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Spirit On Mars


Yes, that is me, looking as dreadful in a photo as I always do. When Stella and I visited JPL last November (cripes, was it that long ago?!?! It seems like yesterday that we were wandering around the place…) I probably spent a lot more time than I should have done standing next to / looking down at / walking around the life-size models of the Mars rovers that are on display there. I couldn’t help it; I knew that was as close as I was ever going to get to one of them – seeing as there’s about as much chance of me going to Mars as there is of me fulfilling my teenage dream of marrying the beautiful Athena (sigh)  from the original mega-cheesy Battlestar Galactica TV series –  so I milked the opportunity for all it was worth, marvelling at the incredible engineering that went into building the robots, literally shaking my head in wonder at how exquisitely-made they were, like the most perfect origami models ever made. With their blue-black solar panel-covered backs, gleaming golden bodies and shining, unblinking eyes, Spirit and Oppy are wonderful to behold. And although many people insist that they are “just machines” whenever I wax lyrical about them, I really believe that if it’s possible for a machine to be beautiful, the Mars rovers are.

It’s pretty unlikely people will see the Mars rovers in-situ for a long, long time; the first few manned expeditions to Mars, whenever they happen, will land crews in other areas, far, far away from Meridiani and Gusev, where post-MER robots have discovered minerals or surface features more worthy of human study than the rovers’ old hunting grounds. So, apart from on the lovely images produced by NASA’s illustrators and other space artists, we’re not going to see pictures of the rovers standing on Mars, with the shrunken Sun glinting off their backs and dust coating their wheels, anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean we can’t see them at all.

As I pointed out in a previous post, lots of the images sent back by Spirit and Oppy have bits of the rovers in them. On almost any day you can go to the Exploratorium website and view the latest images sent back by the rovers, and find a few with parts of the rovers’ backs, wheels or radio dishes in them. And occasionally NASA releases a fascinating new “self portrait” taken by a rover – a mosaic of a dozen or so different images taken by the rover’s cameras as they were pointed down at its own back.

But sometimes we can see one of the rovers actually standing on Mars taken by a different spacecraft altogether – the “martian spy satellite” Mars Reconaissance Orbiter, or MRO. MRO has a stunningly-good camera called HiRISE, which has such good resolution that it’s able to pick out features the size of a table – and that means it can actually spot the Mars rovers on the rock- and boulder-strewn surface of Mars.

It goes without saying that this is a technological triumph, and an amazing demonstration of just how good HiRISE is. But it’s also, I think, just a VERY cool thing! It still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up whenever I look at a HiRISE image and see a machine that we built sitting there, on Mars! That’s science fiction, surely?! 🙂

I mention this because the other day I had a bit of time to kill – well, ok, I didn’t, I had a ton of things to do, but I really couldn’t be bothered to do any of them – so I thought I’d take a look at how many images HiRISE had taken of Homeplate, the feature on Mars currently being explored by Spirit. Browsing MRO’s imaging coverage of the area using the wonderful Mars Global Data website (which allows you to see almost every photo ever taken of Mars from orbit) I found that HiRISE has imaged Homeplate and its surroundings quite  a few times, and clicked on one of the images just for a look. This is what I saw when the IAS Viewer opened up and showed me the “RGB colour” version of the HiRISE image PSP_009174_1650, taken on July 11th 2008… 


That’s a kind-of-false-colour image of Homeplate, of course, a flat, rock-covered plateau in the shadow of Husband Hill that’s instantly recognisable to anyone even remotely interested in the MER mission. Then something caught my eye, and if you already clicked on the image above to enlarge it you’ll have seen what it was…


Those lines had to be the tracks Spirit made as it trundled across the top of Homeplate!

Now, this obviously wasn’t a “discovery”, there have been many MRO images showing the rovers’ tracks, but this one jumped out at me because the tracks just seemed so clear and sharp…

…and then when I looked closer I spotted something even more interesting, up at the top of the image, on the northern edge of Homeplate… the tracks stopped at a small cluster of dark pixels there. That meant only one thing – that was Spirit, right there, parked up on the inclined edge of Homeplate!


Again, this wasn’t really a discovery, but it felt like it to me, because of the process I’d gone through – finding Gusev Crater on the Global Data site, finding the HiRISE images of the Columbia Hills, etc – and because I hadn’t been expecting it. I know, I know, I’m easily pleased! But then a thought occurred to me… what would that scene look like in true – or at least truer – colour? If I was flying over Gusev Crater in a Mars glider, what would I see when I peered down at Homeplate..? I decided to find out. Putting the image into Photoshop I messed about with carefully manipulated and enhanced it until it looked more “martian” to me, i.e. less icy blue and more, well, martian! This is what I got…(Please click on the image to see it properly)


Now, I have to be honest, I’m really pleased with that! It brings this area of Mars to life all over again for me, and really shows just how amazing Spirit’s adventure on Mars has been and continues to be.

 Let’s zoom in on Homeplate a bit more, and show Spirit more clearly…


Look at how those tracks meander across the top of Homeplate… I love that view… just look what we did! Our often-stupid, arrogant, cruel, self-obsessed species built a robot and sent it to Mars, then took its photograph with ANOTHER robot that we built and sent to Mars!

We are such a contradictory race. We build bombs and machines and chemicals and plagues that could wipe out every trace of life on our planet, yet scan the starry sky above us, and the dusty surfaces of other worlds in our solar system for traces of alien life; we attack, abuse, rape and murder each other, yet we come together to build machines to help unravel the mysteries of the universe; we spent obscene amounts of money on building tanks and guns and planes to blow each other into bloody shreds and scraps of raw meat, yet spend a tenth of that on building telescopes and spaceprobes and space stations to help us make sense out of the cosmos. Sometimes I just don’t get it. I don’t get it at all.

But then I look at an image like that, showing a little rover on the surface of Mars, resting after almost driving itself to death in the pursuit of knowledge, and I think “Yeah… maybe there’s hope for us after all…”


2 Responses

  1. Awesome post, and discovery – you’re right, there is hope. The little rover that could, and does.

  2. Awesome! And very well said. Thank you for the images of your “discovery”. If only more world leaders would realize that humans were meant to explore and learn, not to dominate each other.

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