What colour is Mars? | moon science fair

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Oct 22, 2016 at 5:49am
What colour is Mars?
A conspirologist’s most favoured approach is to pick random facts here and there, ignoring all plausible explanations, and present them in their own interpretation. So what we only have to do, really, is to demonstrate just how manipulative all these conspiracy theories are. And I do believe that these conspiracy debunkers realise very well all their absurdity, but simpletons are one of the Web’s most valuable resources, one, which can be converted to Internet traffic and hundreds of links to one’s website or YouTube channel.
So, let’s start!

This whole story and hysteria began when photographs snapped by the Spirit and Opportunity twin rovers started to arrive in multitude. Someone thought it weird that Mars should have maroon soil and beige skies. And then they caught sight of an official release photo of Spirit’s landing craft.

‘Hey, what the heck is this?’ gasped American simpletons who couldn’t even be bothered to read captions. ‘Why is the NASA emblem maroon, not blue?’

Really, why? I don’t think NASA would so foolishly feed to the publicsuch stupid fakes, concealing Mars’s true colour (let’s put aside the ‘what’s the point’ question), leaving colour hints for all to see.

Well, one should simply have read the photo description to learn that these images were made using not the customary red filter, but the infrared one. Colour photographs on the twin rovers were taken by means of shooting with a black-and-white camera through various colour filters. Each of the cameras had seven filters for a different wavelength, a bit different on the right and left ones, and among these there were the red and infrared filters.

A bit of theory: A colour image is made by photographing through three filters, red, green and blue (the RGB format: red, green, blue) and then combining them in Photoshop to get a single colour photo.

In some instances NASA made use not of the red filter, but of the infrared. It was important to do so in order to obtain more detailed information on soil properties and the objects being researched. A rover’s camera is first and foremost a scientific instrument and only secondarily a way to entertain the taxpayer. Well, the panorama featuring Spirit’s lander was taken using the infrared filter. Despite that, however, the Opportunity lander was photographed using the red filter and in true colour, which is proved by the difference between these stills.

The NASA emblem is invisible here, but the blue ducttape™ immediately catches the eye. However, if one compares the difference in soil colour in these two photos, it is not that remarkable. It does appear ‘redder’ in infrared, but there’s still no green grass and no blue skies to see in the original image.

This custom of acquiring colour images through three different filters has caused yet another accusation of NASA that they make public way too many B&W images and way too few colour ones. Well, first, the claim about ‘too few colour ones’ is complete rubbish, ‘cause even prior to the Curiosity mission thousands of colour stills by Spirit and Opportunity as well as dozens of super-detailed 360-degree panoramas had been made available to the public. Secondly, by posting ‘raw’ B&W images made through colour filters NASA makes it possible for everyone to make their own colour photographs of Mars. But an average conspirologist usually masters Photoshop only as far as the Autocolor function, whereby they ‘recreate the true colour of Mars’, ignoring the intricacies of working with colour channels.

The next argument by the acolytes of the ‘Mars-ain’t-red’ creed is a certain BBC report on how NASA specialists do their job. As the script goes, a scientist is working on his laptop when a bunch of journalists enters his lab and asks him some questions.

But our happy conspirologist cries out an ‘aha!’ and points at the displays behind the scientist’s back, where Mars is no red at all, and the sky is blue. What a strange conspiracy, where reporters wielding cameras are allowed to roam freely around science labs, peering in every nook and cranny they please. But this thought never crosses the minds of those who wish to catch NASA red-handed.

So what do we really see on those displays? They show an area called Cape Verde, a part of Victoria crater, which was at one point investigated by Opportunity.

NASA scientists adapt images to earthly lighting conditions to work out what types of rocks the rovers stumble upon. As the geologists’ eyes are better used to the conditions on Earth, the colour range on Martian images gets altered to fit those conditions as well. And there’s no secrecy about these photographs at all.

