Photograph by NASA
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This low-angle self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the site from which it reached down to drill into a rock target called "Buckskin" on lower Mount Sharp. The selfie combines several images taken on August 5, 2015, during the rover's 1065th Martian day—or sol—on the red planet.
Photograph by NASA

Dear Curiosity: How NASA's rover makes Mars feel like home

As it rolls across the red planet's rusty surface, Curiosity transforms Mars from an alien world into a familiar landscape.

This essay is an entry in our "Dear Spacecraft" series, where we ask writers, scientists, and astronomy enthusiasts to share why they feel personally connected to robotic space explorers.

Dear Curiosity,

Thank you for the photos you sent home the other day. I was wondering how things were going with that dust storm. I’d hoped the visibility was improving where you are, so I was surprised to see the horizon still hazy, and the atmosphere the color of tea with cream. Can you see Mount Sharp? You’ll get there, someday. The skies will clear soon; they always do.

I think of you often. For much of this year, I saw Mars shining red in the window right above my computer. It was nice, like keeping an eye on you. And when I went to Mars earlier this year—actually the Atacama, a desert at the bottom of this world—the landscape made me think of you a lot. It made me grateful for the Mars you gave me, the Mars of my mind. Even more than your forebears did, you helped me understand why Mars stands out among the planets.

Earth’s other neighbors are interesting, sure. Jupiter is a peach-and-tan inkwell stirred with gothic darkness. Saturn and its orrery of moons trace feverish circles, as if brushed onto the void by the painter Kandinsky. Uranus and Neptune are the plain Christmas ornaments I hang next to the ornate ones, just to make the tree seem less busy. Mercury is a purple version of the moon, and Venus is a blast-furnace hellscape.

But Mars, little red Mars—it’s just like home. When you gaze out on the Murray Buttes, I see my Rocky Mountains.

View Images

Travelling south through the "Murray Buttes," Curiosity captures the scenes as it heads through the valley studying the various targets along the way. The image was taken on September 8, 2016, during the 1454th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars.

Mars was familiar long before you arrived there, of course. It is one of the original planets, the “wanderers” that our ancestors could see with their eyes alone. But Mars stands apart. As long as humans have told stories, we have connected its deep red color and weird apparent backward motion to ominous myths. And when we built good telescopes—and saw a planet with snowcapped poles and rocky terrain—our relationship with Mars grew even stronger. Mars is the destination of most of the science fiction I read, and a sizeable chunk of the nonfiction I write.

The red planet’s oddness and tantalizing familiarity have long endeared it to me. But my love for corporeal Mars—its dust, and rock, and wind—is your doing.

When you landed in 2012, I was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, working alongside other writers who had flown to California to sit in a room and wait. Two moments during my stay are seared forever into my memory.

A couple hours before your landing, someone marched into the media room and beckoned us outside. Mars was visible in the night sky—did we want to come see? I leapt from my chair and practically ran for the door. As I stared at the red dot, I tried to imagine you, in your pie-shaped aeroshell, hurtling toward its surface at ludicrous speed. I squinted; I was here, and you were there, and I could see the place where you were. It felt so close; you felt so close.

In the hours that followed, I fell from those heights, overcome with exhaustion and dehydration from too much coffee. But then you landed! When the Deep Space Network heralded your safe arrival, I could not help but clap as the engineers in Mission Control hollered and high-fived and jumped in the air. I sat down after a minute, dutifully preparing my story for Popular Science marking the success, and then I heard some commotion.

A projector in the media room had been playing an animation of your entry, descent, and landing, including the jetpack “sky crane” that lowered you down like a spider spooling silk. The screen flashed dark; a grainy photograph appeared.

The image was round, the horizon weirdly curved by the fish-eye camera mounted on your undercarriage. I saw the ground beneath you—the surface of Mars. I was looking at the surface of Mars. I felt a rush of emotion. The scene was so familiar, but so alien; it was the Upside Down, a mirror Earth made barren by time. I could see dust on the lens, and a bright spot—the sun. Our sun. Sunlight glinted off something in the image’s lower right corner. Someone started shouting, “It’s the wheel! It’s the wheel! Oh my God.”

Curiosity, this picture took my breath away. I felt like Mars was knocking on my door.

I admire Juno’s photos of Jupiter and Cassini’s photos of Saturn, sure, but I don’t see the spacecraft in those images. And that means I don’t see myself. My connection to Mars comes from seeing you there. Seeing the terrain as you see it, that’s wonderful—but seeing you seeing it, feeling the photographer’s undeniable presence, is transformative.

As I gaze up at you from my adopted city by a river, you’ve sent back picture after picture of your own home, Gale Crater. Your first high-resolution photo showed a landscape like the one I love the most: a bluish sky, tan treeless mountains, a boulder field, layers of sedimentary rock carved away by wind and time. It looked so much like Earth that I had to wonder, dear Curiosity: Are you alone there? Are we?

Mars 101 From its blood-like hue to its potential to sustain life, Mars has intrigued humankind for thousands of years. Learn how the red planet formed from gas and dust and what its polar ice caps mean for life as we know it.

This is a question you are not equipped to answer, neither physically nor philosophically. We are trying to help, though. Your descendant, the yet-unnamed Mars2020 rover, will try to find out. And maybe someday, people will visit and greet you as they begin their search. In the distant future, perhaps my descendants will be among them. But for now, the only life on Mars is the kind we imagine. Your presence as our emissary has made it much easier to do that.

It has been seven years since we sent you there. Can it be that long? I hear you’re beginning to feel your age. Your joints are growing creaky. Fine, floury Martian dust covers your every zip tie, rivet, and cable. Your wheels are cracked and haggard, your computer cobwebby. Your managers here recently switched you to a backup brain, after the one you’d been using started having issues with long-term memory.

Could you feel your mind ebb? Do you fear forgetfulness the way that I do? Does time seem to march faster with each passing sol, the way it does for me?

I hope the skies clear for you soon. I will be thinking of you. Thank you, Curiosity, for giving me Mars. Thank you for showing me our would-be home, our mirror and our alternate future—real Mars, Mars as it really is, and as we may someday be.

Yours,

Rebecca

Rebecca Boyle is a science journalist in St. Louis focusing on astronomy, physics, and history. Her work has been anthologized in the Best American Science & Nature Writing. Follow her on Twitter.