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Emily LakdawallaDecember 9, 2011

Mariner 9 approaching Mars: a movie!

Image magician Daniel Macháček has done it again. This time, he's celebrating the 40th anniversary of Mariner 9's arrival at Mars (November 13, 1971) with a morphed animation of the images that Mars' first orbiter took while approaching the planet. It is composed of 40 individual images, morphed together to smooth the animation. It's sped up 1200 times so that 1 second is equivalent to 20 minutes of real time, and the animation covers most of two days/sols. Mars was shrouded in a dust storm at the time, so details are hazy, but a few things are discernible. You can clearly see the little white dot of the southern residual polar cap, and tell from how much of the south polar terrain stays lit all the time that it's the height of summer in the southern hemisphere. As hazy features rotate into dawn, you can see a bright streak of a dust-filled Valles Marineris, followed by the triple dark dots of the peaks of the Tharsis Montes (which poke above the dust) and the trailing dot of Olympus Mons. As they rotate out of view a dimly dark streak appears with a circular light cutout -- that's Sinus Meridiani, near where Opportunity is now. An entire day passes and Valles Marineris and the great volcanoes return to the view before it fades out.

NASA / JPL / Daniel Macháček

Mars from Mariner 9: Approach Animation
At the time of Mariner 9's arrival at Mars, the planet was shrouded in a planet wide dust storm. The giant volcanoes of Tharsis, including Nix Olympica/Olympus Mons poke their calderas above the dust.

The view reminds me of the one from Mars Express' VMC, which also often show a hazy Mars. These were taken in the opposite season, though, at the height of northern summer, and the hazy appearance is mostly due to fog and water ice cloud, not dust. (I note here in passing an easy visual trick to figure out the approximate season -- if the Tharsis Montes are parallel to the dawn terminator, it's southern hemisphere summer; if they're at more like a 45 degree angle, it's northern hemisphere summer.)

Foggy morning in Valles Marineris

ESA / processed by Emily Lakdawalla

Foggy morning in Valles Marineris
Photos of Mars taken by Mars Express' VMC in summer 2008, near Mars' northern summer solstice, show a foggy morning in Valles Marineris, which appears as a bright streak.

Read more: pretty pictures, amateur image processing, NASA Mars missions before 1996, Mars, animation

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Emily Lakdawalla

Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for The Planetary Society
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