Here is Cape St. Mary, which is located in close proximity to Cape Verde:


And this is a very bizarre Cape St.Vincent:


Or Santa Maria crater, which Opportunity drove by in 2011:


And this photo was obtained using as many as 13 colour filters:


Imagine what would happen if members of the press caught some scientists in the act of actually editing this photo? ‘NASA’s trying to conceal that the rovers have landed on top of a rainbow!’

In actual fact, all such images, when published, bear a caption with an explanation such as this: ‘It is presented in false color to accentuate differences in surface materials’. Or, as is the case with the abovementioned ‘rainbow photo’: ‘The image was taken by the panoramic camera on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity using all 13 color filters’. But those who tend to see a conspiracy in everything around them must apparently be suffering from illiteracy.

In addition to all this, the conspirologist bunch seems not to have the foggiest idea of the existence of something called dust, or they wouldn’t be taking the following NASA photo as definitive conspiracy proof:

This is a memorial flag placed on Opportunity’s manipulator arm to commemorate the victims of the 9/11 tragedy. What catches one’s eye is that it appears to be toned red. Conspirologists believe that this proves that the red filter was applied taking this photo, whereas in reality it’s only red Martian dust. The image was taken in 2011, but if one studies images taken back in 2004, at the very beginning of surface research operations, during the first 31 sols (Martian days), one will see in them a pristine clean flag in familiar colours.

When Curiosity’s large selfie was made available, some also tried to look for signs of conspiracy in it.

The NASA emblem looks suspiciously grey, though it must be blue’, said others, also forgetting about the dust. The MSL landing was performed using not the inflated airbags of the earlier rover missions, but via the Sky Crane, which meant that it got completely schmutzy within its first few seconds on Mars.

Ditto images of the Martian surface. The natural soil colour was revealed in one area using a special brush:

We were also able to peep inside Mars using a drill:

Which, of course, doesn’t mean that the whole planet is this greyish-bluish tinge. NASA specialists note that most types of rocks on Mars have brownish tinges, whereas the soil discovered during drilling managed to avoid the oxidizing influence of the environment and contained evidence that there were once conditions favourable for microorganisms.

Night imaging using white LED lamps has made it possible to see the Martian surface in colours closest to ‘the real thing’. There is no influence of scattered sunlight here, nor dispersion of dust suspended in the atmosphere, which is why this colour is the closest to what our eyes would see.

As we can see the surface is far from red, but it’s not green, either.

The next flam in the ‘Mars-ain’t-red’ myth is a story told in a book whose authors are trying to prove that there is life on Mars, and that NASA is doing its utmost to conceal this (Mars: The Living Planet, by B. Di Gregorio, G. Levin and P. Straat, Frog Ltd, Berkeley, 1997). They go on by detailing how the first colour image was obtained on the surface of Mars.

According to these authors, the JPL people gathered journalists, set up colour TV screens all over the place and, having received the image from Mars, immediately displayed it on the screens. The image is said to have featured a blue sky and green patches on rocks. After that, it says in the book, NASA specialists started running from screen to screen, twisting the colour adjustment knobs so as to get a red-coloured Mars image.

There is no way to prove the plausibility of this story now, but there are two noteworthy details in it: first, colour images of the Viking missions were obtained exactly the same way as on the twin rover missions – by means of combining three B&W images, which therefore leaves no signal from Mars to be immediately displayed on screen; secondly, if the image was being transmitted from the lab next door, where image converging had been previously done, wouldn’t it have been less cumbersome to replace it with ‘the red’ immediately and only then carry on transmitting, rather than attract everyone’s attention, fiddling with screen tuning in front of everyone?

Thanks to the many ‘debunkings’, a lot of people began to fret about one particular question: What is the real colour of Mars? Let’s try to figure it out.

The main ‘culprit’ to blame for Mars’s red colour are ferrum hydroxides, or, put simply, rust. Martian crust turned out to be extremely rich in iron ore. For instance, Meridiani Planum, where Opportunity still keeps rolling on, is simply infested with hematite, or small iron balls, which formed in shallow pools or in groundwater aquifers.

