Mars Clarified with Camera

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A camera designed by a UC Berkeley alumnus was once dismissed for its resemblance to a kitchen wastebasket, but scientists revealed today that the device has captured the most revealing images to date of Martian history.

In today's issue of the journal Science, high-resolution pictures captured by the Mars Orbiter Camera show strong evidence for layers of sedimentary rocks on the Red Planet. Scientists believe the photographs might help answer the ongoing question of the existence of life on Mars.

The images, caught by a camera designed by Michael Malin, open up doors to further exploration of the possibility of life on Mars.

Although the evidence is far from confirming any life on the Red Planet, the pictures do show that the climate on Mars today differs drastically from the environment billions of years ago, said Malin, who graduated from UC Berkeley in 1971.

"Such rocks cannot in any way be taken to support the contention that life evolved on Mars, but they have profound implications for the search for life, or the evidence of life, on Mars, based on terrestrial analogy," he said. "If life ever existed on Mars, especially during the times these materials were being deposited, such rocks are exactly the places where one would search for the evidence of such existence."

Malin's camera has been orbiting the Red Planet onboard the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft for three years and was heralded earlier this year when it brought back images of the first evidence of liquid water on Mars.

"This is such an important finding that it is probably very likely that not only will the first unmanned sample return come from one of these areas, but the first humans to go to Mars are likely to go to one of these areas too," Malin said.

During its early development, the camera, which has helped bolster Mars exploration, was dismissed as a "garbage can" for its resemblance in size to a typical kitchen trash can.

"The allusion to 'garbage can' comes from the fact that the main part of the camera - the telescope tube - is about 80 centimeters tall and 40 centimeters wide - the size of a kitchen garbage container," Malin said. "Indeed, there are some metallic, cylindrical kitchen wastebaskets that very much resemble the camera. Early in the selection and development process, the term was used to deride our selection, but now most people think more positively about the camera."

Today's evidence of sedimentary rock layers, however, prove the camera can offer insight into the early history of Mars.

"We think (the rocks) are very old, dating from a period of time near the end of the formation of the planet's crust," Malin said. "By analogy to the Moon, we think this was more than 3.5 billion years ago."

The different layers characteristic of sedimentary rock are each formed by a change in climate and environment on a planet. On Earth, similar layers preserve the history of life and often contain fossilized creatures.

Through analysis of sedimentary rocks, scientists have traced biological and climate changes on Earth over billions of years.

On the Martian surface, the camera captured images of sedimentary layers that surfaced as a result of erosion on the terrain.

"Obviously, we don't know for certain how (the layers) were formed," Malin said. "Clearly, since Mars is not capable of forming such deposits today, there have been substantial changes. The existence of layers is prima facie evidence that things were also changing during the time the layers were forming. We think they indeed reflect the history of Mars' climate."

The camera's image resolution is 10 to 30 times higher than those previous captured, revealing images that came as a surprise to scientists.

"We knew from the Mariner 9 and Viking orbiters that there were some form of layering (on Mars), but nothing prepared us for the number and a real extent of layering on Mars," Malin said. "When we first saw the layers in the Valles Marineris about three years ago, we were really flabbergasted. The recent results take us to the level of astonishment."

The finding has helped push Mars exploration further for scientists who are looking forward to and already embarking on new missions, Malin said. Among future plans is a 2005 mission to fly an even higher- resolution camera to follow up on the recent discoveries of gullies and layers.

Malin and his colleagues work at the Malin Space Science Systems, Inc. in San Diego, Calif., where they design cameras for space missions. The team sent two cameras on the ill-fated Mars Climate Orbiter, which crashed into the planet due to a mistake in converting from English to metric units, and one camera on the Mars Polar Lander that crashed on Mars approximately one year ago.


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