Curiosity snaps first color panorama of Mars

A portion of Curiosity’s first 360-degree hi-res color panorama shows the slope of Mt. Sharp in the distance plus gray patches in the foreground from the descent stage’s rocket engines blasting the ground. Click to explore the full, fab hi-res version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Who could let the day go by without checking in Curiosity? Let me guess – taking pictures again? I’m happy to report that the high-resolution cameras were used today to shoot the first color panorama. The photo above looks kind of ordinary until you click it and arrive at the full panorama. Wait till you see the luscious detail.

Rocks and Mars dirt are sprinkled atop the rover in this picture taken with one of the navigational cameras on the mast. Click to see the full panorama. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The same is true with the second image. It’s another high-resolution panorama but in black and white and taken with one of the NavCam’s. I’ve cropped it down to show only the top of the rover, the better to see the dirt and rocks that landed there from the sky crane’s rocket exhaust. Had the rover landed using rockets all the way to the ground into of being dropped from a height by the sky crane, the amount of debris tossed up might have damaged equipment. So while it looks nasty – we wish we had a broom – it’s much cleaner than it might otherwise be. Let’s hope a dust devil comes by soon to give Curiosity a clean sweep.

See more photos HERE.

Don’t miss the Perseids, the year’s best meteor shower

The photo NASA doesn’t want you to see. Looks like the wrong time and place AGAIN for the wicked witch of the east.

Mars has so dominated astronomy news this week, it might be easy to ignore everything else in the sky. I’m here to tell you to put the coffee on for the year’s best meteor shower. Yep, you guessed it – the annual Perseids (PURR-see-ids) are back!

The Perseids stand out in several ways: they happen in August when the weather’s nice, they’re rich with meteors –  typically around one a minute – and this year the shower reaches it maximum on Saturday night, when you’re planning on staying up late anyway. Right?

The Perseid meteor shower peaks this Saturday night – Sunday morning. Meteors will appear to shoot out of a spot in the northeastern sky in the constellation Perseus below Cassiopeia. Maps created with Stellarium

The best viewing starts late Saturday night August 11 with the peak coming just before dawn Sunday morning when Perseus – the constellation from which the shower originates – is high in the northeastern sky.

Although the published rate for the Perseids is around 100 per hour, most of us won’t see that many. That number was determined by dedicated meteor shower watchers observing under ideal conditions. For casual viewing under suburban skies you might see between 30 and 60 per hour. That’s plenty!

The thick crescent moon rises around 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning in Taurus near brilliant Jupiter. It won’t be bright or high enough to affect meteor watching. The map shows the sky facing northeast at about 2:30 a.m. local time.

Find a place away from glary lights to allow your eyes to adapt to the darkness. That way you’ll see many more meteors. While the Perseids spit out the occasional fireball, most shower members are going to be closer in brightness to the stars of the Big Dipper. Lots leave these cool “smoke” trails called meteor trains. They’re actually tubes of glowing air molecules created as the meteoroid particles charge in the atmosphere from outer space at an average speed of 130,000 miles per hour 50 to 70 miles over our heads.

Since the meteors appear to radiate from Perseus, the higher the constellation rises, the higher the radiant gets and the more meteors will show above your horizon. That’s why those who stay up late will get more goodies. To view the shower all you need are your eyes and a comfortable chair. Set up facing to the east or southeast with Perseus off to your left. Sit back, look up and enjoy.

A Perseid meteor, remnant of Comet Swift-Tuttle, burns up to the left of the Milky Way during a past shower. Credit: Kevin Clifford/AP

The Perseids are the left-behind sand, seed and pebble-sized particles from comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. Discovered in 1862, it circles the sun every 120 years. Over millenia, the comet has left a stream of debris along its orbit which the Earth passes through every year in mid-August. The little comet crunchies hit our atmospheric ‘windshield’ like bugs smacking a car’s windshield and vaporize in a flash of light we call a meteor or shooting star.

