Emily LakdawallaJun 21, 2016

National Selfie Day: Spacecraft self-portraits

It's apparently National Selfie Day. I'm not entirely sure who has the authority to declare these things, or why they decided we needed a National Selfie Day, but since the self-portrait is one of my favorite subgenres of spacecraft photography, I couldn't resist writing about them.

The unequivocal master of self-portraits is Curiosity, an often-anthropomorphized robot that can even take its selfies the way humans do, by regarding itself with a camera held at the end of its own arm. Curiosity takes self-portraits relatively frequently, nearly every time it drills or scoops samples from Mars to deliver to its scientific instruments. Here are six such self-portraits:

Six Curiosity self-portraits
Six Curiosity self-portraits NASA / JPL / MSSS / Thomas Appéré

But Curiosity wasn't the first Mars robot to do this. The Mars Exploration Rovers also occasionally performed "deck panorama" images to check out the amount of dust covering their solar panels. Here's a comparison of two such Opportunity panoramas, before and after a dust-cleaning event when a gust of wind puffed the panels clean:

Before & after: Opportunity's deck gets cleaned on Endeavour's rim
Before & after: Opportunity's deck gets cleaned on Endeavour's rim
Before & after: Opportunity's deck gets cleaned on Endeavour's rim Two self-portraits of Opportunity show effects of wind events that cleaned much of the accumulated dust off the rover's solar panels between sols 3538 and 3611 (6 January and 22 March 2014). NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell / ASU / Emily Lakdawalla

And here's poor Spirit. I still get a lump in my throat whenever I see images of Spirit at Home Plate.

Spirit self-portrait at McMurdo, sols 814-980
Spirit self-portrait at McMurdo, sols 814-980 This self-portrait of Spirit is a polar projection of the 360-degree "McMurdo" panorama made from images taken from April 18 through October 5, 2006, during the mission's second Martian winter. Unlike many other rover panoramas, this one is approximately true color, made from images taken through red, green, and blue filters. NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell / ASU

Like Curiosity, Spirit and Opportunity both had cameras on the ends of their robotic arms, but those cameras were very nearsighted; any attempt at self-portrait would be blurry. Spirit did attempt to use the arm to take a look at its own underbelly when it got stuck at Troy, but the view was blurry enough to be of limited use.

There's one more Mars craft that used an arm-mounted camera to take a photo of itself, generating one of my favorite pairs of images:

Phoenix self-portrait
Phoenix self-portrait On sol 116 (September 22, 2008), Phoenix used its Robotic Arm Camera to take a photo of its Surface Stereo Imager -- and vice versa. NASA / JPL / UA / MPI
Phoenix self-portrait (side view)
Phoenix self-portrait (side view) On sol 116, Phoenix used its Robotic Arm Camera to shoot photos of its Surface Stereo Imager, and vice versa. NASA / JPL / UA / MPI

Actually, just about every lander mission takes photos with some amount of hardware in the view. Phoenix, Pathfinder, and Viking on Mars; the Surveyors and other lunar landers; even Philae got a few bits of its own hardware in view after landing on comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. For these and other self-portraits, check out my collection of pictures of spacecraft in space.

Moving beyond landers, orbiters and deep-space craft don't have arm-mounted cameras, so they have a hard time getting enough perspective to shoot self-portraits. Here are a few examples. The first is a unique view of the instrument deck of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, taken using an instrument not ordinarily considered a camera, the Mars Climate Sounder instrument.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter instrument deck
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter instrument deck Just two weeks after arriving at Mars, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured what may be the first-ever self-portrait from a planetary orbiter. The snapshot was not taken by any of the orbiter's cameras; it came from Mars Climate Sounder. This view was captured on March 25, 2006 in a mid-infrared wavelength of 32.5 microns. At the bottom of the view is the spacecraft instrument deck, which is below the MCS instrument. Mars would be above the view but is not visible here. There is a sharp and obvious boundary between the slightly warm instrument deck and the blackness of space. The instrument deck has a square shape, which is distorted in this angular-space view into a cusp shape. NASA / JPL-Caltech

Here are a couple from the Chang'e 2 lunar orbiter, taken in 2010 using cameras to monitor solar panel deployments and rocket firings.

Chang'E 2 first orbit trim maneuver On October 8, 2010, Chang'E 2 fires its main engine to reduce the size of its lunar orbit, as the Moon swings through the field of view in the background. The firing of the engine begins just after the terminator passes out of view (from the camera's point of view). As the spacecraft drops completely into the lunar shadow, the camera's automatic exposure setting adjusts brighter, making part of the spacecraft visible in light emitted from the glowing thruster. Credit: CNSA / tv.people.com.cn

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Chang'e 2 deploys its solar panels (video) On October 1, 2010, shortly after launch, Chang'E 2 deploys its solar panels, an event witnessed by an engineering camera. In this video, a computer simulation shows the event and the position of the camera; then the video from the onboard camera is shown. The spring-deployed panels sway back and forth gently after deployment. After the swaying has damped, the spacecraft rolls and suddenly the brilliant ball of Earth swings into view. The camera's exposure adjusts for the brightness of Earth's clouds. Credit: CNSA / tv.people.com.cn

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Our own Lightsail had a camera to check out the sail deployment:

LightSail 1 updated solar sail selfie
LightSail 1 updated solar sail selfie This image was captured by a camera aboard LightSail 1 on June 8, 2015, shortly after solar sail deployment. It was color-corrected by Dan Slater to remove the camera's artificial purplish tint based on ground test images, and is a closer approximation to what the human eye would see. The Planetary Society

And so did JAXA's solar sail, IKAROS.

