MAHLI imager

Solar System: Things to Know This Week

Reaching out into space yields benefits on Earth. Many of these have practical applications — but there’s something more than that. Call it inspiration, perhaps, what photographer Ansel Adams referred to as nature’s “endless prospect of magic and wonder." 

Our ongoing exploration of the solar system has yielded more than a few magical images. Why not keep some of them close by to inspire your own explorations? This week, we offer 10 planetary photos suitable for wallpapers on your desktop or phone. Find many more in our galleries. These images were the result of audacious expeditions into deep space; as author Edward Abbey said, "May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.”

1. Martian Selfie

This self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the robotic geologist in the “Murray Buttes” area on lower Mount Sharp. Key features on the skyline of this panorama are the dark mesa called “M12” to the left of the rover’s mast and pale, upper Mount Sharp to the right of the mast. The top of M12 stands about 23 feet (7 meters) above the base of the sloping piles of rocks just behind Curiosity. The scene combines approximately 60 images taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager, or MAHLI, camera at the end of the rover’s robotic arm. Most of the component images were taken on September 17, 2016.

2. The Colors of Pluto

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution, enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). Pluto’s surface sports a remarkable range of subtle colors, enhanced in this view to a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a complex geological and climatological story that scientists have only just begun to decode.

3. The Day the Earth Smiled

On July 19, 2013, in an event celebrated the world over, our Cassini spacecraft slipped into Saturn’s shadow and turned to image the planet, seven of its moons, its inner rings — and, in the background, our home planet, Earth. This mosaic is special as it marks the third time our home planet was imaged from the outer solar system; the second time it was imaged by Cassini from Saturn’s orbit, the first time ever that inhabitants of Earth were made aware in advance that their photo would be taken from such a great distance.

4. Looking Back

Before leaving the Pluto system forever, New Horizons turned back to see Pluto backlit by the sun. The small world’s haze layer shows its blue color in this picture. The high-altitude haze is thought to be similar in nature to that seen at Saturn’s moon Titan. The source of both hazes likely involves sunlight-initiated chemical reactions of nitrogen and methane, leading to relatively small, soot-like particles called tholins. This image was generated by combining information from blue, red and near-infrared images to closely replicate the color a human eye would perceive.

5. Catching Its Own Tail

A huge storm churning through the atmosphere in Saturn’s northern hemisphere overtakes itself as it encircles the planet in this true-color view from Cassini. This picture, captured on February 25, 2011, was taken about 12 weeks after the storm began, and the clouds by this time had formed a tail that wrapped around the planet. The storm is a prodigious source of radio noise, which comes from lightning deep within the planet’s atmosphere.

6. The Great Red Spot

Another massive storm, this time on Jupiter, as seen in this dramatic close-up by Voyager 1 in 1979. The Great Red Spot is much larger than the entire Earth.

7. More Stormy Weather

Jupiter is still just as stormy today, as seen in this recent view from NASA’s Juno spacecraft, when it soared directly over Jupiter’s south pole on February 2, 2017, from an altitude of about 62,800 miles (101,000 kilometers) above the cloud tops. From this unique vantage point we see the terminator (where day meets night) cutting across the Jovian south polar region’s restless, marbled atmosphere with the south pole itself approximately in the center of that border. This image was processed by citizen scientist John Landino. This enhanced color version highlights the bright high clouds and numerous meandering oval storms.

8. X-Ray Vision

X-rays stream off the sun in this image showing observations from by our Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, overlaid on a picture taken by our Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). The NuSTAR data, seen in green and blue, reveal solar high-energy emission. The high-energy X-rays come from gas heated to above 3 million degrees. The red channel represents ultraviolet light captured by SDO, and shows the presence of lower-temperature material in the solar atmosphere at 1 million degrees.

9. One Space Robot Photographs Another

This image from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows Victoria crater, near the equator of Mars. The crater is approximately half a mile (800 meters) in diameter. It has a distinctive scalloped shape to its rim, caused by erosion and downhill movement of crater wall material. Since January 2004, the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has been operating in the region where Victoria crater is found. Five days before this image was taken in October 2006, Opportunity arrived at the rim of the crater after a drive of more than over 5 miles (9 kilometers). The rover can be seen in this image, as a dot at roughly the “ten o'clock” position along the rim of the crater. (You can zoom in on the full-resolution version here.)

10. Night Lights

Last, but far from least, is this remarkable new view of our home planet. Last week, we released new global maps of Earth at night, providing the clearest yet composite view of the patterns of human settlement across our planet. This composite image, one of three new full-hemisphere views, provides a view of the Americas at night from the NASA-NOAA Suomi-NPP satellite. The clouds and sun glint — added here for aesthetic effect — are derived from MODIS instrument land surface and cloud cover products.

Discover more lists of 10 things to know about our solar system HERE.

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Curiosity Selfie

This self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the “Big Sky” site, where its drill collected the mission’s fifth taste of Mount Sharp.

