Human Journey

Tracking a Mars Rover


—Image courtesy NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Those of you who think it’s cool to drill into Google Maps and find, for example, your car sitting in your driveway, probably know that it’s all about coming to a resolution.

The higher a camera’s resolution, the more details you can capture in a single image, and the deeper you can zoom in.

Google gets many of its images from Earth-orbiting probes that have eyes sharp enough to see 19.7 inches (50 centimeters) per pixel.

Such satellites have a counterpart orbiting Mars: the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

HiRISE can see in resolutions of 9.8 to 19.7 inches (25 to 50 centimeters) per pixel, enough to take snapshots of features as small as an office desk from about 186 miles (300 kilometers) above the planet’s surface.

And like Earthlings scanning web maps for their tricked-out Hondas, Mars mission managers can peer into the more detailed shots of the Martian terrain to pick out their vehicles in action.

Case in point: Last week HiRISE treated us to a glorious new shot of Victoria Crater, which the Mars rover Opportunity had risked life and limb to explore in 2007.

Now peer closely at those scalloped edges, and you can just see where it looks like someone was playing connect the dots up near the crater’s left-hand rim.

Those are Opportunity’s tacks, preserved in the Martian dust after all this time!


—Image courtesy NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

After about a year in the crater, the rover clambered back out and headed south, and NASA’s been using its orbiters to follow the rover’s path since then.

Using such “traverse maps,” like the one featured above, Emily Lakdawalla over at the Planetary Society did some heavy lifting and tracked down the rover itself in the full version of the new crater picture.

She’s zoomed in so you can clearly see Opportunity ambling across the red planet’s dunes after it had stopped to investigate a Martian meteorite.


—Image courtesy NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Now is that freakin’ sweet or what?

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