Mars' Surface Revealed in Unprecedented Detail - Including Beagle-2

©University College London

Beagle-2 on Mars

The surface of Mars -- including the location of Beagle-2 -- has been shown in unprecedented detail by UCL scientists using a revolutionary image stacking and matching technique.

Exciting pictures of the Beagle-2 lander, the ancient lakebeds discovered by NASA's Curiosity rover, NASA's MER-A rover tracks and Home Plate's rocks have been released by the UCL researchers who stacked and matched images taken from orbit, to reveal objects at a resolution up to five times greater than previously achieved.

A paper describing the technique, called Super-Resolution Restoration (SRR), was published in Planetary and Space Science in February but has only recently been used to focus on specific objects on Mars. The technique could be used to search for other artifacts 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.

Co-author Professor Jan-Peter Muller from the UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory, said: "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 from orbit than ever before and the picture quality is comparable to that obtained from 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. This will be a game-changer and the start of a new era in planetary exploration."

Even with the largest telescopes that can be launched into orbit, the level of detail that can be seen on the surface of planets 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. For cameras orbiting Earth and Mars, the resolution limit today is around 25 cm (or about 10 inches).

By stacking and matching pictures of the same area taken from different angles, Super-Resolution Restoration (SRR) allows objects as small as 5 cm (about 2 inches) to be seen from the same 25 cm telescope. For Mars, where the surface usually takes decades to millions of years to change, these images can be captured over a period of 10 years and still achieve a high resolution. For Earth, the atmosphere is much more turbulent so images for each stack have to be obtained in a matter of seconds.

The UCL team applied SRR to stacks of between four and eight 25 cm images of the Martian surface taken using 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 that were kindly provided by Professor John Bridges from the University of Leicester.

"Using novel machine vision methods, information from lower resolution images can be extracted to estimate the best possible true scene. This technique has huge potential to improve our knowledge of a planet's surface from multiple remotely sensed images. In the future, we will be able to recreate rover-scale images anywhere on the surface of Mars and other planets from repeat image stacks" said Mr. Yu Tao, Research Associate at UCL and lead author of the paper.

The team's 'super-resolution' zoomed-in image of the Beagle-2 location proposed by Professor Mark Sims and colleagues at the University of Leicester provides strong supporting evidence that this is the site of the lander. The scientists plan on exploring other areas of Mars using the technique to see what else they find.


"A Novel Method for Surface Exploration: Super-Resolution Restoration of Mars Repeat-Pass Orbital Imagery," Y. Tao & J. P. Muller, 2016 Feb., Planetary and Space Science, Vol. 121 [].

The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Union's Seventh Framework Program (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement No. 312377 PRoViDE. The team thank Prof. John Bridges (University of Leicester) for supply of the latest HiRISE images without which the Beagle-2 results would not have been possible. They also acknowledge Dr. Alfred McEwen and his HiRISE team for the fantastic quality of data they are capturing of the Martian surface and to NASA for public release of all the datasets.


Figure 1. Original image (upper panel) reference number ESP_037145_1915 and super-resolution restoration (SRR) from 5 input images (lower). The bright object at approximately 91 47' 28.5," 11 31' 37" in the upper center portion is shown in the next figure. Map co-ordinates come from NASA HiRISE instrument and are not in a global reference system.

Figure 2. Zoom-up of the proposed lander location (upper left panel) at the original 25 cm resolution; zoom-up of the super-resolution restoration of proposed lander location (upper center panel) at 6.25 cm; cartoon sketch of lander (courtesy of University of Leicester) superimposed on the right of the proposed lander location at the same scale on the super-resolution restoration (upper right panel).

Ancient lakebeds:

Figure 3. Original HiRISE image (upper panel) reference name PSP_010573_1755 at 25 cm resolution and super-resolution restoration (SRR) from 6 HiRISE images at 6.25 cm of the Shaler formation and the John Klein drill-spot on the MSL Curiosity traverse. Note the fine-scale detail shown in the SRR. Map co-ordinates in global system from co-registration with ESA HRSC and NASA MOLA.

MER-A Rover tracks:

Figure 4. Original HiRISE image (upper panel) at 25 cm with reference name PSP_001513_1655 of the MER-A Spirit Home Plate region and super-resolution restoration at 5 cm from 8 input HiRISE 25 cm images. Map co-ordinates in global system from co-registration with ESA HRSC and NASA MOLA.

Figure 5. Zoom-up of 2 areas from the Original 25 cm HiRISE image (upper row) with reference name PSP_001513-1655 of the MER-A Spirit Home Plate region and super-resolution restoration at 5 cm of 8 input HiRISE images (lower row) with a rock-field (left column) and with the MER-A rover tracks (right column).

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