NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has captured a complete Martian day on video for the first time since it landed on the Red Planet over a decade ago. The video provides valuable insights into Martian days and nights.
Overview of the Video
The video shows a full Martian day from sunrise to sunset as seen by Curiosity over the course of a few weeks in late 2022. Curiosity captured the images that make up the video using its Mast Camera (Mastcam) instrument.
The Mastcam video combines more than 1,200 individual photos taken between November 24 and December 31, 2022, as Mars moved through southern summer. The images were carefully stitched together and adjusted to account for differences in exposure and lighting conditions.
The result is a smooth 10-second time-lapse video showing a full Martian day, known as a sol. From the video, we can clearly see the sun rising and setting over Gale Crater where Curiosity has been exploring since 2012. Shadows shift as the sun crosses the sky, and the lighting changes color later in the day since Mars’ atmosphere scatters blue light more effectively.
“We get to see so much more context, seeing the full day,” said Mastcam co-investigator Jim Bell of Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. Capturing a full Martian day helps scientists understand astronomical measurements related to Mars’ axis tilt and day length better.
Why This Video is Significant
While Curiosity and other Mars rovers have taken images of Martian sunrises and sunsets before, this is the first full-day movie. It provides new insights into the patterns of sunlight that drive environmental cycles on Mars.
Understanding Martian days better serves an important purpose – preparing for future human exploration of the planet.
“It’s really useful for anybody working on Martian spacecraft, whether they’re landers, orbiters or rovers,” said Mark Lemmon, a Curiosity team member from Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “And it’s incredibly useful for understanding Martian days for future human explorers on Mars.”
The video also helps pinpoint when Curiosity takes images during its operations. Scientists can use the changing shadows as sundials to backtrack the timing of images taken earlier.
This added temporal context will open new possibilities to spot changes over time and trace processes happening at scales from seconds to seasons.
How the Video Was Created
Creating this unique video took months of work by Curiosity’s team on Earth.
Over the past years, they found a camera position that enabled imaging the rover’s sundial all day long without interfering with other activities. Command sequences were then carefully crafted to take images at specific times throughout the day.
The team had to account for data volume constraints, accurately pointing the camera, image quality, proper exposures through a range of lighting conditions, battery usage, and data downlink schedules.
Hundreds of raw images were then laboriously examined to select the cleanest frames with the best lighting and camera pointing. These were combined and processed to create a smooth time-lapse covering the full range of a Mars day.
As imaging lead Justin Maki of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory noted, “It’s been a labor of love for our camera team to develop a process for making this time-lapse possible.”
What the Video Shows
The video reveals a number of interesting insights about Martian sols:
- Sunrise on Mars is noticeably bluer than sunset since the finer dust particles in the atmosphere scatter blue light better. Sunsets take on a reddish hue.
- Shadows around landscape features shift distinctly as the sun moves across the dusty sky. Their movement and angles help trace the passage of time.
- Changes in lighting reveal finer details on the distant rim of Gale Crater. This helps identify differences in texture and composition.
- By tracking when specific shadows align with certain rover features over the course of the day, scientists gain a better metric for timing images and activities. This “visual sundial” replaces guessing when images were captured over the course of each sol.
Why Mars Days Are Different From Earth
Mars takes 24 hours and 37 minutes to rotate once on its axis – almost the same rate as Earth. But Mars orbits much farther from the Sun, so a full circuit takes 687 Earth days compared to our 365.25 days.
As a result, seasons on Mars last nearly twice as long. A complete Martian year is 668 Martian sols. So while the two planets have similar day-night cycles, other cycles like seasons take longer on Mars.
Understanding these key differences in fundamental cycles provides clues to how the evolution of the two neighboring worlds diverged from each other over 4 billion years ago.
What Happens Next
The Curiosity team may produce more full-day videos when the lighting conditions are optimal. The videos serve both scientific and educational purposes.
The video also paves the way for similar filming opportunities using the next generations of Mars rovers. While Curiosity is nearing the end of its operational lifespan, the newly arrived Perseverance rover comes equipped with higher resolution video cameras among its suite of instruments.
“Making a movie like this has been envisioned since the early days of the prime mission,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientist at JPL. “Now it finally exists, and even though Curiosity’s days are numbered on Mars, images like these can live on and continue teaching us about the planet for decades to come.”
Going forward, engineers can optimize solar arrays and communication windows for future surface missions based on the new level of detail about Martian sols. Such planning also applies to eventual human habitats on Mars which will experience these same day-night cycles.
Insights Gained From the Video
|Sunrise is bluer, sunset is redder due to dust particles in atmosphere
|Reveal passage of time over landscape
|Better visible with changing lighting angles
|Imaging & experiments
|Visual sundial from shadow motions helps time images and activities
So in summary, Curiosity’s full Martian day video provides fascinating new glimpses into daily environmental cycles on Mars. By matching up with orbiter imaging, it expands insights into seasonal and annual changes too. The findings aid both science and future human exploration in unprecedented ways.
What Do Scientists Say About the Video?
Curiosity scientists were excited by the new visualization of a full Martian day. Some of their comments on specific aspects are highlighted below:
“It’s been a labor of love for our camera team to develop a process for making this time-lapse possible.” – Justin Maki, Imaging Lead at NASA JPL
“We get to see so much more context, seeing the full day.” – Jim Bell, Mastcam Co-Investigator at Arizona State University
“It’s incredibly useful for understanding Martian days for future human explorers on Mars.” – Mark Lemmon, Curiosity team member at Space Science Institute
“Now it finally exists, and…images like these can live on and continue teaching us about the planet for decades to come.” – Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity Project Scientist at NASA JPL
The overwhelming response is excitement at gaining such a uniquely expansive insight into Mars’ fundamental day-night cycle. It sets the stage for more discoveries ahead related to Martian sols and seasons.
Curiosity’s mesmerizing Martian day video is a technical feat years in the making. It required careful planning and execution by the skilled rover team.
The video provides our most complete understanding yet about the daily cycling of sunlight that powers Mars’ weather, geological and seasonal processes. These same cycles will affect future astronauts living and working on Mars.
So this smooth 10-second clip encapsulates over a decade of robotic exploration aimed at learning how Mars differs from Earth. It sets us on the path to sending humans to explore Mars firsthand in the coming years!
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