If you’ve ever wanted to get a close-up look at Mars, the European Space Agency (ESA) has just released a treasure trove of images. Captured by the Visual Monitoring Camera (VMC) instrument onboard the Mars Express orbiter, these images come from data captured between 2007 and this year, in addition to observations of the release of the Beagle 2 lander in 2003. These images have been released so that scientists can study them, but they’re available for the public to browse as well.
The image archive has hundreds of photos of Mars taken from orbit, showing the huge range of geographical features and diverse formations found on the planet. In the collage of images below, you can see everything from dust and water over the north pole (first image, top row), to an unusual cloud formation called the Arsia Mons Elongated Cloud (second image, top row), to a double cyclone raging over the planet’s north pole (fourth image, top row), to the enormous structures of the Tharsis Volcanoes and Olympus Mons (third image, second row), to the Valles Marineris canyon system (third image, third row).
The data has been calibrated, so that noise produced by the sensor is accounted for and removed, and variations in pixel sensitivity have been accounted for. This means that the images look stunning and are ready for scientific and public use.
The VMC instrument was originally intended to serve a practical purpose: To observe the release of the Beagle 2 lander, a British lander transported to Mars by ESA in 2003. The lander disappeared after its deployment and its exact fate remained unknown until 2015, when NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera captured its location. From the images, engineers could see that Beagle 2 landed safely but failed to deploy two of its solar panels, meaning it was not able to communicate with Earth.
Despite the failure of the Beagle 2 mission, the VMC was repurposed to observe the planet in 2007, and proved a valuable scientific instrument. It has since been used to capture images for various scientific papers including research into clouds on Mars, global Martian dust storms, and plumes on Mars.