Tag: Curiosity

Curiosity looks Sharp

By Phil Plait | August 28, 2012 6:30 am

The Curiosity rover is still going through its shake down phase, using new equipment and making sure all is well. A few days ago, engineers fired up its 100 mm camera – a telephoto that has a bit more zoom to it than the cameras from which we’ve been seeing pictures. They pointed it to the base of Mount Sharp, the big mountain in the center of its new home of Gale Crater. And what it saw is, simply, breath-taking:

Holy moley. That’s fantastic! [Click to barsoomenate.]

It looks a lot like rock formations I’ve seen in Arizona and Utah… but then, the geologic processes that formed this region are similar. At some point in the past it was flooded with water, and looking at the layering this happened many, many times. The sediments built up and then were worn away over the eons, forming this gorgeous striped sedimentary rock.

Inset here is part of the same scene with distances to various landmarks labeled [click to embiggen]. It looks like there’s the edge of a hill 230 meters away, and then it’s up, up, up, to a series of broad, eroded buttes 16 km away. That would be a fun day’s bike ride here on Earth, but it’s a long way for the rover.

But that is the destination. And it’s not so much the goal as the journey that’s important here. The geology of this region is pretty interesting, and should reveal a lot about the history of the area including how it interacted with water (and what kind of water it was; probably very salty).

You should also take a look at this stunning hi-res wide-angle mosaic of Mount Sharp, too. It’s so wide that if I shrink it to fit the blog it would just look silly. So go look.

These pictures are really exciting. The thing is, the first few times we sent landers to Mars they had to go to relatively boring places – not that any site on Mars is boring, but they had to be relatively flat and free of dangers to the terrestrial machines. Curiosity is the first rover we’ve sent to a place that has real honest-to-Ares geology. I mean, look at it! It’s like the Grand Canyon. But it’s on Mars.

The next couple of years are going to be very cool.


Related Posts:

- Curiosity rolls!
- Curiosity spins its wheels!
- Curiosity’s looking a little blue
- Gallery – Curiosity’s triumphant first week on Mars

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures

Two amazing Curiosity descent videos

By Phil Plait | August 23, 2012 9:52 am

In case you’re not getting enough Curiosity in your life, here are two videos, both showing the descent from the rover’s eye view. However, these are new and pretty different!

The first video shows the descent using the high-resolution images from the MARDI (Mars Descent Imager), which have been further cleaned up and sharpened. It’s truly magnificent! Make sure you set the video to hi-res and make it full screen:

The second video is really clever: it keeps the heat shield centered in the screen, so you can follow the entire fall of the shield down to its impact on the surface of Mars.

I’ve been a scientist a long time, and I’ve worked on astronomical and space imagery since I was in high school. I’ve used film I loaded, developed, and printed myself; I’ve used giant glass plates sprayed with film emulsion and hand-guided a telescope for hours; I’ve used a digital detector that was less than a megapixel and felt like it was the greatest invention ever; and I’ve had a hand in building a camera with three digital detectors that went on board Hubble. So I’ve watched as – and participated in – this revolution in astronomical imagery as it’s unfolded.

And I strongly suspect the single greatest thing about it is the power of pictures it puts into people’s hands. We have images taken by far-flung spacecraft beamed back to Earth at the speed of light, and then sent around the world in minutes by space agencies. From there space enthusiasts and professional filmmakers alike can take that vast archive of data and play with it, show different things, bring out details we at first hadn’t seen.

And we are seeing the results now, as we literally follow the rover down to Mars in high-def, or watch as an ejected piece of hardware plummets to the surface of an alien world.

I’ve said before, and it’ll always be true: The future! We are in you!


Related Posts:

- Curiosity rolls!
- Curiosity spins its wheels
- Gallery – Curiosity’s triumphant first week on Mars
- Watch as Curiosity touches down gently *and* its heat shield slams into Mars

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures, Space
MORE ABOUT: Curiosity, heat shield, Mars

Curiosity rolls!

By Phil Plait | August 22, 2012 11:27 am

Just a few minutes ago, engineers at JPL here on Earth commanded the Mars Curiosity rovers to make its first test drive! The rover rolled a few meters, stopped and took a picture of its progress:

[Click to enaresenate.]

Wow! This image was taken by the left NAVCAM (NAVigation CAMera) on Curiosity at 15:00:53 UTC (there’s a matching one by the right NAVCAM, too, and there’s already an anaglyph that’s been made). You can easily see where the wheels have disturbed the Martian surface, and where the rover made a bit of a turn as well.

