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NASA has received the first test images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and they demonstrate not only how clear the thin Martian atmosphere is, but just how detailed the pictures from this new space probe's high-resolution camera will be when it begins full science operations next fall.

Here's a wide-angle shot. The little white box shows the location of the second shot. There doesn't seem to be any loss of resolution. Here's the full story.

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MRO was launched last August, and arrived in orbit around Mars on March 10. It is now in a very elongated orbit, ranging from 250 miles from the surface, to more than 27,000 miles. For the next 6 or 7 months, controllers at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California will be easing the spacecraft into a more circular orbit just 200 miles above the Martian surface. These images were shot from more than 1,500 miles up, so by next fall, MRO's pictures will show even smaller detail.

The spacecraft will study the geology of the Martian surface, monitor its weather and search for signs of past or present-day water. Later, it will serve as a communications relay station for future Mars landers.

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