Mars Curiosity a gleam of light in a lonely landscape

Curiousity is the gleaming dot at lower right. Its tracks are visible extending from the landing site, “Bradbury Landing,” at upper left. Two bright bluish spots surrounded by darker patches are where the spacecraft’s landing jets cleared away reddish surface dust at the landing site.The rover’s wheel tracks are about 10 feet (3-meters) apart. Click to supersize. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Gaze at the night sky or take in a view from a mountaintop and you’ll be afforded a perspective that hints at our significance in the broader universe. I feel the same way looking at this photo of the Curiosity rover taken from orbit by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). In a remote and barren landscape, we see the reassuring gleam of our technology at the end of a set of tracks reminiscent of baby’s first steps. The audacity.

On-the-ground view of layered rocks at the Shaler site. Click to supersize. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

MRO shot the photo on June 27 when the rover was examining an outcrop called “Shaler”, where stacked layers of rock reminded Mars researchers of layered shales here on Earth. Some of them lie at angles to one another – what geologists call cross-bedding – that indicate a change in the rate or direction of flow of whatever it was that deposited the beds. In this case it’s likely water but could also be wind.

Comparison of Mount Sharp with several familiar mountains on Earth. Mt. Sharp is higher than any mountain in the U.S. with the exception of Mt. McKinley. Its made of many layers of rock, some of which contain water-bearing minerals. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

On July 21 the rover drove its longest distance in one day ever on the Red Planet – 109.7 yards (100.3 meters) – or almost exactly the length of a football field. Its destination now is the 18,000-foot-high (5,500 meters) mountain of sediments in the center of Gale Crater called Mount Sharp. The 5-mile (8 km) journey will take 9 months to a year.

Mt. Sharp lies ahead in this picture taken by Curiosity on July 21 after its long drive. The many layers that form it are like pages in the history book of Mars. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

Soon, mission controllers will place the rover in ”autonav” mode so it can navigate a path for itself, hands free as it were. This could make long drives like the recent record more common. Curiosity won’t stop at the mountain base but will trek up the slopes of Mt. Sharp. How could it not? The six-wheeled robot is an extension of humanity, and what is a mountain but an invitation to see the big picture?

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

2 thoughts on “Mars Curiosity a gleam of light in a lonely landscape

  1. In the first picture in this post, why why do the cleared off patches show up as blue? I assume that the fact that there are two blue dots means there were two rocket engines firing as it descended. If so, why two? Wouldn’t that be more difficult to keep the space craft ‘balanced’ above two sources of thrust than it would over one or three? And why are these blue dots separated by so much distance? Finally, why are “debris fields” so different (I assume that’s what the dark areas are above and below the blue dots): one is a concentrated dark line downwards and one is a diffuse (almost nebulous) circular area upwards?

    • Bob,
      The color of the blast pattern is relatively blue compared to the red, dust-covered surface. The descent stage rocket exhaust removed the red dust to expose darker, relatively bluer rock beneath. The stage had four descent rockets – one at each corner (see this illustration: http://n.pr/177Dvti). It came down steadily with two rockets blasting the ground on each side of the lander, hence two prominent patches. I assume the debris fields are different because of different rock types, different degrees of weathering, etc.

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