Paris, Feb 6 : Researchers will now be able to virtually visit Mars, with the development of a high-resolution 3D model of the terrain of the Red Planet.
Developed with the help of data from ESA's (European Space Agency) Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC), this digital terrain model (DTM) of Mars would allow researchers to obtain new information about the Red Planet in 3D.
Although ordinary images can give spectacular bird's-eye views, they can only convey part of the picture. They miss out on the topography, or the vertical elevation of the surroundings.
DTMs, on the other hand, allow scientists to virtually 'stand' on planetary surfaces, giving extraordinary details about the planet.
The HRSC was especially designed to provide this information and, after years of specialised data processing, the first comprehensive release of 3D data of a large part of the Martian surface is now ready.
"Understanding the topography of Mars is essential to understanding its geology," said Professor Gerhard Neukum, Freie Universit¤t (FU) Berlin, Germany, Principal Investigator for the HRSC.
The DTM can instantly tell researchers the slope of hillsides or the height of cliffs, the altitude and slope of lava flows or desert plains. "This data is essential for understanding how water or lava flowed across Mars," says Neukum. It also helps planetary scientists to better interpret other data sets, for example the results of the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS).
"Once we know where the surface is, we can correctly interpret the radar echoes we get from below it," says former ESA scientist Angelo Rossi, a member of the HRSC team.
The Mars Express DTM is the most detailed topographic data set ever released for Mars. Its release has been made possible by processing individual image swaths taken by the HRSC as Mars Express sweeps through its orbit.
The orbit of Mars Express determines the resolution of its pictures. When it is closest to the surface, it can take the most detailed pictures.
"As the mission continues, we are gradually filling in the gaps and collecting high-resolution data whenever possible," said Neukum.
The team plans to add more data to the DTMs to extend the surface coverage as Mars Express continues its mission until at least 2009 and HRSC continues its unique scrutiny of the planet.