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.
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.
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.
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?