This week, between Christmas and New Year’s, many of us are taking vacations, but the Curiosity rover on Mars is returning to work following a month-long hiatus. NASA’s Mars missions took a two-week hiatus in November to observe the Mars solar conjunction, which occurs when the sun is exactly between Earth and Mars.
This implies that any communications signals traveling between the two planets would have to come into close proximity to the intense solar radiation, where it is likely that they would suffer degradation. NASA ceased transmitting commands to its Curiosity and Perseverance rovers until the solar conjunction passed in order to minimize the possibility of distorted communications sending harmful signals to the rovers.
The rovers did not move at all during this time. The Curiosity rover was just lounging on the Martian surface for a while, but the rovers usually try to fit as much science and exploration into their schedules as possible. Making the most of this chance, the rover used its forward and rear cameras to take regular pictures of its surroundings. These pictures, when combined, depict the progression of a day on Mars.
The two cameras are known as “Hazcams,” or Hazard-Avoidance Cameras, and as their name implies, their main function is to aid in navigation so that the rover can steer clear of potentially hazardous obstacles like jagged rocks and steep hills. Thus, they are low definition and only function in black and white. Still, looking at the sequence of 25 photos captured on November 8 between 5:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. local time transports you to Mars, where you could easily pass the day away exploring with Curiosity.
Throughout the day, the rover’s shadow can be seen shifting, and in the final frame of the front camera video, there appears to be snow, but this is actually just sensor noise from the image’s extended exposure, not any kind of weather. A few other intriguing artifacts can be seen in the rear camera footage, such as the black dot that forms in the middle (which is caused by a cosmic ray striking the sensor) and the what appears to be a light flash at the end, which is actually the spacecraft’s power system.