The single greatest vacation picture ever taken

By Phil Plait | November 4, 2012 6:00 am

On Halloween 2012, when people were assembling their costumes and candy, the Mars Curiosity rover was assembling something truly spectacular: a jaw-dropping high-definition self-portrait that has to be seen to be believed:

[Click to enjohnny5enate. And yes, oh my yes, you want to.]

This incredible picture is a mosaic made up of 55 hi-res images taken by the MAHLI, the Mars Hand Lens Imager. That’s a camera designed to be able to take close-up shots of nearby rocks and other feature, but can also focus all the way out to infinity, allowing it to take pictures of distant geographical features as well.

Or, in this case, itself! Now get this: MAHLI is located at the end of the two-meter robotic arm. That was extended and then aimed back at the rover so it could take the pictures (think of every Facebook pic you’ve seen of party revelers holding a camera up and taking a snapshot of themselves). So why don’t you see the arm in these shots? It’s because it was edited out! The camera took several pictures which overlapped. So you’d get two shots of, say, the main body of the rover, each with the arm blocking a different part of the rover’s body. By combining the parts of each picture that don’t show the arm, you can edit it out of the final product. [UPDATE: What I said is technically possible, but not in fact what happened! Emily Lakdawalla has – haha – the scoop on this.]

In the end, you’re left with a pristine (if somewhat distorted) view of the rover as if you were standing there. And there’s so much more than just the rover! The rocks and sand covering the ground, the wheel tread prints in the surface, the small plain the rover sits on. And you can see the layered hills in the distance; those rise up to become the central peak of Gale Crater, Curiosity’s home… and also the rover’s eventual destination. Remember, it’s a rover. It roves.

Pictures like this also let engineers assess the rover’s status. They can look over the different parts and make sure everything’s OK, and also use it as a baseline in case something goes wrong later. It’s far more than just a pretty picture.

But oh my, it’s such a pretty picture!

You can get more info at Universe Today, and Emily Lakdawalla at The Planetary Society Blog points out some fun stuff to look for in the shot, too.

And, I suppose, the title of this post is somewhat misleading. It may look like Curiosity is sitting on a sandy beach somewhere, taking its own "Wish you were here!" picture. But in reality, it’s no vacation. Curiosity is there to work. And it has just two Earth years to unravel a few billion years of Martian history.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

Related Posts:

Pew! Pew! Take *that*, Mars!
Now you will feel the firepower of a fully armed and operational Mars rover
Wheels on Mars
One small tread for Curiosity, one giant leap for roverkind
Curiosity looks Sharp
Gallery – Curiosity’s triumphant first week on Mars

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures

Comments (49)

  1. Troy

    This picture is why I have more faith in engineers than politicians or gods any day. With engineers, you get tangible, verifiable, and, OMG, beautiful results.

  2. drewski

    Wish you were here.

  3. Number 5 is alive!!!

  4. Titan

    What an incredible picture!

  5. Other Paul

    Who’s the trombonist reflected in the top? And what’s he doing on Mars?

  6. Dave

    Note the paredolia in the lens of the camera(?) at the top.
    The conspiracy nuts will have a field day with this :-)

  7. Blakut

    Look at that rock right at the bottom of the picture! It has a very interesting shape when you zoom in. Also there are some specks of white stuff visible near the front wheel, wonder what they are.

  8. James Evans

    So why don’t you see the arm in these shots? It’s because it was edited out!

    Yeah, sure, Phil. It’s really because Curiosity asked one of those Martian Bigfoot guys to hold the camera. Everyone does that on vacation, and you can see his footprints to the left of the rover.

    I’m still bummed out that SAM found no methane. Right about now, Zahnle at Ames is probably feeling vindicated, however…


    Do you really have to move away from Discover magazine? It’s so cool!