A Perseid meteor captured from one of the windows in the International Space Station last August. Credit: NASA

While shower maximum occurs the morning of August 12, you’ll still see a fair number of meteors Friday night and Sunday night, so don’t pass on the event if your weather’s poor Saturday. Check your local forecast HERE.

Call a friend or coax a family member to stay up late this weekend to enjoy the show. Not only will you see meteors, the space station is making evening passes across North America and the crescent moon will be near the brilliant planets Jupiter and Venus. Speaking of the moon, it rises around 1:30 a.m. local time Sunday morning and should have little effect on the shower, since it’s neither too bright nor too high.

Curiosity thrills with first eye-level photos of distant mountains

The mountainous rim of Gale Crater photographed by Curiosity’s navigational camera this morning. They look “misty” possibly because of dust haze. The scoured patch in the foreground might be from the sky crane’s rocket exhaust. Click for large version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The trickle of Mars photos is fast becoming a torrent.  Curiosity’s mast, the pole-like affair sticking out of the rover that holds the high resolution color cameras and navigational cameras (NavCams), went up this morning. We’re finally getting clear, high resolution pictures taken at eye level. Check out those mountains! Want to browse more images? Click HERE and HERE.

Another view of the distant hills in Gale Crater. Click for large version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Navcam on the mast looked down to photograph Curiosity’s mast and instrument platform. Click to for large version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Oh, OK – how about another fresh pic:

High-resolution picture of the heat shield falling to the Martian surface by Curiosity’s descent camera shortly after separation. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech with toning by Emily Lakdawalla and myself

Not only has Curiosity been busy shooting pictures but the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) took a spectacular scene of the rover delivery stages strewn about the Martian landscape yesterday.

The heat shield was the first piece of hardware to hit the ground followed by the back shell attached to the parachute. The rover touched down next and the sky crane last. After the cables connecting it to the rover were cut, the crane flew off to the northwest and crashed. The darker areas around each object are where the dust was disturbed by rockets or impact revealing darker material beneath. Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech/U. of A.

The first picture shows the wide scene that serves to locate the pieces. Click on the photo for a much higher resolution view. I then took the hi-res images and zoomed in for a clearer view in the panels below:

Closeup views from the high resolution picture taken by MRO of the rover and its parachute and back shell. Credit: NASA/JPLl-Caltech-U. of Ariz.

Closeups of the sky crane and heat shield crashes. The sky crane hit Mars at a very shallow or oblique angle, creating a jet-like blast pattern. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/U. of Ariz.

Meanwhile, mission controllers at JPL have been snapping more pictures with those Hazcams mounted on Curiosity’s chassis including a 3-D shot of the rover’s shadow and distant hills. I hope you have a pair of those red-blue glasses to try out on this pic – the view is amazing!

3-D look at Curiosity’s shadow and the distant hills including the 3.4 mile high Mt. Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Here’s today’s status report on the rover from JPL: 
Curiosity is healthy as it continues to familiarize itself with its new home in Gale Crater and check out its systems. The team’s plans for Curiosity checkout today included raising the rover’s mast and continued testing of its high-gain antenna. Science data were collected from Curiosity’s Radiation Assessment Detector, and activities were performed with the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station instrument.

Auroras possible tonight Aug. 7 through Thursday morning


A filament of hot gas connecting two sunspots group erupted and sent a pulse of plasma  into space the morning of August 4 (CDT). Earth is expected to receive at least a glancing blow from the material in the next couple days.

The Kp index, a fairly reliable indicator of geomagnetic (aurora) activity has crept up to just below minor storm level tonight. We’re clouded out in Duluth, Minn. but observers with clear skies living in the northern U.S. and southern Canada may want to keep an eye out tonight for northern lights. Truth in advertising: this is not expected to be a major storm.

The coronal mass ejection (CME) caught leaving the sun around 11 a.m. August 4, 2012 (CDT) by the coronagraph on the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. Credit: NASA/ ESA

Skies in our region are expected to clear tomorrow evening when auroras are again likely. The cause goes back to a coronal mass ejection (CME) on August 4.  when a filament – a long arching garland of incandescent hydrogen gas – became unstable and erupted. You can see it fly away in the video; it’s the dark streak in the early images.

