Curiosity piqued as 'bright spot' lights up Martian surface
Updated: 2014-04-09 13:57:49
(CNN) - If Mars has any exhibitionist tendencies, this should be a good month -- one packed with star power -- for the red planet.
On Tuesday night, Mars, Earth and the sun were positioned along a nearly straight line, called the date of opposition because Mars and the sun are on opposite sides of the sky, according to NASA.
If the orbits of Mars and Earth were perfectly circular, April 8 would also have been when the two planets were nearest each other. But because they're slightly egg-shaped, the date of closest approach does not occur until Monday.
That night, the two planets will be a mere 57 million miles (92 million kilometers) apart. Also on tap for the celestial show is a total lunar eclipse, when the moon will turn as red as Mars itself.
"Mars rises in the east at sunset and soars almost overhead at midnight, shining burnt-orange almost 10 times brighter than a 1st-magnitude star," NASA says.
But no need to set your alarms or to buy a telescope: Mars, in all its glory, is easy to see on any clear night in April with the naked eye.
If you miss this event, you can witness the next "opposition of Mars" in 26 months.
A recent view of the planet taken from space has proved far different, but no less tantalizing. Was it a Martian playing flashlight tag with the Curiosity rover? The faraway glare from an extraterrestrial's TV? Or maybe someone warming up over a fire on the Red Planet's surface?
Still, the latest snapshot from the Curiosity is pretty cool.
It shows the stark Martian landscape with a light shining in front of a mountain chain. While enjoying the shot, the Curiosity Rover's official Twitter feed says it's more illusion than evidence of life: "Ooh. Shiny. Bright spot in this pic is likely a glinting rock or cosmic-ray hit."
A few pictures -- shot April 2 and 3 through the rover's "right-eye" camera -- show the bright spots, while those shot within a second through the "left-eye" camera don't, said Guy Webster, a spokesman with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Hence, it's unlikely any being -- from whatever world -- caused them.
Each time, "the sun was in the same direction as the bright spot -- west-northwest from the rover -- and relatively low in the sky," said Webster, who said one could surmise that the sun was reflecting off the rock the same way in each shot.
Or perhaps, he added, the spots could be a function of light affecting the camera itself.
Either way, the pictures add to the vast photo album that Curiosity has created since setting off from Earth in November 2011 and landing -- some 8-1/2 months later and 99 million miles away -- on Mars.
The 1-ton, SUV-sized vehicle is carrying 17 cameras and a number of scientific instruments, making it far from your average shutterbug.
That's not the only event of significance to Earthlings who like to look up.