Orbiter spots Curiosity from space, shows our rover friend on surface of Mars

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NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover can be seen in this image taken from space on May 31, 2019, by the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. In the image, Curiosity appears as a bluish speck. NASA/JPL-Caltech

If you’ve been wondering how Curiosity is faring on Mars, now you can see for yourself, thanks to this image of the rover captured from orbit by NASA’s HiRISE camera.

Curiosity is sitting pretty in a location called Woodland Bay, which is part of the clay-bearing unit it has been exploring for several months. It is searching for clay in particular because it forms when water is present, so finding clay indicates that there could have been surface water on Mars in the distant past. The clay-bearing unit lies on one side of Mount Sharp, a mountain 3 miles (5 kilometers) tall which is located inside the Gale Crater.

If you look very closely, you can see Curiosity’s mast sticking out on the top left of the rover. This is the remote sensing mast, a long arm which holds up instruments like the ChemCam, which analyzes the composition of rocks from a distance using a laser, and the Mastcam, a high definition camera which captures images and video from the surface of the planet. When this image was taken, the rover was facing about 10 on a clock face, so the mast appears in front of the rover.

The rover and its mast in particular are very bright in the image, due to the way that HiRISE works. Due to its smooth surfaces, the rover reflects light which is picked up by the HiRISE camera. “A specular (mirror-like) reflection occurs when most of the light hitting a surface is reflected in a single direction, and can be seen by an observer looking from exactly that direction,” Alfred McEwen, Principal Investigator for HiRISE, explained in a statement.  “So for HiRISE to see specular reflections on the rover, the sun and MRO need to be in just the right locations.”

HiRISE is an instrument aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), an orbiting craft which both gathers data for scientific missions and helps other craft to land on the planet. It helped choose landing sites for previous Mars landers like the Phoenix, and it acted as support during the landing of InSight. HiRISE is enjoying something of a famous few weeks, as it’s the same camera which spotted the Star Trek logo on Mars last month.

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