Robot Selfies and Ancient Water

A Brief History of the Red Planet

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NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity recorded the component images for this self-portrait about three weeks before completing a decade of work on Mars. NASA

What you are looking at above is proof that we are truly living in the 21st century: an image of a robot taking a selfie. To celebrate its tenth year conducting research on the surface of Mars, the NASA Exploration Rover “Opportunity” took a picture of itself, completely smothered in Martian dust.

Don’t let its grungy looks fool you, Opportunity has been highly functional and deserves to celebrate. The robot has been operational for ten years on a mission that was only designed to last for three months. Opportunity has been a rather successful interplanetary geologist, discovering chemical compositions indicating that Mars used to have a vast salty sea. Opportunity has been an inspiration to millions of people including myself, relaying back gorgeous panoramic images that are sure to instill a sense of wonder. So here’s to you, Opportunity.

To celebrate, I present a brief timeline of some important parts of Martian history:

  • ~4.6 Billion years ago: Mars forms, along with many other planets in our solar system. It’s widely believed that Mars formed through the collision of planetesimals: rocks that attract other rocks through gravity and accrete more and more mass until a planet is formed.
  • ~2000 BC: Ancient Egyptians take note of the back and forth movement, known as retrograde motion, of Mars in the night sky. The ancient Greeks noticed this movement as well, for the word planet comes from the Greek word for “Wanderer.”
  • 1609 AD: Gallileo Galilei is the first person to observe Mars through a telescope. Fifty years later, Christian Huygens observes Mars and takes precise notes of its surface features and is able to deduct its rotational period to within an hour of its actual value.
  • 1784 AD: Sir William Herschel deducts that because of the similarities between Mars and the Earth, there must be intelligent life on Mars. This inspires The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, as well as a century of (for the most part, terrible) “attack from space” genre movies.
  • June 19, 1976 AD: NASA’s Viking 1 becomes the first probe to successfully land on the surface of Mars, sending back detailed color images of the expansive Martian surface.
  • 2004 AD: The Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity touch down on Mars. One of my favorite things about these rovers is the method that they used to land. Landing the rovers was one of the greatest engineering feats of the 21st century. The process incorporated rockets, parachutes, and giant protective airbags that bounce the rovers like a ball to slow them down from 12,000 mph to practically 0 mph in six minutes. You have to watch this video; it’s nothing short of incredible.
  • 2013 AD: Water is found bound to other elements in Martian soil by NASA’s “Curiosity” rover. This officially confirms suspicions that Mars has liquid water on its surface as evidenced by satellite photographs.
  • 2014 AD: Observers note that a comet will come ten times closer to Mars than any comet has ever been to the Earth. It will be closer to Mars than the moon is to the Earth and will give astronomers a rare chance of seeing interstellar bodies closely interact.

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