A picture of Mars taken by the Hubble Space Telescope on 12 May has been released by NASA which shows a more vibrant side to the Red Planet.
Bright, frosty polar caps, and clouds above a vivid rust-colored landscape can be seen in the image which was taken when Mars was 80 million kilometres from Earth. Details as small as 30 to 60 kilometres across are visible in the new picture.
This observation was made just a few days before Mars opposition on 22 May, when the sun and Mars will be on exact opposite sides of Earth.
On 30 May, Mars will be the closest it has been to Earth in 11 years, at a distance of 75 million kilometres. Mars is especially photogenic during opposition because it can be seen fully illuminated by the sun as viewed from Earth.
The image demonstrates Mars’ dynamic seasons, straying far from its reputation as a dead lifeless body.
The large, dark region at far right is Syrtis Major Planitia, one of the first features identified on the surface of the planet by seventeenth-century observers.
Christiaan Huygens used this feature to measure the rotation rate of Mars which led to the discovery that the Red Planet has days lasting approximately 24 hours and 37 minutes.
Today we know that Syrtis Major is an ancient, inactive shield volcano. Late-afternoon clouds surround its summit in this view.
A large oval feature to the south of Syrtis Major is the bright Hellas Planitia basin. Just over 1770 kilometres across and nearly eight deep, it was formed about 3.5 billion years ago by an asteroid impact.
The orange area in the center of the image is Arabia Terra, a vast upland region in northern Mars that covers approximately 4,500 kilometres.
The landscape is densely cratered and heavily eroded, indicating that it could be among the oldest terrains on the planet.
South of Arabia Terra, running east to west along the equator, are the long dark features known as Sinus Sabaeus (to the east) and Sinus Meridiani (to the west).
These darker regions are covered by dark bedrock and fine-grained sand deposits ground down from ancient lava flows and other volcanic features.
These sand grains are coarser and less reflective than the fine dust that gives the brighter regions of Mars their ruddy appearance. Early Mars watchers first mapped these regions.
An extended blanket of clouds can be seen over the southern polar cap. The icy northern polar cap has receded to a comparatively small size because it is now late summer in the northern hemisphere.
Hubble photographed a wispy afternoon lateral cloud extending for at least 1,6000 kilometres at mid-northern latitudes. Early morning clouds and haze extend along the western limb.
This hemisphere of Mars contains landing sites for several NASA Mars surface robotic missions, including Viking 1 (1976), Mars Pathfinder (1997), and the still-operating Opportunity Mars rover. The landing sites of the Spirit and Curiosity Mars rovers are on the other side of the planet.