Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Looking Out the Window...

Earth's robotic explorers recently returned more stunning views of our universe.

When the Mars rover Spirit landed in Gusev Crater in January 2004, it sat in a vast martian plain. Early images returned by the robot showed a distant group of hills which NASA named for the lost Columbia astronauts. The possibility of Spirit visiting these hills was impossibly remote, both in distance and within the 90-day design lifetime of the mission.

A year and a half later, Spirit, still going, is now sitting triumphantly atop Husband Hill. Spirit carefully climbed the hill which rises 269 feet above the surrounding plain. That's almost the height of the Statue of Liberty!

The view from the top is of course spectacular. Spirit's cameras have also captured dust devils winding their way across the plain below.

Meanwhile, another robot is on its way to a different planet. Messenger, also launched in 2004, will achieve a stable orbit around Mercury in 2011. Messenger recently performed a flyby of the Earth to get a gravity assist in its trajectory. On the way by, mission controllers conducted a test of the spacecraft's imaging components with Earth as their subject. The images of the receding Earth were stitched together into a large (5MB) movie documenting Messenger's pass. Stunning!