The scene combines dozens of images taken during the 1,126th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s work during Mars (Oct. 6, 2015, PDT), by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera at the end of the rover’s robotic arm.

Solar System: Things to Know This Week

This week, we celebrate the fifth anniversary of the moment our Mars Science Laboratory mission landed the Curiosity rover in Gale Crater. 

In fact, this summer brings several red letter days in Red Planet exploration. Here are 10 things to know about the anniversary of the Curiosity landing—plus some other arrivals at Mars you may not know about.

This self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at a drilled sample site called “Okoruso,” on the “Naukluft Plateau” of lower Mount Sharp. The scene combines multiple images taken with the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on May 11, 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/MSSS

1. Seven Minutes of Terror 

For Curiosity, landing on Mars meant slowing from about 13,000 MPH (21,000 KPH) to a full stop in just seven minutes. Engineers came up with an innovative–and bold–plan to make this happen, but no one could be 100% certain it would work. In this video, some of the Curiosity engineers who designed the entry, descent and landing system for the mission talk candidly about the challenges of Curiosity’s final moments before touchdown in August 2012.

2. Sweet Success 

Relive the tension, and the celebration, of the night Curiosity landed on Mars. You can also simulate the entire landing process in 3-D on your own computer using NASA’s free Eyes on the Solar System app.

3. Echoes of Ancient Waters 

What has Curiosity discovered during its roving so far? The key takeaway: the stark deserts of Gale Crater were once home to lakes and streams of liquid water, a place where life could potentially have thrived. Learn more about the mission’s scientific findings.

4. Pretty as a Postcard

Sometimes science can be beautiful, as pictures from Mars prove. You can peruse some of Curiosity’s best shots. What’s more, you can see the very latest images—often on the same day they’re downlinked from Mars.

5. Take It for a Spin

Have you ever wanted to try driving a Mars rover yourself? You can (virtually anyway). Try the Experience Curiosity app right in your web browser.

6. Mars Trekking 

Maybe someday you’ll be able to take a day hike across the Martian landscape. You can at least plan your route right now, using NASA’s Mars Trek site. This interactive mapping tool lets you explore important Red Planet locations using actual terrain imagery from orbiting satellites. You can even retrace the real locations on Mars where the fictional astronaut Mark Watney traveled in “The Martian.”

7. A First Time for Everything

Curiosity stands (well, rolls) on the shoulders of giants. Several NASA missions blazed the trail for the current crop of robotic explorers. The first was Mariner 4, which is also celebrating an anniversary this summer. Mariner 4 was the first spacecraft to return photos of another planet from deep space when it flew by Mars on July 15, 1965. Mariner engineers were so impatient to see the first pictures it sent back, that they hand-colored a printout of raw numeric data sent by the spacecraft, in order to construct one of the first color images of Mars.

8. Pathfinders and Panoramas 

Another important pathfinder on Mars was…Mars Pathfinder. This mission just marked its 20th anniversary. To commemorate the first successful Mars rover, NASA created a new 360-degree VR panorama of its landing site you can view right in your browser.

9. One Small Step for a Robot

The first spacecraft to make a successful landing on Mars was Viking 1, which touched down in the Chryse Planitia region on July 20, 1976. It worked for more than six years, performing the first Martian soil analysis using its robotic arm and an onbaord biological laboratory. While it found no conclusive evidence of life, Viking 1 did help us understand Mars as a planet with volcanic soil, a thin, dry carbon dioxide atmosphere and striking evidence for ancient river beds and vast flooding.

10. Mars Explorers Needed 

There is much more to come. The next Mars lander, InSight, is slated for launch next year. Ride along with NASA’s ongoing adventures on the Red Planet at:

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The upper photo of the Curiosity Calibration Target was shot by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI)on Mars.

The lower photo is a comparison shot done on Earth in artificial light.

Clearly visible is the influence the Mars atmosphere has on the perception of colors by the Bayer Pattern Filter CCD sensor used in MAHLI.

The colors in images from Mars can be adjusted (color and white-balanced) in a way that pictures taken there do appear as if taken under Earth lighting conditions. This makes it easier for scientists to recognize and identify geological features because of course no scientist is accustomed to see these under Mars lighting conditions.

Martian Anniversary Selfie

Image Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, MSSS

Explanation: June 24th marked the first full Martian year of the Curiosity Rover’s exploration of the surface of the Red Planet. That’s 687 Earth days or 669 sols since its landing on August 5, 2012. To celebrate, consider this self-portrait of the car-sized robot posing next to a rocky outcrop dubbed Windjana, its recent drilling and sampling site. The mosaicked selfie was constructed with frames taken this April and May using the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), intended for close-up work and mounted at the end of the rover’s robotic arm. The MAHLI frames used exclude sections that show the arm itself and so MAHLI and the robotic arm are not seen. Famous for panoramic views, the rover’s Mastcam is visible though, on top of the tall mast staring toward the left and down at the drill hole.