Down to the river…

Sorry if anyone came here in the past couple of days expecting/hoping to find a post all about the amazing news of Curiosity’s discovery of an ancient riverbed at Gale Crater, but I’ve been AFK (to use a quaint old early-web term! Look it up, kids!) doing, you know, real-life stuff… but yes, fascinating news from Mars: the images taken by Curiosity have revealed that she is effectively driving across the remains of an ancient martian riverbed – the rounded, smooth stones seen by her cameras were made that way by the eroding action of water running over and around them, possibly billions of years ago, water which flowed into the crater and across its floor after entering through a gap in the crater wall. It’s not entirely unexpected news – one of the reasons Curiosity was sent to Gale in the first place was because orbital images showed signs of “aluvial fans” spread out across the crater floor, fans of debris left behind after water had poured into and across the crater from outside – but it’s always brilliant to have a theory confirmed by “ground truth”, so congratulations to all the science team!

Here’s the official press release, reproduced here to 1) save me time, and 2) prevent me from explaining something badly or incorrectly…!

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RELEASE : 12-338

 NASA Rover Finds Old Streambed On Martian Surface
 PASADENA, Calif. — NASA’s Curiosity rover mission has found evidence a stream once ran vigorously across the area on Mars where the rover is driving. There is earlier evidence for the presence of water on Mars, but this evidence – images of rocks containing ancient streambed gravels – is the first of its kind.

Scientists are studying the images of stones cemented into a layer of conglomerate rock. The sizes and shapes of stones offer clues to the speed and distance of a long-ago stream’s flow.

“From the size of gravels it carried, we can interpret the water was moving about 3 feet per second, with a depth somewhere between ankle and hip deep,” said Curiosity science co-investigator William Dietrich of the University of California, Berkeley. “Plenty of papers have been written about channels on Mars with many different hypotheses about the flows in them. This is the first time we’re actually seeing water-transported gravel on Mars. This is a transition from speculation about the size of streambed material to direct observation of it.”

The finding site lies between the north rim of Gale Crater and the base of Mount Sharp, a mountain inside the crater. Earlier imaging of the region from Mars orbit allows for additional interpretation of the gravel-bearing conglomerate. The imagery shows an alluvial fan of material washed down from the rim, streaked by many apparent channels, sitting uphill of the new finds.

The rounded shape of some stones in the conglomerate indicates long-distance transport from above the rim, where a channel named Peace Vallis feeds into the alluvial fan. The abundance of channels in the fan between the rim and conglomerate suggests flows continued or repeated over a long time, not just once or for a few years.

The discovery comes from examining two outcrops, called “Hottah” and “Link” with the telephoto capability of Curiosity’s mast camera during the first 40 days after landing. Those observations followed up on earlier hints from another outcrop, which was exposed by thruster exhaust as Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory Project’s rover, touched down.

“Hottah looks like someone jack-hammered up a slab of city sidewalk, but it’s really a tilted block of an ancient streambed,” said Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

The gravels in conglomerates at both outcrops range in size from a grain of sand to a golf ball. Some are angular, but many are rounded.
“The shapes tell you they were transported and the sizes tell you they couldn’t be transported by wind. They were transported by water flow,” said Curiosity science co-investigator Rebecca Williams of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz.

The science team may use Curiosity to learn the elemental composition of the material, which holds the conglomerate together, revealing more characteristics of the wet environment that formed these deposits. The stones in the conglomerate provide a sampling from above the crater rim, so the team may also examine several of them to learn about broader regional geology.

The slope of Mount Sharp in Gale Crater remains the rover’s main destination. Clay and sulfate minerals detected there from orbit can be good preservers of carbon-based organic chemicals that are potential ingredients for life.

“A long-flowing stream can be a habitable environment,” said Grotzinger. “It is not our top choice as an environment for preservation of organics, though. We’re still going to Mount Sharp, but this is insurance that we have already found our first potentially habitable environment.”

During the two-year prime mission of the Mars Science Laboratory, researchers will use Curiosity’s 10 instruments to investigate whether areas in Gale Crater have ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life.

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Fantastic stuff! :-)

What’s Curiosity up to now? Well, looking at the latest images to come back she’s within spitting distance of  “Glenelg, her first hard science target…

You want to see that in 3D? Of course you do…

…and when Curiosity looks at the ground, she sees *this*…

Beautiful in 3D too…

There are mysteries and magicv waiting to be found here, don’t you think? :-)

Meanwhile, other images sent back by Curiosity might, possibly, maybe, perhaps suggest that she’s preparing to scoop up some loose material for the first time, to test that side of her science package works… I LOVE this next picture, with the contrast between the muted, almost pastel hues of the dusty, gritty, rocky ground and the cold, stark metal of the scoop…

But obviously the Big News is the discovery that water once flowed – if not rushed – across this part of Mars, and I’ll come back to that as and when time allows. I’m working on a new astropoem about it right now, which I hope some of you will like.

