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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 March 2007, 12:31 GMT
Movies provide new view of Mars
By Paul Rincon
Science reporter, BBC News, Houston

Columbia Hills (Nasa/JPL/University of Arizona/USGS)
The Columbia Hills region of Mars is being explored by Spirit rover

Two animations released by Nasa allow viewers to "hang-glide" over the terrain currently being explored by the US space agency's Mars rovers.

The animations were created using pictures taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

MRO used its HiRise camera to take images of the same site from different angles over several orbits.

This provided the 3D mapping data needed to animate a flypast over the Red Planet.

The animations were created to support the twin robotic rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, in their ongoing explorations of the Red Planet.

They were unveiled here in Texas this week at the 38th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.

The movies reveal in exquisite detail the geology of the Columbia Hills, which are being explored by Spirit, and Victoria Crater, where Opportunity is currently based.

And they provide an impressive display of MRO's capabilities, backed up by the most powerful camera ever sent to Mars.

Topographical maps

"Victoria Crater, which is 750 to 800m (2,460 to 2,620ft) across is on the Meridiani Plains, which are very flat, so there is very little to see. But parts of the crater are very steep and it's all very challenging when comparing the images," said Randolph Kirk, from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in Flagstaff, Arizona.

"The high quality of the HiRise data really wins out, and allows us to do things we've never done in this area with other cameras."

Victoria Crater (Nasa/JPL/University of Arizona/USGS)
Victoria Crater is where Opportunity rover is based

He added: "The Columbia Hills, in contrast, is a more typical area of Mars. There is an incredible amount of detail at the scale of metres that we've never been able to see topographically."

The movies were created using commercial software used to map the Earth with airborne and satellite data.

This software matches points on pairs of images taken from different angles and determines their elevation in order to construct a topographic map.

Dr Kirk said the animations showed what one might see from a hang-glider sweeping over the martian surface.


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