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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.
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).
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.