One week later…

See? Told you I’d be back!🙂

Well… hard to believe it’s been over a week now since we all sat in front of our monitors, crossing our fingers and crunching our peanuts, hoping Curiosity would land safely on Mars, but it is!

The last time I updated this blog was the day after the landing. The first pictures had come in, showing that the rover had landed on a flat gravelly area in the shadow of Mt Sharp. We had images of stones on the ground, and of the crater wall, and a cut-off view of Mt Sharp itself itself, but that was about it, and that was where I left it. As the landing reviews began, and everyone looked forward to the first higher resolution images to come back from Mars, we headed off to go camping, on a trip organised long ago, over to the north east coast of the UK to the beautiful beaches and dunes of Bamburgh and the surrounding area. Before the “digitaln age” I would never have DREAMED of doing such a thing! What? NOT be at my computer as new images came back from Mars? Are you CRAZY??? But now, thanks to WiFi, 3G and the like, we don’t have to hunch over our keyboards to keep in touch with things like this; we can check in on space missions on the go, on our tablets and on our phones. And that’s what I did. Sat beside our magnificent TARDIS blue tent, in a campsite in the middle of the Northumbrian countryside, surrounded by screaming kids, their drunk parents and their barking dogs, all of them going absolutely insane with the fresh air and blue sky, I followed Curiosity’s progress on my phone, looking at the new images on its tiny screen as they came back – ironically, just about the same size screen I watched the first images come back from Spirit and Opportunity on, all those years ago, only that was a small, constantly re-buffering Realplayer screen on my old dial-up PC. Ah, happy days… not…😉

So, I watched the landscape of Gale Crater unfold on my phone’s screen, as one by one the first images from Curiosity’s ‘real’ cameras started to trickle back. I even saved a couple on my phone to look at over and over, wondering how much better they’d look on my monitor at full resolution. I followed the discussions re Gale and MSL on the unmannedspaceflight.com forum, on Twitter and on Facebook, so I didn’t feel *too* left out, and I even resisted the temptation to head away from our tent and find myself a corner of the campsite bar to sit in and connect to their WiFi to look at the images on my EReader (surprised myself with that!). I followed Curiosity’s first days on Mars whilst sitting in the ruins of old castles, whilst walking around the beautiful Abbey on Lindisfarne, and whilst standing on a beautiful sandy beach, with seagulls cawing above me and white horse waves rolling in towards me from an ocean as blue as poster paint.

But now I’m back, and ready to start updating this blog again, so if you’re still here (thanks!) then let’s try and catch up a bit.

So… Curiosity has been on Mars for a week now, and all appears to be going well. We now know that all her systems appear to be working just fine; that she landed closer to the foot of Mt Sharp than expected; that she did, as some suspected, photograph the plume of dust sent into the martian sky by the impact of her Skycrane descent stage; that the landscape around her is every bit as spectacular as we imagined – and hoped – it would be.

Curiosity is still exactly where she landed, she hasn’t moved an inch since she arrived. And thanks to the amazing HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter we know precisely where she touched down – because HiRISE has photographed the rover – and the other pieces of hardware that brought her to the ground safely – on the surface!

I really like this view of the rover’s parachute and backshell, lying together, no doubt covered in martian dust by now…

But of course it’s the rover itself we’re most interested in seeing, and HiRISE has really picked her out from the rocks and debris scattered across the landscape. Here’s the image released by the HiRISE team, in enhanced colour…


I thought I’d make that a little more, well, ‘martian’ by tweaking the colours a bit. So this next image isn’t necessarily “real colour”, but it is hopefully a little closer to it…

The good thing about HiRISE imaging Curiosity – apart from the fact that it’s just a cool thing to do! – is that it helps the MSL team pin down exactly where the rover landed. So, we now know very accurately where Curiosity was set down by that Skycrane a week ago. It’s marked on this next image with a green dot… (you’ll need to click on it to enlarge it)…

It’s pretty obvious from that image that Curiosity landed a lot nearer the band of dark dunes than was expected. That’s not a problem, they have already plotted a course through/over those dunes, and it also means that we’ll be at the “good stuff” – the layered material at the foot of Mt Sharp – sooner than we thought.