I’m also fond of this picture, taken just a few minutes later at 15:03:56 UTC, also by the left NAVCAM:

Seeing the rover in the picture itself, ironically, brings home the idea that this machine is far, far away from home.

Actually, wait, scratch that. Curiosity was built to work on Mars.

It is home.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


Related Posts:

- Curiosity spins its wheels
- Now you will feel the firepower of a fully armed and operational Mars rover
- Watch as Curiosity touches down gently *and* its heat shield slams into Mars
- Curiosity’s looking a little blue

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures, Top Post
MORE ABOUT: Curiosity, Mars, rover, tracks

Curiosity spins its wheels!

By Phil Plait | August 21, 2012 2:48 pm

As a prelude to actually hitting the road, engineers at JPL commanded the Mars Curiosity rover to move its wheels, testing to make sure everything worked.

Everything worked! Here’s a fun little animated GIF showing the rear right wheel wiggling:

Sweeeeet. Countdown to someone adding a dubstep audio track in 3… 2… 1…

Note the sundial at the top right; you can see the shadow of the rover moving as time elapses. If you watch the ground you can see the perspective of the camera changing a bit as the rover rocks, too; the wheel movement is causing the rover to move slightly with each frame of the sequence.

In more good news, yesterday the engineers extended the 2-meter long boom arm. The arm has a set of tools at the end, including a camera, a scoop, a drill, a sifter, and a spectrometer (to determine the composition of samples). So it looks like Curiosity is about ready to start poking around Mars!

Bon voyage, you laser-eyed nuclear-powered extraterrestrial explorer. Go do science!

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


Related Posts:

- Now you will feel the firepower of a fully armed and operational Mars rover
- Watch as Curiosity touches down gently *and* its heat shield slams into Mars
- Gallery – Curiosity’s triumphant first week on Mars
- Video of Curiosity saying bye bye to its heat shield

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures, Space
MORE ABOUT: Curiosity, Mars, rover

Now you will feel the firepower of a fully armed and operational Mars rover

By Phil Plait | August 19, 2012 3:18 pm

The Mars Curiosity rover unleashed its laser beam eye today, zapping a nearby rock dubbed "Coronation".

[The "Before" picture of the hapless rock. I await the "After" eagerly. Click to endeathstarenate, or grab a 10,000 x 2400 pixel image.]

[UPDATE: Here's the "After" picture!

The background image is from the Curiosity NAVCAM and shows the region around Greedo Coronation (you can see the rover's shadow on the left). The zoomed region in the circle shows the area of the rock targeted by the laser just before the laser hit it (you can see the edge of the rock on the right side of the zoom). The final zoom at the top shows the pit zapped into the rock by the laser pulse.]

This isn’t mad science! It’s cool science.

OK, well, hot science.

Here’s the deal: when atoms and molecules absorb energy, they can re-emit that energy as light. The nifty part is, each type of substance emits a different color of light, making it possible to identify them. This is called spectroscopy, and we use it in astronomy all the time. Many objects like gas clouds and stars emit light naturally. We just have to observe them and pick out the signatures of the different chemicals in them.

For a Martian rock, though, we need to dump some energy into it to excite those substances. And that’s why Curiosity has a laser on board. It can zap a rock with a short, intense pulse of laser light, and the rock will respond by glowing. A spectrometer – a camera that can separate light into individual colors – then observes the glow, and scientists back home can see what the rock’s made of. It’s like DNA-typing or fingerprinting the rock, but from 150 million kilometers away.

Reports are the laser worked perfectly, blasting away at the rock with 30 one-megaWatt pulses (lasting 5 nanoseconds each!) in a span of about 10 seconds. Scientists are poring over the results now, and hopefully we’ll hear more about this soon.

I just wish they had named the rock Alderaan.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS; NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP


Related Posts:

- Watch as Curiosity touches down gently *and* its heat shield slams into Mars
- Gallery – Curiosity’s triumphant first week on Mars
- Video of Curiosity saying bye bye to its heat shield
- Curiosity landing site: the whole mess

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Space

Watch as Curiosity touches down gently *and* its heat shield slams into Mars

By Phil Plait | August 18, 2012 6:30 am

Some amazing videos are still coming out from NASA about the Mars Curiosity rover’s descent to the planet’s surface. This one is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-but-still-totally-freaking-cool: the heat shield slamming into the surface of Mars and blurting out a cloud of dust:

Not only that, but the high-resolution pictures from the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI – a camera pointing down that took shots as the rover was lowered to the ground by the sky crane) have been sent back to Earth, and Spaceflight101 made this incredible video from them:

I love love LOVE the swirling dust set into motion at 00:41 by the sky crane’s rocket thrusters once it got close enough to the ground. And you can see when one of the rover’s wheels snaps down into place as well!

