Friday, July 26, 2013

A view of the Curiosity rover from high above Mars

By Michael J.W. Stickings

After the stunning images of Earth from spacecraft orbiting Saturn and Mercury, showing us what our planet looks like from a long way away, here's another amazing image from space.

Taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting the red planet since 2006, it shows the landing spot of the Curiosity rover (see my post from last August, upon its landing, for details about the rover and its mission), the rover's tracks, and, yes, the rover itself. As Slate's Phil Plait (who helpfully annotated the image) explains:

The Curiosity rover is about 3 meters long, so it's easily visible in HiRISE [High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment] images. Its wheels are 50 centimeters across and a little less than that wide, so the tracks are visible as well. The rockets used in the last moments before the rover landed on the surface blew the dust and surface material around, so that blast pattern (which looks blue in this color-enhanced shot) is easily seen in the image, too...

The tracks are a little over 3 meters (10 feet) apart, to give you a sense of scale. At this point, the rover had traveled about 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) from its landing site. On July 21, it took its longest jaunt yet, traveling about 100 meters in a single drive. Its eventual goal is Mt. Sharp (technically, Aeolis Mons), which is roughly 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the rover's location.

Engineers have been cautious about moving Curiosity around but will soon take it on even longer drives. Eventually, its auto-navigation system will be used, allowing the rover to go beyond routes deemed safe by looking at previous images; essentially the destination can be programmed in, and the rover will find the best path to get there itself. 

Incredible. Simply incredible.

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