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Mars Tinted Goggles

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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What would the landscapes of Mars look like under a different light?

Getting an accurate visual sense of the rocks and minerals on the martian surface is important for a number of reasons. For science it’s critical that objects are correctly seen, especially in terms of colors. Spectral features help give compounds their optical fingerprints and geologists are adept at spotting mineral compositions by eye, if the light is right. For us as curious humans it’s important to be able to put things in some kind of context.

But an alien world is lit with alien light. On Mars the Sun is certainly dimmer, it’s also differently filtered through the martian atmosphere, resulting in an unfamiliar palette of colors that reflect off the surface material.

NASA’s Curiosity recently released an intriguing pairing of panoramic views of the martian surface from the rover’s ‘Rocknest’ site. The first (below) is a piece of the ‘raw’ image – as it is directly seen under these foreign skies by this camera (and pretty much what you or I would see if we could stand there). The second image (further below), is the same scene but the palette has been adjusted (white-balanced) to show what the same rocks and features would look like under the natural light on Earth.

What’s interesting, to my mind, is how ‘Earth-like’ the second image really appears. Which is perhaps testament to how well evolution has tuned us to respond to our home environment, and also to how much of Mars is composed of the same kinds of rocks and formations we know well from here.

Raw image of Mars (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems)

The same scene as it might appear under Earth's skies (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems)

(‘Goggles?’ You may ask, not glasses? Yes, Mars is a dusty place and I’d recommend goggles every time.)

Caleb A. Scharf About the Author: Caleb Scharf is the director of Columbia University's multidisciplinary Astrobiology Center. He has worked in the fields of observational cosmology, X-ray astronomy, and more recently exoplanetary science. His books include Gravity's Engines (2012) and The Copernicus Complex (2014) (both from Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) Follow on Twitter @caleb_scharf.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. vinodkumarsehgal 11:08 am 11/28/2012

    CS — Second image, as simulated under earth like conditions, appears clearer and sharper than first image as taken under the actual Mars conditions. Does earth like conditions induce clarity in image and why it is so?

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  2. 2. Johnay 11:08 am 11/28/2012

    Is there a handy way to make scenes in one’s own earthbound color-profiled pics appear as they would on Mars?

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  3. 3. poetmartin 3:56 pm 11/28/2012

    i believe it is simply a matter of different shadow effects, brightness and the additions of atmospheric conditions that exsist to affect light here on this world. take out that proximity to the sun and the affects of atmosphere and our geology might look the same as the top photo…

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  4. 4. poetmartin 3:59 pm 11/28/2012

    interestingly, i have had to opportunity to visit venice, italy, and i will swear to you that the lighting is different there…i was amazed by what i seemed to be seeing looking out a window, and found myself understanding why so many outstanding artists went to italy to paint in the years gone by….if you want to have that “different clarity” experience, try italy…

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  5. 5. Postman1 9:20 pm 11/28/2012

    Caleb, the second photo makes it look even more like Death Valley.
    An aside: I am awaiting delivery of ‘Gravity’s Engines’. Jeff Foust’s review was quite good and I am looking forward to reading (and trying to understand) it.

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  6. 6. billlee42 9:35 pm 12/2/2012

    Another aside, on the same topic. :-)

    Caleb, I very much enjoyed “Gravity’s Engines”! As a science-literate layperson, I found it very accessible. I especially enjoyed the chapter “Map of Forever”! Many thanks!

    Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

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