The Same Sky

Last Friday, about an hour and a half after sunset, a robot on Mars raised its head. Obeying commands sent earlier from unseen masters, it lifted its camera eyes from the desert floor, and instead stared off toward the west. There, a darkening sky spread out above a line of silhouetted mountains. In the perfectly clean air, the stars began to ignite one by one. The brightest by far was actually two stars, a brilliant white gem and a smaller spark just below it.

But they weren’t stars at all. They were the Earth and the Moon.

Earth seen from Mars; Mars seen from Earth
Earth from Mars, Mars from Earth
Left: the Earth and the Moon in the evening sky of Mars, as seen by the Curiosity rover.
Right: Mars rising over Salt Lake City.
Mars credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/TAMU. Earth credit: Bill Dunford.
Click to enlarge.

Of course, we can see Mars in our own sky. The sibling worlds, Mars and Earth, stare at each other across a yawning gulf of empty space (at the moment it spans almost a hundred million miles).

But are they really very far apart?

Mars may be an alien world, but if you went there and looked up at the night sky you’d see something that might surprise you: the stars would look exactly the same. The distance between the Earth and Mars isn’t nearly enough to change the perspective on the much more distant stars. You’d see all the familiar constellations, the Big Dipper and Orion and the Milky Way. The only difference in the sky, other than the sharp brilliance of everything seen through such thin air, would be that “extra” evening or morning star and its little companion.

You would look at that spark, and you would know you weren’t alone.

 

“Curiosity”

An essay written by Clara Ma, winner of the Mars Science Laboratory naming contest. Ma, then just twelve years old, submitted the winning entry, “Curiosity.”

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Image credits:

Atlas rocket carrying Curiosity – Bill Dunford
Earth – NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
Curiosity spacecraft renderings – NASA/JPL
Milky Way – herbraab via Flickr
Martian landscape – NASA/JPL/MSSS
Curiosity self-portrait – NASA/JPL

Riding with Curiosity: A Cheat Sheet

Over the hills and far away: the rim of Gale Crater soon after landing. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS

After a spectacular launch and a long cruise through the black reaches of space, the Mars Science Laboratory—better known as the Curiosity rover—amazed the world with its daring landing in Gale Crater.

Curiosity is the biggest rover ever sent to Mars, and carries the most advanced suite of instruments, in order to discover the story of the planet’s habitability.

Use this page as a quick guide to the rover’s daily adventures:
Quick Update   |   Mission Basics   |   Ride Along


 

Quick Updates: Recent Pictures & News

Pictures

heatshield
Like a scene from a sci-fi movie, only real: Curiosity’s heat shield falls away during the landing. This is just one frame in the high-res movie that was filmed as the rover was lowered to the surface.

gale crater horizon
After a few months of local work, Curiosity will head for these hills, where Mars explorers believe there is a story to uncover about a warmer, wetter Red Planet in the past. More pictures >

Updates

All of the rover’s science instruments have been checked out, and some are already taking measurements. Now that the first test drives have been completed, Curiosity will head off to spend its first few months of serious work at a place dubbed “Glenelg” before beginning the long trek to Mt. Sharp. More news >

Videos:

August 17 Mission Update | 7 Minutes of Terror | “7 Minutes of Triumph” | Mars in a Minute | Curiosity’s location | President’s Call | More videos


 

Mission Basics

Target:

Gale Crater, a 154 km-wide impact crater near the Martian equator. Specifically, the Aeolis Palus plain and Aeolis Mons, the crater’s 5.5 km-high central mountain, also informally called Mt. Sharp.

Google Mars map | Gale Crater info | Gale Crater images | How the site was chosen

Dates:

Launch: November 26, 2011
Landing: August 5, 2012 at 10:17 PM PDT (6 Aug 05:17 UTC, about 3 p.m. local Mars time)
Primary mission duration: one Martian year (98 weeks or almost two Earth years)

The Rover:

Rover dimensions: 9 feet, 10 inches (3.0 meters) long; 9 feet, 1 inch (2.8 meters) wide; 7 feet (2.1 meters) tall with mast
Mass: 1,982 pounds (899 kilograms)
Power: Multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator and lithium-ion batteries
Science payload: 165 pounds (75 kilograms) in 10 instruments: Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS), Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam), Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin), Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN), Mars Descent Imager (MARDI), Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), Mast Camera, Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD), Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS), and Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM)

Credit: NASA/JPL

The rover and its scale, a composite of two NASA diagrams. See also this rover infographic from Space.com.

