The Mars Curiosity Rover’s Images Are Stunning. What Do They Mean?

Stories from New Scientist.
Sept. 30 2012 6:30 AM

The Brains Behind the Eyes on Mars

What are the Mars Curiosity rover’s cameras looking for?

The Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) on NASA's Curiosity rover, with the Martian landscape in the background.
This image of the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer on NASA's Curiosity rover was taken by Curiosity's Mastcam on the 32nd Martian day of operations on the surface, or Sept. 7, 2012.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

Space imaging expert Michael Malin worked at NASA before setting up Malin Space Science Systems, which supplied the Mastcam, Mars Descent Imager, and Mars Hand Lens Imager for the Curiosity rover.

Lisa Grossman: Curiosity landed in Gale Crater, which contains Mount Sharp, in early August and stunning images followed. Any favorites?

Michael Malin: My favorite from the early days is the heat shield view we released as Curiosity descended. I think that will become an iconic image, just as the Saturn V second-stage and trans-stage separations are famous images of the Apollo era.

LG: Beyond aesthetics, what use are the images?

MM: Using MARDI—the Mars Descent Imager, which took photos of the ground below as the rover landed—I've done what I personally wanted, which was to position the rover very accurately. I also want to make a high-definition video of the landing, smoothing out the jerkiness of four frames per second to a smoother 30 frames per second using optical flow techniques. For Mastcam—the twin cameras on the rover's head, about two meters off the ground—my interests are in how the ground got to look the way it does; I'm interested in the processes involved in eroding Mount Sharp.

LG: What can the Mastcam images tell us about how the ground got to look the way it does?

MM: That is the essence of geomorphology. I can't really answer this question in the absence of data, which we have just started to receive. An example might be as follows: We have not yet seen any sand ripples at the place the rover landed, but there are large sand dunes only a few kilometers away. Why aren't there ripples near the rover? Is there no sand moving there, or does it move so quickly it doesn't leave a trace? We don't know but we will keep our eyes open for evidence as we do our research.

LG: What drew you to planetary geology?

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity, taken by the rover's Mars.
Two combined images showing the three left wheels of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity, taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager during the 34th Martian day of Curiosity's work on Mars, or Sept. 9, 2012

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

MM: Geologists are very lucky: We get to look at beautiful things and figure out how they got to be that beautiful. Such understanding can be used to capture and preserve the beauty for posterity, and to enrich people's enjoyment of these things through better understanding. When I tell people I'm a geologist, they are often full of questions about, and enthusiasm for, what I do. When I tell them I study the geology of Mars, their interest increases. What excites me is solving the mysteries I encounter in how planets work.

LG: There was originally a plan to install zoom cameras, a project involving film-maker James Cameron. Did you want cinematic footage?

MM: We did not intend to take too many sequences not really oriented towards science or engineering, but if we had flown the zoom-lens cameras, I believe we would have taken some more dramatic, cinematic scenes to illustrate the excitement of Mars exploration. This may still be possible with the cameras that flew, but it will be much harder.

Mount Sharp in August. The lower several hundred feet show evidence of hydrated minerals.
Mount Sharp in August. The lower several hundred feet show evidence of hydrated minerals.

Photo by NASA via Getty Images.

LG: Is there any tension between the scientific and public-engagement uses of the cameras?

MM: I am pleased to have the public excited about my experiments and Mars. But I am not happy with NASA HQ requiring me to put out raw images to the public in near-real time, without commentary or context. I think we can engage the public better.

This article originally appeared in New Scientist.

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