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Rendered images of surface details on Mars

About these images

Fortunately, I finally got my hands on a more detailed (1/45 degree, i.e. 1.3 arc minutes) color map of Mars without a shadow and obtained the 1/128 degree topography data (i.e. less than 30 arc seconds, that is 0.22 square kilometers around the equator). As this map does not cover the poles, the 1/64 degree map was used to fill up latitude ranges 88-90, North and South.

Unfortunately, all this information sums up to a total of 2400Mb which poses some trouble in handling. Hence, I wrote a patch for POVRay which allows me to only read parts of image maps into memory. An example scene applying this technique while setting up the rendering of a some landing site can be seen on the right (the red cylinder marks the planned viewport center; height scale factor is 40).

Furthermore, most images here were rendered with my isosurface accuracy patch applied to POVRay-3.5.

  Patch demo image [4kb]

What one can see

Mars actually has a very thin atmosphere (6.5hPa, i.e. less than 1/100th that of Earth), consisting mostly of CO2 (carbon dioxide, 95%). After looking at some real images from NASA's space robots, I chose to give Mars an atmosphere similar to the one in the Earth renders with scattering and a density gradient. The visible part of it is about 30km thick.
The size and strength of the atmosphere is exaggerated for artistic reasons.

The images were taken from quite low above the surface (normally 500 to 1000km) which is still much higher than a space shuttle travels around Earth (which is just about 300 to 400km over ground). I normally applied strong light often coming in a very flat angle to achieve sharp shadows and improved visibility of surface details. Note that unless stated otherwise, the topography in the below images is natural height.

Mars robot landing sites

It is well-known that quite a lot of robots were sent to Mars in order to do some research (as looking for signs of life, etc.). Unfortunately, too many of them failed...
As I was interested on how the landing sites look like, I decided to have a closer look.

Spirit landing site [8kb]
510km altitude looking North, natural height

[1200x600 JPG, 210kb] (+A0.1, 320 min)

Spirit landing site

In Jan 4, 2004, NASA's Mars rover Spirit landed on the red planet. NASA chose a location at 14.59S, 175.30E (IAU 2000), which is right in the center of the large crater which can be seen in the left image (about 25% from top; MOLA elevation -1910m). Especially note the large (dry) river bed which seems to flow into the crater.

Applying my image slice patch, memory consumption was kept down to about 100Mb while using the highest resolutions available (1/128 topo, 1/45 color).

Beagle2 landing site [6kb]
680km altitude looking NNW, natural height

[1200x600 JPG, 161kb] (+A0.1, 220 min)

Beagle2 landing site

In Dec 26, 2003, a ESA's (European Space Agency) first Mars robot, Beagle2 (an allusion to Charles Darwin's travel on the ship "Beagle"), landed on the red planet. ESA chose a location at 10-12N, 86-94E for their robot, centered at 11.6N, 90.5E which is just in the upper thirs of the left image (right in middle of the "boring" flat sand with few craters). This region is called Isidis Planitia and has a MOLA elevation of -3600m to -3900m.

Opportunity landing site [7kb]
680km altitude looking WNW, natural height

[1200x600 JPG, 160kb] (+A0.1, 105 min)

Opportunity landing site

In Jan 25, 2004, NASA's Mars rover Opportunity landed on Mars. The landing site is located at 1.98S, 354.06E (IAU 2000) and has a MOLA elevation of -1910m.

Other interesting sites

Three craters [8kb]
680km altitude looking ESE, natural height

[1200x600 JPG, 195kb] (+A0.1, 180 min)

Three craters with water [8kb]
680km altitude looking ESE, natural height

[1200x600 JPG, 183kb] (+A0.2, 510 min)

Some other interesting site

This is some interesting site I came across while looking at the Mars topography. Looks like a (dry) river is connecting some craters flowing from right back to right front and then to the left into some larger lake or ocean. Also note the dark patches which look like sediments from flowing water.

As we're at computer graphics here anyway, why not try how it would look when we put some water there? Well, see yourself on the second image. The water surface is at about -2600m (MOLA elevation) with slightly increasing altitude as we move to the right.

So, what about "terra forming" on Mars? Better forget it: Solar wind is constantly blowing away the atmosphere of the red planet. Long time ago, Mars had much more atmosphere but the solar wind has blown it away, especially the light gases.


There are 4 really large mountains on Mars which were once volcanos but seem to be inactive today.

While tracing these images with POVRay-3.5, I notized strange black dots on some parts of the images. One day, I decided to investigate the problem and finally wrote an accuracy improvement patch for POVRay, which eliminated the disorion. The images below were traced with my patch applied, of course.

Olympus Mons [6kb]
Olympus Mons: 850km altitude looking SE, natural height

[1280x1024 JPG, 279kb]
(+A0.1, 390 min)

Olympus Mons

Of course, we may not miss Olympus Mons which is said to be the highest volcano in the solar system: it is 24km high and measures 550km across. The large scrap around the volcano is 6km high.
To compare it: Mauna Loa, the largest volcano on Earth, is 9km high and measures 120km in horizontal extent.

Ascraeus Mons [5kb]
Ascraeus Mons: 510km altitude looking NW, natural height

[800x600 JPG, 93kb]
(+A0.1, 120 min)

Pavonis Mons [5kb]
Pavonis Mons: 510km altitude looking NW, natural height

[800x600 JPG, 92kb]
(+A0.1, 70 min)

Arsia Mons [5kb]
Arsia Mons: 510km altitude looking NW, natural height

[800x600 JPG, 109kb]
(+A0.1, 105 min)

Shield Volcanos

In the Tharsis Montes region, there are three shield volcanos lined up in NE direction called (north-to-south) Ascraeus Mons, Pavonis Mons and Arsia Mons. These volcanos measure 350km to 450km across and their tops are about 15km above the surrounding plains.
On the left there is an image of the middle one.

Vallis Marineris

There is a gigantic canyon system on Mars, called Vallis Marineris. It extends over 4000km and is up to 7km deep. To compare: Grand Canyon, the largest canyon on Earth, is 350km long, up to 1.8km deep and measures 6 to 29km across. While Grand Canyon in NW-Arizona (USA) was created by water erosion of the Colorado River, several theories exist for Vallis Marineris: One is that the huge scrap was caused by another planet(oid) flying very near by slightly touching the surface of Mars.

Flying along Vallis Marineris on Mars [7kb]   Flying along Vallis Marineris

This is a little animation of a flight along Vallis Marineris, a large canyon on Mars. It is available on the film page.

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Last modified: 2007-04-04 01:16:24