These videos are honestly astonishing to me. When I was a kid we had to wait forever to get (sometimes pretty cruddy) images from our space probes. Now we get flippin’ color video of hardware slamming down and/or settling gently onto another planet! The pace of technological advancement may be most popular when it comes to things like cell phones and computers, but as a scientist I can tell you that the impact on our ability to do research has been profound almost beyond comprehension. Digital cameras that can be lofted into space, or made to see great gaping sections of the sky, or into the ultraviolet and infrared, or with high enough resolution to see incredibly small features on other planets… or all of the above. This technology has, quite literally, opened up whole new worlds to us.

It’s a fantastic time to be alive. And to have Curiousity.

Tip o’ the lens cap to BABloggee Dave Jerrard for the tip about the MARDI video.


Related Posts:

- Gallery – Curiosity’s triumphant first week on Mars
- Video of Curiosity saying bye bye to its heat shield
- Curiosity landing site: the whole mess
- VIDEO of Curiosity’s descent… from the rover cam itself!
- Curiosity update: Heat shield spotted!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures, Space
MORE ABOUT: Curiosity, heat shield, Mars

KPCC interview about Curiosity

By Phil Plait | August 16, 2012 12:30 pm

Last week, I did a brief interview on KPCC radio about the landing of Curiosity on Mars, I’ve been remiss in linking to it, so here you go. Click the "Listen Now" button on the left, or you can download the MP3 and listen to it on your digital playing device thingy.

Greg Villar, systems engineer for Curiosity, was in the interview as well, and we talked Curiosity, as well as NASA, budget cuts, and what the rover will be doing on Mars. Give it a listen!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Space
MORE ABOUT: Curiosity, JPL, KPCC

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

No, that's not a picture of a double sunset on Mars

By Phil Plait | August 13, 2012 12:52 pm

So Curiosity’s been on the Martian surface for a week, and we’re already seeing faked images touted as being real. The other day it was a more-or-less honest mistake of people spreading around a computer-generated view from Mars – originally meant just to show what the skyline looked like from there – thinking it was real.

Now though, we have what’s clearly an actual fake. Here’s the shot, getting passed around on various Tumblrs:

Now, I’ll note it’s not crazy to think this shot might be real; the Sun is very bright and in many cameras you can get reflections inside the optics, causing this double-Sun effect. It happens all the time. So you wouldn’t really be seeing two suns setting – just one real one and one that’s an internal reflection.

But that’s not what’s going on here, as I knew right away. That’s because I’m familiar with this picture:

That shot is also of the sunset, but it really is from Mars! It was taken by the Spirit rover in May 2005, a spectacular shot of the Sun setting over the Martian landscape.

And that’s where you’ll find the proof of double-sunset-fakery. Compare the double-sunset picture with the real one from Spirit, and you’ll see the profile of the landscape on the horizon is exactly the same. Clearly, the double-sunset pic was faked, adding in the second Sun. In fact, you can see that both images of the "Sun" in the double sunset picture don’t match the real one. In other words, both images of the Sun were faked.

Also, I couldn’t help but think the faked Sun images looked kinda familiar to me as well. Recognize them? Perhaps the picture here will help place them. Clearly, the faker must have come from some wretched hive of scum and villainy.

It may be this picture was created as a joke and got out into the wild, or maybe it was done on purpose to fool people. As usual with things like this, tracing it back to the original is a bit tough (though the Martian skyline picture from earlier was able to be pedigreed). I’ve seen it on several sites now, and I’ve gotten email and tweets about it. It was easy to debunk, so why not?

I don’t know if this image will go viral like the previous unreal one did; this is so obviously hoaxed that it may not have the same sort of traction. Still, it sometimes helps to get ahead of the curve here, and dowse these things with reality before they spread out of hand.

So if you see someone posting that image, send ‘em here. That way, we will crush the hoaxers with one swift stroke.

Image Credits: Mars sunset: NASA/JPL/Texas A&M/Cornell; Tatooine: Uncle Owen’s Wedding Photography Service (now defunct).


Related Posts:

- An unreal Mars skyline
- Gallery: Curiosity’s triumphant first week on Mars
- Astronomers discover a wretched hive of scum and villainy
- Hoagland = lose

Gallery – Curiosity's triumphant first week on Mars

By Phil Plait | August 13, 2012 7:00 am
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