Mars Rovers Let Us Experience Another World Through Robot Eyes

Mars in True Color

Jan 24, 2012: Eight years after landing on Mars for a three-month mission, the Opportunity Rover pauses for a winter break and sends back snapshots of the Martian surface.
Jan 24, 2012: Eight years after landing on Mars for a three-month mission, the Opportunity Rover pauses for a winter break and sends back snapshots of the Martian surface. | Source

Our Future Home?

Mars is the only planet where we can land and (perhaps) survive. There's solid ground, a true sky, weather and water frozen in the ground.

For over a decade, our robotic rovers have been exploring the red planet and making remarkable discoveries. They've survived planetary dust storms, punishing Martian winters lasting twice as long as ours, dangerous solar flares with no magnetic field and precious little atmosphere to protect them, and temperature swings from about 90° F to -150° F. Someday, humans will brave these hazards, on a planet that is nine months away from Earth during closest approach, and at times more than a year away.

Mars looks surprisingly familiar, like the bleaker parts of Utah or Africa. Yet images are deceptive.

Pause a moment to contemplate this alien world which our inheritors may one day call home.

[Note: this page showcases fabulous photos of Mars from rovers and orbiters prior to Curiosity. My liveblog of the Mars Curiosity landing is on a separate page.]

Mars Facts

  • Size: 4 222 miles (6794 km) in diameter, about half that of Earth
  • Land area equal to that of Earth, since it lacks oceans
  • Atmosphere: mostly carbon dioxide; almost no oxygen
  • Length of Martian year: 687 Earth days
  • Length of Martian day: 24.6597 Earth hours
  • Temperature: Highest temperature at the equator about 86° F, but usually well below freezing. (See this chart of Mars temperatures measured by different Martian landers)
  • Why is it red? Its rocks contain a lot of iron, and it's rusted!
  • Signs of liquid water temporarily flowing on the surface discovered June 2012.

Photo Gallery of Martian Landscapes

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Typical Martian rocks. They don't look like much now, but Mars was once a water world. Microbial life has not yet been ruled out.Chasma Boreale, a valley cutting into the northern polar ice cap. For this and all these photos, you will be stunned by the full-sized version on NASA's website (click link below).Rim of 14-mile-in-diameter Endeavor Crater, which Opportunity hopes to explore in Mars' next spring. True-color with Mars' dim, dusty sky.Opportunity ponders the sand trap at the bottom of Endeavor Crater...can it make it through those dunes?  (Color enhanced for contrast)Little Pathfinder didn't have much time to explore the surface in 1996, but it did snap this photo of a rugged Martian landscape.Dust devils on Mars can be tall: this one is half a mile, but another 12-mile-tall one was detected in March 2012. They slither across the surface frequently, sometimes leaving odd trails on the surface."Burns Cliff," yet another part of the giant Endeavor Crater. (I'd guess these mosaic photos were snapped while the Rover was at a slant!)The "Columbia Hills." Yes, Mars is a bleak and barren place. Surprise! It's the so-called "Face on Mars" photographed with the sunlight at a different angle. Sorry, conspiracy theorists; it's just a pile of rock. Click link below for amazing large-sized view of this panorama of Mars taken by Opportunity in January 2012, where the rover is parked for the winter. It's been color-enhanced to bring out details.
Typical Martian rocks. They don't look like much now, but Mars was once a water world. Microbial life has not yet been ruled out.
Typical Martian rocks. They don't look like much now, but Mars was once a water world. Microbial life has not yet been ruled out. | Source
Chasma Boreale, a valley cutting into the northern polar ice cap. For this and all these photos, you will be stunned by the full-sized version on NASA's website (click link below).
Chasma Boreale, a valley cutting into the northern polar ice cap. For this and all these photos, you will be stunned by the full-sized version on NASA's website (click link below). | Source
Rim of 14-mile-in-diameter Endeavor Crater, which Opportunity hopes to explore in Mars' next spring. True-color with Mars' dim, dusty sky.
Rim of 14-mile-in-diameter Endeavor Crater, which Opportunity hopes to explore in Mars' next spring. True-color with Mars' dim, dusty sky. | Source
Opportunity ponders the sand trap at the bottom of Endeavor Crater...can it make it through those dunes?  (Color enhanced for contrast)
Opportunity ponders the sand trap at the bottom of Endeavor Crater...can it make it through those dunes? (Color enhanced for contrast) | Source
Little Pathfinder didn't have much time to explore the surface in 1996, but it did snap this photo of a rugged Martian landscape.
Little Pathfinder didn't have much time to explore the surface in 1996, but it did snap this photo of a rugged Martian landscape. | Source
Dust devils on Mars can be tall: this one is half a mile, but another 12-mile-tall one was detected in March 2012. They slither across the surface frequently, sometimes leaving odd trails on the surface.
Dust devils on Mars can be tall: this one is half a mile, but another 12-mile-tall one was detected in March 2012. They slither across the surface frequently, sometimes leaving odd trails on the surface. | Source
"Burns Cliff," yet another part of the giant Endeavor Crater. (I'd guess these mosaic photos were snapped while the Rover was at a slant!)
"Burns Cliff," yet another part of the giant Endeavor Crater. (I'd guess these mosaic photos were snapped while the Rover was at a slant!) | Source
The "Columbia Hills." Yes, Mars is a bleak and barren place.
The "Columbia Hills." Yes, Mars is a bleak and barren place. | Source
Surprise! It's the so-called "Face on Mars" photographed with the sunlight at a different angle. Sorry, conspiracy theorists; it's just a pile of rock.
Surprise! It's the so-called "Face on Mars" photographed with the sunlight at a different angle. Sorry, conspiracy theorists; it's just a pile of rock. | Source
Click link below for amazing large-sized view of this panorama of Mars taken by Opportunity in January 2012, where the rover is parked for the winter. It's been color-enhanced to bring out details.
Click link below for amazing large-sized view of this panorama of Mars taken by Opportunity in January 2012, where the rover is parked for the winter. It's been color-enhanced to bring out details. | Source

