NASA’s Curiosity rover has been exploring Mars for 6 years now — here’s what the red planet’s surface looks like up close

A location on Mars associated with the best-selling novel and Hollywood movie,

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A location on Mars associated with the best-selling novel and Hollywood movie, “The Martian” This area is in the Acidalia Planitia region and in the novel and the movie, it is the landing site of a crewed mission named Ares 3.
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REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

The surface of Mars is weird and beautiful.

For six years now, since its landing on August 5, 2012, the Mars Curiosity rover has been exploring one area of our next-planet neighbor.

Curiosity has spent all of its time in the Gale Crater, where it’s traveled just over 12 miles, yet the rover has captured plenty of stunning images. NASA has also collected photos of the Martian surface using spacecraft and other rovers like Opportunity, which is more than 15 years old.

At times, photos of the surface of Mars depict the prototypical idea of the red planet: rocky, dry, dusty, and not unlike a desert you might see on Earth. Yet other formations of craters and canyons are completely different from anything on our planet – there are patches of dark and light colors, carbon dioxide dry ice, and otherworldly patterns.

There’s weather too, like the huge dust storm that recently covered the entire planet.

Here are some of the images that show how stunning the surface of Mars really is, though there’s still far more to be discovered, of course. Just recently, scientists announced that they think there might be a 12-mile-long lake of liquid water hidden underneath one of the red planet’s ice caps.


Curiosity captured this selfie on the Vera Rubin Ridge at the beginning of 2018. The rover’s arm has been edited out, since the photo is a composite of a number of images.


Just after arriving in 2012, Curiosity took this shot of the base of Mount Sharp, its eventual destination. Many of the mountains and canyons of Mars have names, just like geological features on Earth.

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Reuters/NASA

This was one of Curiosity’s first looks at the Gale Crater in 2012. The edge of the crater is broken up by a network of valleys that scientists think were formed by water.

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It didn’t take long for Curiosity to find more evidence of water. It spotted these rounded gravel fragments on a rock outcrop in September of 2012, at the base of Aeolis Mons. The shapes are indicative of rock that formed in the presence of water.

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At the end of 2012, Curiosity took this shot showing inclined layering — known as cross-bedding — in the Shaler outcrop.

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REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity mostly sees this kind of prototypical red-planet imagery in the Gale Crater. It arrived in Yellowknife Bay, the lowest point of the crater, in 2013.

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REUTERS/NASA

In Yellowknife Bay, the rover discovered evidence that water could have percolated through pores in the sediment.

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NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter entered Martian orbit in 2006 and has been sending back images ever since. In this enhanced-color view from Orbiter taken in June 2013, Curiosity appears as a bluish dot near the lower right corner.

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In 2015, the Orbiter provided this aerial view of the Ophir Chasma on the northern portion of a vast Mars canyon system called Valles Marineris.

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REUTERS/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

NASA regularly keeps an eye on the active dune field known as Nili Patera because it changes frequently. The Orbiter captured this shot of the region in 2014.

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REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Orbiter showed us this spectacular impact crater in November of 2013.

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The flowing features in the terrain at Mars’ middle latitudes could have once been formed by water and ice. Orbiter sent this image back in 2017.

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NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

In January of 2014, Orbiter photographed these sand dunes far to the north as they emerged from their winter carbon-dioxide dry-ice cover.

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REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Fans of ‘The Martian’ are familiar with the Acidalia Planitia region of Mars, shown here as seen by Orbiter in 2015.

A location on Mars associated with the best-selling novel and Hollywood movie,

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REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

This long row of channels, ranging from 1-10 meters wide, is found in the Hellas impact basin in Mars’ southern hemisphere. Orbiter shot this image, too.

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REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

This view of the Noctis Labyrinthus region of Mars, perched high on the Tharsis rise in the upper reaches of the Valles Marineris canyon system, is particularly otherworldly. Orbiter sent this image back in 2013.

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REUTERS/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Near the Martian equator, the Victoria Crater at Meridiani Planum looks like abstract art. In this 2006 image captured by Orbiter, you can see the Opportunity rover as a tiny speck on the outside of the crater, between 9 and 10 p.m. if this were a clock.

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REUTERS/NASA/JPL/Caltech

The Mars Opportunity Rover has been on the red planet for more than 15 years. It spotted this iron meteorite back in 2005 — the first meteorite identified on another planet.

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REUTERS/NASA/JPL/Cornell

This image, cropped from a larger panoramic image mosaic, shows hills nicknamed the Columbia Hills. It was taken in 2004 by the Spirit rover, which arrived just before Opportunity in 2004. Spirit lost communication with Earth in 2010.

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REUTERS/NASA/JPLCornell

The Phoenix lander, which was active from May to November of 2008, used its robotic arm to dig these two trenches to check soil samples.

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REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Curiosity, meanwhile, is still exploring the Gale Crater and searching for signs that life — in the form of microbes — used to exist there. The rover sent back this selfie from a drilling site called ‘Buckskin’ in August 2015. The design of a new 2020 rover will be based on Curiosity.

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NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS