Incredible New Photo of Mars Shows the Solar System’s Biggest Volcano

A photograph depicting the upper layers of Saturn's atmosphere, taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft. The image shows various colored bands, representing different atmospheric layers, with a large, faint circular formation visible in the lower portion.
A crop of NASA’s latest Mars Odyssey photo. This image shows Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system, in the foreground and Mars’ atmosphere spanning the sky above the Red Planet’s horizon.

NASA’s 23-year-old Odyssey Mars orbiter is days away from celebrating an incredible milestone: 100,000 trips around Mars. To mark the record-setting occasion, NASA has released a new image of Olympus Mons, the tallest volcano in the solar system.

Since the 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter reached the Red Planet’s orbit on October 24, 2001, more than six months after it launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, it has been mapping Mars, analyzing minerals and ice on the planet’s surface, and helping scientists identify potential landing spots for future missions.

NASA’s longest-living Mars robot has been focused on capturing high-altitude views of Mars in recent years, including a stunning and unusual view of the Martian horizon released late last year. The newest image, captured on March 11, 2024, and published today, is another look at the planet’s horizon. In this case, Olympus Mons is front and center in the foreground, while the planet’s complex, multi-layered atmosphere stretches above Mars’ surface. Olympus Mons’ base sprawls just over 370 miles (600 kilometers), and the volcano’s peak is a staggering 17 miles (27 kilometers) above the surface.

An ethereal image showing a multicolored atmospheric layer above the Martian surface. The thin, wispy clouds and haze create a gradient of colors, transitioning from green to blue. Below, a large crater with a central depression is visible on the planet's surface.
The complete view Odyssey captured of Mars. The full-resolution image is available here.

Similar to the perspective astronauts get of Earth from aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Odyssey’s new aerial landscape photo helps scientists study and learn more about weather, clouds, and airborne dust at Mars.

“Normally we see Olympus Mons in narrow strips from above, but by turning the spacecraft toward the horizon we can see in a single image how large it looms over the landscape,” says Odyssey’s project scientist, Jeffrey Plaut of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Not only is the image spectacular, it also provides us with unique science data.”

The bluish-white band near the bottom of the atmosphere hints toward the amount of dust at the location. Scientists think the purple-colored layer above is this color because of red dust mixing with blueish water-ice clouds. The blue-green layer near the top is about 31 miles (50 kilometers) into the sky above Mars.

Like the image the Odyssey team shared last year, the new one was shot with the orbiter’s Thermal Emission Imaging System, or THEMIS.

Infographic titled "Mars Odyssey Orbiter By The Numbers." It highlights: 23 years in orbit, 17.1 terabits of data returned, 1.33 terabits of data relayed from Mars surface missions, 100,000 orbits, 1.4 million images taken, and relay support for 6 Mars missions.

During its 23 years in orbit, Odyssey has sent 17.1 terabits of data back to Earth and relayed 1.33 terabits of data from surface-based missions on Mars. It has also captured 1.4 million photos and provided vital support for six subsequent Mars missions.

“It takes careful monitoring to keep a mission going this long while maintaining a historical timeline of scientific planning and execution — and innovative engineering practices,” remarks Odyssey’s project manager, Joseph Hunt of JPL. “We’re looking forward to collecting more great science in the years ahead.”

Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU