During its first week of observations from low orbit, NASA's newest Mars spacecraft is already revealing new clues about recent and ancient environments on the Red Planet.
Scientists hope the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will answer questions about the history and distribution of Mars' water by combining data from the orbiter's high-resolution camera, imaging spectrometer, context camera, ground-penetrating radar, atmospheric sounder, global color camera, radio and accelerometers, according to a NASA press release.
Between September 29 and October 6, science instruments on the spacecraft viewed dozens of sites that reflect different episodes in Mars' history. The sites provide a good test for the spacecraft instruments, it said.
The orbiter begins its primary science mission in early November, when Mars emerges from behind the sun.
The instruments are seeing details in the shapes and icy composition of geologically young layering in the planet's surface near the Martian north pole. Other views offer details of a mid-latitude valley, whose upper layers were eroded away, revealing an underlying clay layer that formed a few billion years ago, when wet conditions produced the clay.
Observations of a southern-hemisphere crater show fine-scale details of more recent gullies, showing evidence that they were carved by flowing water.
"The teams are getting amazing science data," said Steve Saunders, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter program scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington.
"They are ready to fulfill the mission's science objectives and to support other Mars missions."
One image already is helping the Mars Exploration Rover team choose a route, to explore Victoria crater, now being visited by the Mars rover Opportunity.
Other images will help guide the selection of a state site for the Phoenix Mars Lander, scheduled to launch in August 2007 and designed to measure gases and liquids (especially water) and complex organic molecules in the arctic plains of Mars.
Phoenix was so named because, like the mythical bird, it is rising from the remains of a predecessor, a 2001 Mars Lander that never was flown.
Many parts are being reused and some newer pieces are being substituted for older parts, to meet current engineering standards and to prepare this lander for its 2007 mission goals.