But where *exactly* is Curiosity? Well, I’ve found an easy way to find her landing area, using an area of the dark dunes that lies just to the south of her landing zone which I’m calling “The Hare” – you’ll see why by following this next image…! Click on it to enlarge it, and if it looks a bit confusing at first don’t worry: just look from left to right, and on each image you’ll see there’s a yellow box which shows you the area overed in the *next* image. It’s kind of a “zoom in” thing…

As for that “hare”, here it is…🙂

So, that’s *where* Curiosity is – what can she **see** from there?

Curiosity has landed on a flat area absolutely strewn with rocks. But unlike Spirit’s landing site, at Gusev Crater, the rocks around Curiosity are a lot smaller and less jagged-looking, too. Here’s one of the colour frames sent back by the rover’s cameras…

See? A lot smaller and more rounded looking – I think, anyway. But they’re not all the same, not by any means. They show different colours, textures and features. What I did was make a mosaic of several of those images showing the rocks around Curiosity, just to highlight these differences… again, click on it to enlarge it.

The images being sent back by Curiosity are already pretty close to “real colour”, which is fantastic (though I will miss, I admit, colourising them myself by combining images taken through different coloured filters, as I’ve been doing with Oppy all these years!)  and really show what I’ve been telling people in my Outreach talks for years – that the surface of Mars is, in “real life”, less of a red rusty colour and more the colour of crushed up digestive biscuits! But you know me, I can’t help “enhancing” things so here’s an enhanced version of that previous picture, with contrast boosted and sharpened up a bit, to bring out the differences between the rocks and to show subtle features on the ground itself, such as small ripples and piles of dust…

There are enough rocks here, around Curiosity, to keep the mission geologists happy for a while, and that’s good, because the rover isn’t roving anywhere just yet. Why? Because, having just updated her software, the MSL team are now checking Curiosity’s systems out in excruciating detail, making sure everything is fine before commanding her to start driving. That historic first drive is expected to occur in around a week, but a couple of days before the rover starts rolling she’ll playfully wiggle her wheels a little, just to check they’re fine too.

But as interesting as the rocks and stones around Curiosity are, it’s when the rover lifts her eyes from the ground and looks at the hirizon that you really begin to get a sense of what a spectacular place Gale is, and what an incredible adventure has just begun. Here’s a panoramic mosaic I made of a lot of images showing the horizon behind the rover – the faraway wall of Gale Crater…

Wow… look at that… isn’t that incredible? We’ve gotten used to seeing the hills on the opposite side of Endeavour crater, as seen by Oppy as she rolls her way around and over Cape York, but these hills are something different. They look so rugged, so rocky, so…

Familiar.

Yes, that’s what I thought the first time I saw a panorama of that part of the landscape. This place looks familiar. It doesn’t look alien to me, not at all. Those hills aren’t pocked with craters, like the ones on the farside of Endeavour, which make them look so alien and otherworldly; the hills looming up behind Curiosity look achingly terrestrial, like they should be under a blue sky, not a yellow-pink one. In fact, the first time I saw colour views of Gale Crater sent back by Curiosity I thought “It looks like Death Valley, or any one of a dozen other terrestrial locations where hills and mountains loom on the horizon of a bleak, rocky desert…”

Looking at that picture, you can easily imagine trekking across the desert floor to them and then starting to hike up them, can’t you?

As I said before, the colour pics being sent back by Curiosity are already pretty well colour balanced to make them look “realistic” (not the correct word to use, but you know what I mean), and that means they look a bit washed out, because Gale is a very dusty place, illuminated by a dim Sun shining in a dusty sky, so the colours are all muted. By enhancing those colours you can see more detail in those hills…

…but to really pull some detail out of those hills, you need to go back to a good old black and white image, and enhance that…

…but the *ultimate* enhancement is to vertically stretch the horizon, to really highlight the features and structures in the hills. This next image has been stretched vertically about 3x…

Now, again, Mars does NOT look like that – except in Chesley Bonestell paintings and science fiction films! I’m just messing about with the imagery to highlight the features in the landscape. (But Mars SHOULD look like that, don’t you think? How cool would that be?!)

