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See a many-colored Mars

NASA / JPL / Univ. of Ariz.
A false-color view shows the Martian region of Nili Fossae in blue and orange.

The high-resolution camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been sending back spy-quality imagery of the Red Planet for almost a year now, but now you'll be seeing the Martian surface as the Blue and Orange Planet as well as the Grayscale Planet.

More than 140 false-color images were released on Wednesday alone, to aid researchers who are scoping out potential landing sites for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, due for launch in 2009.

The colors don't reflect what the eye would see naturally on Mars, but they do help scientists figure out variations in Martian surface composition. A false-color movie (in QuickTime) shows how the Mars orbiter's imaging spectrometer can distinguish between hydrated clay minerals and unaltered volcanic rocks at one of the suggested landing sites, a place called Nili Fossae in Mars' northern hemisphere.

The volcanic basalt shows up as blue in the video, while the orangish areas are rich in clay. Readings from the orbiter's imaging spectrometer indicate that Nili Fossae is one of the largest exposures of clay minerals discovered so far, according to an image advisory from the team for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE.

"The clay minerals are especially promising in the search for ancient life on Mars," Alfred McEwen, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona and the principal investigator for HiRISE, said in a university news release.

The HiRISE team developed new software to process the information from the high-resolution camera's 10 red-filter detectors, two blue-green filter detectors and 10 infrared detectors into large-format color images. The colors add an extra dimension to HiRISE's usual grayscale views - and according to the imaging team's Web log, the color conversion will be done for the existing database of 3,500 high-resolution pictures as well as all future releases.

McEwen said the unearthly colors will help geologists make sense out of terrain that might otherwise show up in more subtle shades.

"Color clearly identifies basic material distinctions like dust, sand or rocks, light-toned layered material, and frost or ice," he said. Scientists plan to combine the HiRISE data with readings from the orbiter's CRISM spectrometer to create detailed maps of minerals and soil types. Those will serve as a guide for the Mars Science Laboratory and subsequent missions - perhaps even human visits to the Red Planet.