Curiosity's looking a little blue

By Phil Plait | August 14, 2012 12:54 pm

We have a fleet of spacecraft at Mars right now, including the amazing Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and its equally amazing HiRISE camera, capable of taking very high-res pictures of the planet below.

The folks managing HiRISE just released a new picture of Mars showing the location of Curiosity, and it’ll wow you for sure:

Wow!* [Click to enaresenate.]

The colors have been enhanced in this image – which actually makes things very interesting. As I’ve pointed out before, most of Mars is covered in basalt, a blue-gray rock. When you hear about sand on Mars, it’s usually coarse-grained stuff made up of eroded basalt. However, there’s also much finer-grained dust which is high in iron oxide – rust – and it’s that which gives Mars its characteristic ruddy color.

That fine dust covers everything, making the planet red/orange/ochre. But there’s wind on Mars, and it can blow the dust around, revealing the grayer basalt underneath (like the dust devils do). And if there’s no natural wind, why, the thrusters from the rockets of a sky crane hovering over the surface as it lowers a one-ton rover to the ground will do just fine.

That part is actually pretty obvious in the picture. The thrusters blew around the dust, revealing the rock underneath, giving the landing site a bluer cast in the image (remember, it’s color enhanced). In the first images from the rover you can see that as well, but not as clearly as here. In fact, in the high-res version you can see the streaks from the individual rockets under the sky crane immediately around the rover, which then fanned out to produce the larger region of disturbed dust.

And as an added bonus, the rover itself can be seen sitting pretty right in the middle!

Note that this is a small, small portion of a vastly huger picture from HiRISE showing an incredible slice of Mars. The colors and landscape in that (also enhanced) picture are jaw-dropping, and you should take a look.

Wanna see more? I created a gallery of my favorite images of and from Curiosity from its first week on Mars.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

* See?

Related Posts:

Gallery – Curiosity’s triumphant first week on Mars
First color 360-degree panorama from Curiosity
Dare Mighty Things
Video of Curiosity saying bye bye to its heat shield

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures

Comments (39)

  1. Sam

    So we’ve… bruised Mars. Is it wise to do so to the God of War?

  2. Tara Li

    I find it neat how much science is being done by watching the effects of our probes from orbit. Though I do have to say that while I’m sure there’s science to be gotten from the image catching the probe while it was still descending – that was just bloody amazing!!!

  3. I love Curiosity, and — being from Tucson, AZ — HiRISE is very near and dear to my heart. So understand that when I say what I’m about to say, it is with the utmost respect to all the scientists and engineers that have made putting a one-ton, nuclear-powered superlab on the surface of another planet (not to mention PHOTOGRAPHING THAT ROVER FROM SPACE) possible.

    Because my first thought on seeing this photo actually wasn’t about Curiosity at all. It was:

    “That’s a TARDIS.”

  4. Andrew W

    So without that thin layer of rust mars would be grey?

    Where’d all the rust come from, is it what’s left over from all the Martian buildings rusting away? 😉

  5. Daniel J. Andrews

    Slight goosebumps here, chills even. I’m awed.

  6. Chris

    Looks like a bug

  7. Brian O.

    Just to the top-center-left in the image, what is that spider-webbing in the rock? Fault lines or something?

  8. Diederick

    A bug’s smear.

  9. tmac57

    Holy Thanksgiving Batman!!! Did Phil ever bury the lead here. Look at the enlarged version of the photo at about the one o’clock position from the rover site,and get out your giant carving knife!
    (And somebody alert Richard Hoagland)

  10. Len

    “Click to enaresenate” — **Totally** read that wrong the first time…

  11. mitch

    Can you elaborate on the deep blue color of the whole photo that was taken when you pan down. The lower 2/3rds is deep blue.

    What am I looking at there? It is very confusing to me.

  12. Ian

    I like how you can see the path it took on approach based on the marks on the ground.

  13. Peter

    Amazing. Simply amazing.

  14. timur

    Where is the sky crane?

  15. Andos

    Mitch @ 12:
    If you mean the very large picture, the blue part about half-way down is a bunch of large sand dunes. Around the edges of the dune field you can see the underlying rock poking through.

    From the HiRISE page: “The dark dune fields lying between the rover and Mount Sharp can be seen in the lower portion of the picture.”

  16. Chris

    What are the unusually long lines all over the surface of Mars and what causes them? Does anyone know?

  17. Larry

    Leave it to the humans to come to a new place and immediately start with the redecorating.

  18. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Curiosity’s bed rocks!

    @ 4:

    Where’d all the rust come from

    The reduction end of redox processes. On Mars, UV energy that reach the surface in the thinned atmosphere breaks down water and creates powerful oxidizers that attacks iron, a rock-loving metal and so ubiquitous on terrestrials.

    Ironically, Earth is the rusty planet, but the rust goes deeper.

    Life got started because the oxidation end made methane faster out of CO2 and H2O when catalysts and later cellular enzymes opened up the energy channel. Chemical evolution is the way nature found to attack more volatiles.