So, behind the rover, are hills, beautiful hills, epic hills, enormous hills! But we’re never going to get any closer to them because that’s not the direction we’re going to drive in, so enjoy that view because it will not get any better – at least not until / if Curiosity ascends the slopes of Mt Sharp and looks back at them from a higher altitude, then that will be an incredible view – but that’s a long way off, so let’s not get carried away!

Of course, Curiosity was sent to Gale Crater to explore the rocky layers making up the mountain in its heart – Mt Sharp. And ever since Gale was chosen as Curiosity’s landing site, we’ve been desperate to see Mt Sharp from the ground, to look up at it and see it reaching up into the butterscotch coloured martian sky in all its geological glory. So let’s have a look at our best view so far of Mt Sharp…!

No high resolution pics have been taken of Mt Sharp yet! WHY??? Well, there’s actually a very good reason for that. The first images sent back by the rover were programmed into it before landing, and because the team thought Curiosity would land further away from the foot of the mountain than it actually did, when the camera turned towards Mt Sharp to take its portrait the rover was so close to it it chopped off the top of the mountain! (Hey, we’ve all done that with our holiday photos, right? Don’t be too harsh on her!) By distorting that image and playing about with it a bit we can actually see Mt Sharp a little more clearly…

I can’t wait to see that in high resolution colour, can you? We already know, from looking at the HiRISE images of Mt Sharp, that it is covered in ridges, ledges and outcrops, a true geological Narnia, but they’re only hinted at on that black and white picture. But be patient – apparently we’ll be getting full colour portraits of Mt Sharp within a few days. Then the drooling can begin!🙂

So, that’s where we’re heading, eventually, but to get there Curiosity will have to drive for about 8km, and between her landing site and the base of Mt Sharp is a wide swathe of dark, dark dust dunes. And we do have high resolution colour images of those…

Again, enhancing that brings out more detail…

And stretching that image really shows the nature of the dunefield – it’s almost like a medieval castle moat running around the base of Mt Sharp…

Sobering to think that Curiosity has to get across that “moat” before she can start to work her way up Mt Sharp! Actually, it seems, from what I’ve read, that the dust dunes won’t present much of an obstacle to Curiosity; the MSL team are confident she can work her way through them and start to climb up the rougher terrain at the foot of the mountain. Buit again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here! We won’t have to worry about that for a while yet!

Actually, I had a bit of a “moment” while we were on holiday last week. We went for a walk along the coast, to see the ruins of one of the many castles which litter the coastline. Our route took us up a beautiful sandy beach towards a range of sand dunes and low hills. Having seen those dunes at the foot of Mt Sharp just a few hours before, imagine my surprise and delight when I was faced with this view as we walked towards the castle…

Click on that and you’ll see why I had a bit of a “Hang on…” moment – don’t those dark rocks at the foot of the sandy hill look a lot like the dark dust dunes at the base of Mt Sharp?! See? Even on holiday by the seaside I can’t escape Mars!🙂

So, that’s where we are – on Mars, surrounded by brown and grey rocks, grit and gravel, sitting in the middle of a whopping great, ancient crater, with a sky-scratching mountain at its heart. Images are starting to come back, systems are being checked, and Curiosity is itching to get roving and start using all those magnificent scientific instruments she’s bristling with. You can almost hear her revving her engine, can’t you?🙂

In the next few days we will hopefully get our first clear views of Mt Sharp, and we’ll also hear how Curiosity’s systems checks are going in advance of her being commanded to take her first short drive on Mars.

Check back soon for more news.

One thought on “One week later…

  1. AdamK says:

    Absolutely outstanding Post mate !
    Two Rovers and two amazing blogs ! How lucky are you eh ?!
    Curiosity is truly going to take it to the ‘next level’.. The Stupendous HighRes of Mastcam will give you so much to play with. So pumped!

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