Tag: Mars

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

Get your badastro to Mars!

By Phil Plait | August 11, 2012 7:00 am

My pal Annalee Newitz over at io9 asked me to come on her show "We Come From the Future" and talk about how Mars is treated in movies. The program aired on Friday, and is up on YouTube:

That was a lot of fun! I tried to think of a movie where Mars is actually depicted correctly as it is now: low gravity, cold, almost no air. I couldn’t think of a single movie where that happens. I went on Twitter and asked the folks who follow me what they thought, and got lots of suggestions. Unfortunately, no movie suggested that I had seen was entirely accurate.

"Mission to Mars" was close, but they had a dust devil pick up astronauts and even tear one in half. Granted, it’s implied that was an outcome of alien tech, but dust devils on Mars simply aren’t that strong. Also, that movie got so much science wrong I don’t really feel like cutting it much slack.

Most other movies forgo showing Mars’s 0.38 Earth gravity due to the difficulty in portraying it well. Some, like "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" – which I loved as a kid – gives Mars enough air to breathe if you take oxygen supplements. I’ll note that I also just saw "John Carter" and actually quite liked it. I knew it was epic, sweeping fantasy going in, so I was able to not worry too much about the scientific booboos.

Doctor Who has had several episodes take place on Mars including the recent "Waters of Mars". That too was close – the Doctor was in a spacesuit – but gravity was clearly Earth-normal. Sigh.

A lot of people suggested "Watchmen", but only a few minutes were on Mars, and the gravity was unclear. Also, I suspect that Dr. Manhattan could’ve manipulated the gravity, so it doesn’t really count.

At the end of the show, Annalee challenged HBO to make a good Mars series. The obvious place to start is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy. And unlike Game of Thrones, they wouldn’t have to wait for more books to be written!

Post Script: I’ve reviewed the science in lots of movies, including a few dealing with Mars. Here are my reviews of Red Planet and Mission to Mars.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Debunking, Geekery, SciFi, TV/Movies

An unreal Mars skyline

By Phil Plait | August 10, 2012 9:59 am

Well folks, it’s been a while, so it’s time for a good ol’ fashioned BA debunking.

This morning I got an email from BABloggee Joshua Frost as well as a note on Twitter from scifi author Diane Duane telling me about a picture making the rounds on teh interwebz, purporting to be taken from Mars. It shows the Martian landscape at twilight, and claims that the three lights in the sky are Earth, Venus, and Jupiter:

Pretty, isn’t it? You can find endless copies of it online; just search on the term "mars skyline". It’s been picked up on tons of Tumblrs and other social media.

But yeah, there’s just one problem: it’s not real.

I knew right away it wasn’t legit, but it’s hard to say exactly how. I’ve run into this problem before; I have a lot of experience looking at space images, and you just get a sense of what’s real and what isn’t. This one screams fake. The landscape color is a bit too saturated for Mars*. The sky’s the wrong color. The clouds are too numerous, the wrong color as well, and they have that "rendered by software" look to them.

But that’s not proof, of course. Gut sense may not be a bad place to start, but it makes for lousy evidence. The thing is, there is solid evidence the picture isn’t real! Look to the lower left corner of the image; see the letters there? Here’s a zoom:

See? The arrow points to the letters, and I zoomed in and enhanced the brightness and contrast a bit. The letters are "NE". As in, "northeast".

This is exactly what you see when you use planetarium software on a computer to display the sky. Programs like Starry Night, SkySafari, and so on will put the cardinal directions (north, south, and so on) along the horizon to indicate what direction you’re looking. And many of them will display the appearance of the sky from other planets. It’s clear that’s what we have here: a rendered view from Mars using planetarium software. I’m not sure which one (there are quite a few packages available) but I bet someone out there in BAland would recognize it. Any takers?

Interestingly, fiddling with some of software I have that displays solar system planetary positions, I found that a couple of years ago (mid-2010) the view from Mars right after sunset would show Venus, Earth, and Jupiter lined up something like that. Had you been on Mars looking west you would’ve seen something very much like the vista in the picture. Thing is, had one of the rovers taken this picture, it would’ve been all over the web at the time… including here on Bad Astronomy. I wouldn’t have passed up the chance to post a picture that cool. [Note: there is a real picture of the Earth seen by a Mars rover: from Spirit, in 2004, inset above.]

Mind you, the picture itself isn’t a hoax! It’s just a computer generated image probably meant to represent a real scene. But it got spread around the net, and before you know it people think it’s real.

I’ll note that I love that people think images like this are so beautiful and interesting that they pass them around and get a sense of wonder from them. But it bugs me that it’s possible that an unreal picture gets treated as real. In this case there’s no harm done, but it’s not hard to imagine a case where a forged image showing something damaging to someone’s reputation gets treated as real and spreads like wildfire. It’s happened before, many times.

