Astronomers often use "false-color" images to better understand deep space phenomena like supernova remnants or nebulae. But false color imagery is also used a bit closer to home -- as evidenced by stunning new photos of the surface of Mars taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
HiRISE takes pictures in three color bands: 400 to 600 nanometers (blue-green), 550 to 850 nm (red) and 800 to 1,000 nm (near infrared). Since the human eye sees wavelengths from about 390 to 700 nm, HiRISE cross-maps the longer bands to the visible spectrum, creating a false-color image that helps viewers see features more clearly. (Story continues below)
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In an email to The Huffington Post, HiRISE communications team member Yisrael Espinoza explained that enhanced color imaging helps point out details that might not be as visible in black and white. (The camera's "red" band, which falls within human visual range, is displayed in grayscale on non-enhanced HiRISE images.)
There are variable levels of color enhancement for HiRISE, but a few general observations can be made about colors and the topography they depict. In images such as those seen in the gallery above, "dust ... is generally the reddest material present and looks reddish. ... Coarser-grained materials (sand and rocks) are generally bluer ... but also relatively dark, except where coated by dust." Frost and ice are also relatively blue, but brighter.
HiRISE represents a collaboration between NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Arizona. It is one of several instruments on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which was launched in 2005. Together, the instruments on the orbiter "zoom in for close-up photography of the martian surface, analyze minerals, look for subsurface water, trace how much dust and water are distributed in the atmosphere and monitor daily global weather."