Lonely Curiosity Climbs a Mountain on Mars—And There It Is!
In the center of the picture, in the midst of all that red and brown rock, is a tiny blue dot. That dot is the rover Curiosity slowly making its way up a mountain on Mars. It carries the hopes and dreams thousands of scientists and engineers who must be thrilled to see it on the rocky emptiness of the Red Planet.
The picture is color-enhanced, a bit -- Curiosity isn't that blue, but the color is close enough. Considering the closest it could be is 56 million miles, it's quite a picture. Curiosity is about the size of small car, 10 feet by 9 feet, but we can see it traveling up a mountain far away.
The camera that took the picture is in orbit above it, part of the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, dubbed HiRISE. It is one component of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that left Cape Canaveral in 2005.
HiRISE images are legendary and you can find them on a NASA site dedicated to the camera's unique abilities. The instrument cost $40 million and has a 0.5 m aperture reflecting telescope -- quite a telephoto lens. It has a resolution of 0.3 meter at a height of 300 km.
The picture was taken on June 5, 2017, almost five years after Curiosity landed near the base of Mt. Sharp. Since then, the rover has had a long and intimate relationship with the mountain that lies just five degrees south of the Martian equator.
Curiosity landed at a site called Yellowknife near Aeolis Mons, the official designation of Mt. Sharp. For five years is has climbed over rocky terrain and up and over buttes. It also studied the beautiful Gale Crater during its travels.
What powers its movements? Curiosity is driven by radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG). The heat released from radioactive decay drives the formation of electricity that power the rover. Curiosity is powered by the decay of 4.5 kg of plutonium-238 dioxide.
Curiosity observed recurrent slope linnae, which Mars geologists think might be the remnants of salt water brine flowing across the surface. Might flowing water been a part of Mars in the past? It has also recorded instances of methane "burps." Could this be evidence that microbial life once existed on Mars?
The picture, with its inherent sense of loneliness, captures the rover half way between its missions. Earlier it studied sand dunes lower on Mt. Sharp. Curiosity saw that these dunes were active, changing shape due to forces of wind, erosion, and deposition. It is on its way to examine Vera Rubin Ridge, where hematite, a form of iron oxide has been spotted by the orbiter.
No matter where it travels, HiRISE, its Big Brother in the sky can track it, and we can watch Curiosity search for new wonders.