For the past twenty years, the United States’ space fairing organization NASA has maintained a continuous presence on the surface and in orbit above Mars. Rovers and satellite telescopes traverse the barren expanse of the Red Planet in search of answers about the formation of our solar system, the environment of other planets, and perhaps the most important question of all, whether or not life exists elsewhere in the universe.
That search has prompted many amateur explorers to pour over images sent back from NASA assets on Mars, looking for anything the government’s scientists may have missed (or intentionally omitted) that could potentially answer some of these questions. Some of the more zealous of these efforts have produced claims of giant faces purportedly carved by a now extinct civilization, alien beings that resemble President Donald Trump, and geological formations said to contain Morse code.
Of course, most of these claims can be easily dismissed as tricks of light or coincidental rock outcroppings – but one image released by NASA this month does show something moving far below on the surface of the planet.
The image, taken by the most powerful telescope ever sent to Mars, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, shows a tiny bluish dot amid the sea of red that makes up Mars’ surface. That blue dot, climbing along the edge of Mount Sharp, is NASA’s own Curiosity Rover.
This isn’t the first time the orbiter has caught a glimpse of one of NASA’s rovers hard at work on the planet’s surface, but it offers an incredible view into the vastness of NASA’s challenge in exploring the Red Planet. The Curiosity Rover, which is nearly the size of a small pickup truck, possesses the most advanced scientific technology ever to reach the surface of Mars. However, despite being the approximate size of a vehicle you might find on the freeway here on earth, the Curiosity Rover can only reach a maximum speed of .09 miles per hour.
Mars, of course, is significantly smaller than Earth, but still has a radius of about 2,100 miles. If the Curiosity Rover spent a full day at top speed, and made no stops to conduct any type of scientific research, it could span a bit more than two of those miles in a twenty-four hour period.
Of course, Curiosity is there specifically to conduct scientific experiments and to gather data, meaning its unlikely to try to burn rubber any time soon. It’s difficult to gauge exactly how far the rover has traveled in the five years since it landed on the surface of Mars, in large part because of how it navigates. It receives direction provided in centimeters (i.e. move forward one hundred centimeters and turn right) but Mars does not have the web of GPS satellites above it to track its progress like we do on Earth, it must gauge distance via an on-board odometer that can be fooled by things like losing traction and spinning its wheels.
Despite this challenge, NASA scientists are able to use software to compensate by sending the rover to “waypoints” that are a set distance away. Using this method, they are able to extrapolate the approximate distance the rover has covered throughout its time on Mars… and it isn’t much.
Last June, it was announced that in four years, the Curiosity Rover had not yet covered the length of the island of Manhattan; which is only 13.4 miles. The rover actually has an average of covering only a little over two miles per year.
With that perspective in mind, this satellite image, taken on June 5th, creates a sort of perspective: that tiny dot on the hostile surface of Mars has a long way to go in uncovering the secrets of the Red Planet.
Feature image courtesy of NASA