The single greatest vacation picture ever taken

The entire universe in blog form
Nov. 4 2012 6:00 AM

The single greatest vacation picture ever taken

On Halloween 2012, when people were assembling their costumes and candy, the Mars Curiosity rover was assembling something truly spectacular: a jaw-dropping high-definition self-portrait that has to be seen to be believed:

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death from the Skies! Follow him on Twitter.

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[Click to enjohnny5enate. And yes, oh my yes, you want to.]

This incredible picture is a mosaic made up of 55 hi-res images taken by the MAHLI, the Mars Hand Lens Imager. That's a camera designed to be able to take close-up shots of nearby rocks and other feature, but can also focus all the way out to infinity, allowing it to take pictures of distant geographical features as well.

Or, in this case, itself! Now get this: MAHLI is located at the end of the two-meter robotic arm. That was extended and then aimed back at the rover so it could take the pictures (think of every Facebook pic you've seen of party revelers holding a camera up and taking a snapshot of themselves). So why don't you see the arm in these shots? It's because it was edited out! The camera took several pictures which overlapped. So you'd get two shots of, say, the main body of the rover, each with the arm blocking a different part of the rover's body. By combining the parts of each picture that don't show the arm, you can edit it out of the final product. [UPDATE: What I said is technically possible, but not in fact what happened! Emily Lakdawalla has - haha - the scoop on this.]

In the end, you're left with a pristine (if somewhat distorted) view of the rover as if you were standing there. And there's so much more than just the rover! The rocks and sand covering the ground, the wheel tread prints in the surface, the small plain the rover sits on. And you can see the layered hills in the distance; those rise up to become the central peak of Gale Crater, Curiosity's home... and also the rover's eventual destination. Remember, it's a rover. It roves.

Pictures like this also let engineers assess the rover's status. They can look over the different parts and make sure everything's OK, and also use it as a baseline in case something goes wrong later. It's far more than just a pretty picture.

But oh my, it's such a pretty picture!

You can get more info at Universe Today, and Emily Lakdawalla at The Planetary Society Blog points out some fun stuff to look for in the shot, too.

And, I suppose, the title of this post is somewhat misleading. It may look like Curiosity is sitting on a sandy beach somewhere, taking its own "Wish you were here!" picture. But in reality, it's no vacation. Curiosity is there to work. And it has just two Earth years to unravel a few billion years of Martian history.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems



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