Nasa's Mars rover has captured the planet's surface in unprecedented detail
Nasa’s Curiosity rover is currently exploring the vast, barren surface of Mars.
And to remind us all of quite how desolate the planet’s surface is, the rover has created a massive panorama shot of the rolling red hills.
Composed of more than 1,000 images that were taken over the Thanksgiving period in 2019, this picture is the most detailed one we have of Mars’ surface. It’s a composite of 1.8 billion pixels and shows the ‘Glen Torridon’ region of Mars that Curiosity is currently exploring.
According to Nasa, it took more than six hours over the course of four days for the camera on Curiosity to capture all the images. Operators from Earth programmed the camera to make sure the shots were in focus. They also made sure the lighting was consistent by only taking pictures between 12pm and 2pm Mars time.
‘While many on our team were at home enjoying turkey, Curiosity produced this feast for the eyes,’ said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientist at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which leads the Curiosity rover mission.
‘This is the first time during the mission we’ve dedicated our operations to a stereo 360-degree panorama.’
Last year, Curiosity found a mysterious ‘oasis’ on the surface of Mars, raising hopes that evidence of life may also one day be found on the Red Planet.
The Rover discovered traces of ‘shallow, salty ponds that went through episodes of overflow and drying’.
It made the astonishing find within Gale Crater, a 100-mile-wide dry lakebed, using a tool which allows it to zap Martian rocks with a laser to work out their chemical make-up. The discovery is more proof that Mars was once able to support life – but is not quite the smoking gun which proves extraterrestrial organisms thrived on the now-barren planet.
‘We’ve learned over the years of Curiosity’s traverse across Gale Crater that Mars’ climate was habitable once, long ago,’ said Roger Wiens, the principal investigator of the ChemCam instrument at Los Alamos National Laboratory and co-author of a paper on the research.
‘What these new findings show is that the climate on Mars was not as stable as we thought it was. ‘There were very wet periods and very dry periods.’
Currently, Mars is a ‘freezing desert’, but it was once wetter and therefore more hospitable. Analysis of the rocks in the desiccated oasis suggest its rocks dried out completely at times but were soaked at others, indicating huge ‘fluctuations in the Martian climate’.
Gale Crater was formed in a massive impact and was eventually filled with sediment. Over the aeons, the wind carved out a large hill which has been named Mount Sharp, which Curiosity is currently climbing up.
‘We went to Gale Crater because it preserves this unique record of a changing Mars,” said lead author William Rapin of Caltech. ‘Understanding when and how the planet’s climate started evolving is a piece of another puzzle: When and how long was Mars capable of supporting microbial life at the surface?’
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