Space Photos of the Week: Rovers Taking Selfies—for Science

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When spacecraft leave the Earth they are destined to either land somehere, orbit something or fly by a planetary object. And one of the very first things NASA does when a spacecraft lands on another planet is to have it take a selfie: “Let me see your wheels in the dirt so I know you got there safely.” Or “Snap a photo of your solar panels so we can see how dirty they are.” A simple selfie can tell a science team if an instrument is broken, say, or how close it might be to an object. Most spacecraft don’t have selfie-sticks, exactly, just an external camera in a location that can take multiple shots that the image team can then stitch together.

The team managing NASA’s Curiosity rover that has been on Mars for the last six years, depends on selfies to manage the health of the rover. The terrain on Mars is rugged and covered with what are called “‘ventifact rocks.” These rocks have been carved by wind and many on Mars are like thin blades. As the rover drives over these, its wheels get damaged. By using its onboard cameras, the team on Earth can tell the rover to avoid a certain spot and drive in another direction instead.

Grab your camera because this week we’re going to flip through an epic gallery of space selfies.

The Phoenix lander touched down on Mars in 2008. Its job was to study the Martian climate and get some idea if there was any hope of habitation. In December of 2008 the spacecraft extended a vertical arm above itself in order to snap this photo. You can see that both its solar panels are covered in a thin layer of martian dust; if too much dust collects on the panels, sunlight can’t get through and power the vehicle.Photograph: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University
NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity used its rock abrasion tool on a rock informally named ‘Gagarin,’ leaving a circular mark. At the end of the rover’s arm, the tool turret is positioned with the rock abrasion tool pointing upward.Photograph: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The newest lander to call Mars home set down landing pads in November 2019. Called InSight, its job is to study the internal workings of the planet, and its self-portraits tell the team on Earth how dusty the solar panels are and give the humans a visual check of the lander’s instruments. Early on it tried to drill into the ground to measure temperature changes, but the tool got stuck. By snapping regular photos, the ground team was able to fix the problem.Photograph: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Curiosity takes the best selfies because it actually did have its own selfie-stick. The long articulating arm allows it to scan its parking spot as well as take close ups of the wheels and other parts of the rover. This is the rover in a location called Namib Dune––Curiosity took 57 different images in order to make this photo.Photograph: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Mars Exploration Rover B (Opportunity) has a counterpart, Mars Exploration Rover A, also known as Spirit. Here Spirit used its navigation camera to take a selfie from up above right after it landed on Mars. The team commanded this photo to make sure the rover was safe to drive away from its landing pad.Photograph: NASA/JPL
Technically not a selfie, but still: This little lander is called Surveyor 3 and it was sent to the Moon in 1967. Then in 1969, when the Apollo 12 mission went back to the moon, the crew landed within 600 feet of the spacecraft, then stopped by to say hello.Photograph: NASA

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