Mars Through Many Looking Glasses

Mars has been observed with telescopes since Galileo. We’ve been sending spacecraft there to get up close and personal since the 1970s.

However, not all scientific instruments are created equal, and in general, the earlier missions gave a much lower resolution view than later ones. Even the Viking missions, which landed on the surface of Mars in the ’70s, showed us a planet that looks different somehow from the views given by the Mars Rovers today. It’s not all a matter of resolution, but often a matter of what our instruments can detect.

Those instruments have sent back a lot of data – “giga-quads”, as Commander Ryker might say. Is there science to be done by looking through the old data? You betchya, and you can do some of it. There are large amounts of data have never been examined except in the most cursory way. Lots of them have never been examined by modern tools, and the process of looking at just one object as it appeared through more than one mission’s sensors has just barely begun. From Emily at The Planetary Society:

Mariner 9 is one of the more challenging data sets to work with because it’s just so old. However, everything you need to access it, find images, view them, and convert them to more familiar formats is readily available online. First of all, the data itself can be found by browsing the data volumes at the PDS Imaging Node, and you can learn a little bit about the data at the National Space Science Data Center.

Emily is hot on the case.

I’m slowly working on tracking down images of “White Rock” taken by every mission. First Mariner 9, then the Viking orbiters, then Mars Global Surveyor‘s MOC, then Mars Odyssey THEMIS, then Mars Express HRSC, and, finally, I should be able to produce Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter views from three different instruments: HiRISE, CTX, and CRISM. Stay tuned for further installments.

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey opens data from several different observators to anyone willing to look at it. And like Emily’s efforts, the effect of looking at one object as seen from many instruments is “new science”.

There are more data then scientists with the time to look at them.

The good news is there is also a solution to this problem, and we see it before us. Opening the data to all means that a small army of interested people can puruse these data, uncovering things that no one principal investigator would ever even think to look for. Amateur astronomers are even now using Photoshop to stitch together many CCD images (often images they took themselves) to reveal the connection between celestial objects that no one considered connected (see page 2 of S&Ts gallery here). An army of Liliputians is right now trying to categorize galaxy types, which is an effort that only mythical heros of the past would dare to undertake single handedly. And of course, a Nobel Prize is just waiting for the first user of SETI@Home, to detect an un-natural signal. Well, maybe not a Nobel Prize, but certainly fame.

And of course, “Hey, someone should write a book on this.”

Explore posts in the same categories: Astronomy, Science

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