Mars in sights of Hubble camera, cruising probe
By Richard Stenger
(CNN) -- The Hubble Space Telescope has snapped the best picture of Mars ever taken from near Earth, as a NASA spacecraft fast approaches the red planet.
The Earth-orbiting Hubble focused on Mars during the red planet's closest approach to Earth in more than a decade, capturing in sharp detail the ice clouds, dust storms and sprawling landforms that dominate Mars.
Swirling dust storms besiege the planet. One massive system churns high above the northern polar cap, with a smaller storm tagging along nearby.
Hubble has photographed Mars in the past, but never in such detail. Features as small as 10 miles (16 kilometers) across can be distinguished in this latest portrait.
Another storm erupts near the giant Hellas impact basin in the southern hemisphere, to the lower right.
Hubble scientists on Thursday released the image, which the observatory took on June 26 when Mars was about 43 million miles (68 million kilometers) from Earth.
Astronomers are keenly interested in weather conditions on Mars. The United States and Europe plan to land three probes on the planet in about 2 1/2 years.
In the meantime, a NASA spacecraft heading toward the red planet fined-tuned its flight path this week. Launched in April, the 2001 Mars Odyssey should arrive in orbit in October.
The maneuver marked the "completion of the mission's early cruise phase," said Odyssey manager David Spencer. The $300 million project will be the first to visit Mars since two NASA spacecraft disappeared near the red planet's surface in 1999.
The orbiter, designed to measure radiation levels and look for mineralogical signs of water, could help scientists plan manned missions to Mars and determine whether life ever existed on the planet.
Flight engineers tested all the instruments on Odyssey in recent weeks. "All science payloads have been checked out and are operating well," said Spencer in a statement.
Now mission scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, are making preparations to airbrake the spacecraft in the upper martian atmosphere before the craft settles into orbit.
Odyssey is currently about 22 million miles (35 million kilometers) from Earth and traveling at a speed of about 59,800 mph (96,200 km/h) relative to the sun.
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