Wednesday, August 27, 2003

BALTIMORE (AP) — The Hubble Space Telescope captured spectacular images of Mars during the planet’s close pass by Earth, including astonishingly detailed pictures of a polar ice cap and a giant canyon wall.

“We’ve never seen this kind of resolution in Hubble images, that kind of detail,” Cornell University astronomer Jim Bell said yesterday, pointing to a wall of the Valles Marineris, a canyon that runs 2,800 miles across the Red Planet.

The Baltimore-based Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates the telescope, released some of the Hubble images, made late Tuesday and early yesterday as the planet made its closest pass by Earth in 60,000 years.

The images, taken when Mars was about 34.6 million miles from Earth, show surface details as small as 17 miles across.

In the first photo released, an ice cap covering Mars’ south pole is clearly visible. Craters dot the mottled orange and brown sphere, and hazy, bluish white surface clouds can be seen.

“They are quite spectacular. You knew they were going to be good; seeing them is something else,” said Michael Wolff, an astronomer with the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. “These are the best that have ever been, and will ever be taken with the Hubble Space Telescope.”

Scientists will study the pictures in detail and hope the images lead to discoveries.

“Before we were looking at broad areas and things tend to get averaged out,” Mr. Wolff said. “There’s the possibility something we missed before will be there.”

While spacecraft orbiting Mars can show objects in greater detail, they often cannot make an image of the entire planet at once, or at all times of the Martian day, Mr. Wolff said.

Earth-bound telescopes, meanwhile, have to deal with the distorting effects of the Earth’s atmosphere. The Hubble also has instruments that allow it to capture wavelengths that spacecraft orbiting Mars cannot see.

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