Below is a video overview of our 2004 robotic rover missions: Spirit and Opportunity. There's a lot of great panoramas and photos of some of the sites they've visited.

The missions were only supposed to last three months, but NASA and JPL have been able to push them many years and many miles farther than they were designed for. It can take up to twenty minutes for a radio signal to travel one way to Mars, depending on its position relative to Earth, and there's no way to help the rovers if they get stuck, so Mission Control drives them very, very cautiously, pausing often to snap photos or take samples.

Five Years on Mars: 2004-2009

Spirit finally conked out in 2010, when a long winter and dust on the panels sapped it of energy. As of summer 2012, Opportunity is still going strong, although it's parked right now to try to survive yet another long winter with its panels angled towards the sun as much as possible. It could use one of Mars' frequent dust devils to give it a spring cleaning.

Joking aside, Martian dust will be a real problem for future expeditions, as it tends to gum up electronics and kill solar panels. Dust devils are fine, but sometimes Mars can be enveloped in planetary dust storms that completely shroud the surface.

Dust Devil Photographed by Spirit Rover

Sunset on Mars from Opportunity Rover

Sun Partially Eclipsed by Martian Moon Phobos

The Red Planet: A Frozen Desert

We don't realize how good we have it on Earth: magnetic fields to block most solar flares, a thick atmosphere that blocks harmful radiation and allows liquid water to collect on the surface, mountains and land to slow down storm winds, and a big moon to stabilize the planet's tilt and climate.

Mars had all of these except the big Moon, but lost them long ago. Its patchy remnants of magnetic fields are not strong enough to block the Sun's radiation. Over billions of years, the solar wind has stripped away most of its atmosphere, leaving only a thin atmosphere of carbon dioxide. Air pressure and temperature dropped so much that any oceans would have dried up, the lakes and rivers vanished, and water froze in permafrost or in polar ice caps.

Our current generation of Mars rovers have found tantalizing hints of the planet's watery past. Yet Mars is not quite a dead world: great dust storms and dust devils tear across the planetary deserts, and our Phoenix lander on the north pole has seen snow.

We've also gotten to watch Martian sunsets. Oddly, the iron oxide dust in the air gives the sun a faint bluish tint near the horizon (see this photo gallery).

Santa Maria Crater, December 2010

The rover investigated the rocks in this crater during its seventh anniversary on Mars. Sunlight on Mars is often a bit dismal, because of the sun's greater distance and the dusty sky.
The rover investigated the rocks in this crater during its seventh anniversary on Mars. Sunlight on Mars is often a bit dismal, because of the sun's greater distance and the dusty sky. | Source

Why Go to Mars?

Mars doesn't seem very inviting, does it? It's a nine month journey to get there, and we have yet to find a way to counteract the bone and muscle loss suffered by astronauts who spend months in zero G. Also, astronauts will be vulnerable to the deadly radiation of solar flares without proper shielding.

