BALTIMORE (AP) -- Astronomers reacted with jubilation Wednesday at new pictures of Mars taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, saying the planet's close pass to Earth enabled the Hubble to capture "quite spectacular" images.
"We've never seen this kind of resolution in Hubble images, that kind of detail," said Cornell University astronomer Jim Bell said, pointing to a canyon wall on the Valles Marineris, a giant canyon that runs 2,800 miles across the red planet.
The Baltimore-based Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates the telescope, released the first Hubble images of Mars early Wednesday. The pictures were taken late Tuesday and early Wednesday as the as the planet made its closest pass by Earth in 60,000 years.
"They are quite spectacular. You knew they were going to be good; seeing them is something else," said Michael Wolff, an astronomer with the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., who was also on hand for the release.
The images, taken when Mars was about 34.6 million miles from Earth, show surface details as small as 17 miles across.
"These are the best that have ever been, and will ever be taken with the Hubble Space Telescope," Wolff said.
Scientists will now study the pictures in detail, and there's hope that the images will lead to new discoveries, Wolff said.
"Before we were looking at broad areas and things tend to get averaged out," Wolff said. "There's the possibility something we missed before will be there."
While spacecraft orbiting Mars can show objects in greater detail, they often cannot make an image of the entire planet at once, or at all times of the Martian day, Wolff said.
Earth-bound telescopes, meanwhile, have to deal with the distorting effects of the Earth's atmosphere. The Hubble also has instruments that allow it to capture wavelengths the spacecraft orbiting Mars cannot see.