The aurora often starts early in the evening very low in the northern sky as a pale, arc-shaped glow. Peak activity is usually around midnight-1 a.m.

Cool video of Curiosity’s exciting ride into Gale Crater


Curiosity on the way down!

Wouldn’t you know it. I just finished posting and 10 minutes later got wind of the video of the Curiosity Rover descending to the surface of Mars. So here you go. While the resolution’s low, I suspect you’ll still enjoy the ride. These are thumbnails; full resolution pictures/video will be sent in the coming months. 297 of the approximately 1,504 color photos taken by the descent camera were put together to create the short sequence. They cover the final 2 1/2 minutes of the rover’s wild ride.

Color thumbnail image taken by Curiosity 2.5 minutes before touchdown showing the 15-foot-diameter heat shield after separation from the spacecraft. It was about 50 feet away at the time. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The video’s not just cool to look at; the pictures have a purpose, too.

“These images will help the mission scientists interpret the rover’s surroundings, the rover drivers in planning for future drives across the surface, as well as assist engineers in their design of forthcoming landing systems for Mars or other worlds,” said Mike Malin, imaging
scientist for the Mars Science Lab mission.

Mars on the move; space station back in the evening sky

Mars forms rapidly changing patterns with Saturn and the star Spica in the coming two weeks. These maps show the sky facing low in the southwest about an hour after sunset. Created with Stellarium

Mars is unstoppable. Maybe you’ve already noticed that it’s trying its best to evade the setting sun in the western sky. Mars moves much faster than any of the other outer because it’s considerably closer to Earth. Its eastward orbital motion is obvious in a matter of just a few nights if the planet happens to be near a bright star or much slower moving planet.

The north wall and rim of Gale Crater taken by Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). The haziness is from dust deposited on the camera’s clear dust cover during descent. I toned the image for better contrast. Click photo to see the original. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

That’s exactly where it is right now –  next door to Saturn and Spica in evening twilight. Mars threads the needle between the pair on the nights of August 13 and 14. As you watch the planet, consider that it carries its new robotic guest along for the ride at 15 miles per second or 3 miles per second slower that Earth. Being closer to the sun, our planet moves faster.

Today NASA shared what I believe is the first color photo from Curiosity. It was taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) mounted on Curiosity’s robotic arm. The camera’s main purpose is to shoot closeups of soil and rocks. When it’s ready for that job, the lens cover will be removed and we’ll get much sharper, contrastier images similar to yesterday’s picture of Mt. Sharp. This is the best color for now.

The full moon on August 1, 2012 captured by an astronaut on the International Space Station. Because the moon was so close to the horizon, the thicker (denser) air greatly distorted its shape.  Credit: NASA

While you’re out Mars-gazing, keep watch for the brightest satellite in the sky. The International Space Station (ISS) is back to making passes during evening hours. The times below are when you can see it in the Duluth, Minn. region. For times for your town, log in to Heavens Above or simply key in your zip code over at Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys page. The ISS is a brilliant, steady light moving from west to east. A typical pass takes about five minutes.

* Tonight starting at 9:36 p.m. Pass across the south-southeastern sky. Second pass at 11:12 p.m. in the west; fades out as it enters Earth’s shadow not far from the North Star.
* Wednesday Aug. 8 at 10:19 p.m. straight across the top of the sky. Brilliant show!
* Thursday Aug. 9 at 9:26 p.m. high across the south and again at 11:03 p.m. in the northern sky.
* Friday Aug. 10 at 10:09 p.m. halfway up in the northern sky.
* Saturday Aug. 10 at 10:10 p.m. Nice pass across the north

Mt. Sharp beckons in Curiosity’s eyes

Hazcam image showing Mt. Sharp, which rises 3.4 miles high from the floor of Gale Crater. The Rover team plans to drive the probe to the mountain’s lower layers to sample and study soil and minerals. In the foreground are the rover’s shadow and two of its wheels. The dark bands in the near distance are dunes. Click for bigger version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Just a quick update this evening in case you haven’t checked out the latest pictures in NASA’s Curiosity gallery. Mt. Sharp looks very impressive! The tall peak was named for geologist Robert P. Sharp (1911-2004), a founder of planetary science, influential teacher of many current leaders in the field, and team member for NASA’s early Mars missions.

