Innovative stacking technique results in highly detailed images of Mars

Mars
© Shutterstock

The research team, based at University College London (UCL), and part of the FP7 PROVIDE project have revealed exciting photos of Martian surface, including ancient lakebeds uncovered by NASA’s Curiosity rover, NASA’s MER-A rover tracks and Home Plate’s rocks. They also released images of the ‘lost’ British landing spacecraft Beagle-2 that landed on Mars in December 2004 but failed to make contact with Earth.

The technique, called Super-Resolution Restoration (SRR), used to take the images was developed in large part through the PROVIDE consortium. Although the project officially ended in December 2015, the technique has only recently been used to focus on specific objects on Mars. The technique could be used to search and locate other artefacts from past failed landings, as well as identify safe landing locations for future rover missions. It will also allow scientists to explore vastly more terrain than is possible with a single rover.

Even with the largest and most powerful telescopes that can be launched into orbit around Earth, the level of detail that can be seen on the surface of our nearest planetary neighbours is limited. This is due to constraints on mass, mainly telescope optics, the communication bandwidth needed to deliver higher resolution images to Earth, and the interference from planetary atmospheres. Cameras orbiting Earth and Mars only have a resolution limit of around 10 cm.

The SRR technique allows objects as small as 5 cm to be seen from the same 25 cm telescope. As the Martian surface usually takes from decades to millions of years to change, these images can be captured over a period of 10 years and still achieve a high resolution. The Earth’s atmosphere is much more turbulent and consequently images for each stack have to be obtained in a matter of seconds.

The PROVIDE team applied SRR to stacks of between four and eight 25 cm images of the Martian surface taken during the NASA HiRISE camera to achieve the 5 cm target resolution. These included some of the latest HiRISE images of the Beagle-2 landing area.

Professor Jan-Peter Muller from the UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory commented: ‘We now have the equivalent of drone-eye vision anywhere on the surface of Mars where there are enough clear repeat pictures. It allows us to see objects in much sharper focus than ever before and the picture quality is comparable to that obtained by landers… as more pictures are collected, we will see increasing evidence of the kind we have only seen from the three successful rover missions to date.’

The research team believes that by using such novel machine image methods, there is huge potential to improve scientific knowledge of a planet’s surface from multiple remotely sensed images. It is hoped that SRR will now prove a real game-changer and begin an entirely new era in planetary exploration.

For more information please see:
project website