Spirit And The Amazing Technicolour Dust Devils


What are they? I’ve seen some odd photos from the Martian surface, but when I first saw this image, the pinks, blues and yellow smudges looked… alien. The surprise probably comes from the fact that we are so used to the rusty red pictures to come from the various rovers, landers and satellites, that any colour not a variation of red comes as a shock.

Although it looks odd, there is in fact a sensible answer to these ghostly splodges on the horizon. This photo was snapped by Mars Expedition Rover (MER) Spirit back on sol 1919 of the MER mission on May 27th, 2009.

Using its panoramic camera (Pancam), Spirit performed a number of exposures, each one using a different colour filter. With some luck during the photography session of the Martian landscape, a dust devil (a mini whirlwind) meandered through the Pancam’s field of view. In each frame taken with different filters, the only feature moving would have been the swirling dust, so that’s why it appears as a different hue than the surrounding landscape.

Dust devils occur on both Mars and on Earth when solar energy heats the surface, resulting in a layer of warm air just above the surface. Since the warmed air is less dense than the cooler atmosphere above it, it rises, making a swirling thermal plume that picks up the fine dust from the surface and carries it up into the atmosphere. This plume of dust moves with the local wind.NASA/JPL

Dust devils have provided some unexpected fun for the rovers, often tuning up unannounced. These make for interesting observations of local weather conditions, but they also provide an essential mini-undusting service for the wheeled robot’s solar panels.

And now they’ve been pictured in technicolour. How nice.

Source: NASA/JPL

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I See Mars Faces… Everywhere

The two suspect shapes spotted by Mars conspiracy theorists. Exhibit 1: The Egyptian statue. Exhibit 2: ??

During my search for material for last week’s Wide Angle: Mars Roving on Discovery, I was looking for images snapped by the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) Spirit and Opportunity. During my trawl around Google Images, I managed to find a high-resolution picture of the rocky outcrop on the side of Victoria Crater when Opportunity was imaging the area in 2006.

I’ve always loved these Victoria images; you can easily see layering in the exposed rock and boulders strewn below. In fact, this could be a black and white picture of the Utah desert, or a wide angle view of the Grand Canyon. But no, this is Mars; lifeless Mars.

Or is it?

One version of the Opportunity image can be found on a conspiracy website, where a ‘study’ has been carried out. And guess what they found?

Oh yes, apparently a Martian civilization worshiped the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, carving a statue more commonly associated with pyramids into the crater wall (“Exhibit A” in the image above). Also, there’s a curiously shaped multi-layer disk on the ground — obviously some kind of alien artifact (“Exhibit B”).


Normally I’d ignore something like this, but I thought I’d have a little fun one evening (because my evenings simply aren’t exciting enough, it seems). Inspired by Phil Plait’s visions of Miss Piggy in a Mars mesa last week, I wanted to test myself and go on a pareidolia hunt of my own, armed with the Victoria crater pic, my imagination and questionable eyesight.

The human brain is a strange old thing at times, creating recognizable features out of random, inanimate objects, and that is exactly what some people use as “proof” of their nutty theory or visions of the second coming. People see Jesus in burnt toast, Michael Jackson in cloud formations and, in this case, ancient Egyptian statues carved into crater rims on Mars.

So have a look at this, I impressed myself (note the outstanding use of Photoshop):

Mars faces:

What I discovered in this single NASA Mars image:

A: Exhibit A – the Egyptian statue.
B: Exhibit B – some other artifact.
C: Admiral "It’s a trap!" Ackbar from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
D: Audry II, the blood-drinking plant from Little Shop of Horrors.
E: Jabba the Hutt, or an angry toad.
F: A gorilla’s head (kinda).
G: Can’t remember what I saw in this… but it’s kinda alien looking… right?
H: Insane-looking face. Could be the Mad Hatter?
I: Weird-looking Picasso face.
J: The alien from Predator.
K: Human head.
L: Another Egyptian statue, head part.
M: Humanoid skull!

I’ve even got a full-resolution version in case you can’t see the fruits of my imagination (all 4MB of it). But who cares if you can’t see Jabba, Ackbar, skulls or statues? That’s not the point; most conspiracy sites skew the facts to convince the reader to believe their false claims anyway. Hmmm… I’m quite good at this, perhaps I should start my own ‘Mars Faces’ conspiracy, only including characters from Star Warshmmm.

I’m personally most impressed with the “humanoid skull” (M), “Admiral Ackbar” (C) and the “insane face” (H). Obviously the ancient Martian civilization were a part of the Empire (not so far, far away), carried out sacrifices on humanoids (bones now littering the plains), worshipped Egyptian kings and had killer rock sculpting skills. Obviously.

