Incredible Photographs From the Surface of Mars

Rover tracks disappear toward the horizon like the wake of a ship across the desolate sea of sand between the craters Endurance and Victoria on the Meridiani Plains. Opportunity took the image while stuck in the sand ripple dubbed “Purgatory” for more than a month. This panorama (only partly shown here) was named Rub Al Khali after the “Empty Quarter” in the Arabian Desert.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University

It’s been 10 years since the twin exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity touched down on the surface of Mars. Since then, the rovers have traveled more than 4.8 miles and 23.6 miles, respectively, and have taken hundreds of thousands of images of the red planet. John Grant, supervisory geologist in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies and chair of the Science Operations Working Group on the mission, selected 50 images based on his colleagues’ suggestions for the exhibition “Spirit & Opportunity: 10 Years Roving Across Mars.” “The idea we had for the exhibit was to show the beauty of Mars and at the same time tell the story of the mission and the discoveries,” Grant said. “We use the images as a hook to bring the public in, and then they learn something about the mission and about Mars by looking at the labels.”

Since the rovers were traveling on different parts of the planet, the images they took have distinct characters. The images from Opportunity reflect Mars’ desolation. Spirit’s photos, meanwhile, are often gorgeous landscapes. Both rovers took a mix of images through a variety of cameras.

For the most part, Grant said, the images were the result of specific commands sent to the rovers. Some were more accidental. One popular image taken by Opportunity, for example, was not specifically ordered. “We were trying out a new automated driving and imaging software. The rover saw a hazard, and per its order when it sees a hazard, it turns around and takes a picture of it. When that image came down, it was stunning,” Grant said.

Tiny spherules pepper a sandy surface in this 3-centimeter (1.2-inch) square view of the Martian surface. The largest one is broken in half and shows little internal texture—typical of these “blueberries” on the Meridiani Plains. Opportunity took this image while the target was shadowed by the rover’s instrument arm.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/USGS/Cathy Weitz

Spirit took this sublime view of a sunset over the rim of Gusev Crater, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) away. Taken from Husband Hill, it looks much like a sunset on Earth—a reminder that other worlds can seem eerily familiar. Sunset and twilight images help scientists to determine how high into the atmosphere the Martian dust extends and to look for dust or ice clouds.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Texas A&M/Cornell

The piece of metal with the American flag on it is made of aluminum recovered from the World Trade Center site in New York City. It serves as a cable guard for Spirit’s rock abrasion tool as well as a memorial to the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Opportunity has an identical piece.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University

Ralph Bagnold, an early pioneer of dune studies, remarked that—compared to the nearly static chaos that seems to characterize slowly crumbling, weathering landscapes—sand dunes can “move inexorably, in regular formation, over the surface of the country, growing, retaining their shape, even breeding, in a manner which by its grotesque imitation of life, is vaguely disturbing to an imaginative mind.” Perhaps more so if we’re on Mars?

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University

Often, Grant said, images taken by the rovers help lead scientists to new discoveries on the planet. Both rovers, for instance, found evidence of water on Mars, which was supported by photographs. “We know that Mars was a very different place in its early history. There’s evidence it was a much warmer and wetter environment. Those kinds of environments, depending on the details, may well have been habitable. That’s not to say there was life there, but it says conditions might have been conducive to it,” Grant said.

Grant said it’s important for visitors to the exhibit to understand how another planet in our solar system evolves because it can tell us something about our own planet’s evolution. It’s especially important, he said, for younger generations to see the photographs. “As they walk through this exhibit, they’re going to learn something about the mission. But we also hope they’re going to get hooked, that they’ll say, ‘That’s something I can do.’ Maybe that will get them more involved in science and motivate them to become part of the next generation of planetary explorers,” he said.

Spirit & Opportunity: 10 Years Roving Across Mars” is on view through Sept. 14 at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

These loose, BB-sized, hematite-rich spherules are embedded in this Martian rock like blueberries in a muffin and released over time by erosion. Opportunity found this cluster of them at its Eagle Crater landing site and analyzed their composition with its spectrometers. Hypotheses about their formation have contributed to the story of water on Mars.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University

The El Dorado Dune Field dominates this 160-degree view. Spirit spent several days exploring this area and acquiring images and data on the physical characteristics of this large basaltic sand sheet before moving downhill toward Home Plate.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University

This was one of the first images of the sulfate-rich outcrops on the Meridiani Plains of Mars to show a broken spherule, or “blueberry” (below center). The spherules do not deflect the crosswise layers of finer sediments, indicating that the spherules and sediments were not deposited at the same time. The image shows a 3-centimeter (1.2-inch) square section of the rock Robert E in Eagle Crater.


Spirit obtained this view of the area called Home Plate while parked atop Husband Hill. The colors emphasize differences in rock weathering. A large dust devil appears as the V-shaped discoloration of sky at the top right.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University