So why go?

Because we need to become a two-planet species. Sooner or later, Earth could be struck again by a large asteroid like those that have caused planetary catastrophes in the past. Our planet's resources are not inexhaustible, and 7 billion people are already beginning to strain its capacity. Even if we overcome all these problems, the Sun is gradually brightening as it enters middle age, and will eventually cook our skies and seas. Mars will be the future ark of humankind.

Mars doesn't look very hospitable now, but if we use the greenhouse effect to bulk up its atmosphere, we might be able to turn it into a water world once more. Someday, we may be able to make the mythical canals of Mars a reality.

We have time, but not forever. Our descendants need us to consider their future, not just ours.

That's why we're exploring Mars with robots, right now.

Because we don't want to send any humans until we've worked out all the kinks. Sending golf-cart-sized robots was hard enough. Next up, a 1-ton all-terrain vehicle, Mars Curiosity, that can do much, much more. Assuming it survives the crazy landing required for something that heavy:

Seven Minutes of Terror: Curiosity Reaches Mars on Aug. 5, 2012

Virtual Rover App

Mars Curiosity Has Landed!

As I noted above, I liveblogged the Curiosity rover's landing on a separate page, where I've got photos and videos from descent and landing and waking-up.

Once she gets rolling, I'll start collecting her best photos on a new page. Below is a teaser: her first clear view of the base of the mountain she's going to climb.

Also, speaking of Curiosity, check out the video at right demonstrating a free iPad app that lets you project a virtual model of the Curiosity Rover on your desk (or cat)!

Photo from Mars Curiosity Rover: Mt. Sharp, Taken August 8, 2012

A white-balanced image taken by Curiosity's mastcam. Curiosity's cameras are designed to take detailed views in the dim, dusty light of Mars, then, JPL's techs adjust the lighting to show what it would like in Earth's sunlight.
A white-balanced image taken by Curiosity's mastcam. Curiosity's cameras are designed to take detailed views in the dim, dusty light of Mars, then, JPL's techs adjust the lighting to show what it would like in Earth's sunlight. | Source

Earth and Mars: The Blue and Red Planets

NASA image showing relative sizes of Earth and Mars. (Note clouds on Mars: it does have them, and some are even made of water crystals.)
NASA image showing relative sizes of Earth and Mars. (Note clouds on Mars: it does have them, and some are even made of water crystals.) | Source

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Comments 9 comments

Niteriter profile image

Niteriter 4 years ago from Canada

I was watching Spirit footage on National Geographic TV just a couple of days ago. I was entranced by the images and greatly encouraged that humanity still has the capacity and courage to explore the limits of our potential.

I enjoy the professionalism in your writing.


melbel profile image

melbel 4 years ago from New Buffalo, Michigan

Really awesome, Greekgeek! I loved looking at all these photos, I really love your space hubs (this one being my absolute fave.) Voted up and shared! :)


prasetio30 profile image

prasetio30 4 years ago from malang-indonesia

Very informative hub. I really enjoy the video and the picture as well. Thanks for share with us. Voted up!


sgbrown profile image

sgbrown 4 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

This is such an interesting hub. I loved the videos and the pictures. You did an excellent job here. Voted up and awesome!


Greekgeek profile image

Greekgeek 4 years ago from California Author

Wow! Thanks everyone, and thanks whover shared this page so others saw it.

i can't wait for Curiosity to finish testing all her instruments (laser's working! She blew up a rock yesterday and analyzed it!) and start trekking so I can add more. Come to think of it, she took a good photo of the bas of Mt. sharp that I should add. *gets off ipad and runs into office to find it*


sapphire99336 profile image

sapphire99336 4 years ago from Kennewick, WA

Amazing hub! When they come out with the Android version of that app, I'm going to get my cats' reaction too, like on that one video. That one cracked me up (in a good way), but the app looks really cool, and I loved all of the pictures and videos. Great writing too!


Joseph Renne profile image

Joseph Renne 4 years ago from Milton

This is great! I can not wait till mars is able to support human life!


truebluewriter profile image

truebluewriter 3 years ago from Manila, Philippines

Great hub. Mars looks amazing and I love how High definition the pictures they took are.

I can tell the people in the video were excited about the whole thing. They were smiling while they were being interviewed.

It must be amazing to be part of something like the exploration of a new planet.


bat115 profile image

bat115 2 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

This was a fun read! Someday, I hope to live on Mars!

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