Tracking Mars and the Rover:

Current distance from Earth to Mars: 251 million kilometers (156 million miles), 14 minutes light travel time

See where Mars is right now | See a replay of the landing simulation (via Eyes on the Solar System)

More Mission Info:

More Mars Resources:


 

Ways to Ride Along

Official sites:

Official Mars Curiosity and other NASA social media:

Curiosity News

Other Social Media

  • Twitter feeds for several Curiosity engineers and scientists: @icancallubetty @steltzner @SteveWSell @RaySBaker @LeeCuriosity @bellutta @Matt_Heverly

Mobile Apps

RSS Feeds

Other Good Info Sources

 

Land Ho!

What will Curiosity see as it closes in on the Red Planet?

horizon

In the sky, Mars looks like a bright, copper-colored star. It takes a telescope to be able to tell that it’s more than a dot, that it’s a whole world. And it takes a big telescope to be able to see any kind of detail on its surface.

But with the Mars Curiosity rover just days away from landing, I was wondering what Mars would look like if you could physically ride along. If you were somehow onboard the spacecraft that’s carrying the rover, and you had a window to look through, what would you be able to see today? Would Mars still be a red star? Or would you be able to make out the planet’s disc yet?

To find out, I fired up NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System site. This amazing tool creates realistic simulated views based on real data that let you follow any planet, moon or spacecraft across time and space, in 3D and in real time. You really just have to play with it to know what I mean.

Here are a few screenshots that show what I found, plus a short movie of what the final approach will look like.

solar system map
Eyes on the Solar System can display a top-down view of the current positions of planets and spacecraft. As of today, Curiosity's spacecraft has completed most of its long, arcing trajectory toward Mars. At the scale of this map, it looks like it's almost on top of its target. But how close is it really?
solar system map, with distance
Fortunately, Eyes on the Solar System makes it easy to find the distance between any two objects just by clicking on them. As of today, Curiosity is roughly 5.6 million kilometers from its destination. On astronomical scales, that's a stone's throw. So is that close enough to see the disc of the planet 'out the window'?
spacecraft
Nope. Clicking 'Mars Science Laboratory' on the map zooms us into a 3D view of the spacecraft and its surroundings, as it sees them now. Mars is still star-like. But we have a good view of the ship. We can see the donut-shaped cruise stage, with its solar panels and heat radiators, and the white, teardrop-shaped aeroshell where the rover is tucked inside for the trip. One odd thing: the spacecraft doesn't seem to be pointed toward Mars. Why is that?
sunshine
We can rotate the view in three dimensions to see things from a different perspective. Now we see why the ship is angled the way it is: the solar panels are pointed toward the sun to soak up as much power as possible. Here we get a good look at the heat shield that will protect the rover when the spacecraft slams into the Martian atmosphere at high speed. In this view, I've turned up the lights a little. If we were really there, this side of the ship would be in dark shadow.
land ho!
Land ho! So when does Mars get big in the windshield? It turns out that the planet doesn't begin to appear as a round disc at all until August 2 or so, just a few days before the landing that will take place on August 5 at about 10:30 pm Pacific time. This view is from August 5 at about 9 pm.
arrival!
Arrival! Of course, at these speeds, things start to happen FAST. Mere minutes after the previous shot, the Red Planet now looms large. Not long after this point, the cruise stage will separate and fall away while the aeroshell begins the dangerous plunge into the atmosphere.

Update July 30: New – Check out the new entry, descent and landing simulation on Eyes!

Cruise stage separation
Entry into the atmosphere
Parachute deployed, now just over the landing site
The descent stage separates from the parachute and aeroshell, and begins to lower the rover down to the surface.
15 seconds before landing: the sky crane maneuver. Mt. Sharp, and a beckoning adventure, is in the background.

30 Seconds to Mars

This video shows a time lapse view of the final day’s approach.

For a quick guide to the mission and the landing, see this one-page “cheat sheet“.

Interview with a Mars Explorer

I had the privilege of sitting down with Dr. Ashwin Vasavada as part of the Riding with Robots podcast back in 2007. He’s deputy project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory mission.

He gave a clear explanation of the mission’s goals, which haven’t changed since, but also offered a fascinating inside perspective on what it was like to build the rover and select the landing site—processes that were still ongoing at the time. We also talked about his experience with the ill-fated Mars Polar Lander, space exploration in general, and the dream mission he’d like to design.

(The image-enhanced podcast requires QuickTime to view.)