More soon!

Dreaming of mountains and moons…

Wow. The “arty” pictures are flowing back from Curiosity thick and fast now! Ok, so they’re not actually arty, that’s just how I’m seeing them. The images being taken at the moment are being taken under low lighting conditions, which, as any landscape photographer knows, is an absolute godsend: every rise and fall in the topography stands out, shadows are cast across the ground by anything daring to stand higher than a blade of grass, and the sky just shines.

Which is how Curiosity is taking beautiful pictures like this…

And photograph the horizon like this…


That low light angle is also helping pick out features in the landscape which haven’t really stood out before. See the rocky mound top left? There’s a crater blasted out of it, we can see much more clearly now…

That’s pretty special, isn’t it? What would be even more special would be seeing a great sweep of the base of Mt Sharp at that resolution… Here you go… click to enlarge, as usual…

And some “arty” black and white crops of that view, just because I can… ;-)

Want to see something even *more* amazing? Take a look at this…

I know what you’re thinking… “Huh? What? What am I looking for?” I’ll give you a hand…

That, dear readers, is Phobos, the largest moon of Mars. Hard to see against the bright sky, but unmistakeably Phobos. Cropping the image and darkening it etc brings out the moon more clearly…

If you enlarge that by clicking on it you can even see acrater on the moon’s terminator. Just amazing.

What a rover, and what a camera.

The art of Mars

Mars – rocky, cold, dusty, lifeless, boring wasteland right? An endless parade of stones, boulders, gravel, grit, right to the horizon, all beneath a huge, dull orange-pink empty sky, right?

Not so much.

There’s beauty everywhere to be seen on Mars. It’s just not being photographed. For good reason – lack of power, higher scientific priorities, etc – but it’s there, waiting to be seen and captured, I’m convinced of it.

Mars has – I have always insisted, and will never stop insisting – an epic, primal beauty all of its own. The rocks scattered everywhere have been sculpted into incredible geometrical shapes by aeons of sandblasting by the planet’s kitten snore-soft winds, the same gentle breezes which have piled the talcum powder fine dust up into beautiful dunes; the sky is a cathedral dome ceiling painted by Nature with a palette of gold, butterscotch and peach; the planet’s geology has carved its landscape into towering mountains, deep valleys and wide open Big Country plains. After long, freezing nights, with a sky dusted with millions of never-twinkling stars, undimmed and undisturbed  by the planet’s apology for an atmosphere, the sunsets and sunrises are slow motion explosions of cold fire, the dusk or dawn’s initial silver and blue sky icy hues shifting slowly to warmer lemon and caramel as the copper coin Sun climbs higher into the sky, slowly clearing the mountains piled up on the horizon, painting them first purple, then copper, until they’re fully lit from above, each and every crag, ledge and ridge bathed in cold sunlight. In the shadows of the rocks and stones strewn everywhere, frost twinkles and glitters briefly, until touched by sunlight, then it disappears like a genie…

Mars isn’t just a planet for scientists; it’s a planet for artists, poets and dreamers too.

One day, just as Earth does, Mars will have its own artists and poets, who will rejoice in its light, its rocks and its beauty. Like the artists and poets of Earth, they’ll travel to its epic places, with the tools of their trade, their easels and paints, notebooks and pens, to paint them and write about them. They’ll stand on the edge of Valles Marineris, in the shadow of Olympus Mons, and at the poles, drowning in their glory. The works of art and the poems they produce will be curiosities at first, loved by some, ignored by others, derided by still others. But eventually, one day, some of them will be spoken of in the same way as Turner, Wordsworth and all those other giants we love so much today.

Mars is waiting for them.

