Interview: Snapping the first-ever image avalance on Mars

We spoke to Ingrid Daubar Spitale of the University of Arizona, Tucson about the work behind the historic photograph of the avalanche and her work on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter project.

Last month a NASA spacecraft orbiting around Mars captured the first ever image of avalanches, or debris falls in action near the Red Planet's North Pole. The image showed tan clouds billowing away from the foot of a towering slope, where ice and dust have just cascaded down.

Launched August 12, 2005, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took a seven-month cruise to Mars and six months of aero braking to reach its science orbit. Its mission is to seek to find out about the history of water on Mars with its science instruments by zooming in for extreme close-up photography of the Martian surface, analysing minerals, looking for subsurface water, trace how much dust and water are distributed in the atmosphere, and monitor daily global weather.

How did this historic moment get captured? The High Resolution Imaging Experiment (HiRISE) on-board the NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) took the photograph on 19 February as one of approximately 2400 HiRISE images released in this series.

Ingrid Daubar Spitale of the University of Arizona, Tucson, who works on targeting the camera and has studied hundreds of HiRISE images, was the first person to notice the avalanches.

"It really surprised me," she said. "It's great to see something so dynamic on Mars. A lot of what we see there hasn't changed for millions of years."

We spoke to Ingrid Daubar Spitale, who works as a MRO HiRISE Uplink Ops about the work behind the historic photograph of the avalanche and her work on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter project.

Goodgearguide: NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched August 12, 2005, is on a search for evidence that water persisted on the surface of Mars for a long period of time. What sort of science instruments does it use? What instruments do you primarily use in your role in this program?

Ingrid Daubar Spitale: I work for HiRISE, the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, on board the MRO. HiRISE will image only 1 per cent of the Martian surface over the primary mission, but it will do so at ~30cm/pixel, the highest resolution ever achieved from orbit. HiRISE also has colour and stereo imaging capabilities. More specs for the HiRISE camera.

Another instrument on board MRO is CRISM CRISM – short for the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars. CRISM takes spectra of the surface and atmosphere to determine composition.

CTX, the context camera, will image much more of the planet, but at lower resolution.

SHARAD is a radar instrument run by the Italian Space Agency, which penetrates to shallow depths in the Martian crust, looking for water and water ice.

These are some of six science instruments on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter listed here.

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Amanda Conroy

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