    But the redox chain ends with oxidizers attacking crust. Ironically the free oxygen in the atmosphere is claimed to stand for only 1-2 % of the reduction, sulfur still stands for ~ 25 % and ~ 75 % is iron which oxides then gets reworked in our much more geothermally active mantle.* Biological evolution is the way nature found to make more rust.

    * The big news from last week is that Valles Marineris could be a plate tectonic rift like Africa’s Rift Valley combined with a larger sideways plate movement. Geologists have found many pertinent characteristics, and you can match up fortuitous impactor scars over it that have divided and moved when the plates moves. (Here. And you can find some of it on youtube. You have to heart today’s scientists!)

    So maybe Earth has moved away from being marginal for plate tectonics, and Mars has moved into closer kinship with Earth. In any case, Mars could have had even more surface rust if not for some geothermal activity through the ages.

  19. RAF

    What a beautiful image…

    Ain’t science grand?

  20. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    @ 17:

    What are the unusually long lines all over the surface of Mars and what causes them?

    Which lines do you have in mind? Do you mean the wind blown dunes, they can be massive and/or long (see our own deserts, Mars, Venus or Titan)? Or do you mean small scale streaks, also mostly wind blown?

    Other lines are stress lines (faults) of all sorts.

  21. Taiga

    Hey Phil, have you seen this?

  22. Chris

    What are the unusually long lines all over the surface of Mars and what causes them?

    Those are runways for the alien spacecraft! Also some are from the dust devils.

  23. mitch


    Thank You!

  24. kat wagner

    I’m blown away by the cameras we have in space and on Mars. The detail in these photos is amazing to me, so here’s what I want. I want a digital camera with a sensor the size of a 35mm film frame that doesn’t cost as much as a car. You think we can figure that one out? How big are Curiosity’s cameras? And sensors.

  25. Randall

    What we will see in the next 20 years will dwarf centuries of past discoveries! Truly incredible…

  26. Adriaan

    A century ago it was thought that Mars had canals. Through telescopes people thought to see darker thin areas surrounded by lighter red areas. No-one ever knew what they where.
    With better telescopes -decades later- these lines/cannels/whatever were never seen, so it is kind of a mystery how the idea of cannals could arise, most common answer is flaws in lenses and atmospheric effects (earth atmosphere).
    I could live with that explanation.

    But when I hear that Mars’s surface is “made of” basalt, which is blueish, covered with redfish dust I do wonder: how different are these colors if they are not enhanced? ‘course if the difference is significant then could it be that this might give new ideas on the cannals?

    (no, I know there never were canals, but there just might have been a real reason why these “canals” were seen and even mapped. Just might.)
    So a serious answer from someone who knows (!) Would be appreciated.

  27. Nigel Depledge

    Kat Wagner (24) said:

    I want a digital camera with a sensor the size of a 35mm film frame that doesn’t cost as much as a car.

    We have these already.

    A top-of-the-line Canon dSLR (with a couple of decent lenses) costs just a bit less than a Bugatti Veyron.


  28. Nomadiq

    Is this panorama for real?:,16.48,70.0

    Its stunning, but places the sun at due north, very low on the horizon. Is Curiosity really that far south?

  29. In the massively huge version of the image towards the top from Curiosity’s position is a feature that looks like crazy paving. Can anyone tell me what that feature is called and how it forms?

  30. Conan

    @Chris: It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!

  31. Awe inspiring image. Love it. :-)

    @19. Torbjörn Larsson, OM punned : Curiosity’s bed rocks!

    Good one. (Raised beer salute) Cheers – good informative comment. :-)

    @17. Chris asked :

    What are the unusually long lines all over the surface of Mars and what causes them? Does anyone know?

    Back in Percieval Lowell’s day he would have said canals for sure! 😉

    (Lowell wiki-link in my name here.)

    Hoagland still might. :roll:

    But I’m going to agree with with what #21. Torbjörn Larsson, OM said for a serious answer there.

    @3. Robert Gonzalez :

    Because my first thought on seeing this photo actually wasn’t about Curiosity at all. It was: “That’s a TARDIS.”

    Definitely a resemblance. :-)

  32. Peter Rann

    Is that a hole in the planet to the right of curiosity?

  33. @29: The compass points on that panorama have to be incorrect since the dark dune fields with the mountain behind them are to the southeast.

    @30: The whole lighter-colored area to the northeast of Curiosity is what they’re referring to as the “high thermal inertia unit.” They’re not sure what it is other than that it doesn’t change temperature very easily, which means it’s got to be more rocky than dusty. It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s the first scientific stop for the rover.

  34. Kaleberg

    So where does that Mars – The Red Planet stuff come from? Is Mars really red? Is it the Martian atmosphere?

  35. Nigel Depledge

    @ Kaleberg (35) –
    If you look at Mars through a small telescope, it is very obviously an orangey-red colour. That’s how it gets its nickname.

    The dust on Mars is mostly iron oxide, which is orangey-red.

  36. Matt B.

    That whitish area 300 pixels south of Curiosity (measured on the embiggened image) will be interesting to check out. It resembles the lowlands to the upper right. (For once, no crater-dome effect!) There’s also a solitary pointy hill about 600 pixels due east of Curiosity that might be worth visiting.


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