Mars Curiosity rover snaps stargazing shot of Earth, Venus
By RICHARD TRIBOU | Orlando Sentinel | Published: June 16, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — If you feel like the planet is being watched, you’re not wrong.
NASA had its only active Mars rover Curiosity stop and spend some time stargazing recently, and it took in a couple of nearby planets: Earth and Venus.
NASA released a composite image of the view showing the third and second planets from the sun seen from the robotic spy from the fourth.
The images were taken on the rover’s Mast Camera on June 5, the 2,784th Martian sol of the mission. A sol is slightly longer than an Earth day.
Taken at twilight, the distant planets are actually somewhat dim, which NASA said was due to dust in the air.
The brief photo session was partly to gauge the twilight brightness: During this time of year on Mars, there’s more dust in the air to reflect sunlight, making it particularly bright, said Mastcam co-investigator Mark Lemmon of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
“Even moderately bright stars were not visible when this image of Venus was taken,” said Mastcam co-investigator Mark Lemmon of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado in a NASA press release. “Earth also has bright twilights after some large volcanic eruptions.”
Curiosity is NASA’s fourth rover to make it to Mars. Its fifth rover Perseverance, which includes the Mars drone-like helicopter Ingenuity, is currently at Kennedy Space Center set for a launch later this summer.
The largest rover ever to head to the Red Planet will aim to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop an Atlas V rocket when the window opens July 17, a window that stretches to Aug. 5, and is the best time for the most economical flight. Arrival on Mars is slated for Feb. 18, 2021.
NASA’s first rover was Sojourner, part of the Pathfinder mission, in 1997, followed by the rovers Spirit and Opportunity that arrived in 2004 and the most recent, Curiosity, which arrived in 2012. Only Curiosity remains active as NASA lost contact with Opportunity during a massive dust storm on the planet in 2018. Spirit stopped sending information in 2009.
The Perseverance rover comes in at just under 2,300 pounds. It’s headed to Mars’ Jezero Crater, with the help of an aeroshell, parachute, descent vehicle and skycrane structure. Its mission is to measure climate and geology, search for signs of past life and collect samples that will someday make their way back to Earth.
Unlike previous rovers, Perseverance will be counted on to make decisions by itself as to where to drive. To accomplish that, the rover has higher-resolution navigation cameras and an extra computer on board to process images so it can map its way around hazards.
Its wheels are also more durable that the previous rovers.
The mission aims to average 650 feet per Martian day, which is a little longer than an Earth day. That average is close to the record daily distance of 702 feet set by Opportunity. The planned mission length is at least one Mars year, or 687 Earth days.
Perseverance will be outfitted with the most data-gathering capabilities ever, with 23 cameras of various types that will be bigger and better than NASA’s previous four rovers. Sojourner had three while Spirit and Opportunity had 10 and Curiosity has 17.
As evidenced by Curiosity’s latest images, previous mission photos have been presented in disjointed panoramics as the images had to be stitched together. Perseverance’s cameras will have a wider field of vision and be in color. Also, the rover won’t have to stop and take photos as corrective motion blur technology will allow imagery to be taken while on the move. Data will also be relayed to two existing Mars orbiting satellites so data can be transmitted quicker back to Earth.
Mars helicopter Ingenuity will become the first vehicle to take flight on another planet.
The 4-pound craft is slated for five flights over 30 days, aiming to hover 10 feet above ground at first, but then travel longer distances. It’s a side project that won’t interfere with the primary mission of Perseverance, but if successful will add to NASA’s road map for future exploration of Mars.
The mission is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory out of California.