The problem here is that people pass it from one place to another without attribution, without a link to the original source (usually it’s linked to the place they got it from, one link down the line in a very long chain). In this case, I searched for a while and still have no idea where the original for this came from. It got picked up wholesale from blog to blog and Tumblr to Tumblr so rapidly that the pedigree of it got lost. Maybe someone more patient than me can find the source.

I’ve been fooled on Twitter by fake posts before, too. Everyone has at some point. I’m just glad to be able to interject a little dose of reality in this case.

And remember: we have actual, real, amazing, breath-taking images coming from Mars right now. And the fact that they are real, and mean we have a presence on another world, is far more moving and stirring than any fake could ever be.


* I’ll note that the color of the landscape in the picture does look similar to that from the old Viking images of Mars from the 1970s. The color of those images was probably too saturated when displayed, in my opinion; getting the color right in those old shots was actually fairly tough.


Related Posts:

- An unreal picture of sunset at the north pole
- A fake and a real view of the solar eclipse… FROM SPACE!
- NASA FAKED A SHUTTLE IMAGE!!!!! (a joke post I put up that some folks took seriously; see the followup post for more silliness)
- Holy UFO hoax!
- Latvian meteorite impact: fake

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Debunking, Pretty pictures, Skepticism

First color 360-degree panorama from Curiosity

By Phil Plait | August 9, 2012 1:05 pm

The engineers and scientists at JPL released the first color panorama of Mars taken by Curiosity today! Here it is:

This view is made up of hundreds of small (144 x 144 pixel) thumbnails, so it’s not as high res as the images we’ll see soon, but it’s still very cool. I had to shrink it massively to fit the blog, so click it to see the full-blown 3600 x 750 pixel picture.

You can see parts of the rover around the bottom (remember that this is a bit oddly formatted since it’s showing the entire 360° view unwrapped into a rectangular frame), including a wheel at the right. In the middle bottom is the shadow of the mast where the NAVCAMs are (the cameras that took this panorama); that was raised yesterday and appears to be working great. You may be able to see that the surface of the planet is a bit brighter around the mast shadow; that’s an optical effect called heiligenschein – literally, "halo" or "holy shine" – and is common when you look at rough, sandy surfaces. Basically, the sand and dust preferentially reflect sunlight back in the direction it came, so the surface looks brighter around the shadow of your head (or in this case, the mast). Also, due to the viewing angle, you don’t see shadows around rocks and such on the surface in that direction, so it makes the ground appear brighter.

One thing I want to show in detail though is the patch of Martian surface to the upper right:

This is pretty interesting! The ground may have been disturbed by the rocket exhaust from the skycrane as it hovered over the surface and lowered the rover to the ground. What’s revealed here is pure Mars, though! The red color of the planet comes from iron oxide – rust! – in the form of very fine grain dust, like talcum powder. The rocks tend to be basaltic, a grayer color, but they can appear red if they are coated in a layer of the finer dust. If the dust gets blown off, you can see the blue-gray basalt underneath. That happens when dust devils whirl across the landscape, for example, leaving gray curlicues on the reddish-ochre fields.

Under these rocks and dust appears to be bedrock, the floor of Gale crater. Some long-ago impact carved out this 150-km-wide pit, overturning gigatons of rock and basically laying out a geographic history of Mars. That’s one big reason this site was chosen; we get all that for free just for going there. And there appears to be lots of evidence of water flow here eons ago; the way the rocks are distributed indicates flowing liquid, for example.

Mind you, as amazing as this image is, it’s still low res! We’ll be getting more and better pictures as time goes on. And never forget: this was sent by a one-ton nuclear-powered (soon to be) roving laser-eyed chemistry lab set down on another world 250 million kilometers (150 million miles) away!

Oh, the things we do.


Related Posts:

- 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!
- Mars orbiter catches pic of Curiosity on its way down!
- Humans send their Curiosity to Mars!

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

Video of Curiosity saying bye bye to its heat shield

By Phil Plait | August 8, 2012 1:41 pm

As the rover Curiosity descended to the surface of Mars, the heat shield that protected it from the heat of atmospheric entry was ejected while still high above the rusty plains. Cameras pointed downward captured images of the heat shield as it fell away, and folks at JPL put together this short video of it:

How cool is that? Mind you, that’s flippin’ Mars in the background! And we also have a shot of the heat shield lying on the ground a few hundred meters away from the rover’s landing spot, too.

I’ll have more stuff from the rover soon, too. It’s getting hard to keep up with all the news coming from Mars!


