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Last Updated: Monday, 19 January, 2004, 15:40 GMT
Europe's stunning Red Planet view
Valles Marineris viewed from above (top) and in perspective view (bottom) as if seen from a low-flying aircraft

The first image of the Red Planet taken by Europe's Mars Express probe since it arrived in orbit has been released.

The picture shows a part of the Valles Marineris, a giant canyon that runs across the middle of the planet.

The image, taken from an altitude of 275 km, was obtained by the probe's High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) and shows detail down to 12 metres.

Mars Express will spend its time studying the Martian atmosphere, the planet's structure, and its geology.

At the end of the two-year mission, we will know the surface of Mars better than we do the Earth
Dr John Murray, OU
Better known

Dr John Murray, of the Open University, UK, who is on the camera team, told BBC News Online: "This is the first 3D camera sent to Mars.

"It is 10 times better than anything sent before. We have high hopes for it and how it will advance our understanding of Mars."

He added: "These first images are the culmination of more than 10 years of work. In a matter of minutes, we are able to map an area greater than Great Britain and Ireland showing details down to a few metres in diameter.

See the view from above

"At the end of the two-year mission, we will know the surface of Mars better than we do the Earth.

"The giant canyon on Mars, the Valles Marineris, is the largest canyon in the Solar System. It is 4,000 km long (as long as the whole of Europe) and up to 10 km deep in places, more than six times deeper than the Grand Canyon, Arizona.

"This first picture shows a whole complex of deep canyons, with clear signs of past water erosion. The three-dimensional model is derived from the triple stereo camera, which will enable us to derive an accurate height for any point in the picture."

All the probe's instruments have successfully been switched on, and have started to deliver data.

The only exception is the boom deployment of the radar which is planned for April.

Orbit manoeuvres

Already, Mars Express has participated in the first, internationally coordinated observations of the planet. On Friday, it looked down through a segment of the Martian atmosphere in the same place and at the same time as the US surface rover Spirit looked up.

Scientists hope the combined observation will reveal new details about the dynamics of the Martian atmosphere.

Mars Express, Esa
Professor David Southwood, head of science at the European Space Agency, described the first image of Mars as breathtaking.

"Let me tell you the other data is also in good shape," he told BBC News Online. "We are very happy with the performance of the instruments."

He added: "We've done all the orbit manoeuvres, we're in the final observational orbit."

"It goes over the pole every seven or eight hours - three times a day - and the planet rotates underneath it so it's perfect for observing, as time progresses, the whole surface of Mars."

'Aircraft' view

The picture shows a portion of a 1,700-km-long and 65-km-wide swathe which was taken in a south-north direction across the Valles Marineris.

See the computer-generated 'aircraft view'

It is the first image of this size that shows the surface of Mars at 12 metres per pixel, in colour, and in 3D.

The lower part of the picture above shows the same region in perspective view as if seen from a low-flying aircraft.

This perspective view was generated on a computer from the original image data.

The HRSC is under the leadership of the principal investigator Professor Gerhard Neukum, of the Free University, Berlin.

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