In 2006, a NASA spacecraft arrived at Mars and settled into orbit. The dragonfly-shaped Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter carried, among other instruments, the most powerful camera to ever leave Earth, capable of photographing rocks as small as three feet across, from about 200 miles up. The camera, known as High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE for short, has provided scientists unprecedented views of the complex, textured Martian terrain. The detail is astounding: elaborate layers of bedrock, windswept sand dunes, rocky landslides and avalanches.
Then in August 2012, HiRiSE captured something not of this world: two bright objects hovering above the dusty landscape. A car-sized rover and its parachute, descending onto the surface. Curiosity had arrived.
HiRiSE has photographed Curiosity every few months since, tracking its careful slog across the planet’s surface. The observations are useful for scientists and engineers plotting the rover’s journey. They’re also reminders of just how alone Curiosity is out there.
The latest photo, at the top of this story, was taken on June 5 as the rover made its way toward its next destination, a ridge where scientists have spotted a lustrous, gray mineral called hematite from earlier observations. From this view, Curiosity is microscopic, a pinprick of intelligent life in a barren, alien world. It appears in blue because the colors of the photo have been enhanced to highlight the granular landscape. Without this adjustment, Curiosity would be nearly impossible to find, lost among the boulders and rocks. On Mars, it’s “a needle in a haystack,” says John Grant, a geologist at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum who also works on the missions for Curiosity and Opportunity, another rover on the planet.