A photograph of a human standing on Mars is still decades away. But the idea that a human-built rover might take a self-portrait on the red planet came sometime in 2011. A few members of the team directing the cameras on the Curiosity Rover had gathered at the home of filmmaker James Cameron, who suggested that perhaps a selfie on Mars could be truly Earth-changing. “The idea was that people could see the craft at work and engage with it in a new way,” says Michael Ravine, a photographing engineer with Malin Space Science Systems, the company that developed and operates the cameras on Curiosity.
The rover is equipped with some of the best cameras in the universe (as far as we know), but to turn them on itself proved harder than it seemed. The process involved developing a complex code of directional sequences to extend Curiosity's robotic arm and then turn the camera inward. Dozens of individual photographs from different angles could then be stitched together into a single composite. The arm is then edited out of the composite, giving the impression that someone standing in front of the rover took the image. Engineers tested the process on a duplicate Curiosity in California, and when it passed, the team sent the sequences to the real Curiosity on Mars.
Finding the right conditions for the portrait took almost two years. But when the rover found itself somewhere flat, and sloped gently upward, the portrait came together. That was in 2013, and since then, Curiosity has taken nine self-portraits, all in different conditions and with different backgrounds. Some have photographed the rover head on, some slightly below to reveal its underbelly (and check it for damage).
Curiosity was sent to Mars to survey the planet’s geology in advance of a potential human mission. A portrait of Curiosity shows that, in a way, humans have been there for a while.
Daniel Stone is a staff writer for National Geographic magazine, where he covers environmental science and agriculture. Follow Daniel on Twitter.