After 2 Years on Mars, Curiosity Rover Aims for Huge Mountain
NASA's Curiosity Mars rover used the camera at the end of its arm in April and May 2014 to take dozens of component images combined into this self-portrait where the rover drilled into a sandstone target called "Windjana."
'Selfies' are all the rage these days. Every smartphone is attached with a camera and to the Internet, so it was inevitable that our vain species would take full advantage of the technology, snapping endless photos of cats and, of course, ourselves. Selfies -- or 'self portraits' to the uninitiated -- have become such a cultural phenomenon that Oxford University Press has declared 'Selfies' their word of the year. This may sound asinine, but Merriam-Webster Dictionary balanced it outand declared 'Science' their word of 2013
. In the spirit of fairness, I've combined the two words of the year and applied them to robots. Yes, robots. Robots that explore space, doing science. And just in case you didn't know, robots can be pretty vain too, taking snapshots of their junk for the whole Internet to see. To narrow the field down a bit, I've only selected robots that have photographed parts of their own structure, or attached components. I've also allowed the occasional robotic camera that was deployed for the sole purpose of taking a selfie
(nice effort, IKAROS).
The first robot that likely comes to mind is the undisputed
King of Selfies
, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity. The car-sized rover impressed the world with its selfie prowess when mission scientists released a stunning high-resolution mosaic of the rover in November 2012, only a couple of months after it landed inside Gale Crater. Curiosity achieved the feat by holding its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) at (robotic) arm's length, taking a truly authentic "selfie." The world applauded this effort.PHOTOS: Mars Through Curiosity's Powerful MAHLI Camera
But Curiosity certainly wasn't the first robot on Mars to snap its own picture, and it won't be the last. Although the Viking landers that touched down on the Red Planet in 1976 didn't have robotic arm-mounted cameras capable of taking a "true" selfie, they did their best.This view
from Viking 2 was snapped on Nov. 2, 1976, showing a part of the lander's deck, the American flag, the bottom of the robot's high-gain antenna and a boulder-littered Utopia Planitia, the largest identified impact crater on Mars.
PHOTOS: Alien Robots That Left Their Mark on Mars
Staying on Mars, some amazing panoramic shots and top-down self portraits have been attained by NASA's epic twin Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. As you've probably guessed, commanding a robot on another planet to take self portraits isn't for fun (even though the outcome
a lot of fun), it actually serves a purpose. In the case of Viking and Curiosity, engineers on Earth can study the photos to see the condition of instruments on the robots' 'decks.'As shown here
, for solar powered rover Spirit, using its mast-mounted panoramic camera was very useful for capturing amazing 360 degree views of the surrounding terrain. It was also great for keeping track of the build-up of Martian dust on its panels. In this photo taken in 2005, Spirit's solar array shines in the sun, having collected only a very thin layer of dust two years after it landed.NEWS: 9 Years Later: Remembering Mars Rover Spirit
Spirit's twin rover Opportunity soldiers on to this day, exploring the Martian surface after nearly a decade since landing. Jan. 25, 2014, is its 10 year Mars "birthday" (mark your calendars!). Currently exploring the edge of Endeavour Crater, helping to piece together clues of Mars' evolution (complementing the science being done by Curiosity), Opportunity is no stranger to taking its own photo. As Spirit and Opportunity were designed to the same specifications, Opportunity can also take 360 degree views and monitor dust build-up on its solar panels.Seen here
in 2011, its once shiny solar array is blanketed with a camouflaging coat of dust.NEWS: Opportunity Finds More Hints of Mars Habitability
No, robotic Mars explorers aren't especially fond of sefies, it's just that NASA has sent a lot of Mars surface missions in the past few years. Seen here in 2008, NASA's Mars arctic lander Phoenix took its own photo using a mast-mounted panoramic camera in a similar style to Spirit and Opportunity. It seems that the first rule of robotic selfies is: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.PHOTOS: Phoenix Mars Lander's First Images
Now for something a little different. In 2007, the European comet-chasing spacecraft Rosetta made close approach with Mars, coming within 1,000 miles of the surface, using the planet for a fuel-saving gravity assist. The boost in speed is allowing Rosetta to catch up with comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko -- an encounter that is planned for 2014. But during the flyby, the spacecraft managed to snap this iconic photo of Mars from space. What makesthis view
so special is that Rosetta also caught its own solar array in the shot.ANALYSIS: Advice to Rosetta: Maybe She's Just Not That Into You
Leaving Mars, we now head to Venus where, in 1982, the Soviet Venera 13 lander managed to survive the hellish conditions and transmit data for two hours. In that time it also returned some color photos of the Venusian surface. In those photos, the hardy lander was able to capture some of its jagged landing gear at the bottom of the shot. It may not be perfect, but while sitting in a pressure-cooker with a limited amount of time to return valuable data, it's a superb effort.ANALYSIS: When the Veneras Challenged Venus' Hellish Atmosphere
In a video released by the Chinese Space Agency of the Chang'e 2 lunar orbiter in 2010, the view shortly after launch was captured by a camera overseeing the deployment of the mission's solar panels.Courtesy of the Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla
, the video in its entiretycan be watched on Youtube
Whoa! What's that huge UFO that photobombs the shot?
Oh, that's Earth.ANALYSIS: Chinese Probe Buzzes Asteroid Toutatis
The Japanese Hayabusa asteroid sample return mission got a little creative with this selfie effort. In 2005, as it approached near-Earth asteroid Itokawa, with the sun at its back the mission snapped its shadow falling on the sunlit asteroid surface.
for leading me to Hayabusa!
