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Old Mars data paints new reality

A virtual Mars could help researchers understand more about the planet’s valleys and water. Image courtesy of CROSSDRIVE

Dozens of spacecraft have visited Mars over the years, generating untold amounts of data and expertise. Now scientists are bringing all of this together, with a hope of painting a new picture of the red planet.

The work could answer enduring questions about Mars, such as why there is methane but no obvious life, given that on earth most methane is produced by living organisms, and how its water cycle could work.

It could also lead to a virtual recreation of Mars in earth laboratories, enabling scientists to visualise what they are studying and plan future missions.

‘We are pushing the limits of the science that can be done with [Mars] data,’ said astrophysicist Dr Miguel Ángel López-Valverde at the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia (CSIC) in Granada, Spain.

The data from space missions undergoes dedicated analysis when it is taken. After that it is, in principle, freely available for independent study, but often it is left unused.

That is a shame, said Dr López-Valverde, as old data could contain many hidden gems. He is leading a project by the EU called UPWARDS to collate existing Mars data – particularly that taken by the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) ongoing Mars Express mission – and develop new tools for a thorough re-analysis.

Upper atmosphere

One area the UPWARDS scientists want to investigate is the structure of the Martian upper atmosphere, an understanding of which is important for landing modules. To do so they are combining existing data from three Mars Express instruments and, for the first time, processing it in a state-of-the-art climate model.

That is just one element of the UPWARDS project, and Dr López-Valverde hopes that once many elements are put together a new ‘global’ picture of Mars will emerge. But it won’t be easy, as nearly 30 scientists working on individual elements will produce results that affect each other, potentially leading to delays and unexpected outcomes.

One of the reasons data from past missions gathers dust is that independent scientists don’t have the tools to read it properly, or are too dispersed to study it collaboratively. Another EU-backed project, CROSS DRIVE, attempts to solve this by creating a virtual Mars where everything understood about the planet can be displayed in novel ways.

Inputting data into a virtual reality system gives scientists the ability to visualise the planet in more detail. Image courtesy CROSS DRIVE

‘With stereo glasses and head tracking, one can move around mountains, dive into craters, or fly through huge canyons,’ said computer scientist and project coordinator Dr Andreas Gerndt at the German Aerospace Centre in Braunschweig. ‘Everything is virtual but feels real.’


The benefit of the virtual Mars goes beyond having data that is easily accessible and in one place. Certain data that is hard to visualise – wind patterns, for instance – can be made visible in the simulation, allowing a scientist to figure out how they interact with other planetary systems.

‘I like to show scientific phenomena in a way that scientists have never seen before.’

Dr Andreas Gerndt, German Aerospace Centre

Indeed, more than one scientist can log in to the virtual world at once, so that they can, as avatars, discuss what is happening around them. They can even rewind the clock to see what the Martian rover was doing when it collected the data.

Dr Gerndt hopes that when the ESA’s next Mars mission, ExoMars, touches the ground, it too will appear virtually in the simulation.

Of course, not everyone has access to virtual reality goggles and body sensors. For that reason, Dr Gerndt and others are making sure that the Mars data can still be visualised – albeit less immersively – in a desktop application, or even a standard web browser.

‘I like to show scientific phenomena in a way that scientists and engineers have never seen before,’ said Dr Gerndt.

‘In this project, we have all disciplines together – computer scientists, geologists, atmospheric researchers and engineers,’ he added. ‘Overcoming all our different “languages” to find a solution everybody agrees on is the biggest but also most impressive challenge.’

  • Although the ancient Egyptian astronomers had identified Mars, it was Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiarparelli who first mapped the red planet in 1877. He identified long, straight lines on the surface which he labelled as canals but later proved to be an optical illusion. Across the Atlantic, Asaph Hall was also observing the earth’s closest neighbour. He was the first to discover its two moons and named them Phobos and Deimos.
  • Russia was the first country to launch Mars probes in 1961, but none of them reached the planet. In 1965, the American spacecraft Mariner 4 successfully carried out the first Martian fly-by, sending back close-up images of the surface. It detected an extremely thin atmosphere composed of carbon dioxide and a surface atmospheric pressure of between 4.1 and 7 millibars. The daytime temperature was estimated to be -100 degrees Celsius.
  • The Mariner 9 orbiter entered Mars’ orbit on 3 November 1971. In just under a year it transmitted over 7 000 images of the red planet from which scientists were able to construct this map, the first-ever to show the whole Martian surface. It also gathered data on atmospheric composition, density, pressure, and temperature, as well as the surface composition, temperature, gravity, and topography of Mars. The spacecraft also returned the first high-resolution pictures of the moons Phobos and Deimos, which showed rivers and channel-like features.
  • Russian spacecraft Mars 2 and 3 were the first attempt to land an earthly object on Mars in 1971. Unfortunately, Mars 2 crashed and Mars 3 only transmitted for 20 seconds after landing so it was not until NASA’s Viking 1 and 2 landers touched down that consistent data from the surface was sent back to earth. The landers provided detailed panoramic views of the Martian terrain and monitored the weather from the surface.
  • Despite its lander Beagle 2 crash-landing on the planet in 2003, the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter has provided new insight into Martian geology, including data indicating that abundant liquid water once existed on Mars. It has allowed more in-depth mapping of the surface, including locations of water-ice and carbon dioxide-ice in the polar regions, and this topographical map of Osuga Valles where white and red show the highest terrains and blue and purple show the deepest. 
  • NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, better known by its rover’s name Curiosity, reached the planet on 6 August 2012. The instruments aboard the rover sent back data that revealed major discoveries about our neighbour’s past, including the presence of organic carbon, the building blocks of life. Along with sulphur, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorus, its presence indicates the planet was once a suitable home for microbial life.
  • In July 2015, NASA announced it had found evidence of liquid water flowing on Mars over its summer months. Thanks to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, scientists detected hydrated minerals on slopes where darker streaks can be seen to evolve over time. They completely disappear during the Martian winter and appear again with warmer months. In November of the same year, data from NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft showed the once-thick Martian atmosphere had slowly been stripped away by solar storms.

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