What does Earth look like if seen from the planet Mars? Well, we now know thanks to NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, which snapped a picture of Earth from the Red Planet last week at a distance of about 80 million miles. As for what earth looks like at that distance, the answer is this: not much.
The rover took the picture late last month as a break from its regular science mission. The photo was snapped on sol (Martian word for 'day') 529 of its mission, which translates to January 31 for us here on Earth. The image was taken about 80 minutes after Martian sunset, the time it is best to view Earth as seen on Mars. In addition to the Earth, our Moon is also visible, too.
See also: the full-res picture
By looking at the image, one can't help but get a feeling of insignificance.
In his 1994 book Pale Blue Dot (the title of which was inspired by this 1990 picture of Earth taken from Voyager 1), famed astronomer Carl Sagan wrote, among other things, that one should
“look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there -- on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
Is seeing the entire Earth as a tiny speck set against the blackness of a hostile universe can't make one feel insignificant, probably nothing ever could.
For NASA, Curiosity represents the next generation of Mars rovers, serving as a successor to Spirit and Opportunity (landed 2004), which served as successors to Sojourner(landed 1997). Curiosity is due to land in August, 2012, during which it will attempt to discover whether Mars ever was home to/was once suitable for life. The 8 main objectives of the mission are as follows:
1. Determine the nature/amount of organic compounds
2. Identify the building blocks of life as we know it
3. Look for traces of past life
4. Investigate Martian geology
5. Discover how rocks/soils were formed
6. Assess atmospheric evolution
7. Try and understand the current water cycle
8. Identify the surface radiation from the Sun
In terms of what the rover has to offer, it is truly ambitious.
To start with, the rover will be powered nuclear, rather than solar energy like its predecessors, which means that Curiosity will be able to operate year-round. The rover will carry 3 cameras, a laser several spectrometers, a sampling tool, a radiation detector, atmospheric assessment tools, water detector, as well as navigation cameras designed to help the rover act autonomously by helping it avoid hazards on the Martian surface.
For NASA, there is a lot riding on Curiosity, far more tan the mission itself. For starters, Curiosity is set to be the last flagship missionfor the foreseeable future as these most ambitious missions, commonly costing over $1 billion, have been eliminated from NASA's future plans thanks to extensive budget cutsHowever, there is hope within NASA that a successful mission may spur the public to be more interested in planetary science. The hope: greater public support in planetary exploration will spur Congress to allocate more funding for NASA, which has seen its planetary science budget drastically cut in in recent years in a trend that will continue, in all probability, for the next decade or so.
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