Great Photos by a Great Robot

Best space photos by….a robot!

Compilation by René Volpi

In Space Probe Photography, Size Matters — We’ve been floored by the beauty of Hubble’s images of the cosmos, we’ve been dazzled by ground-based observations, but what about the robotic probes that go where humans fear to tread?

A space probe is defined as an unmanned mission that escapes Earth’s gravitational pull and it just so happens that many of these solar system explorers have some impressive camera equipment on board. It turns out that their photography skills are excellent too.

Let’s take a look at some of the best robotic photographers that have given us unparalleled views of our solar system over the last 10 years…

Image: The High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera in the lab shortly before being attached to NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter currently orbiting the Red Planet (NASA).

Where One Man Made One Small Step — Orbiting at a low mapping altitude of 30 miles, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter took some very high resolution snapshots of what remains of the Apollo 11 mission on the lunar surface. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history in 1969, but it wasn’t until 2009 that we had the technology to image the landing site.

Image: The remains of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module (LM) on the Moon’s surface. The long shadow of the LM’s landing gear is evident in the center of the image (NASA).

Earth Rising — Japan’s SELenological and ENgineering Explorer “Kaguya” (SELENE) was intentionally crashed into the lunar surface on June 10, 2009 after a highly successful 20-month-long mission. Kaguya took some incredibly detailed imagery, but it will probably be best known for photographing the Earth rising above the lunar landscape.

Image credit: JAXA/NHK.

A Mercury Delight — NASA’s MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) probe made its first flyby of the innermost planet in 2008, over 30 years since the last mission to the little world. The spacecraft completed a second flyby the same year and a third in September 2009. These flybys help the probe slow down. In 2011 it will have quenched its speed enough to go into orbit around Mercury, beginning a year-long mission.

Image credit: NASA.

The Martian Voyeur — Webcams aren’t only good for video conferences and spying on celebrity meltdowns, it turns out the inexpensive cameras can be used on board satellites orbiting other planets, too.

On board ESA’s Mars Express is the The Visual Monitoring Camera (VMC), a very basic instrument that had only one use: to verify whether the UK’s Beagle 2 Mars lander separated successfully in 2003. (Unfortunately, although the VMC captured the final moments of the lander in one piece, it was never heard of again.)

With its one job complete, the VMC remained switched off until 2007 when ESA mission control decided to see if it was still working. Although it’s not a scientific instrument, it has become “The Mars Webcam,” keeping a constant watch over the Red Planet.

Image credit: ESA.

The Martian Marathon Roller — NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers touched down on the regolith in 2004. Since then the pair keep on surprising their controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Calif. by operating for longer than expected, uncovering mysterious clues about the alien world and taking outstanding panoramic photographs of the landscape.

Rover Opportunity has been more fortunate than the beached Spirit, and the wheeled robot’s mission has become a marathon (as of Nov. 2009, Opportunity had notched up nearly 12 miles). On its travels, Opportunity admires its own tread marks extending across the Martian plains, stopping off at points of interest.

Image credit: NASA/JPL

Stuck in the Sand, But Enjoying the View — On the other side of Mars, Opportunity’s twin rover Spirit is stuck in a sand trap within Gusev Crater. Before getting stuck, Spirit had lost the use of one of its wheels and it was suffering bouts of memory loss. But it’s not all bad news.

While stuck, Spirit has been carrying out limited science activities, uncovering evidence for ancient water under its wheels.

Image: Sunrise on Mars as witnessed by Mars Rover Spirit (NASA/JPL)

Phoenix Rises to the Occasion — The Phoenix Mars Lander captivated the world when it landed in the Martian arctic in 2008. The NASA mission surpassed all expectations, culminating in a two month mission extension and confirmation of water ice in the soil. Although it was confined to one location, Phoenix also gathered an impressive gallery of Red Planet photos.

Although it’s a long-shot, mission scientists are now hopeful that they might be able to revive the robot after it thaws from the Martian winter in January 2010.

Image: A Phoenix self-portrait taken with the lander’s panoramic camera (NASA/UA)

Looking Out for its Robotic Buddies — The HiRISE camera (pictured top) has revolutionized our knowledge of the Martian surface. Orbiting on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), HiRISE has been watching Mars to a resolving power of a few centimeters.

HiRISE has captured dynamic geological events (such as avalanches), picked out rolling boulders, spotted weather events and enhanced the detail in the planet’s surface to a power that often matches Earth-orbiting spy satellites. It has also provided an ever-watchful eye over Phoenix and the Mars Rovers, providing an over-the-horizon snapshot whenever needed.

Image: Victoria Crater as imaged by HiRISE. At approximately 10 o’clock (in the upper left-hand corner of the crater edge), a tiny spot can be seen. This is Opportunity exploring the location in 2006 (NASA/HiRISE).

A Sneak Peek — In 2007, controllers for the New Horizons Pluto mission tried out the probe’s camera to capture some unprecedented views of the Jovian system. New Horizons has another five years to go until its historic Pluto flyby, but if the images of Jupiter and volcanic moon Io are anything to go by, the photographs of the outermost reaches of the solar system will be nothing less than spectacular.

Image credit: NASA/JHU/APL

In Saturn’s Shadow — The plutonium powered Cassini-Huygens spacecraft began exploring Saturn and its moons in 2004 and it will continue to do so beyond 2010. As the probe’s mission was extended through the Saturnian equinox — when the gas giant’s tilt lines its equator up with the sun — it was re-named “Cassini Equinox” in 2008.

Image: Cassini passed into Saturn’s shadow for 12 hours in January 2009. A dazzling show of previously unknown outer rings became obvious (NASA).

The Descent — Before Cassini could start its lone exploration of the Saturn system, the ESA Huygens probe needed to be detached. On Jan. 14, 2005, Huygens’ big day had arrived; the probe was descending through the moon Titan’s atmosphere, sampling as it went.

On the underside of the atmospheric probe a fisheye lens captured a surreal view of the alien landscape below the parachuting robot. The landing site and surrounding hydrocarbon-laced landscape were photographed in the wide angle lens.

Image credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Dirty Snowball Bombing — On July 4, 2005, NASA’s Deep Impact probe watched its 815-lb refrigerator-sized impactor slam into the surface of Comet 9P/Tempel’s nucleus. The probe captured the resulting flash and debris plume so scientists could analyze the composition of the interior of a comet.

Interestingly, the so-called “dirty snowball” interior had far less water ice and more dust than expected.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A Problematic Sample — The Japanese Hayabusa spacecraft reached near-Earth asteroid 25143 Itokawa in September 2005 in an attempt to grab a sample of dirt from its surface and return it to Earth for analysis.

This ambitious mission successfully landed on the small 500-meter-long asteroid but failed to collect any samples. However, it is hoped that some of the asteroid dust drifted into the sample chamber, so the chamber was sealed shut. Hayabusa also managed to capture some very intimate photographs of the rocky body. The probe is currently journeying back to Earth, hopefully arriving by June 2010.

Image credit: JAXA

Our Nearest Star — Floating in a region of gravitational stability between the Earth and the sun is a two ton solar observatory that has been staring at our nearest star more-or-less uninterrupted since 1996.

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The sun is also a stellar laboratory, helping physicists understand how other stars behave and interact with planetary bodies such as the Earth.

Image: A SoHO image of the sun’s chromosphere (NASA/ESA)


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