The green diamond shows approximately where Curiosity landed – nearly at the center of the estimated landing region shown in blue. At right is a picture taken by the descent camera as Curiosity was being lowered by sky crane to the ground. Circular plumes of dust were created by the rocket exhaust. The rover was about 70 feet above the surface at the time. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Whoa! Mars orbiter snaps photo of Curiosity dangling from parachute

Curiosity Rover, packed inside its protective back shell, floats to its destination inside Gale Crater earlier this morning. The air on Mars is more than 100 times thinner than on Earth. The parachute had to be large – 51 feet across – to make the most of it.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Come on NASA, you’re killing me! Will wonders never cease? The agency just released this photo of Curiosity descending by parachute to its destination on Mars. The image was made by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) as the probe flew 211 miles away. You can’t see the rover directly because it’s tucked inside a conical shell along with the rocket-propelled backpack that would tether it down to the surface just a minute later. Curiosity was two miles above the etched plains north of the sand dunes that fringe Mt. Sharp inside Gale Crater when the picture was snapped.

MRO is shown at the time it took the photo of Curiosity on descent. MSL stands for Mars Science Laboratory, the rover’s alternate name. Credit: NASA-TV

MRO has been circling Mars for six years and shot a similar photo of the Phoenix lander floating down to the surface by parachute in May 2008. Nothing like having another set of eyes looking out when your baby’s 154 million miles from home.

A “straight” view of Curiosity and its chute without cropping and toning. From the perspective of the orbiter, the parachute and Curiosity are flying at an angle relative to the surface, so the landing site does not appear directly below the rover. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

The photo reminds us that anything is possible if we focus our energy and wits to make it happen. I may be dazed and confused today after staying up half the night with the rover, but this vibe of inspiration keeps me smiling.

Curiosity makes flawless touchdown on Mars

The first two pictures taken on Mars by the fisheye lenses on the Curiosity Rover Hazcams. Both show splotches of dust kicked up during the landing. The left image shows the shadow of the rover; one of its wheels is seen in the right photo at lower right. Credit: NASA-TV

Unbelievable. I just finished watching the landing on NASA-TV and I’m brimming with pride over the space agency’s magnificent accomplishment. We did it … again! The entire landing, from the moment when the cruise shell separated to parachute deployment and the final, rocket-powered descent via sky crane – flawless.

Mission controllers break into hugs at news of the safe touchdown of Curiosity at 12:39 a.m. (CDT) Monday. The joy was incredible … and catching. Credit: NASA-TV

NASA was able to get the orbiting Mars Odyssey craft into position to receive data from Curiosity almost immediately after touchdown. It couldn’t have been more than a minute or two after touchdown when the first picture was beamed over the big monitor at the Jet Propulsion Lab. As expected these were low resolution, black and white image taken by the small Hazard-Avoidance cameras mounted on the rover’s platform, but oh, how sweet they were!

The pictures show that the rover rests on nearly level ground strongly resembling my gravel driveway.  Open, flat terrain is exactly what the mission’s planners hoped for. The fewer rocks, the safer the landing. It also means they can deploy the mast, which holds the high-resolution cameras, on schedule. We should see color pix from those later this week. I managed to grab a few screen shots of the scene I hope you’ll enjoy! To see the latest images arriving from the rover, click HERE.

Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) are shown at the time Curiosity, also called the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), was landing. Credit: NASA-TV

While Odyssey received data and photos from Curiosity and sent them on to Earth, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter got in for an even closer view to photograph the rover as it descended by parachute and sky crane. We should see those photos soon.

