Neufeld

Livio Tornabene and his research team have been snapping a lot of photos recently and have seen nothing but red – and they couldn’t be happier.

Launched in 2005, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is a multipurpose spacecraft designed to explore Mars from orbit. After a seven-month journey to the Red Planet, the $700-million spacecraft began its mission photographing of the surface, analyzing minerals, looking for subsurface water, tracing how much dust and water are distributed in the atmosphere and monitoring daily global weather.

Last month, Tornabene, an adjunct Science professor, and his students spent two weeks using HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment), a 700-megapixel camera to capture as many as 150 new Martian images. By comparison, the top digital camera you use at home achieves 36 megapixels.

Checking out images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbitor are, from left, adjunct science professor Livio Tornabene, undergraduate student Kayle Hansen and graduate student Eric Pilles. Along with fellow graduate student Ryan Hopkins, the group snapped more than 150 photos of Mars using HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment), a 700-megapixel camera. It was the first time HiRISE had ever been used in Canada.

Paul Mayne // Western NewsChecking out images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbitor are, from left, adjunct science professor Livio Tornabene, undergraduate student Kayle Hansen and graduate student Eric Pilles. Along with fellow graduate student Ryan Hopkins, the group snapped more than 150 photos of Mars using HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment), a 700-megapixel camera. It was the first time HiRISE had ever been used in Canada.

Tornabene, one of six original targeting specialists for HiRISE, recently came to Western and has remained on the HiRISE science team, allowing him to bring the opportunity to obtain the unique images not just to Western, but for the first time in Canada in more than 211 imaging cycles.

“It’s still very exciting to me,” said Tornabene of his fourth opportunity to be part of such a mission. “When these images come down from Mars we’re amongst the first people to even look at those images and, sometimes, that particular spot on Mars hasn’t been imaged at high resolution. So, you’re likely the first person to ever see such detail. It’s quite astounding.

“I’ve now spun it as an opportunity to train Western students to be involved in a Mars mission and give them that unique experience that, to be honest, if you’re going to be involved in future missions, it helps to have one under your belt anyway you can get it.”

This image, the very first of cycle 211, is approximately 1.5x3km. It shows a sample of eroded Martian terrain in Arabia Terra. At one time this was a flat, smooth terrain, but over time it has been eroded – most likely by the wind – forming depressed, low-lying areas featuring small dunes resembling waves in the ocean; whereas, in other areas there are small flat-top hills forming.

Photo by NASA/JPL/University of ArizonaThis image, the very first of cycle 211, is approximately 1.5x3km. It shows a sample of eroded Martian terrain in Arabia Terra. At one time this was a flat, smooth terrain, but over time it has been eroded – most likely by the wind – forming depressed, low-lying areas featuring small dunes resembling waves in the ocean; whereas, in other areas there are small flat-top hills forming.

Joining Tornabene are graduate students Eric Pilles and Ryan Hopkins and undergraduate student Kayle Hansen, who is thrilled to have had such an experience this early on.

“It’s crazy to think about,” said the third-year student. “The perspective of being an undergrad, or anyone for that matter, and to have the opportunity to be able to choose and manipulate what you’re looking at, more than 225 million kilometres away, it’s literally an out-of-this-world experience.”

Hansen has had two of his photo suggestions approved, an unheard of event for an undergraduate student, with some experienced researchers being denied.

“It may sound poetic, but I personally think humanity’s future is in space,” he said. “While I have been part of an analog mission using rovers, to come from that practice environment, even though it’s pretty intense, to something that is real was just so exciting. We’re able to see things on another planet that can help us in the future.”

Beyond the need to gather new scientific data for the Mars research community, including vital images for supporting the landing of three upcoming surface missions – InSight (NASA, 2016), ExoMars (European Space Agency, 2018) and Mars 2020 (NASA, 2020) – there are many questions that need answering.

As a geologist, Tornabene has studied Earth, but it’s missing its first billion years of record. He learned early on Mars has its record intact and it is the most Earth-like planet in the solar system.

“Mars was once, potentially, Earth like. How Earth like, that’s still debatable,” Tornabene said. “Maybe it had life on it at one time. Maybe it has life on it today. There are these great questions that make us look inward at ourselves as well. We’re trying to understand Mars to even understand Earth, to understand this missing piece of history, this early history, when life emerged on Earth.

“It once had water flow across its surface. How long was that liquid water on the surface? We don’t know to this day. That’s one of the big debates and why we continue to study Mars.”

This image, approximately 500x500m, represents a popular monitoring site, which is a sample of South Polar Layered Deposits on Mars. These deposits are quite extensive and partially surround the South Polar Residual Cap. In this image, fractured bedrock is partially coated in frost.

Photo by NASA/JPL/University of ArizonaThis image, approximately 500x500m, represents a popular monitoring site, which is a sample of South Polar Layered Deposits on Mars. These deposits are quite extensive and partially surround the South Polar Residual Cap. In this image, fractured bedrock is partially coated in frost.

With Mars being 145-million square kilometres, and less than 3 per cent of its surface studied to date using the $40-million HiRISE camera, it would take about 350 years to cover the entire surface.

“What we are trying to understand is what goes on in an impact crater when it forms since we’ve never actually witnessed one,” Tornabene said. “We’ve done experiments, so we can do simulations, but we’ve never seen an actual occurring asteroid or comet impact. We’re trying to understand the geological process of what is going on during such an impact.”

With HiRISE almost 10 years old, cosmic radiation can harm its instruments over time, causing it to degrade. Tornabene said another high-resolution camera will be sent in 2016, allowing researchers to capture 3D images.

“We’ve never even been there (Mars) and we do send a flotilla of instruments – orbiters, landers, rovers. People might say, ‘Why do we keep doing it?’ – because there is a lot to know. We’re on Earth still answering questions about our own planet and trying to understand it. To understand Mars, it’s going to take some time.”