VIDEO: NASA Aircraft Videos Hayabusa Re-Entry
In 2010, the Japanese space agency JAXA launched a pioneering mission. Using only the sun's energy for propulsion, the Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun, or IKAROS, probe set sail through interplanetary space for a January 2011 rendezvous with the planet Venus. After the solar sail was launched, two miniature wireless cameras were ejected by IKAROS as it deployed in Earth orbit,returning this admirable "hands free" self portrait
. Then, as IKAROS reached its destination eight months later, it took a snapshot of a crescent Venus (inset). (Thank youEmily Lakdawalla
for reminding me about these stunning IKAROS photos!)
Special thanks to all my Twitter buddies who engaged in Wednesday evening's conversation about robot selfies!
Can you think of more space mission "selfies"? Feel free to share them in the comments below.
Two years ago this week, much of the world held its breath as a rocket-powered sky crane lowered NASA's huge Curiosity rover to the surface of Mars on cables.
The bold and unprecedented maneuver worked on the night of Aug. 5, 2012, eliciting high fives and raucous cheers at mission control at the space agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, as well as at viewing parties around the globe.
Curiosity has ridden this wave of enthusiasm for two years now. The rover made landmark discoveries in its first few months of operation, helping reshape scientists' understanding of Mars while barely straying from its landing site inside the 96-mile-wide (154 kilometers) Gale Crater. [Mars Rover Curiosity's Latest Amazing Photos]
And mission team members are excited about what the future may hold, as Curiosity gets closer and closer to its ultimate science destination — the foothills of a 3.4-mile-high (5.5 km) mountain called Mount Sharp.
The main goal of Curiosity's $2.5 billion mission is to determine if Mars has ever been able to support microbial life.
The rover found some hints pointing toward past habitability in September 2012, when it rolled through an ancient streambed that mission scientists say probably flowed continuously for more than 1,000 years long ago. And Curiosity sealed the deal a few months later after drilling into rocks at a site called Yellowknife Bay.
Analysis of the drilled samples revealed that Yellowknife Bay was inded a habitable environment billions of years ago, likely featuring water benign enough to drink, mission team members said. Further study suggested the area was a lake-and-stream system that may have been able to support simple lifeforms for millions of years at a time. (Curiosity has not actually found signs of life; it was not designed to do such work.)
Making such big discoveries so soon was a bit of a surprise, the rover's handlers said.
"Scientifically, Gale Crater, and especially the plains around Mount Sharp, have exceeded any of our expectations," Curiosity deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada of JPL told Space.com. "The place was just covered by water on and off again through its history. That's something we never anticipated based on the information we only had from orbit, before landing."
There have been some unpleasant surprises as well, however. The rough terrain inside Gale Crater has taken a toll on Curiosity's wheels, which late last year began accumulating nicks and dings at a worrying rate.
"It started out to be very concerning, to the point where we really just shut down operations for a few weeks to kind of catch our breath and understand what was going on," Vasavada said.
But after spending a few months studying the Red Planet terrain, performing simulated drives at JPL's "Mars Yard" and practicing different driving techniques with Curiosity — driving backward sometimes, for example — the rover's operators think they have things under control now.
"It is a problem, but it's something we can manage, and make it through our mission exactly how we wanted to make it," Vasavada said.
Looking ahead to Mount Sharp
While the Curiosity rover was pretty sedentary during its first year on Mars, it has been making serious tracks in year number two.
The robot has driven a total of about 5.6 miles (9 km) since touching down on the Red Planet, and about 5 of those miles have come since it departed Yellowknife Bay for Mount Sharp in July 2013, Vasavada said. The target location at the mountain's base still lies 2 to 2.5 miles away (3 to 4 km), and the mission team expects to get there by the end of 2014, he added.
The plan calls for Curiosity to climb up through the mountain's foothills, which likely preserve a record of the Red Planet's transition from a relatively warm and wet place in the ancient past to the cold, dry world it is today.
"The hope is that we can traverse those rock layers and read Mars like a history book, going from the earliest time period where we see some evidence for clays from orbit, to sulfates, to this dusty layer on top where it might represent the modern conditions," Vasavada said.
"What we can do is place this one habitable environment that probably represents a snapshot of time into the context of all that history exposed at Mount Sharp," he added. "We can also look at whether there were time periods before, or after — multiple time periods that were also habitable environments."
Curiosity doesn't have to summit Mount Sharp to get a good read on Martian history. Mission scientists want the rover to make it up at least to the sulfate layers, which apparently begin at about 1,300 to 1,640 feet (400 to 500 meters) up the mountain.
"Not to imply that 500 meters is going to be easy -- that's a good amount of elevation -- but it looks doable from what we're able to map from orbit," Vasavada said.
Welcoming NASA's next Mars rover?
NASA plans to launch a Mars rover based heavily on Curiosity in 2020. The 2020 rover, whose suite of science instruments was announced last week, will search for signs of past life, cache samples for possible future return to Earth and produce oxygen from the Red Planet's carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere, among other activities. [NASA's 2020 Mars Rover in Pictures]
It's possible that Curiosity could still be operating when the 2020 rover touches down, Vasavada said. But if that's the case, Curiosity would likely be performing only limited science work, since its radioisotope thermoelectric generator — which converts the heat from plutonium-238's radioactive decay to electricity — will be pretty low on fuel.
Curiosity is different in this respect from NASA's Mars rover Opportunity, which is still going strong more than 10 years after landing on the Red Planet. Opportunity is solar-powered and can conceivably continue to operate as long as its solar panels remain relatively dust-free.
"Our best years are going to be the next two to four years, because it's a confluence of getting to our primary science target and still having a juicy power generator," Vasavada said. "We would love to welcome 2020 to Mars, but will probably be in the retirement home by then."
Originally published on Space.com.
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