With the first picture of Mars taken by Curiosity in the background, mission controllers high-five and hug in celebration Monday morning. Credit: NASA-TV

A later, higher-resolution image from Curiosity after the clear dust cover protecting the lens was jettisoned. Part of the spring that released the cover is at lower right. At upper right, foothills or mountains are seen. Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech

JPL mission controllers break out jars of peanuts shortly before the landing. It’s a tradition before critical mission events that started with the first successful Ranger mission to the moon in the 1960s. A JPL staffer was eating peanuts at the time, so the staff figured the peanuts brought good luck. Credit: NASA-TV

Ready … set … Mars!

Mars (right), Saturn (top) and the star Spica form a striking triangle in the western sky yesterday evening. Our attention  will be riveted on Mars when Curiosity lands tonight. Photo: Bob King

Tonight’s the night. If all goes right with the most audacious plan ever conceived to land a probe on another planet, Curiosity Rover’s wheels will crunch into Martian soil at 12:31 a.m. (Central time) Monday morning. One of the first things the probe will do on arrival is take a picture, get on the phone and e-mail it to its best friends back on Earth. You’d do the same, right?

The first pictures will be taken within minutes of landing by the Hazard-Avoidance cameras (Hazcams) attached to the back and front of the rover.  These feature wide-angle fisheye lenses capped with clear lens covers to protect the glass from Martian dust on landing. The covers are designed to pop off, but if they don’t, the lenses will still provide a clear view. Lots of us use similar transparent filters to protect our camera lenses from Earth dust.

The first photos from Curiosity will look something like this Hazcam image taken by the Mars Opportunity Rover. The rover is still going strong after 8 1/2 years of operation on Mars. Credit: NASA

“A set of low-resolution gray scale Hazcam images (thumbnails) will be acquired within minutes of landing on the surface,” said Justin Maki of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Once all of the critical systems have been checked out by the engineering team and the mast is deployed, the rover will image the landing site with higher-resolution cameras.”

The low-res Hazcam images will give engineers a look around Curiosity’s immediate environment as well as determine if the robot is upright or tilted; stable ground is required before the mast holding the high resolution cameras is raised into position.

This graphic shows the locations of the cameras on NASA’s Curiosity rover. The rover’s mast features seven cameras: the Remote Micro Imager, part of the Chemistry and Camera suite; four black-and-white Navigation Cameras (two on the left and two on the right) and two color Mast Cameras (Mastcams). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’ll take about two hours for the first pictures to arrive as Curiosity waits for the Mars Odyssey orbiter to fly by and relay the data back to Earth.  Color photos from the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) taken as the probe descended to the surface will be released later Monday. On Tuesday the 7th, we’ll see the first photos taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). Though designed to shoot closeups of soil and rocks, it will grab and send an initial wide view of the landing area in Gale Crater.

Mars this past March with north polar cap. Credit: Damian Peach

Images from the medium resolution Navcams mounted on the mast will arrive three days after the landing. As this set of pictures races back to Earth at light speed, the high-resolution Mastcams – one equipped with a 100mm telephoto lens, the other a medium wide 34mm lens – will start clicking away. Yes, that’s the juicy stuff.

I’ll be updating my site tonight with landing news and more. If you’re in Duluth, Minn. or planning to visit today, check out the Marshall Alworth Planetarium’s Curiosity Landing Party. It starts at 4 p.m. and continues till 1 a.m. Monday. The event features live streaming video of the Planetary Society’s Planetfest in the star domeKids activities include an alien art competition, build your own spacecraft and dress up like an alien. Martians preferred.

Here are a couple links you’ll find handy tonight and in the coming days:

* Watch the whole shebang online on NASA-TV.  The live broadcast begins at 10:30 p.m. (CDT)
* Lots of cities like Duluth are having live events to mark the landing. Click HERE to find one near you.
*  See the raw images as soon as mission control makes them available. Curiosity’s first pictures will be posted at that link.
* NASA image gallery to view finished photos and photo compilations along with caption information.
* Follow the mission on Curiosity’s Facebook and Twitter pages.

See ya’ later tonight!