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Crazy colors from the Red Planet

This false-color view of Toro Crater on Mars was captured on Dec. 1, 2011, by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and released on Wednesday. The different colors reflect different mineral composition on the Martian surface.

There's not much red in this picture of the Red Planet, produced by the high-resolution camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Browns and blues and greens and yellows and violets ... but red? Not so much. There's a method in this colorful madness: The riot of color tells scientists that, mineralogically speaking, this is a wildly diverse region of Mars.

The orbiter took this picture of Toro Crater in Mars' northern hemisphere back on Dec. 1, and the processed version was released just this week. The University of Arizona's Alfred McEwen, principal investigator for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment or HiRISE, says the different colors point to different kinds of minerals that may have been altered through the action of liquid water and heat on ancient Mars.

HiRISE's views in different wavelengths can be tweaked to tell geologists things about surface composition that you might not notice in a "true color" photograph.

"In general, the blue and green colors indicate unaltered minerals like pyroxene and olivine, whereas the warmer colors indicate alteration into clays and other minerals," McEwen writes in his image advisory. "The linear north-south trending features are windblown dunes that are much younger than the bedrock."

Such hydrothermal alteration could get a closer examination elsewhere on Mars when NASA's Curiosity rover touches down in Gale Crater this August.

For more of this crazy imagery, check out this longer, higher-resolution view of the Toro Crater scene. If you've got red-blue glasses, you'll get a kick out of this 3-D version. The HiRISE home page will point you to thousands of pictures from Mars — some in true color, some in false color, some in black and white, and some in 3-D red and blue. Feel free to go crazy.

S. Robbins / Moon Mappers / CosmoQuest / NASA

This image of the moon shows craters that have been identified by citizen scientists as part of the Moon Mappers project. The blue circles indicate raw IDs by individual users, while the red circles indicate craters identified by a computer program that groups together individual markings.

Where in the Cosmos?
On the Cosmic Log Facebook page, we've been featuring a series called "Where in the Cosmos" — in which we put up a curious space picture for people to puzzle over. Last week, I posted a picture of some cratered terrain with red and blue circles all over it. It took less than 24 hours for Robert Dryden to figure out that the picture showed some of the first results from a citizen-science project called Moon Mappers.

Scientists have long studied craters on the moon to trace the evolution of the solar system. The distribution and estimated ages of lunar craters have led astronomers to conclude, for example, that the inner solar system weathered a hailstorm of impacts known as the "Late Heavy Bombardment" about 4 billion years ago.

Crater counting is a valuable exercise, but it's hard to automate. Moon Mappers, a project presented by the CosmoQuest website, is calling upon the wisdom of crowds to help scientists make sense out of the imagery being sent back to Earth by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Similar citizen-science projects, organized by Zooniverse, have yielded published research — and Moon Mappers is likely to be similarly productive. So if you want to take part in some real science, consider joining the Moon Mappers team.

The moon picture was doubly apt, because of the Moon Mappers angle as well as the past week's political debates over future moon missions. For the latest word in that debate, check out this commentary by NBC News' longtime Cape Canaveral correspondent, Jay Barbree.

I posted this week's "Where in the Cosmos" picture puzzle earlier today, and within an hour several Cosmic Log Facebookers figured out that it was a 3-D view of the Snowman crater chain on the asteroid Vesta, as seen by NASA's Dawn probe. This means that Jarin Udom, Joan Tweedell and Ryan Anthony Sebastian Carroll join Robert Dryden in the winner's circle. They're all eligible to receive 3-D glasses once I get their mailing addresses.

To get in on the next "Where in the Cosmos" puzzle, be sure to hit the "Like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page ... and if you're already a fan, thanks for being part of the community!

More fun with space pictures:

ESO / VISTA / J. Emerson / EPA

Gaze into the Helix Nebula's golden eye and see the other cosmic highlights of January 2012.




Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.