NASA has released an awesome panorama of the surface of Mars taken by its Curiosity rover – although predictably some have found hidden meaning in the image.
On August 9, the rover took images of its surroundings at a location called Vera Rubin Ridge, allowing NASA to produce a 360-degree panorama of the area. The skies look particularly dusty, as Mars is just recovering from a global dust storm that has left the Opportunity rover in the lurch.
By stitching together images NASA was also able to show a view of Curiosity itself, including a layer of dust on the rover. Thankfully Curiosity is nuclear powered, not solar powered, so it wasn’t affected by the dust storm.
What’s especially cool is that you can see a drill hole in the ground near the rover, named “Stoer” after a Scottish town where lakebed sediments helped make discoveries about early Earth. The rover’s drill can produce holes several centimeters down to collect material to analyze in the rover, although a new method has been needed recently to break down particularly hard rocks.
“The new drill sample delighted Curiosity's science team, because the rover's last two drill attempts were thwarted by unexpectedly hard rocks,” NASA said in a statement.
It’s not entirely clear why rocks in this region are so hard, but one possibility is that it's due to the presence of hematite – a mineral that forms in water. Hematite could result in the rocks becoming harder, but that’s not known for certain yet.
Curiosity is going to drill two more samples in the region in September, before heading for its greatest challenge yet – climbing up Mount Sharp. This has been one of the key goals for the rover since it landed on Mars in August 2012, with the ascent expected to begin in October.
We have also got to mention, sigh, that the panorama has attracted some conspiracy theorists. They pointed out that a rocky bank in the distance looked a bit like a rusted pipe. Because, you know, why not.
“Looks like a rusted pipe, the longer I look at it,” a user on the Above Top Secret forum said. “Yup – you enlarge it, and it has gradient shading, like a cylinder or pipe.”
To their credit others on the forum did point out it looked more like a tabletop bluff, features seen all over Earth such as in parts of Texas. Predictably the forum then moved onto conspiracy theories about scientists faking research to get funding and other crap.
Anyway, let’s focus on the panorama itself, which is super cool. But while Curiosity is still going strong, spare a thought for Opportunity, which is facing a battle for survival as the dust storm clears.