After a seven-month trip to Mars and six months of tweaking to
reach its science orbit, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) began
its mission to study the history of water on the Red Planet.
MRO accomplishes this through a series of scientific instruments
that analyze minerals, get up-close photos of the surface of the
planet, look for groundwater, measure how much dust and water are
in the atmosphere, and observe daily global weather.
One of the scientific instruments on board the spacecraft is the
Mars Color Imager, also known as MARCI. MARCI is a special weather
camera that monitors clouds and dust storms. It takes a
picture of the planet every 2.6 seconds. What happens next is the
job of Dr. Steven Lee of the Denver Museum of Nature &
"My project is developing monthly snapshots of the planet. I use
about 400 orbits, or 500,000 camera images-also known as
framelets-stitched together to make a seamless view of Mars," Dr.
The goal is to make a library of these monthly views of Mars
from the beginning of the mission until the spacecraft breaks or
wears out. Scientists use this library to compare the images and
look for patterns or anomalies in Martian climate.
"Every now and then there are global dust storms that form on
Mars. The entire atmosphere gets choked in a cloud. We think 65
million years ago a similar process happened on Earth," Dr. Lee
When Earth was hit by an asteroid during the K-T impact event,
large amounts of dust, ash, and smoke ended up in Earth's
atmosphere, and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.
"So by understanding processes today that are happening on other
planets, like Mars, we may well get a better understanding of
processes that happened in the past on Earth," Dr. Lee said.