Look! It’s a Car on Mars!

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April 17 2014 7:30 AM

Look! It’s a Car on Mars!

Right now, there are five spacecraft at or on Mars (and two more on the way). One of the spacecraft on the surface is of course the rover Curiosity, the plutonium-powered Mini Cooper–size mobile chemistry lab. One in orbit is the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, equipped with the fantabulous HiRISE camera, capable of seeing objects a half meter across on the Red Planet.

Hey! Curiosity is bigger than a half meter. A lot bigger. Can MRO see it?

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Why yes. Yes it can.

rover on Mars
Red rover red rover. Or blue, in this not-quite-true color image. Click to enaresenate.

Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Can you find the rover in the picture? Hint: Follow the wheel tracks, which you can clearly see.

Holy wow. I love pictures like this. And there’s great value to them, too. Curiosity has cameras on the surface, several in fact, which map out the area in great detail. But we need an overview as well, just like it helps to have a map when you’re out driving. With eyes in the sky and on the ground we get both.

So what was Curiosity seeing at the time this photo was snapped from above? This:

Curiosity view of Mars
Mount Remarkable, a butte on Mars. Click to embiggen.

Compare that to the picture above.

Curiosity had stopped at a location called the Kimberley, which consists of quite a few interesting rock outcroppings. Centered in that shot is a five-meter high butte nicknamed Mount Remarkable (off to the left is the direction it was looking when it saw the still-unexplained light). The rover is still on its way to Mount Sharp, aka Aeolis Mons, its ultimate destination. It’s already covered several kilometers of the trip.

Amazing. I’ve had worse maps with me on trips, and here we are marking the exact location of a rover on another planet.

Science! I love this stuff.

Note: I totally stole the title of this post from Bobak Ferdowsi, who will forgive me or else I will shave the rest of his head.

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!