When exposed to water in an oxidising atmosphere, iron turns into rust, which is, as those working with metal surely know, easily becomes fine dust. There used to be an abundance of liquid water for a long period of time in the past, moreover, the water contained high amounts of acid, which means there would have been more than enough time for Mars to redden. According to NASA observations, all dust on Mars has magnetic properties, that is, contains iron-ore impurities.

Based on this knowledge, they even created a dust protector for Curiosity’s ultraviolet sensor.

Several round magnets were placed around the six ultraviolet photosensors, which attract dust and thus don’t let it settle on the lenses. This makes for a longer operational time for the sensors.

Martian dust storms are capable of delivering the dust even to places where there isn’t that much iron in soil. For example, in Gale crater, during the landing of Curiosity, jet blasts of the landing stage rocket engines blew off some dust, revealing grey surface underneath.

However, in a matter of just a few days the familiar red vista reemerged.

Nevertheless, landscapes are generally lighter there than in Meridiani Planum.

The rover itself wasn’t spared and got covered in dust in exactly the same way, so, when studying its colour markers and chassis, or trying to re-create its ‘true colour’, one should bear in mind that there’s a layer of red Martian dust covering it.

One can also trace how the dustiness of the rover’s chassis has changed over the past year on Mars:

I’m not going to dwell in detail upon the intricacies of white balancing in this article. We tried it once, but I wasn’t really happy with the result, and I’ve actually got used to Curiosity’s ‘raw’ colours.

I’ll only add that the colour imagers on Curiosity, unlike those on its predecessors, are equipped with a standard colour Bayer filter on a CCD Kodak KAI-2020 matrix, which is why they shoot as ordinary digital SLR cameras. The difference in colour rendition depends on the settings of the white balance. The catch is that colour balance corrections were made by people back on Earth who had a pretty good idea how this or that colour would look at this or that colour temperature. But no humans have been on Mars yet, so there is no one around who could say ‘This colour is right’, so small colour in variations actually happen. I’m going to share a secret specially for those who are convinced that NASA is shooting everything through the red filter in order to conceal a green Mars: There is a slight inclination to yellowish green in raw images from Curiosity.

Things are way less complicated if we look at Mars from space. We have images taken by the Viking orbiters:

And the Hubble telescope:

By the Mars Odyssey orbiter:

If someone has difficulty believing NASA, they can have a look at images taken by the European Mars Express orbiter:

The photo at the beginning of the article was also taken by this spacecraft.

Or consider this beautiful true-color photo by the European Rosetta spacecraft:

(Around ‘horseshoe’ a little lower and to the left of the centre of the image is Gale crater)

We can also recall the Soviet input into the Red Planet studies, by the ‘Mars-5’ orbiter:

NASA’s MarsReconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) shoots in extended colours, which is why one can’t describe them as‘true’. In its images, light grey will look as bright blue, and dark grey asdeep blue. But I do recommend you to go marvel at its images on the official mission website.

To these why not add some Martian snapshots by the Indian Mars Orbiter:

And, surely enough, everyone has a possibility to look at Mars with their own eyes, through a telescope:

In conclusion I want to emphasise that the actual colour of Mars is a factor almost as changeable as that of Earth. Mars lacks oceans and greenery, but its seasons, time of day, weather patterns and geology all have an impacton what colours one will see in a particular region of the planet at a particular time. It’s totally pointless to accuse NASA of a conspiracy, ‘cause, were it not for them, we would still be picturing the Martians sailing by in their junks down canals along rice paddies. We should by no means forget the Soviet Mars program, nor Mars Express, but 90% of all we know about Mars we know thanks to NASA. And to be able to check the accuracy of their data one should simply remember some of the basic high school physics and try to read things carefully.

Conspiracy Theory, Mars, NASA, physics
1 Like

Anton Palyanov
Now that’s what I call a thorough work!

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Alexander Anderson
Conspirology is a science based on facts and logic, illiterate imbecile. Stick to your fucking mars and don’t talk about what you have no clue about.

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