  10. Wzrd1

    @Dave, that’s no pareidolia, that’s Marvin the Martian!
    Or components of the camera. Depending on which view of reality you prefer, sober reality or silliness. 😉
    Though the imagery of the ground makes me wish I was there with a microscope to examine some of the samples there. The rock near the wheel of the rover looks almost like a desert rose being formed. Almost.

  11. Nah: typical amateur shot, oblique horizon 😉

  12. JES

    Love this. I noticed, btw the way, that the shadows seem to indicate that the 55 shots were taken over the course of a Martian half-day. Shadows of the rocks and other objects at the top left are cast down and to the right, while those of objects at the bottom right are cast up and to the left. The eerie effect is as if the sun were directly overhead, and close enough to be casting shadows at angles at all.

    [Update (thanks to the BA delayed-posting feature): On closer inspection, it appears that only the largish rock in the foreground and the treadmarks at bottom right cast their shadows upwards. Interesting, too, that the nearest wheel doesn’t seem to have any shadow.]

    Anyone know about how long the exposures were? Are we talking seconds or more?

  13. I can see it now: “See?? It’s all a hoax! They’re on a film lot in Arizona! There’s no one up there to take a picture of the rover like that!!!!1111”

    Seriously, that is ridiculously cool!
    So many questions come up. Does anyone know what that beige hexagon is? Is it some kind of dust-catching thingy?

  14. Asimov

    Wow, you can even see the footsteps of a martian in the left of the picture!

  15. Fizz

    That is just astonishing. Another world… as though i’m standing right there. The boys at JPL do amazing things.
    Are there any links to the original individual images from which it was stitched?

  16. Darren

    This made me realize just how amazing an age we’re living in!

  17. Zyggy

    I think my favorite part is the ‘joystick” on the upper left of the rover.

    It looks as though a martian could walk (slither, perambulate) up to the rover and start driving it away or guiding it home to begin its own science laboratory. Assuming, of course, it’s tall enough to reach.

    Perhaps it was used to drive the rover into place here on Earth before it left?

  18. Keith Bowden

    Simply beautiful.

  19. Keith Bowden

    That red dust gets everywhere, fast, doesn’t it? 😉

  20. Peter Davey

    With regard to Curiousity taking a couple of years to anaylse billions of years of Martian history, time spent on vacation traditionally seems to go more quickly than “ordinary time”.

    Now that I think of it, I wonder if this means that Curiousity will start turning up at the homes of NASA personnel and start forcing them to spend hour upon hour watching as it goes through all of its footage, with additional mind-numbing commentatory?

  21. Andrei

    @19 Zyggy – that’s no joystick. That’s the “sun dial” with to color calibration targets and sky mirrors on it. Starting from Mars Pathfinder, every rover sent on mars had such a sun dial. I don’t remenber exactly, but I believe also Phoenix Lander had one.
    Regarding the pareidolia – I can see Barry White in the lens…. But of course, this will be the “smoking gun” for all those “Nasa Hoax” belivers….

  22. Chris Winter

    I’d differ with Phil’s opinion if considering this as just a picture qua picture. On those terms, I’d say the doctored image of Buzz Aldrin on the moon with “Tourist Guy” reflected in his visor would top it.

    However, as a real picture with genuine significance, this image of Curiosity rulez.

  23. Sean

    Geordi La Forge – pareidolia for me. Amazing image.

  24. Scottynuke

    I just want to know where Curiosity found a bathroom mirror to take that shot. :-)

  25. Thomas Siefert

    The rover kinda looks like the bits that become visible on the inside wing of an airplane, just before landing, when the flaps are extended.
    I always have mixed feelings when I see that. Joy, to live in time where all these different technologies come together to create machines that are more than the sum of their parts. Slight fear, over how complicated and delicate it looks.

  26. John P. Davis

    Really super incredible! NASA and JPL have done so much to extend our technological reach beyond Earth – really in a very short time period. Congratulations, JPL (and NASA) . . . and thank you for what you’ve shown us so far. Here’s to continued funding and more incredible accomplishments in the future.

