New images taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are providing fresh views of NASA’s Insight lander and Curiosity rover on the Martian surface.
The Opportunity rover died last year after being smothered by dust, which means NASA has just two robotic probes currently investigating the Martian surface: the six-wheeled Curiosity rover and the immobile InSight lander. Flying high above in space, however, is NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which regularly scans the Martian surface in search of cool new things, like dried-up river channels, fresh impact craters, and the occasional, ahem, elephant.
Sometimes the orbiter’s HiRISE camera looks down upon the machines below. This happened recently, according to a NASA press release, so we’ve got some nice new photos of Curiosity and InSight.
InSight is located in a region called Elysium Planitia, which hugs the Martian equator. MRO took the picture above on September 23, 2019 from a height of 272 kilometres (169 miles). The image is so clear that the lander’s two solar panels, which measure 6 metres (20 feet) from one end to the other, are clearly visible. The bright white spot is the dome-shaped shield currently covering InSight’s marsquake detector, which has produced some interesting results. The streaks seen near the lander are tracks left behind by dust devils—one of which actually swept over the lander back in May.
The MRO took a grainy photo of InSight in December 2018, but NASA considers this the clearest image yet taken of lander from space, as the agency explains in its press release:
Several factors make this image crisper than a set of images released after InSight’s November 2018 landing. For one thing, there’s less dust in the air this time. Shadows are offset from the lander because this is an oblique view looking west. The lighting was also optimal for avoiding the bright reflections from the lander or its solar panels that have obscured surrounding pixels in other images. However, bright reflections are unavoidable with the seismometer cover just south of the lander because of its dome shape.
As for the dark material surrounding the lander, that was caused by InSight’s retrorockets during its descent.
Before-and-after pics showing Curiosity’s progress from May 31 to July 20, 2019. Gif: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.
Meanwhile, some 600 kilometres (373 miles) away, Curiosity has been busy at a region known as the clay-bearing unit. Before-and-after pics show the progress made by Curiosity as it travelled 337 metres (1,106 feet) from an area called Woodland Bay (top) to Sandside Harbour (bottom), which it did from May 31 to July 20, 2019. Incredibly, the rover’s tracks can be seen if you look closely.
The lonely surface of Mars will soon have a couple more residents. NASA’s yet-to-be named Mars 2020 rover and ESA’s ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover are scheduled to launch next year. That’ll mean more cool science, as well as new photo targets for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.