Do you love to look up at the Moon? Well so does NASA’s Curiosity rover! Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong (I have not confirmed this) but this appears to be an image of Phobos, the larger of Mars’ two small moons, imaged by Curiosity’s Mastcam on mission Sol 1002 (June 1, 2015). I spotted it while looking though some raw images on JPL’s MSL mission page.
Phobos is a very small world, only about 16 miles (26 km) across, and orbits Mars at 5,840 miles (9,400 km) altitude. Curiosity has imaged it before, once actually crossing in front of the Sun during an eclipse event on Aug. 20, 2013.
Both Phobos and its smaller, more distant sibling Deimos have been imaged together by Curiosity as well, during an occultation on Aug. 1, 2013. See an animation of those observations here.
Planned observations of Phobos help scientists more precisely determine its orbit.
See a color image of Phobos acquired by the HiRISE camera aboard Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter here.
The image above shows Curiosity’s view southwest into “Marias Pass,” a low valley in Gale Crater where the rover was on May 22, 2015 – mission Sol 992. At the left (east) edge is the western slope of a rise called Akipuni Mountain, and Mount Shields rises off to the right (west). The image is a mosaic made from four Mastcam images – click to view it full-size on Flickr.
The site is a bit of a backtrack from its previous location at Logan Pass, since the rover has been experiencing some slipping on the loose surface material in the area.
“Mars can be very deceptive,” said Chris Roumeliotis, Curiosity’s lead rover driver at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “We knew that polygonal sand ripples have caused Curiosity a lot of drive slip in the past, but there appeared to be terrain with rockier, more consolidated characteristics directly adjacent to these ripples. So we drove around the sand ripples onto what we expected to be firmer terrain that would give Curiosity better traction. Unfortunately, this terrain turned out to be unconsolidated material too, which definitely surprised us and Curiosity.”
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. Edited by Jason Major.
Cold as hell and no place to raise your kids, the surface of Mars today is a quite inhospitable place for any forms of life we know of. But that wasn’t always the case – billions of years ago Mars may have been a lot more like Earth, with a magnetic field, a much denser atmosphere, lakes and even an ocean on its surface where life could have not just developed but thrived. And in Curiosity’s hunt for any remaining evidence of that ancient utopia, the rover has identified a key ingredient: nitrates contained within the surface rocks of Gale Crater.
Although it’s not thought that the nitrates were created by organisms currently living on Mars it’s yet another indication that the environment of Gale Crater was once a place where life could have existed, joining the rover’s previous discoveries of traces of water and sediment deposited by ancient rivers.
“Finding a biochemically accessible form of nitrogen is more support for the ancient Martian environment at Gale Crater being habitable,” said Jennifer Stern of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, lead author of the research team.
Here’s a “selfie” of NASA’s Curiosity rover, made from about 20 images acquired by its MAHLI instrument on mission sol 868 (January 14, 2015). I used Photoshop to stitch the raw images together and then enhanced the contrast and detail with a bit of HDR effect. (There’s one spot behind the rover’s RTG where an image wasn’t available.)
How did Curiosity take this image (well, these images) you ask?
Every now and then I get unexpectedly caught up in a project that I originally intended to be a quick just-for-fun thing and ends up taking an hour and a half of my time (usually long after I should have gone to bed.) This was one of those.
Made up of 28 raw images acquired by Curiosity’s right Mastcam camera, this is a panorama of the rover’s surroundings in Gale Crater on mission Sol 844 – December 21, 2014 our time. The colors are what one would see in ambient Mars lighting… for a more Earth-like view, see below:
While it’s not quite the “smoking gun” for evidence of life on Mars, the recent announcement of a detection of spiking methane levels by NASA’s Curiosity rover has certainly caught everyone’s attention – especially since the activity of microbes is one possible source for the presence of the compound, which has already been detected by spacecraft in orbit around Mars.
“This temporary increase in methane – sharply up and then back down – tells us there must be some relatively localized source,” said Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan, a member of the Curiosity rover science team. “There are many possible sources, biological or non-biological, such as interaction of water and rock.”
Still, biological in origin or not, these findings are yet another milestone for the MSL mission.
“We have had a major discovery. We have found organics on Mars.”
– John Grotzinger, Curiosity lead scientist