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See Earth and Venus from Mars in amazing photos from NASA's Curiosity rover

NASA's Curiosity rover took a break from assessing ancient Martian habitability to gaze up at the Red Planet sky — where it found Earth.

Through the dusty Martian atmosphere, the car-size rover spotted its home planet and Venus about 75 minutes after local sunset on June 5, 2020, the 2,784th sol (Martian day) of Curiosity's mission. (The rover landed on Aug. 5, 2012.)

"A two-image twilight panorama reveals Earth in one frame and Venus in the other," officials at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which manages Curiosity's mission, said in a statement (opens in new tab). "Both planets appear as mere pinpoints of light, owing to a combination of distance and dust in the air. They would normally look like very bright stars."

Related: Amazing Mars photos by NASA's Curiosity rover (latest images) 

Two images of the night sky were combined to show Earth and Venus as seen by the Mast Camera aboard NASA's Curiosity Mars rover on June 5, 2020, the 2,784th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Both planets appear as mere pinpoints of light owing to a combination of distance and dust in the air; they would normally look like bright stars.  A feature called Tower Butte is just visible at the bottom of the image, part of the clay-bearing region that Curiosity has been exploring since early 2019. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

To capture the new images, Curiosity used the same instrument it commonly employs to take Martian panoramas, the Mast Camera or Mastcam. And planet-spotting wasn't the only goal of this skywatching session: mission team members also wanted to look at the Martian twilight brightness. 

On Mars, the planet's southern hemisphere (where Curiosity is situated, slightly below the equator in a big crater named Gale) is in late spring. The Red Planet takes about 687 Earth days to circle the sun once; a typical day on Mars is about 37 minutes longer than on Earth.

Two images of the night sky were combined to show Earth and Venus as seen by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover on June 5, 2020, the mission's 2,784th Martian day, or sol. The planets appear as pinpoints of light owing to a combination of distance and dust in the air. Mars' Tower Butte is visible at bottom. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

During the late Martian spring, there is quite a bit of dust suspended in the air. The particles reflect sunlight, brightening the atmosphere and making it harder to spot objects in the sky, said Mastcam co-investigator Mark Lemmon, a senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute in Colorado.

"Even moderately bright stars were not visible when this image of Venus was taken," Lemmon said in the same statement. "Earth also has bright twilights after some large volcanic eruptions."

Just visible at the bottom of the images is a rock feature nicknamed Tower Butte. Curiosity is slowly climbing the slopes of Mount Sharp (also known as Aeolis Mons), which rises from Gale's center, on a quest to understand how water may have shaped habitable environments on Mars more generally. 

NASA's next Mars rover, Perseverance, is expected to touch down inside the 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021, to probe ancient habitability in more detail and cache the most promising samples for a future Martian sample return mission. Perseverance's launch window opens on July 20.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.