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The atmosphere of the Red Planet is only 1% as dense as ours, and it is cold and desolate. Mars’ strong winds carry global dust storms that can make or break Mars projects that depend on solar energy.
Thankfully, spacecraft on and above Mars keep us Earthlings informed on the weather on Mars and the top attractions for wanderlust on Mars. These are the best pictures of Mars that have been made public this year, whether seen through the WATSON camera on Perseverance or the all-seeing eye of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
The Mars Express Orbiter snapped images of the Valles Marineris, a canyon system about 10 times longer, 20 times wider, and five times deeper than Earth’s Grand Canyon. It’s hard to fathom the scale of such a structure, but the image—taken from miles above the Martian surface—shows that the planet’s exterior is much more topographically dynamic than some rover images would leave you to believe. It’s all about perspective.
Two cameras aboard the Mars Express orbiter captured images of Martian dust storms that kicked up around the planet’s North Pole. Interestingly, the images seemed to show Martian clouds similar in structure to Earth’s clouds. It’s another reminder that despite the many differences between the two planets, they have their similarities.
The Webb Space Telescope got local in September when it imaged Mars with its Near-infrared camera (NIRCam). The cutting-edge space observatory snapped features on the Red Planet’s surface—namely the Huygens Crater, Hellas Basin, and Syrtis Major, a dark spot that separates the planet’s northern lowlands from its southern highlands. The telescope also took spectroscopic data from the Martian atmosphere, revealing some specifics about its molecular composition.
In May, the Curiosity rover (bless its industrious robot heart) imaged a peculiar rock formation on Mars’ Mount Sharp that just about everyone agrees looks like an alien doorway. (Alien in the sense that it’s on Mars, as who knows what alien doors actually look like). Of course, NASA has dismissed the internet theory. Apparently, the feature is only a foot tall, and is a split between two fractures of a rock. We see what we want to see, especially on the Red Planet.
On Christmas Eve 2021, a meteorite impacted on Mars. The impact was felt by the InSight lander, which normally detects seismic waves from Marsquakes. In 2022, the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter imaged the impact site. It revealed ice kicked up by the space rock’s impact, with a big black splotch the blaring indicator of the rock’s presence.
The Context Camera, also aboard MRO, imaged the site both before and after the impact. The rock landed in Amazonis Planitia, a region that looks relatively plain in the before times—and quite interesting in the aftermath. A black dot is the noticeable impact site of the meteorite, and a debris field clearly spreads outwards from where the rock crash-landed.
What in the fresh Martian hell is this? Alien litter? In July, Perseverance’s hazard avoidance camera imaged a tangle of string that NASA officials confirmed was debris from the rover mission—though they weren’t exactly sure what. Gizmodo commenters suggested the stringy detritus might be connected to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Unfortunately, it’s more likely a reminder that even noble pursuits like space exploration have consequences like interplanetary pollution.
The Ingenuity helicopter snapped an image of some of the backshell and crumpled parachute from the Perseverance rover’s successful landing on Mars. The rover landed in February 2021, and the jettisoned material was spotted this April. The image is pretty sharp—a welcome change from some of the older shots from the Red Planet.
This image was snapped by the InSight lander on May 4, the day its seismometer (covered in dust in this image) detected one of the largest Marsquakes ever detected on the planet. The Marsquake had a magnitude of 5.0—on Earth, that equates to an earthquake one can feel but only causes minor damage.
The Curiosity rover spotted flaky rocks as it traversed Mars’ Mount Sharp. Scientists know that liquid water once existed on Mars, and scientists think these flaky rocks indicate where streams of water flowed through sand dunes.
The InSight lander’s final selfie was a sight to behold, in no small part because it shows exactly why it’s the lander’s final selfie. InSight is being suffocated by Martian dust that is sticking to its solar panels, meaning the lander cannot get enough power to persist. The InSight team has stopped using the lander’s camera to prolong its scientific operations, leaving us with this final sight of InSight, which is expected to die in the next few months.