  27. mikel

    More pareidolia; there’s a caterpillar on the upper left part of the rock on the bottom of the picture.

  28. Dave

    Facinating to look in at various beautifully engineered and machined parts. Why is it so hard to find such quality photos of the rover taken on earth? There must be many photos that were taken during the rover’s assembly. I’d like to know more about all the fasteners, connectors, cables, motors, and unidentified small parts and features.

  29. Wzrd1

    @Dave, I’d love to see the bearing seals. Dust is murder on bearings and can easily kill a motor assembly if it gets into the bearings.

  30. Snappy

    Best pic? No! Now had it parked it’s happy as next to a ” Welcome to Mars” sign, then you have the best pic.

  31. Cmdr. Awesome

    Right now, I’m imagining some engineer in the JPL reading your post and going:

  32. Imre Tuske

    Would be much funnier if its arm weren’t edited out — GPOYW-style! :)

  33. Kate

    Wow. Just, freaking, wow.

  34. Alan D

    They should have left the arm in the picture. Now the conspiracy folks will say its lack is evidence this photo was taken in a studio here on Earth. And then there are the inconsistent shadows…

    Seriously, what a marvelous photograph of an incredible explorer!

    Clear skies, Alan

  35. Bill C

    For this (and lots! of other) cool Mars images, check out the iPhone and iPad app “MSL Curiosity” .

    Shameless promotion… Yeah, I wrote it.

  36. BrainFog

    What’s the fog in the distance? Is it a dust cloud? An optical illusion?

  37. CatMom

    All this needs is a beach umbrella and mai-tai. Ahh…vacation on Mars!

  38. Reemus22

    @ Joseph G The beige hexagon is the high gain antenna.

  39. Messier Tidy Upper

    Arguably so. Superluminous image alright. 😀

    But then its not a vacation picture its a work one – this is Curiosity‘s office! 😉

    @38. BrainFog asks : “What’s the fog in the distance? Is it a dust cloud? An optical illusion?”

    Its the attacking Martians of course, a la War of the Worlds! 😉

  40. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ For clarity, that’s : Arguably The single greatest vacation picture ever taken natch.

    There are other contenders I’d suggest such as the Apollo astronauts photos – or if we disqualify them as “working holidays” rather than vacations then the first space tourists snaps could count as well! 😉

  41. flip

    When you compare the quality of the photo from this rover to the quality of the ones from Apollo… wow, just wow. The things we humans can do if we aim to improve every step of the way.

    An infinity photo on another planet by a robot we shot using huge amounts of force… And manages to get it so clear you can see perfect reflections in the lenses on the rover itself. Mind blowing.

    NASA employees and various affiliated companies/staff deserve so much praise – and maybe a raise!

  42. @40 Reemus22: @ Joseph G The beige hexagon is the high gain antenna.

    Thanks! I was wondering about that.

  43. Melusine

    These photos are incredible! The technology involved is, in simple terms, like having this big remote-control toy on Mars of a huge magnitude. Though it’s there for work, it also seems like a lot of fun. It still boggles my mind thinking of an early 70s book report I did about Mars that we would eventually have these machines ON there taking photos of themselves! The Martian Chronicles is still a dream…

    I’m wondering about this 2 years expectation since the other rovers went well beyond their “life” expectation dates. Is it possible Curiosity could last longer like Spirit and Opportunity? Why is it being allowed or prognosticated for 2 years?

  44. Bob F

    Why is this under the title “Bad Astronomy”? What’s bad about this picture? Sorry, I just don’t see anything perverted, mocking, cruel, inaccurate, incorrect in this photo.

  45. Curtis H

    Speaking of shadows. You can see the shadow of the camera.. Its just to the left of the closest wheel.

  46. Dave in Calif.

    HEY! Over by the wash, something moved, I swear it!


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