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.
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.
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.
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 >
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 >
What will Curiosity see as it closes in on the Red Planet?
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.
Update July 30: New – Check out the new entry, descent and landing simulation on Eyes!
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“.
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.)