Observing another world is tricky. Getting a spacecraft or rover there is hard enough. But once there, scientists are in a constant fight with the resolution of the images they receive back. For cameras around Mars, the resolution limit is around 25 centimeters (about 10 inches). That’s already impressive, but scientists are always looking for ways to improve.
Today, a team of scientists from the University College London has improved the resolution by a factor of five. That resolution limit of 25 centimeters can be paired down to just 5 centimeters (or two inches).
There is a caveat to the new imaging technique. I’ll let co-author Professor Jan-Peter Muller from the UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory explain.
“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.”
Muller continued, “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.”
With the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s camera constantly trained on the red planet’s surface, many regions can already take advantage of this new imaging technique. Here’s one example of the increase in resolution.
How are the scientists doing it? Amateur astronomers will recognize the technique. The team from UCL created a technique called Super-Resolution Restoration (SSR). UCL scientists are stacking and matching images taken from orbit. Now, it’s a bit more complicated than stacking images of Jupiter from your backyard – but it’s the same principle. SSR uses images of the same area but taken from different angles.
In the first example above, six images captured by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera were stacked. The jump in detail is obvious.
Lead author Yu Tao, a Research Associate at UCL, touches on the technique a bit more. “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.”
We already have rovers on the surface of Mars, but imagine if we could get image quality approaching what Curiosity shows us across large swaths of the Martian surface. Or, the moons of Saturn and Jupiter.
Right now, the team from UCL plans to apply the technique to other areas of Mars to see what they can find.
Here are a couple of more examples of SSR in action.
You can see rover tracks from NASA’s Spirit in the bottom right image.
This image shows the failed Beagle-2 lander.