First image of an asteroid taken from the surface of Mars
The Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has captured the first image of an asteroid taken from the surface of Mars. The night-sky image actually includes two asteroids: Ceres and Vesta, plus one of Mars' two moons, Deimos, which may have been an asteroid before being captured into orbit around Mars.
The image was taken after nightfall on the 606th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars which was April 20, 2014. In other camera pointings the same night, the Mastcam also imaged Mars' larger moon, Phobos, plus the planets Jupiter and Saturn.
Ceres, with a diameter of about 950 kilometers (590 miles), is the largest object in the asteroid belt, large enough to be classified as a dwarf planet. Vesta is the third-largest object in the asteroid belt, about 563 kilometers (350 miles) wide. These two bodies are the destinations of NASA's Dawn mission, which orbited Vesta in 2011 and 2012 and is on its way to begin orbiting Ceres in 2015.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M
This annotated image combines portions of images taken at the same pointing with two different exposure times, plus insets from other camera pointings. In the main portion of the image, Vesta, Ceres and three stars appear as short streaks due to the duration of a 12-second exposure. The background is detector noise, limiting what we can see to magnitude 6 or 7, much like normal human eyesight. The two asteroids and three stars would be visible to someone of normal eyesight standing on Mars. Specks are effects of cosmic rays striking the camera's light detector.
Three square insets at left show Phobos, Jupiter and Saturn at exposures of one-half second each. Deimos was much brighter than the visible stars and asteroids in the same part of the sky, in the main image. The circular inset covers a patch of sky the size that Earth's full moon appears to observers on Earth. At the center of that circular inset, Deimos appears at its correct location in the sky, in a one-quarter-second exposure. In the unannotated version of the 12-second-exposure image, the brightness of Deimos saturates that portion of the image, making the moon appear overly large.
Ceres and Vesta are much larger and farther from Earth's orbit than the types of near-Earth asteroids under consideration for NASA's asteroid initiative. That initiative includes two separate, but related activities: the asteroid redirect mission and the grand challenge. NASA is currently developing concepts for the redirect mission that will employ a robotic spacecraft, driven by an advanced solar electric propulsion system, to capture a small near-Earth asteroid or remove a boulder from the surface of a larger asteroid. The spacecraft then will attempt to redirect the object into a stable orbit around the moon.
Astronauts will travel aboard NASA's Orion spacecraft, launched on the Space Launch System rocket, to rendezvous in lunar orbit with the captured asteroid. Once there, they will collect samples to return to Earth for study.
The grand challenge is a search for the best ideas for finding asteroids that pose a potential threat to human populations, and to accelerate the work NASA already is doing for planetary defense.
Source: NASA / JPL
Featured image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M
If you value what we do here, create your ad-free account and support our journalism.
Your support makes a difference
Dear valued reader,
We hope that our website has been a valuable resource for you.
The reality is that it takes a lot of time, effort, and resources to maintain and grow this website. We rely on the support of readers like you to keep providing high-quality content.
If you have found our website to be helpful, please consider making a contribution to help us continue to bring you the information you need. Your support means the world to us and helps us to keep doing what we love.
Support us by choosing your support level – Silver, Gold or Platinum. Other support options include Patreon pledges and sending us a one-off payment using PayPal.
Thank you for your consideration. Your support is greatly appreciated.
Commenting rules and guidelines
We value the thoughts and opinions of our readers and welcome healthy discussions on our website. In order to maintain a respectful and positive community, we ask that all commenters follow these rules:
We reserve the right to remove any comments that violate these rules. By commenting on our website, you agree to abide by these guidelines. Thank you for helping to create a positive and welcoming environment for all.