Related Posts:

- Curiosity landing site: the whole mess
- VIDEO of Curiosity’s descent… from the rover cam itself!
- Curiosity update: Heat shield spotted!
- Mars orbiter catches pic of Curiosity on its way down!
- Humans send their Curiosity to Mars!

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

Landing on Mars: Seven minutes of terror

By Phil Plait | June 26, 2012 7:00 am

This. Is. AWESOME! How the bat-guano crazy engineers at NASA and JPL are going to land the Curiosity rover onto the surface of Mars:

Holy crap. NASA, throw lots more money at the production company that made this video! You want to excite the public? They did it right.

Now think about this: the rover weighs — get this — 890 kilograms, nearly a ton. The Mars air is thick enough that engineers have to deal with it, but too thin to bring Curiosity all the way to the surface safely. So they need a heat shield to slow it initially, a parachute to brake even more, and then rocket motors to drop it the rest of the way.

Craziness. But no worse, I suppose, than using a bouncy ball made of airbags to protect it, like Spirit and Opportunity used (Curiosity is way too heavy to use that method of landing). It’s funny– landing on Mars is harder than getting stuff back to Earth from space, or landing on the Moon. Our air is thick enough to make it relatively simple to slow something down enough for a comfortable landing, and since the Moon has no air, you just use rockets the whole way.

But you know what? I think they’ll do it, and this’ll work. Why? Because they’ve landed probes on Mars before. Many times. We hear a lot of about failed attempts to get to Mars, but in fact JPL and NASA have done an amazing job of getting ever-increasingly sophisticated probes down to the surface of the Red Planet. Heck, Spirit and Opportunity were only supposed to work for a nominal period of 90 days, but Spirit kept going for over six years, and Opportunity is still going strong after more than eight years!

Curiosity is due to land on August 6, 2012, at 05:31 UTC. That’s before midnight in Boulder, so I plan on staying up and watching. I missed most of the fun stuff for the SpaceX mission to the space station because it all happened in the middle of the night, so it’ll be great to finally watch another space event live. This will be very exciting, and I’ll post more info here as I hear it.


Related Posts:

- Curiosity on its way to Mars!
- NASA lets go of Spirit
- Mars Science Lab gets a name
- Sunset on Mars

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

The art of exploring Mars

By Phil Plait | May 30, 2012 11:24 am

My friend Dan Durda — astronomer, asteroid researcher, and artist — drew a pretty cool digital painting of what it will look like, sometime hence, when humans explore the rugged landscape of Mars for themselves:

Cool, huh? It’s based on pictures he took in Death Valley, which has a lot of similarities to the Red Planet.

I love Dan’s stuff (more of his work is featured in the links listed in Related Posts, below). He’s put this in his "3D Impact" store where you can get this as a poster, on a coffee mug, or even a laptop cover.

I’ll be seeing Dan this weekend at SpaceFest IV, a fun meeting for space enthusiasts being held in Tucson. There’ll be astronauts, astronomers, and artists there, and I hope a few of you as well!


Related Posts:

- Your chance to lick Pluto
- All these worlds are yours…
- New study: 1/3 of Sun-like stars might have terrestrial planets in their habitable zones
- The Beauty of Space

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Geekery, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: Dan Durda, Mars

Mars craters are sublime

By Phil Plait | May 24, 2012 7:00 am

Someday, Mars will stop surprising me.

Today is not that day.

The image below was taken by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been taking devastatingly high-res pictures of the Red Planet for many years. While passing over the edge of the Tharsis Shield — a huge uplifted region of Mars home to its four gigantic volcanoes –it saw this bizarre fieldof craters:

[Click to hephaestenate.]

First, you may think these are mounds and not craters, but that’s an illusion. Our brain uses illumination to gauge up and down in pictures like these, and assumes the sunlight is coming from above. However, these really are craters, but the illumination is coming from below — north is roughly toward the top of the picture and the crater field is at a northern latitude of about 50°. Flip the picture over if it helps (I’ll be honest, even doing that makes it hard for me to see these as other than mounds; confounded brain!). You can see more examples of this illusion here, here, and here.

But that’s not the weirdest thing about these craters. What’s really odd is they aren’t circular! Impacts are generally round unless 1) the impact is at a very shallow angle, b) the terrain suddenly goes from one kind of material to another, creating a discontinuity, or γ) something happened after the crater was formed to distort it.

A shallow-angle impact is almost certainly not the case here, since there are so many craters spread out over the region that an incoming object would’ve had to break up into a gazillion pieces, all of which came in at that angle. Not impossible, but it seems unlikely.

The changing terrain idea doesn’t work, since again the craters are spread out over the area. You might see one crater with a sudden break in its rim or change in shape, but dozens? Spread out in all directions? Nope.

That leaves after effects, and in this case we have two more clues. Read More

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