You just can't go anywhere these days without a satellite watching your activities, and yes, that includes Mars.
A spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet caught a glimpse of the long-running NASA Curiosity rover scaling the mountain Aeolis Mons (informally known as Mount Sharp) at a location nicknamed "Woodland Bay."
The newly released NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image shows a bright spot that is most likely the rover's "head" (or remote sensing mast), NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) said in a statement. "At the time this image was acquired, the rover was facing 65 degrees counterclockwise from north, which would put the mast in about the right location to produce this bright spot," JPL added.
Dramatic, sweeping terrain surrounds the two-ton NASA rover as it journeys up the 3-mile (5-kilometer) mountain located inside of Gale Crater, the rover's landing region. Mount Sharp sports layers of rock that provide information about the history of the region, including its water. Curiosity is now close to a clay-bearing unit that likely formed in water.
Curiosity could be spotted thanks to a bright reflection, which is something that shows up well in MRO's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera. The University of Arizona camera is so sensitive that it can pick up dust devil shadows and small dunes on the Martian surface. Famously, HiRISE also got an image of Curiosity's parachute as the rover descended to the surface in August 2012.
"Mirror-like reflections off smooth surfaces show up as especially bright spots in HiRISE images," JPL said. "For the camera to see these reflections on the rover, the sun and MRO need to be in just the right locations. This enhanced-color image of Curiosity shows three or four distinct bright spots that are likely such reflections."
Barring a technical problem, MRO will likely continue operating after Curiosity's successor, a mission called Mars 2020, touches down in Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021 — so we may get HiRISE pictures of that rover as well. Mars 2020 will hunt for signs of ancient habitability, building on Curiosity's current quest to better understand potentially habitable environments. The rover will also deploy a test helicopter, which will be the first such vehicle on Mars.
- NASA Spacecraft Spots 'Star Trek' Logo on Mars
- Behold! Here's the 1st Photo from Mars from NASA's InSight Lander.
- Red Planet Dust Storms Rage in Mars Express Photos
Get the Space.com Newsletter
Breaking space news, the latest updates on rocket launches, skywatching events and more!
Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace