When Corrine Rojas comes into work, Mars is waiting for her. She drives to the office, grabs a cup of coffee, then pulls out the latest dispatches from Perseverance, a NASA car-sized rover inside a crater in Mars’ northern hemisphere. . Rojas, an operations engineer at Arizona State University, checks that the rover’s main cameras are working and that they took the photos the scientists had requested from them. Then she basks in the marvelous views of our celestial neighbor. “I’m often the first person to lay eyes on rover photos of Mars,” Rojas told me.
And Mars has been particularly beautiful lately. This does not mean that the planet has worked on its appearance; apart from the winds blowing around the dust, it remained virtually unchanged for a few billion years. The difference is us, and in particular the Perseverance mission, which has captured some of the sharpest views of the Martian surface to date. The rover’s job is to search for potential signs of fossilized life in rock, but since arriving last February, it has become quite the landscape photographer.
In more detail than ever, we can see that the rocky outcrops of the Red Planet are bursting with texture, layer after layer. The terrain’s soft, muted browns and oranges are remarkably vivid. The floor feels almost silky. In our night sky, Mars is nothing more than a bright tangerine speck. In the images of Perseverance, it not only looks like a real planet but also a real square. It’s one thing to look at an enlarged photo of Mars as a perfect sphere against the darkness of space. It’s quite another to contemplate something you could easily imagine finding on a Tripadvisor page about Arizona’s best state parks.
“You just want to hike in that environment,” says Jim Bell, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University who leads the camera team Rojas works on. “Bring water; bring in oxygen. Mars would actually be a terrible place to hike, let alone live. “In reality, the place would try to kill us in so many ways,” Bell told me. But the pictures are still smudge-worthy.
Scientists and engineers have come a long way since the first attempts to capture close-up views of Mars. In 1965, a NASA probe called Mariner 4 made the first flyby and transmitted its observations. Back on Earth, converting the data to actual images was a slow process – so slow that excited and impatient Jet Propulsion Laboratory personnel pulled numbers from Mariner’s data that matched the color, printed the numbers on paper, then painted the makeshift canvas with pastels that one of them had purchased at a local art store. When the real deal finally arrived, it was the first time humanity had had a close-up of another planet’s surface.
The first images taken on the Martian surface were captured by another NASA mission in 1976. The Viking 1 lander, which remained on Martian soil, revealed a field of reddish rocks extending to the ‘horizon. In the late 1990s, NASA began sending out a steady stream of robots that, unlike landers, could move around and capture the Martian environment from different angles. The Curiosity rover, which arrived in 2012, is still going strong and filling its wrap on the side of a mountain, about 2,300 miles (3,700 kilometers) from Perseverance territory.
The Perseverance rover, meanwhile, has the best pair of robotic eyes on Mars yet, although they aren’t as sophisticated as one might think. “By today’s consumer electronics standards, these cameras on Mars — and elsewhere in the solar system — don’t have nearly as high a resolution,” Bell said. There is no high-speed internet between Earth and Mars, so there are limits to the data a rover can transmit back home. But Perseverance has 23 cameras, six more than Curiosity, and they’re more advanced than those used for previous missions. Perseverance was designed to explore Mars more autonomously than previous rovers, which meant developing cameras capable enough to support that capability, according to Katie Stack Morgan, assistant project scientist for the mission at NASA. So while some of Curiosity’s cameras shoot in black and white, the same set on Perseverance shoots in color, helping scientists back home guide the new rover to scientifically interesting targets. This feature means that even Perseverance’s hazard cameras, which serve a similar purpose to a car’s rear-view camera, produce stunning high-resolution images. You can practically hear the gravel crunch under the rover’s wheels.
The Perseverance rover also has more opportunities for photo ops than Curiosity, Bell said. In order to keep their instruments running during the cold Martian mornings and evenings, the rovers must use extra fuel to warm up. Curiosity, now a decade old, avoids overworking itself during those hours to conserve its power supply; sometimes there is more important work to do than taking pictures. But Perseverance is still sharp, which means it can take advantage of a classic photography trick. “If you really want to bring out the texture of a rocky surface, take pictures of it when the sun is low,” Bell said. “And then all the little ridges and blemishes and jagged bumps and everything that will start to cast shadows and be seen much better.”
New images of Mars reach Earth every day — or every sol, the term for Mars’ day slightly longer than our own. Bell’s camera crew doesn’t usually work weekends, but “many of us can’t help but log in and check in on what happened.” Rojas is in charge of stitching together footage from the rover’s main camera to create vast panoramas for public consumption (and which she wishes she could use as wallpaper in her home). The views never get old for them, or any scientist or engineer who has the surreal privilege of seeing a new point in the solar system before anyone else. And it’s especially exciting when the photos reveal something scientifically useful.
The sedimentary rock recently photographed by Perseverance’s hazard cameras is exactly the type the rover was designed to study. The ancient terrain here, in a crater called Jezero, was shaped by mud, silt and water over 3.5 billion years ago, when Mars was, scientists say, a gentle world with rivers and lakes. If microbial life existed back then, it could have been flattened into these layers and preserved to this day – an exciting prospect for nosy extraterrestrials next door wondering if life originated elsewhere in the solar system. “There’s nothing like having them right in front of the rover and saying, ‘Aha! That’s what we came here for,'” Morgan said.