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Maven and MOM Orbiters Send First Pictures From Mars

Image: Mars
The "first light" image from the color camera on India's Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft shows the Martian surface from a height of 7,300 kilometers, with 376-meter spatial resolution. ISRO

Just days after their arrival, India's Mars Orbiter Mission and NASA's Maven orbiter have both sent back their first pictures of the Red Planet.

The first view from Maven, acquired just eight hours after the bus-sized spacecraft entered orbit on Sunday night, is actually a triple look at Mars' atmosphere in three ultraviolet wavelengths from a height of 22,680 miles (36,500 kilometers).

Blue shows ultraviolet light reflected by atomic hydrogen, extending out for thousands of miles. False-color green shows the reflection from atomic oxygen, and red shows the ultraviolet light reflected by the planet's surface. There's also a composite view that puts together all three wavelengths.

Image: Maven views of Mars
Maven's Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph provides three views of Mars in ultraviolet wavelengths. The different wavelengths reveal the distribution of atomic hydrogen and oxygen, as well as light reflected by the surface. The bright spot at lower right is light reflected either by polar ice or clouds. LASP / Univ. of Colorado / NASA

The pictures reveal what's happening to the molecules of water and carbon dioxide that are breaking down in Mars' atmosphere. Lighter hydrogen rises, while Mars' gravity keeps the heavier oxygen atoms closer to the surface. Maven derives from an acronym for "Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution," and these pictures serve as a prelude to a yearlong mission that's devoted to unraveling Mars' airy secrets.

Meanwhile, the Mars Orbiter Mission — also known as MOM or Mangalyaan (Hindi for "Mars-Craft") — got right to work after Tuesday night's orbital insertion. One color picture shows Mars and a thin layer of its dust-laden atmosphere, as seen from an altitude of 5,250 miles (8,449 kilometers). Another photo captures a view of Mars' cratered surface from a height of 4,500 miles (7,300 kilometers).

Image: Mars
The color camera aboard India's Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft shows the thin layer of Mars' dust-laden atmosphere on the edge of the planet's disk, as seen from an altitude of 8,449 kilometers. ISRO

MOM's months-long study of Martian atmosphere, weather and mineralogy will complement Maven's observations. MOM's instruments are better-suited for detecting whiffs of methane, which have sparked a big question for astrobiologists: Is that methane strictly geological in origin, or could it hint at biological activity?

The findings from MOM and Maven will help flesh out our understanding of the Red Planet, adding to the scientific riches already being provided by the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter and NASA's Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, as well as Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey.