Sep 202012
Eclipse on Mars: NASA image of Phobos grazing the sun's disk

Eclipse on Mars: NASA image of Phobos grazing the sun’s disk

The NASA rover Curiosity is just getting its work underway, but photographing a lunar eclipse on Mars has to stand out as a remarkable achievement. Think about the technical challenges here – besides safely landing this one ton hunk of metal and technology on the martian surface:

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, dispatched to determine if the planet most like Earth in the solar system could have supported microbial life, has taken on a second job – moonlighting as an astronomer.

Last week, Curiosity outfitted its high-resolution camera with protective filters and took pictures of the sun as Phobos, one of Mars’ two small moons, sailed by.

It was a tricky shoot. Phobos and its sister moon Deimos are closer to Mars than our moon is to Earth, so they shoot across the sky relatively quickly. Phobos takes less than eight hours to circle Mars. Deimos takes about 30 hours to make the trip.

Last Thursday, the moons started to cross paths.

“Phobos grazed the edge of the sun, as seen from Curiosity. We had basically a partial eclipse,” astronomer Mark Lemmon, with Texas A&M University, told reporters during a conference call on Wednesday.

The rover took more than 600 images with its left and right cameras, about 100 of which captured some part of the eclipse. Not all the pictures have been radioed back to Earth. (Reuters News)

Not only did the timing and camera position have to be precise, Curiosity had help from the rover Opportunity on the other side of Mars, also shooting images of the eclipse. The next eclipse is in eleven months when Curiosity should be in an even better position to observe an eclipse from another planet.

A remarkable achievement. Now back to work on Gale Crater.

Aug 092012

I’m fascinated by NASA’s successful landing of the rover Curiosity on Mars the other evening. Photographs are starting to come in (they just raised the main cameras yesterday) and once they get through the post-landing checklist, we’ll have a steady stream of remarkable images of the red planet. I eager to see them – having spent part of my youth in the rural West, you row up knowing the night sky and learn to identify the visible planets long before you get to a science class. Mars was a reliable friend, the easy planet to find in a field where many were vying for attention, and the one that figured so large in science fiction. Good grief, as kids we always speculated about the possibility of Martians; but lifeforms on Saturn just didn’t make sense.

But I’m also fascinated by the Web and technology and the way it gives expression to a creative impulse in us. Human beings are inherently creative so give them a canvas and they will use. With the Web, the canvas is not so often blank but filled with content that gets reused, repurposed in another context. So with the first photos from Curiosity, another Internet meme is born as the photos become the “canvas” upon which to make a statment. The term “meme” (widely mispronounced, by the way) refers to a concept from Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. In the second edition in  1989, he explained:

We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’. 

These days the Web is full of memes, especially visual ones, and the photos from Curiosity will be fair-game. So far, most of them are fairly simple, but a few are worth a laugh; you can see a small collection over at But the striking one is below – a nice statement about disrupting a truly pristine (if harsh) environment. Just wait until the mining equipment arrives in another decade or so.

Mars Photo Meme

Mars Photo Meme (via Facebook,


Aug 062012
Satellite Image from MRO of Curiosity Landing in Gale Crater

Satellite Image from MRO of Curiosity Landing in Gale Crater (NASA / August 5, 2012)

The landing of Curiosity on Mars was a nail biter but an amazing achievement in terms of technology. Ten years in the making and $2.5 billion dollars later, NASA was able to gently place a car-sized rover (about the size of a Mini Cooper) in Gale Crater, near the Martian equator. The actual target of its two year’s on Mars will be Mount Sharp, a 3.4 mile high peak in the middle of the crater with a wide range of Martian soil and rocks.

Talk about complex. The bouncing ball airbag approach would not do as Curiosity is too heavy. Instead, it entered the Martian atmosphere at 13,200mph, slowed by the Martian atmosphere and a heat shield and then a supersonic parachute. Once close to the surface, a unique “sky crane” fired rockets to hover above the ground and slowly lower the rover to the surface on huge tethers. Once done, the tethers where cut and the descent stage moved off to crash a safe distance away from Mar’s newest resident. Just about anything could have gone wrong but it all seems to have worked out exactly as planned.

Some low res images came back immediately after the landing but detailed hi-res images will follow as it begins its two year exploration of the crater. Now that I have Apple TV, I streamed the entire event from UStream through a projector on my living room wall. An event like this deserves the biggest screen you can give it.


Curiosity Landing from MRO Satellite Closeup (NASA / August 5, 2012)

But most remarkable was that six minutes into Curiosity’s seven minute descent (the “seven minutes of terror”) the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) passed over the landing site, the Gale crater, and took a photo that captured Curiosity descending with its parachute deployed. It’s at the end of a 154 million mile journey and the MRO was only about 210 miles from Curiosity – NASA thought there was maybe only a 60% chance that they’d get a photo but they did.


Mar 082012

A beautiful image of turbulence on the surface of Mars, a satellite view of a dust devil or whirlwind from But surprisingly, there are many other images of this martian meteorological phenomenon if you do a quick image search on Google for mars dust devil.

Of course, when we were kids growing up in rural Oklahoma, we used to seek these things out (the earthly ones, that is), and run and try to stand in their paths. Most of the time they were miniature ones that had no effect; and the bigger ones never seemed to come that close  in the vast expanse of desert behind my house. But every now and then we were “lucky” enough to get pummeled by sand, dirt, and small pebbles (one of my friends actually got a broken tooth in one) only to go home and get yelled at by our parents for looking like we had been in a whirlwind.

Well, we had.

Dust devil on Mars

Ariel View of a Dust devil on Mars