What detail can Hubble see on Mars?

  • I'm researching a scene for a sci-fi novel in which the near-future protagonists observe earth through a station-mounted telescope in Mars orbit. My goal is to understand how much detail they reasonably could discern.

    The Hubble telescope is probably a reasonable comparison for my purposes. I found images Hubble took of Mars during a close approach, but I don't know if those represent the best resolution possible or simply the resolution that was selected or available at the time, or indeed, if the whole planet was imaged at a higher resolution than the photo published in popular media outlets.

    Can a Hubble-like telescope observe significantly greater detail than displayed in the article below? If so, what might reasonably be resolved? Large cities? Individual buildings?

    From Vox.com's Hubble can see galaxies impossibly far away. Here’s what happens when it looks at Mars and Saturn.

    Mars, ASA, ESA, and STScI

    above: Cropped from Source NASA, ESA, and STScI

    Mars, NASA/Hubble

    above: Cropped from Source NASA/Hubble

    First, you need to understand that magnification is not what you want to ask about, but angular resolution.

    I've brought the images into the question because over time links break (popular websites move or archive old articles) and then the question becomes invalid. This way future readers will still be able to see what images are being talked about. Also, they are *really beautiful!*

    The resolution of the public images seems about right to me. I'm sure more detail could be extracted via heavy processing, but that also tends to create artifacts.

    @uhoh I am unsure what licence NASA uses for their images; are you allowed to licence them as a cc by-sa?

    @Tim In general images from NASA are freely available for public use, but I don't know the exact license. The policy itself is probably a lot older than cc by-sa and may be established by US law somehow as part of the funding mandate. This is certainly look-up-able on the internet. https://www.spacetelescope.org/copyright/ If there's more to discuss, maybe it's a good topic for a meta question.

    In the event you need to describe the scale of these telescope in human reference terms, a handy graphic from Wikipedia.

    @bishop: I hadn't seen that before. Thank you for sharing.

    @Tim By law, the work product of any US government agency is free of copyright and placed in the public domain. Logos associated with and trademarked by the agency are an exception because their use could create a false impression of endorsement. Individuals have separate rights to privacy. Images containing identifyable individuals may be restricted under that person's right to control their privacy and publicity.

    If I did the math right, the black hole image of the Event Horizon Project would be equivalent to an area about 37 feet across on the surface of Mars at its closest approach.

  • Forget about magnification. People who know telescopes don't think in terms of magnification. What matters is the angular resolution, or the resolving power: the angular size of the smallest details that you could see in an instrument.

    Rule of thumb: the resolving power of a telescope with a diameter of 10 cm is 1 arcsecond when using visible light. The numbers are inversely proportional. A 20 cm telescope resolves details 0.5 arcsec in size. A 1 meter telescope resolves 0.1 arcsec.

    Hubble has an aperture (diameter) of 2.4 m, so its resolving power is 0.04 arcsec.

    The minimum distance between Earth and Mars is about 55 million km and it only happens very rarely. The maximum distance is 400 mil km. The "average" distance is 225 mil km (but actual distance varies all the time).

    Let's apply the tangent of 0.04 arcsec at 55 mil km:


    It's 10 km. It would only be able to see the major geographic features.

    To see buildings (down to the scale of 10 m), it would need a 1000x increase in resolution. That means an aperture of 2.4 km. None of the classic telescope designs can provide that. It would have to be some kind of interferometric design - a large, flat field where several mirrors are placed several km apart and are coupled optically to function as a single huge mirror (well, sort of - this is more of an intuitive explanation).

    It would be similar to the Navy Precision Optical Interferometer near Flagstaff, Arizona.


    Some of the wide, flat parts of Valles Marineris might provide a good location for the interferometer. Acidalia Planitia would provide even more space for building huge interferometers, and should be a good place to build structures in general - flat to beyond horizon; it's the place where much of the book/movie The Martian set their story. But any big, reasonably flat field would work.

    All of the above assumes the distance of closest approach between Earth and Mars. In practice, the distance is greater than that, so aperture must increase. You're contemplating an interferometer with a base of dozens of km if you want to distinguish structures such as buildings.

    Conceivably, the interferometer could be built in orbit, but you must ensure that the distance between mirrors is maintained with extraordinary precision. On the planetary surface, the ground provides the required rigidity. In space you'd have to... I dunno, use space magic.

    Thanks, that's a wonderfully detailed answer. The plot doesn't in any way depend on seeing small features so I'll go with the ability to resolve major geographic features. I strive to get the science right in my novels and greatly appreciate your help!

    @EricJ. - alright, then the orbital telescope would work. Good luck with your project!

    Does the array actually need to be in orbit? What's the consequence of looking through the thin Martian atmosphere?

    @ChrisStratton It will definitely impact performance a little, but likely less than Earth's atmosphere.

    Another building side might be one of the martian moons...

    @Eric You could build it on top of Olympus Mons, which has a height of almost 22 km above datum, so the atmospheric pressure is less than 1/7 what it is at the datum level. OTOH, you do get more clouds, and presumably more atmospheric turbulence above Olympus Mons.

    @PM2Ring. Indeed, I do reference Olympus Mons in the story. In this scene, an orbital station (around Mars) lost contact with earth in the weeks after an alien invasion. The role of the telescope in this scene is to highlight their desperation for news from home. It doesn't actually tell them anything, but I want to accurately describe what they see. It works fine for story purposes that they can see major geographic features only. Thanks for the thought!

    @ChrisStratton It's not that the telescope must be in orbit, but that the humans find themselves there. The Martian atmosphere is so thin that it shouldn't have much impact on observational astronomy from what I know. I suppose they could build a large telescope on the surface (e.g. on Olympus Mons as suggested above) given enough time, but the story will take them in a different direction.

    Rather than try to look at image detail like buildings, your characters would probably look at things like night-side lighting patterns (normal, absent, sudden flares with worrisome spectra), possibly disrupted weather patterns, radio chatter (normal, absent, never before seen modulations) and so on. It's almost the SETI problem, but now with three choices - familiar, nothing, unfamiliar

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM