10 Amazing Sights Caught by the Mars Rovers

posted: 03/08/17
by: Rachel Riederer

On the dry, windy surface of Mars, two rovers--mobile robotic machines equipped with cameras and scientific instruments--are slowly traversing the surface, sending back data about the red planet's climate and geology. Opportunity, a solar-powered rover, has been operating on Mars since 2004; Curiosity, powered with a nuclear generator, has been there since 2011. Here are ten of the most fascinating--and important-- sights the rovers have taken in over the course of their missions:

  1. Swirling dust devils

The dry Martian surface kicks up plenty of sand and dust. When heat from the sun warms the surface, the warm air rises and creates gyres of spinning grit that travel over the surface like tornadoes. A recent video from the Opportunity rover captures a series of dust devils spinning across the horizon.

  1. Yellowknife Bay

This shallow depression on the Martian surface is full of fractured rock that Ashwin Vasavada of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory calls "beautiful platey sandstone." What's so beautiful about it? The sand participles in these ancient ripples are too big to have been blown there in the wind, offering evidence that the ripples were created by flowing water in a previous age. A crucial discovery, since a main objection of the Mars rovers is to discover the history of water on Mars.

  1. Mount Sharp

This 3-mile-high mountain of layered rock, sitting inside the Gale Crater near the landing site for the Curiosity rover, is a kind of geologic time capsule. Vasavada explains, "Mars was a very different place at one point. What we're asking with Curiosity is: was Mars ever a habitable planet?" Mount Sharp, with its layers of different types of rocks and soil, offers "a record of history, like the Grand Canyon."

  1. Botany Bay

The Opportunity rover spent its tenth anniversary crossing this outcrop on the western rim of the Endeavor Crater. After crossing many loose and rippled surfaces, the flat, almost tiled surface of Botany Bay made for "remarkably good driving," said Brad Joliff, who works on the Opportunity science team. After ten years of hard driving, it must have been a welcome relief!

  1. Blue sunsets and swooping moons

The rovers are equipped with panoramic cameras that catch wide-angle views of the planet's surface and sky, giving viewers here on Earth a sense of the vistas from Mars. In 2010, Opportunity captured a sunset that is truly out of this world. Dust particles make the sky appear red, and the sun glows blue. In other images taken from the Curiosity rover, one of the moons that orbit Mars, called Phobos, makes an appearance, swooping in front of the setting blue sun. Too small to block out the sun for a full eclipse, this partial blocking is called a transit.

  1. Husband Hill

In 2005, the now out-of-commission rover Spirit was making its way up Husband Hill, in an area of Mars called Gusev. Along these outcrops, Spirit found various types of rock that showed evidence of past water and volcanic activity. Although scientists couldn't say with exact certainty how these formations came to be, they could tell the formations came from some interaction of water and magma.

  1. Victoria Crater

This impact crater near the Martian equator is half a mile wide, with scalloped edges formed as material along its rim fall into the crater below. Opportunity spent a year exploring the crater's rim and another year exploring the floor below, taking samples and images of the layers of sediments that make up the cliffs around the crater's edge.

  1. The Interplanetary Hole-in-One

When Opportunity first rocketed through the Martian atmosphere and parachuted down to the surface, it landed inside a small impact crater, in what scientists called an "interplanetary hole-in-one." The area around the crater showed evidence of having once been a shallow salty sea that could have been hospitable to life--though the rovers aren't equipped to hunt for fossils, this area could be a rich one for future study.

  1. Cape Tribulation

In 2015, Opportunity reached the top of a high peak on the rim of the Endeavor Crater. At the summit, one of the highest the rovers have reached, it was able to take striking photos of the surrounding landscape below.

  1. The Mars Blueberries

One of Opportunity's most exciting discoveries was also one of its earliest. When Opportunity landed, it found tiny minerals spheres scattered throughout the dust. These blue-gray iron-rich balls likely contain hematite. Scientists suggested that these spheres, which they nicknamed "blueberries," had been formed when groundwater flowed through porous rocks, and the berries seemed to be evidence of an ancient aquifer. Ten years later, others have suggested that the blueberries are simply asteroid debris. The truth of the blueberries--like many of the mysteries of Mars--remains for space explorers to debate and discover.

Explore Discover Life! We're probing questions about Mars, from how humans might live there to where alien life might be hiding to survive the extremes. Plus, find out how we're preparing for the journey via extended stays on the ISS.

This experience is brought to you by the sci-fi thriller LIFE, in theaters March 24th.

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