Want more Mars faces? We have some puzzles on the subject over at Discovery Space! What are the odds…

Mars Rover Spirit is Stuck in the Regolith

Spirit is stuck (NASA)

Mars Exploration Rover Spirit is in trouble again. She’s stuck.

The tenacious little robot has suffered traction problems before and has even been dragging around a broken wheel for the last three years, leaving the other five to take up the slack. Then there’s the dust storms that have hindered the life-giving solar panels ability to collect sunlight. And most recently, the on-board computers have been rebooting and Spirit’s flash memory has been forgetting to record data.

A little help here? Spirit has driven into soft ground, burying her wheels halfway. Engineers are working plans to extricate her. –A distress tweet from @MarsRovers

One of Spirit's buried wheels as taken by the front hazard-avoidance camera on Sol 1899, May 6th (NASA)

One of Spirit's buried wheels as taken by the front hazard-avoidance camera on Sol 1899, May 6th (NASA)

Now, she’s stuck in the Martian dirt after slipping backwards down a slope during a series of backward drives around a plateau called “Home Plate.”

Spirit is in a very difficult situation,” JPL project manager John Callas said. “We are proceeding methodically and cautiously. It may be weeks before we try moving Spirit again. Meanwhile, we are using Spirit’s scientific instruments to learn more about the physical properties of the soil that is giving us trouble.”

At JPL, a team have been assembled to try to find a solution to the problem with a model of the situation here on Earth. Unfortunately the wheels are stuck fast, half-buried, and scientists are increasingly worried that any attempts to free the struggling rover could make matters worse. The concern is for the chassis under the robot. Should it make contact with the rocks underneath, it would effectively beach itself, completely losing traction that could be used to free the wheels. In short, the situation is not good, but NASA is working overtime to find ways to get the rover on the road once more.

Fortunately, wind has helped the ailing rover recently, clearing excess dust off the solar panels, giving Spirit a much needed energy boost, but will it be enough to get her out of this difficult situation? If there’s a way, Spirit will find it, as let’s face it, she’s lived through a lot of hard knocks…

Source: NASA, AP

Slow News Day: Alien Skull On Mars


This just came in from the Telegraph, apparently Mars Exploration Rover Spirit has spotted a random skull on the Martian surface. This is obviously the only interpretation… as we know what an alien looks like, don’t we? Big head, big eyes, pasty grey skin. Something like this? Or, more likely, like this? Or this? Wow, it could be any one of them.

However, it’s not quite that exciting.

It’s a rock, as you may have already guessed. And no, the Telegraph isn’t taking it seriously either. (Although The Sun’s microreport could be taken either way.)

Although the newspaper’s article resembles a badly conditioned April Fools gag, there is one glaring error, well two actually. No, three.

Firstly, Spirit is not a camera – it’s a whole robot with a camera attached (called the Panoramic Camera, or Pancam for short). If it was just a camera, could you imagine the movie location costs?

Second, I’m not sure why this was filed in “Science News”. It obviously needs to be filed under “It’s a Slow News Day, We’ll Report Anything”.

And thirdly, I seriously doubt this image got “space-gazers talking”. When I last looked at one of Opportunity’s panoramic shots, I could see all kinds of strange things in the Mars dirt. If I was a conspiracy theorist, I’d love poking around the shapes and shadows, thinking I could see skulls, flying hubcaps and mysterious plant-like features. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist, I’m a “space-gazer”, but I’m not “talking”.

As it’s late, I’ve given up trying to find the source of the article (no links – come on Telegraph, if you’re gonna play blogging for the day, at least reference your lead!). Apparently some “UFO hunters” were being serious, but then joking, about this rock that looks like a skull. So, what the Telegraph is really trying to tell us is:

A stone. On Mars. Might look like a skull. Doesn’t really. Even ufologists don’t take it seriously. So it’s not really news. Move along.

I’m not suggesting the Telegraph isn’t a good newspaper, on the contrary, but really, what’s the point?

Why did I even bother to report on this? Oh yeah: It’s a stone that looks like a bunny skull. Now try explaining how a rabbit got up there…

Mars Chaos

The Ariadnes Colles region of Mars (ESA)

Of all the places I’d want to visit on Mars, this would be high on my list. After travelling to the bottom of Hellas Planitia (for the thick atmosphere and possibly finding liquid water) and the summit of Olympus Mons (for the view), I’d be sure to have a scout around Ariadnes Colles, in the southern hemisphere (pictured above).

