Here You Go, Taxpayers: A Billion-Pixel Image of Mars

Nearly 1,000 frames, combined into a single Martian mosaic
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This, to be clear, is not the full billion-pixel image. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

The main purpose of the Mars Science Laboratory's mission to the red planet is exactly what its name suggests: science.

There's a secondary mission, too, though, something that has less to do with laboratories and more to do with Mars itself: inspiration. Excitement. Wonder. The simple fact that humans put a roving robot on the surface of a distant planet and can now follow in its footsteps treadmarks from here on Earth.

I mention all that because Curiosity just delivered something new in the wonder department: a 1.3-billion pixel image of the surface of Mars. It's a composite, and zoomable and clickable and interactive. And a little bit addictive. 

The individual images, NASA explains, were taken on several different Martian days between October 5 and November 16, 2012. Bob Deen, of the Multi-Mission Image Processing Laboratory at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, assembled the composite using 850 different frames from the telephoto camera of Curiosity's Mast Camera instrument. He then supplemented those with 21 frames from the Mastcam's wider-angle camera and (and with 25 black-and-white frames -- mostly Curiosity's selfies -- taken from the Navigation Camera).

The resulting mosaic, which uses the clickable, zoomable Gigapan platform, depicts illumination effects from variations in the time of Martian day. It also shows variations in the clarity of the atmosphere. "It gives a sense of place and really shows off the cameras' capabilities," Deen said of his (and Curiosity's) work. "You can see the context and also zoom in to see very fine details."

Indeed. Here are some of the zoomed-in images, below. But the whole thing is worth exploring. If for no other reason than wonder.

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A dune field on the way to Mount Sharp (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
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A bird-shaped rock (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
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Curiosity's Morse-coded wheel marks, in high definition (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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