NASA has unveiled a stunning new panoramic image of Mars. The full-circle scene reveals the planet’s desolate terrain in remarkable detail, capturing everything from fresh rover tracks to wind-blown drifts to a 14-mile-wide crater that holds evidence, scientists say, of ancient water.
The image is a composite of 817 photographs snapped by the Pancam, a mast-mounted panoramic camera, on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity between December 21, 2011, and May 8, 2012. NASA presented the image in false color to showcase different elements of the landscape. For instance: The patches of blue climbing up the left outcrop connote dust deposits and the bright pops in the foreground emphasize the rover’s own solar arrays and deck. (Is it just us or does it look like we’ve gone and colonized Mars?)
Below the horizon in the right half of the scene, you’ll notice the interior of Endeavour Crater. Formed after a meteorite blasted the planet billions of years ago, the crater is where scientists found both gypsum deposits and high concentrations of zinc. Together, they suggest that shallow water once existed there.
NASA released the image to coincide with two milestones in the history of Martian exploration: the 3,000th day of Opportunity probing Mars (on July 2), and the quindecennial of NASA dropping robots on Mars (Mars Pathfinder first landed July 4, 1997). Not a bad anniversary present. As NASA itself says on its website, the image is the "Next Best Thing to Being There."