• NASA’s ancient Pathfinder mission returned a truly stunning image of Mars that you’ve probably never seen.
  • Pathfinder was launched in 1997 and died on Mars that same year.
  • The mission included a lander and the Sojourner rover which, despite being designed to live for just a week, managed to spend over 80 days exploring the Red Planet.

If you were to see the image above out of context you’d probably already guess it’s the landscape of Mars. The dry, dusty, orange sand and rocks are an iconic feature of the Red Planet. What you probably wouldn’t guess is what piece of NASA hardware snapped the photo.

Your first guess would probably be the Curiosity rover. Nope. Perhaps the Opportunity rover, before its unfortunate demise? Wrong again. It’s hard to believe, but this stunning photo was snapped by a lander that was only designed to last for a few months, and has now been dead for well over two decades. I’m talking of course about Pathfinder, which arrived on Mars way back on July 4, 1997.

As NASA explains in a new blog post, the image was captured by the IMP camera system affixed to the base station. Also along for the ride was the Sojourner rover, which was designed to last just a week, but ultimately spent over 80 days exploring the planet and sending back images and atmospheric readings.

NASA describes the “Twin Peaks” as follows:

This image shows the Twin Peaks, which are modest-size hills to the southwest of the Mars Pathfinder landing site. They were discovered on the first panoramas taken by the IMP camera on the July 4, and subsequently identified in Viking Orbiter images taken more than 20 years before. The peaks are approximately 100 feet tall (30-35 meters). North Twin is approximately 860 meters (2800 feet) from the lander, and South Twin is about a kilometer away (3300 feet). The scene includes bouldery ridges and swales or “hummocks” of flood debris that range from a few tens of meters away from the lander to the distance of the South Twin Peak.

The full-sized panorama is even more breathtaking. Check it out here in full resolution.

If you’re wondering how such a gorgeous image could have been captured way back in 1997, NASA has the answer. The image is actually a composite of seven different frames that were enlarged and then tweaked so that the resulting image is higher in resolution than any of the single photos actually was. As one last added tweak, “the color balance was adjusted to approximate the true color of Mars.”

Okay, fair enough, so it’s not like Pathfinder took an iPhone along for the ride and sent the panorama over Snapchat, but the resulting image is still one of the greatest depictions of the Mars landscape that you’re ever going to see.

Mike Wehner has reported on technology and video games for the past decade, covering breaking news and trends in VR, wearables, smartphones, and future tech. Most recently, Mike served as Tech Editor at The Daily Dot, and has been featured in USA Today, Time.com, and countless other web and print outlets. His love of reporting is second only to his gaming addiction.