The Ariadnes Colles region may not be a household name, but looking at these new high resolution images coming from the Mars Express orbiter, I can’t help but be impressed…
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In 1911, Martians Were Building Canals

Martians Build Two Immense Canals In Two Years

On August 27th, 1911 the New York Times Sunday magazine ran an article entitled “Martians Build Two Immense Canals In Two Years”. Astronomer Percival Lowell had been studying the Red Planet and sketched what he saw, in this case, a growing complex of apparent canals on the Martian surface. There was even a nice little story that went along with this canal-building alien civilization theory. Lowell said, “The whole thing is wonderfully clear-cut,” that the Martian civilization was dying and they were building canals to reach the water ice in the Martian poles.

It turns out he was right about the water ice, but there’s no trace of this canal-building race on Mars… in fact there’s little trace of anything biological on the Red Planet. So apart from a few historic anecdotes, there’s still no life on Mars. The search continues.

Canals a thousand miles long and twenty miles wide are simply beyond our comprehension. Even though we are aware of the fact that … a rock which here weighs one hundred pounds would there only weigh thirty-eight pounds, engineering operations being in consequence less arduous than here, yet we can scarcely imagine the inhabitants of Mars capable of accomplishing this Herculean task within the short interval of two years. — Excerpt from the 1911 New York Times article.

Source: The Futility Closet (an awesome site)

Mars Can Be A Fuzzy Planet

The summit of Pavonis Mons (NASA)

This strange image was captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (MRO) camera–the amazing High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE)–as it passed over one of the largest volcanoes in the Solar System, Pavonis Mons.

Located near the equator of Mars, atop the Tharsis bulge, Pavonis Mons is the second highest volcano after the huge Olympus Mons (towering over the Martian surface 27 km high). Pavonis Mons is still much higher than anything the Earth can muster, towering 14km into the atmosphere (compare that with the altitude of Mt. Everest’s peak height of 8.85 km).

So why is this picture so blurry? Is HiRISE suffering a malfunction? Did mission control send the wrong commands? Actually, HiRISE is working just fine. It’s the dust-covered surface that’s blurred.

As the ancient volcano is reaching so high into the Martian atmosphere, the air becomes very thin. The atmosphere was already thin; the average ground level atmospheric pressure is less than 1% of the Earth’s. At Pavonis Mons’ peak, the atmospheric pressure is ten-times thinner. Therefore any wind at these altitudes is extremely weak.

The extreme planet-wide dust storms that regularly engulf Mars dump huge quantities of dust on the top of the Martian volcanoes, but when the dust settles, there’s nothing to transport it elsewhere. Therefore, the thick layer of fine material remains where it is, tickled by the light-weight winds, rarely moving.

In the high resolution image, you can see some resolved features such as the odd impact crater and small ripples. Other than that, it’s a thick, smooth dust blanket that covers the Pavonis Mons summit, hiding any interesting geology for below, giving the impression any images of the summit are out of focus…

For more, check out The Blurry Summit of Mars’ Pavonis Mons on the Universe Today.

40% More Solar Energy For Opportunity


Good news for Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, a windy day on the Martian surface has cleared a layer of dust off its solar panels.

Opportunity is currently trundling across the undulating dunes of Meridiani Planum on its way to Endeavour crater, a destination it wont reach for another two years. It needs all the energy it can muster. So, like the fortuitous gust of wind that gave Spirit a 3% boost in energy in February, Opportunity has received what may appear to be a small hurricane in comparison. This gust of wind shifted so much dust caked on the rover’s solar panels, the robot has had an energy increase of 40%.

As of Sol 1850 (April 7, 2009), Opportunity’s solar array energy production has increased to 515 watt-hours. Atmospheric opacity (tau) remains elevated at around 0.95. The dust factor has improved to 0.642, meaning that 64.2 percent of sunlight hitting the solar array penetrates the layer of accumulated dust on the array. The rover is in good health with a rested actuator and extra energy.NASA Opportunity updates

Since Opportunity arrived on Mars five years ago until April 7th, the tenacious rover has travelled 15,114 meters (9.39 miles). For a mission that was only slated to last three months, that’s not a bad distance its clocked up.

Source: NASA

Return of the Bouncing Boulder: Debris After a Martian Landslide

The debris after a landslide on Mars (NASA/HiRISE/Stuart Atkinson)

The debris after a landslide on Mars (NASA/HiRISE/Stuart Atkinson)

Mars is far from being geologically active when compared with the Earth, but it isn’t geologically dead either. In a stunning visual study by Stuart Atkinson over at Cumbrian Sky, he has done some desktop detective work on high-resolution HiRISE images of the Martian surface and turned up some astounding images. One scene shows a huge chunk of material, slumped down a slope, but in the detail are the familiar divots etching out the tracks of bouncing boulders after being disturbed by the Martian avalanche…
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