If I’d been born in a hundred years time, I think I’d have been one of those martian artists, I really do. Probably not a good one, definitely not a great one, but I’d have had a go! Somehow, some way, I’d have made it to Mars, done whatever it took to get there – cleaned out the gloop in the hydroponics module or mucked out the barn where the cloned mini sheep and cows were kept, whatever – and then, in my time off, I’d have headed Out, to Somewhere Amazing. I’d have taken a shuttle to Marineris and sat there for hours with my paints (or more likely my camera, as I paint like a chimp!), just watching the light changing, following the mists shifting down on its floor, seeing the shadows of the cliffs, scarps and ledges swing around and lengthen as the hours passed and the Sun slid across the butterscotch sky, trying to take at least one photograph that did it justice. I’d have hitched a lift on a rover up to the pole, and spent time there walking across the icefields, boots crump-crumping in the dry ice snow, before finding a big meteorite to sit down on and drink in the view from, before trying to immortalise what I was seeing and feeling in a poem.

But it’s 2012, and the closest I will ever get to Mars is this – writing my “astropoems” about Mars, and looking at images of it, taken by the rovers, on my computer monitor, blogging about them, and wondering what it would be like to be seeing these places with eyes instead of cameras, and to have the time to see, and capture, the real beauty of Mars.

And doing my best, using those images and my computer,  to show what people will see in the future.

So, here is my latest attempt to do that – a raw image of the mountains on the horizon of Gale, but changed into what I think the scene might look like at a special time of day. It’s just a fanciful image, not intended to be particularly scientific or accurate, so the position of the Sun might well be impossible, the colour of the sky not quite right, the shadows not oriented perfectly, but to be honest, I don’t care. This is a vision of Mars, a personal vision, what I see in my head, and feel in my heart, when I think about Mars. If you like it, that’s great. If you don’t, then fair enough. It’s neither right nor wrong, it’s just a picture.

It’s my Mars.


That’s a picture Curiosity could take (or something like it) but probably never will, for very practical reasons. But it’s a picture that’s there, waiting to be taken. I’ll cross my fingers; they might surprise me! :-)

Actually, something I saw this morning gave me hope that the beauty of Mars might yet be seen. Curiosity is, as you know from following this blog, currently parked up at and studying a rather large, triangular-shaped rock. Well, when I checked the picture feed this morning, I saw something… lovely. The composition might just have been a fluke, the result of the rover having to be in a certain place, parked at a certain angle, in order for its instruments to be used effectively on the rock, but that doesn’t matter. The view is really nice…

Whoever it was on the MSL team who planned and scheduled that image – thank you.

Maybe we’ll see a beautiful martian sunrise one day, too… :-)

( Note:  I’ve straightened the horizon on that image just to reduce the distortion. )

The Glory of Gale…

Some rather pretty pictures for you today… grab a coffee, you’re going to be here for a while…

Firstly, here’s a sharpened-up colour portrait I’ve made of “Jake”, the rock chosen to be the first to be studied in great detail by Curiosity’s suite of science instruments…

So that’s the whole rock – or as much of it as we can see. But the science team understandably want a closer look, so yesterday the rover’s robit arm reached out and positioned its “turret” of scientific instruments and tools close to the rock’s surface…

…and then took a whole bunch of photographs like this…

Said it before – I wish I knew more geology, so I could know what we’re seeing there…!

But, as pretty as these pictures are, I am finding myself drawn more and more to the horizon of Gale crater, because that’s where the most interesting landforms and landscapes are. Let’s face it, although the foothills of Mt Sharp – especially the mesas and buttes of the “Promised Land” region where Curiosity will eventually make ‘landfall’ – are pretty interesting, with a lot going on, the upper reaches of the crater’s central peak are pretty, well… boring, at least in the images seen so far. But look away from Mt Sharp, lower your eyes from its bland, beige summit, and look off to the distance, across the crater’s floor to the horizon, and there are *wonders* there…

Here’s an image from a day or so ago, looking roughly eastwards I think…

A few things stand out on that image: the rocky ground, scattered here and there with boulders and stones; the ridge inthe middle ground, beyond which the land dips down into a region of very complicated topography; the stark lines of the rover’s own hardware at the bottom…

But that image is dominated by something else. Mountains. On the horizon. Looming over the landscape, calling to you, beckoning you, at once both beautifully alien but oh so familiar…

Gale is essentially a huge circular mountain range, with a ruddy great mountain at its centre, surrounded by a moat of flat, dusty ground, scattered with stones. Curiosity is going to climb up the lower reaches of that central peak, but however high she gets, however far she drives, those mountains on the horizon, will always be there, watching over her, forever out of her reach.

Look at this 3D view, and you really do get a sense of how impressive they are…

Those mountains look blurry, grey, a little out of focus. This isn’t just because they’re far away, but also because they’re dimmed by the dust hanging in the air, like pollen grains on a hot summer’s day. We may have better views of them on sols when the atmosphere clears a little, when some of the dust in the air settles, allowing us to see them more clearly, but they will never look any bigger. Curiosity will only ever be driving away from them, never towards them. Take a look at that picture – that’s as good as it’s going to get.

