Curiosity Mars rover: ‘Look ma, no hands!’

By Tom Yulsman | March 7, 2016 10:35 am
Curiosity self portrait

Self portrait: Curiosity Mars rover. (Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

The Curiosity Mars rover took this selfie — actually, 57 of them stitched into one mosaic — as it was exploring a feature on the Red Planet known as the “Namib Dune.”

The rover used its Mars Hand Lens Imager, or MAHLI, instrument at the end of its robotic arm to snap the images on Jan. 19, 2016, during the 1,228th Martian day, or sol, of its work on Mars. (A Mars solar day has a mean period of 24 hours 39 minutes 35.244 seconds.)

This is the sixth such self portrait for Curiosity. But as luck would have it, I had never seen one of these before. So for me, this was a totally fresh perspective.

My second reaction (after, “A rippled dune on Mars! I want to go!) was puzzlement: How did the rover produce a stand-off selfie like this without its robotic arm getting into the image? Curiosity certainly did not set up a camera on a tripod, hit the self-timer button, and then back up for the portrait.

I’ll get to the answer in a minute. But first, take a close look at this beautiful image. Make sure to click on it, and then click on it again to enlarge it. Check out the stunning details, including some damage to one of the rover’s wheels — which for scale are 20 inches in diameter and about 16 inches  wide. (The wheels actually have developed punctures, tears and other signs of damage, but Curiosity manages to soldier on…)

And have a look around the dune, and the surrounding landscape. Nope, this isn’t Wadi Rum in Jordan. This is the real deal, and for me the image made me feel as if I was almost at the edge of that dune and scuffing my boots in the dark sand.

That’s precisely what Curiosity did — with its wheels, not a boot, of course. (See the wheel marks?) It also sampled the sand and performed a variety of lab analyses on it.

Curiosity captured this photograph of Martian sand with its MAHLI imager

Martian sand — close enough to run your fingers through it… (Source: NASA / JPL / MSSS)

The image above is the highest-resolution photo that MAHLI has taken since Curiosity landed on Mars on Aug. 5, 2012 PDT. It was acquired on Feb. 2, 2016 (sol 1241) with the imager’s window just 24.8 millimeters away. That’s a little shy of an inch. Protective prongs on the imager were even closer — just 5.8 millimeters away from the sand, or a little less than a quarter of an inch.

Think about that for a minute. Engineers on Earth were able to delicately ease a camera at the end of a spacecraft’s robotic arm to within a quarter inch of the surface of a planet millions of miles away. Outstanding!

While we’re on the subject of ‘Outstanding!’, you should also check out this incredible 360-degree view acquired by Curiosity at the Namib Dune. Use the arrows in the top left, or click and drag your cursor or mouse, to move the view up/down and right/left.

The Namib Dune is part of the dark “Bagnold Dunes” field along the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. Dunes here move as much as about 3 feet per Earth year.

The Curiosity rover's six selfies. (Source: NASA / JPL / MSSS / Thomas Appéré)

The Curiosity rover’s six selfies. (Source: NASA / JPL / MSSS / Thomas Appéré)

So, back to the selfies… How does Curiosity do it? How does it produce a selfie from multiple images without its robotic arm sticking out in front of it? Here’s how NASA explains it:

Wrist motions and turret rotations on the arm allowed MAHLI to acquire the mosaic’s component images. The arm was positioned out of the shot in the images, or portions of images, that were used in this mosaic.

And here’s a video showing how it’s done:

For a detailed explanation of Curiosity’s sampling activities at Namib Dune, including the feat of jockeying the MAHLI instrument so close to the Martian surface, I highly recommend that you check out this post by Emily Lakdawalla at her Planetary Society blog.

  • nik

    In the picture of;
    Self portrait: Curiosity Mars rover. (Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

    • OWilson

      I looked but couldn’t see it.

      Then again you can probably find a couple of Presidential faces in any bag of potato chips :)

      Anyway, one of anything can be misleading, like the Loch Ness monster you need a population to infer it’s living reality.

      But, thanks to you, I got interested and was able to explore the site (with Chrome) at the truly incredible resolution.

      Cameras have come a long way since 1969.

      • nik

        If you go to full screen, then 250% on Chrome, move the view to the far right of the screen, then scroll down until the horizon is roughly level with the top of the screen, then the rock should be close to the bottom of the screen close to the right edge. If you then move the view to the left a little, there’s another similar rock. The top is black/brown but the lower side is yellow. The circles are in the yellow part.
        Its not like seeing faces, or aliens, its just circles.

        • OWilson


          I was joking about about the “faces”, but you mentioned fossil shells.

          If they were to be there, they would be abundant, like here on earth.

          • nik

            Not necessarily, if you ‘youtube’ “Electric Universe,” and see what may have happened to Mars.
            Also given the known frequent dust storms on Mars, again small pieces may be exposed and then re-covered. Any large shell deposits would be covered by dust, and sand, if they were on the surface, which is unlikely.
            What the two rocks I could see were like, was a piece of rock that had been sandblasted so the shell shapes were standing out. They look like the small tires on a DinKy toy, but yellow like the rock.

          • OWilson

            Got it!

            You have a keen eye.

          • nik

            I notice anomalies and defects.

            What do they look like to you?

          • OWilson

            I’ll pass :)

            To me, just curious “objects for further study”.

          • nik

            It makes me wish I could pick it, and other similar rocks, up and look at them more closely.
            The NASA geologists must be even more frustrated.

          • OWilson

            Then you must really appreciate Mother Earth.

            Imagine an alien robot lander photographing a sky full of storks, a herd of giraffes or elephants, maybe with a pair mating, a colony of penguins. And clouds in the sky of different colors.

            If clouds only appeared once a century, the entire world would be outside, marveling at them.

            My son and I can spend a whole day out on the Canadian Shield, just looking at rocks, formations, plants and stuff. Heaven.

          • nik

            I was born in the country, and after getting trapped in London for thirty years, I now live in the country again, in France.
            I could probably benefit from some hiking, to get rid of some of my excess fat, that’s gradually snuck up onto me.
            Ex boy scout, did my share of hike camps in my youth.
            Your environment seems like heaven on Earth, as you say.
            Winters are a bit bitter tho’ I believe.

          • OWilson

            Here’s a quick video that captures a couple of our our camping, canoeing and fishing spots. And the geology.


            Not as civilized as your wine country, but you can pull up your small boat and camp anywhere you like.

          • nik

            Thanks for the vid. Certainly plenty of wide open spaces.
            Actually, wine is of no interest to me, as at some point in my life I developed an allergy to it!
            However, grain products, are no problem, beer and whisky, so I’m not totally deprived.

          • OWilson

            I have a solution to Canadian winter.

            Dominican Republic!

          • nik

            Mine might become Oz!
            Depending on my son, and whether I live long enough to get there, in the time it may take him to get there.
            My suspicions are that the world is on the ‘preliminary run’ back into a new Ice age, so a warm dry climate would be a good place to be, as Europe and the other Northern hemisphere countries will get wetter, and colder, rather rapidly, over the next 20-50 years.
            Dominican Rep, might be a good place to become a permanent resident, i that situation.

  • Mike Richardson

    I certainly look forward to the day we have a human presence on Mars, but it’s amazing to see what we’ve been able to accomplish through our robotic surrogates like Curiosity. For now, it’s the next best thing to being there, and a great way to involve the mass of humanity in the exploration of a fascinating new world.



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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