When Corinne Rojas comes to work, Mars has been waiting for her. She drives to the office, picks up a cup of coffee, then pulls up the latest messages from Perseverance, a car-sized NASA rover located inside a crater in Mars’ northern hemisphere. Rojas, a process engineer at Arizona State University, checks that the rover’s main cameras are working fine, and that they took the images scientists requested back home. Then enjoy the wonderful sights of our heavenly neighbor. “I’m often the first person to set their eyes on images from Mars taken by the rover,” Rojas told me.
And Mars has been looking particularly good lately. This does not mean that the planet is acting on its appearance; Aside from the wind blowing around some dust, it has mostly remained unchanged for a few billion years. The difference is between us, and especially the Perseverance mission, which captured some of the sharpest views of the surface of Mars to date. The rover’s job is to search for possible signs of fossilized life in the rock, but since it arrived last February, it’s quite the landscape photographer.
In more detail than ever before, we can see that the red planet’s rocky outcrops are bursting with fabric, layer after layer. The soft, calm browns and oranges of the terrain look remarkably bright. The soil looks almost silky. In the night sky, Mars is nothing more than a bright tangerine spot. In the photos of persistence, it appears that it is not only a real planet, but a real planet as well place. It is one thing to view a magnified shot of Mars as a perfect sphere against the darkness of space. It’s quite another to look at something you can easily imagine on the Tripadvisor page about the best state parks in Arizona.
“You just want to take long walks in that environment,” says Jim Bell, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University who leads Rojas’ imaging team. “Bring some water; Bring some oxygen.” Mars would actually be a terrible place to walk, let alone live. “Actually, the place is going to try to kill us in many ways,” Bell told me. But the pictures are still swoon-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 its first flight home and broadcast its observations. Back on Earth, the process of converting data into real images was a slow process—so slow that the staff at JPL, excited and impatient, pull the numbers from the Mariner data that correspond to color, print the numbers on paper, and then paint a makeshift canvas in color. Pastels that someone bought at a local art store. When the real deal was finally reached, it was the first time humanity had taken a close-up image of the surface of another planet.
The first images taken on Mars were taken by another NASA mission in 1976. The Viking 1 lander, which remained on Mars soil, revealed a reddish field of rock 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. Curiosity, which arrived in 2012, is still going strong and filling its camera roll on the side of a mountain, about 2,300 miles (3,700 kilometers) from Perseverance.
Meanwhile, the Perseverance Chariot has the best set of robotic eyes on Mars yet — although it’s not as sophisticated as you might think. “By today’s consumer electronics standards, these cameras on Mars—and elsewhere in the solar system—are nowhere near high resolution,” Bell said. There is no high-speed internet between Earth and Mars, so there are restrictions on the data a vehicle can transmit home. But the Perseverance has 23 cameras, six more than Curiosity, and it’s more advanced than those used in previous missions. Perseverance is designed to explore Mars more autonomously than previous rovers, which means developing cameras good enough to support this capability, according to Katie Stack-Morgan, deputy project scientist for the mission at NASA. So, while some Curiosity cameras shoot in black and white, the same set on Perseverance shoot in color, helping scientists back home steer the newest rover toward scientifically interesting targets. This feature means that even Perseverance’s hazard cameras – which serve a similar purpose to a backup camera in a car – produce beautiful, high-resolution images. You can practically hear the cracking of gravel under the rover wheels.
The persistent rover also has more photo opportunities than Curiosity, Bell said. In order to power their instruments during the cold mornings and evenings on Mars, the rovers need to use additional fuel to warm themselves. Curiosity, now a decade old, avoids straining itself during these hours to conserve a source of energy; Sometimes there is more important work than taking pictures. But persistence is still quick, which means she can take advantage of a classic photography trick. “If you really want to highlight the texture on a rocky surface, take pictures of it when the sun is low,” Bell said. “And then all the little bumps and blemishes and rough bumps and all that will start casting shadows and looking better.”
New images of Mars arrive on Earth every day — or every Martian day, a term referring to a day on Mars that is slightly longer than today. Bell’s camera team doesn’t usually work on the weekends, but “there are a number of us who just can’t resist logging in and checking it out.” Rojas is responsible for collecting images from the rover’s main camera to create comprehensive panoramic images for public consumption (which she wishes she could use as a backdrop in her home). Opinions never get old for them, or for any scientist or engineer with the surreal privilege of seeing a new spot in the solar system before anyone else. It is especially exciting that the images reveal something scientifically useful.
The sedimentary rocks recently photographed by Perseverance’s hazard cameras are exactly the type the rover was designed to study. The ancient terrain here, in the crater of a volcano called Jezero, was formed with mud, silt and water more than 3.5 billion years ago, when Mars, scientists believe, was a temperate world with rivers and lakes. If any microbial life existed at the time, it may have been flattened into these layers and preserved to this day — an exciting prospect for curious aliens next door who wonder if life may have originated elsewhere in the solar system. “There’s nothing like being in front of the rover and saying, ‘Aha! That’s what we came here for,'” said Morgan.