Hmmm. Maybe not.

With a little processing, those mountains really jump out of the scene.

Here, then, is how I think Ansel Adams would have seen, and photographed, the faraway rim of Gale Crater…

Just think… One day, maybe in a couple of generations’ time, maybe in a century or so, people will stand where Curiosity is now. They’ll turn and look at the bulk of Mt Sharp rising up beside them, then look to the horizon, and see those mountains there – and set off towards them, intent on climbing them, standing on their summits, and looking down to see the Glory of Gale stretched out before them.

Friday image feast

Curiosity is really stepping up a scientific gear now, and every day new images are coming back showing what a remarkable machine she is – part geologist, part biologist, and, it turns out, part astronomer too!

Let’s look at the geologist part first. In the last post we saw how MSL has driven close to a roughly pyramid-shaped rock christened “Jake Matijevic” in honour of a much-loved and greatly respected NASA scientist who recently passed away. We now have clearer, more detailed pictures of this fascinating looking rock. Here’s a colour image I’ve sharpened up a little…

You’ll see straight away how the face of the rock on the right is a lot cleaner and rougher than the other face, which appears to have a smooth texture and a bluish tinge, as if it’s been sanded down. Why? What’s going on? Well, that’s what the Curiosity team is going to find out over the next few days when they turn all the rover’s science firepower on this rock. By the time they’ve finished, “Jake Matijevic” will be the most studied rock on Mars ever, I reckon.

Here’s a more detailed view of the top of the rock…

Can’t wait to see the rest of it!

Meanwhile, Curiosity has been doing a bit of stargazing on Mars – well, moon-gazing anyway…

Take a look at this image – you’ll need to click on it to enlarge it…

Doesn’t look much, I know. But the large white circle is the Sun, and the black dot is Mars’ smaller moon, Deimos! Cleaned-up you can see this…

Again, that doesn’t look much, I know, but what you’re seeing is a moon of Mars moving across the face of the Sun – a transit, just like we sometimes see the planets Mercury or Venus transiting the Sun from here on Earth. Here’s what you’re seeing…

So Curiosity is now also an off-Earth astronomical observatory. Very cool!

And just as a bonus, here’s a short animation of Deimos moving across the face of the Sun. Bit hard to see because of the cross-hatch pattern, and you might have to click on the image to see the actual movement (I would anyway, to enlarge it), but ignore the quality and just Think About What You’re Seeing…! ;-)

This isn’t the first time this has been done, tho, The two Mars Exploration Rovers observed and photographed transits of both martian moons. But Curiosity has better cameras, so we’ll have better, crisper views in the months and years to come.

Remembering Jake

If you’ve read the most recent “MER UPDATE” by Mars over chronicler extraordinaire AJS Rayl, over on The Planetary Society’s blog, you’ll have read a touching and emotional tribute to NASA scientist Jake Matijevic, who died recently. During a teleconference with the Curiosity team today, it was announced that a large rock spotted right in front of the rover has been named after the scientist as a tribute.

Here’s a clearer, enhanced view of “Jake”…

Wanna see it in 3D? Of course you do…

Over the next few days we’re going to be seeing a LOT more of this riock, which is about a foot across. Curiosity is going to study it in great detail, taking images with various cameras, and then using some of its suite of scientific instruments to study and analyse it. That little feller there might end up being, in a week or so, the most heavily studied rock on Mars in history. Watch this space for a lot more pictures of it.

Curiosity surrounded by beauty…

Slowly but surely Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory, is making her way towards “Glenelg”, her first true science target. We should see that clearly soon. In the meantime, the rover is returning some truly glorious images of the foothills of Mt Sharp, which can be joined together to make a very attractive panorama…

When you stitch together the ‘rae’ images like that, the resulting picture is rather washed-out looking, because Gale is a dusty, landscape-dimming place. With a little bit of enhancing, we can pick out more detail over there

…but I think that a landscape like this is best seen in black and white, that makes it look more… wel… epic, which is how I’ve always seen Mars. So, here you go…

Love that view, hope you do too.

Closer to the rover, some fascinating martian geology is coming into sight…

That might actually be Glenelg, I’m not sure. I’ll have to check on that.

Good that Curiosity is getting into her stride now, and that pictures which show the real Mars, the Mars we all love, is being revealed right before our eyes. Again.