NASA this afternoon announced that it has selected a University of Arizona-led team's proposed very high resolution camera called "HiRISE" for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a powerful scientific orbiter planned for launch in August 2005.
"HiRISE will be used to study martian landscapes at 25 centimeter (10-inch) resolution, which is good enough to see rocks the size of footballs or soccer balls," said Alfred S. McEwen of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, principal investigator for HiRISE. The camera's color stereo images of the martian surface will be at least six times higher resolution than any existing images.
"While the current images would let us see an SUV on Mars, HiRISE would let us identify the model. We might even be able to tell the state itsfrom by the color of the license plate," said Laszlo Keszthelyi, LPL research associate and co-investigator on HiRISE.
"If you were on Mars," Keszthelyi added, "we could see you in a HiRISE picture."
Images are expected to improve understanding of surface processes related to water. Combining high-resolution color images and digital elevation data obtained with HiRISE will be especially important in choosing future landing sites and planning rover traverses, the team said in their proposal.
Imaging scientists typically must settle for either very detailed images that cover smaller areas or less detailed images that cover larger areas.
But, McEwen said, "We will have our cake and eat it, too: We will cover a lot of area, and we will cover it in great detail." It's almost like having images from a lander, he said: "HiRISE can virtually take us anywhere on the surface of Mars that we choose."
For an idea of the detailed (20,000 x 40,000 pixel) views HiRISE will get of the martian landscape, the team made a HiRISE-like image of the Grand Canyon. It covers the width of Grand Canyon while showing individual rocks and boulders. The pictures and fact sheets, plus other information, is online at http://pirlwww.lpl.arizona.edu/~mcewen/HiRISE
Co-investigators on HiRISE also include Ken Herkenhoff, Randy Kirk and Eric Eliason of the U.S. Geological Survey - Flagstaff; and others.
Ball Aerospace Corp. of Boulder, Colo., will build and test the $31 million instrument.
Dozens of UA students will be involved in analyzing the enormous amount of data returned from HiRISEafter it reaches Mars in 2006, McEwen said. Scientists expect that the entire Mars Renconnaissance Orbiter mission will return about 20 times as much information as has the Mars Global Surveyor, he added.
"One of the most exciting aspects about HiRISE is that we plan toinvolve the public, especially school children, in all parts of the operation -- from selecting the parts of Mars to image to making sense ofwhat the pictures mean," Keszthelyi said.
And HiRISE will be a "people's camera" in that all images will be released within a few days or weeks, for example. Near real-time images will be displayed on large screens at the Smithsonian Institution and the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, the scientists said.
The 2005 orbiter also will carry a high-resolution spectrometer, an Italian-built subsurface sounding radar, and three experiments replicating those lost on Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999.