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Curiosity Rover Witnesses an Entire Martian Day during Solar Conjunction

Highlights

  • NASA's Curiosity captures full Martian day.

  • Rover uses Hazcams during solar conjunction inactivity.

  • Timelapse reveals serene Mars from dawn to dusk.

Amidst a period of solar conjunction, when routine communication with Earth was limited, NASA’s Curiosity Rover took the unique opportunity to capture a day’s passage on Mars using its onboard cameras. As the rover remained stationary on the Martian soil, it utilized the downtime to observe and record the sun’s movement and resulting shadows over a 12-hour period. This rare observation was made possible by using the rover’s Hazard-Avoidance Cameras (Hazcams), resulting in a timelapse that offers an intimate look at a Martian day.

Curiosity’s New Role as a Martian Sundial

Designed to serve as an impromptu sundial, the Curiosity Rover’s immobility during the conjunction allowed for a serene observation of the surrounding Martian terrain. This unprecedented use of the Hazcams provided a fresh perspective on the planet’s environment, displaying the sun’s trajectory and the interplay of light and shadow over the rover and the Martian landscape. This was a singular event where the Hazard-Avoidance Cameras were tasked to document a full Martian day.

Mars’ Weather and Hazcam Functionality

The timelapse instruction came just before Mars entered solar conjunction, a phase where the Sun’s charged particles disturb communications. While the rover wasn’t entirely out of touch, the precautionary measure meant no intricate commands were relayed to avoid miscommunication. The Hazcams, typically used for navigation and spotting potential dangers, were repurposed to potentially witness Martian weather phenomena like clouds or dust devils, though none were observed due to the calm weather conditions on the chosen day.

The technology behind the Hazcams includes an autoexposure feature that adjusts to the planet’s varying light conditions throughout the day. With exposure times ranging from fractions of a second to over a minute, the system adeptly handles the transition from day to night. However, the resulting images are afflicted by sensor noise, appearing as static in the captured footage.

The released video showcases views from the rover’s front end, highlighting the valley terrain of Mount Sharp, an area that Curiosity has been exploring since 2014. Details like the rover’s shadow, wheels, and calibration targets for scientific instruments are discernible as the Martian day progresses.

A second video offers the perspective of the rover’s rear Hazcam, casting a gaze down the slopes of Mount Sharp. Visible elements include Curiosity’s wheel and power system shadow, and an occasional cosmic ray strike on the camera sensor. The videos reflect the rover’s prolonged exposure to Martian conditions, displaying the dust accumulation on its lenses and components.

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