Successful sail deployment for IKAROS
Successful sail deployment for IKAROS The solar sail aboard the IKAROS spacecraft successfully deployed on June 10, 2010, and was captured by one of the spacecraft's onboard cameras (Cam 1). JAXA / JSPEC

I particularly love this IKAROS self-portrait with Venus in the background.

IKAROS self-portrait with Venus
IKAROS self-portrait with Venus IKAROS took this photo on December 8, 2010, documenting its flight past Venus. JAXA

Lots and lots of Earth-orbiting spacecraft have deployment-monitoring cameras; I could fill a whole gallery just with those. But let's stick with deep-space missions for the purposes of this post.

The list above has been confined to true self-portraits -- images taken of spacecraft by themselves. It would become a much longer list if I added in photos of spacecraft taken by other spacecraft. But just for fun, let's loosen the "self-portrait" definition just slightly to allow photos of spacecraft taken by other spacecraft that launched at the same time. If I do that, I get to add in a few more iconic portraits. First is this terrific view of Rosetta, often called a Rosetta self-portrait, but actually a photo of Rosetta taken by Philae:

Rosetta Was Here
Rosetta Was Here This amazing view was captured by the CIVA camera on Rosetta's Philae lander just four minutes before its closest approach to Mars on February 25, 2007. The spacecraft was only 1,000 kilometers above the planet. Part of the spacecraft bus fills the view on the left side, and one of the long solar panels stretches out across the center. In the background is the globe of Mars, the view looking down on Cydonia mensae. The original photo was black-and-white; this version is colorized. CIVA / Philae / ESA Rosetta

Later on, of course, the two spacecraft photographed each other as they parted:

Farewell, Rosetta
Farewell, Rosetta The Philae lander took this photo with its ÇIVA imager just after separating from the Rosetta orbiter, with about 10 meters of empty space between them. The photo includes most of one of Rosetta's solar panels, as well as some dust motes on ÇIVA's optics (producing large circles). This photo has been modified from the original to correct for an incorrect conversion from a higher bit depth to 8-bit mode. ESA Rosetta / Philae / ÇIVA / Emiy Lakdawalla
Philae falling
Philae falling This animation shows the Philae lander falling away from Rosetta from 10:24 to 14:24 on November 12, 2014, in images taken an hour apart, beginning about two hours after the spacecraft separated at 08:35. ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

IKAROS carried deployable cameras, DCAM1 and DCAM2, whose sole purpose was to capture a clear view of the deployed solar sail in space. IKAROS released them, they took their photos, and then they drifted away forever:

DCAM2's view of IKAROS
DCAM2's view of IKAROS A 32-frame animation from the deployable camera DCAM2 on IKAROS. The camera rotated as it receded, producing the apparent spin of the sail. JAXA

Here's a poignant entry in the list of spacecraft photographing deployed sub-spacecraft -- Hayabusa's last view of the Minerva hopper, which missed landing on asteroid Itokawa.

Minerva hopper and Hayabusa's shadow at Itokawa
Minerva hopper and Hayabusa's shadow at Itokawa A photo of the asteroid Itokawa from the Hayabusa spacecraft on November 12, 2005 shows the Minerva lander (dot inside the yellow circle, and detail inside the yellow square) near the asteroid. Minerva was released and activated successfully but failed to land on Itokawa. The dark bow-tie shape on Itokawa is the shadow of Hayabusa. ISAS / JAXA

And while we're talking about lost deployed spacecraft, here's Beagle 2.

Beagle 2 departing Mars Express
Beagle 2 departing Mars Express The last view of the Beagle 2 lander as it separated from Mars Express on December 19, 2003. ESA

But that's a little depressing, so let's close this post out with a few more fun views. Anytime you put a rover on a lander, the two can image each other, repeatedly. Recently, the Chang'e 3 lander and rover imaged each other:

Yutu on the road
Yutu on the road The Chang'e 3 lander captured the four images for this mosaic of the Yutu rover driving southward on December 23, 2013. Yutu's right solar panel is angled downward to catch the glancing sunlight at a better angle. Chinese Academy of Sciences / China National Space Administration / The Science and Application Center for Moon and Deepspace Exploration / Emily Lakdawalla
Chang'e 3 lander in the distance
Chang'e 3 lander in the distance The Yutu rover took the images for this panorama on January 13, 2014, during the rover's second lunar day on the surface, while close to "Pyramid Rock." Two Earth days later, the rover's motor unit failed, after it had driven substantially closer to the lander. Chinese Academy of Sciences / China National Space Administration / The Science and Application Center for Moon and Deepspace Exploration / Emily Lakdawalla

But my favorite of this type has to be all the times Pathfinder imaged Sojourner, and vice versa:

Many rovers on Mars
Many rovers on Mars This version of the Mars Pathfinder "Presidential Panorama" has been composited with many images captured of Sojourner throughout the mission. This provides a visual scale for understanding the sizes and distances of rocks surrounding the lander as well as a record of the travels of the rover. Several of the rover images were captured in full color. The rest were colorized using color sampled from those frames. Dr. Carol Stoker, NASA ARC
Pathfinder viewed from Sojourner, sol 33
Pathfinder viewed from Sojourner, sol 33 NASA / JPL

In fact, there's a whole wonderful gallery of photos of Pathfinder from Sojourner's dog's-eye view.

Have I missed any great spacecraft self-portraits, especially the true it-took-a-photo-of-itself type? Let me know in the comments! Or go on to enjoy the rest of my collection of pictures of spacecraft in space.

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