It's always nice to receive a postcard from an old friend. When that friend is a robotic spacecraft orbiting Mars, those postcards are especially interesting. Pretty good scenery, too. The European Space Agency recently released some new shots from the Visual Monitoring Camera on board the Mars Express orbiter. Sometimes called the "Mars webcam," the VMC is a low-res engineering camera, not a scientific instrument. But it has a great view. As a bonus to the main Mars Express mission, it lets us ride along as the spacecraft loops around the Red Planet in its polar orbit.
This animation combines hundreds of recent snapshots from the VMC into a sequence showing the view "out the window" during a complete trip around Mars.
A Spin Around Mars Frames obtained in 2013 from the Visual Monitoring Camera on board the Mars Express orbiter, combined into an animation. This sequence simulates a speeded-up view of what it would look like to ride along with the spacecraft, watching the planet spin below.Video: ESA
Here are some single frames from the animation and other recent observations. The image quality is, um, webcam-like, but it's more than enough to make out major features, like Valles Marineris, the polar caps, large craters, and dust storms.
I included the Valles Marineris shots because the "webcam" images are not the only Mars Express data that ESA has released recently. We also have hard drives full of observations by the High Resolution Stereo Camera. One nice example: this view into a section of that vast Valles Marineris canyon complex.
Tall cliffs over look the valley floor, which lies nearly 10 km below at some points in the canyon. The sun has released a whisper-thin fog of water vapor. It's just one example of the remarkable scenes that Mars Express witnesses routinely--and sends home to us.