During the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity this morning the orbiting Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this stunning image of the rover on its way to the surface of the Red Planet. Curiosity conducted its landing at 1:32 a.m. EDT. The picture clearly shows the rover, still encapsulated in its aeroshell, under parachute and heading down for its date with history.
MRO utilized its High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera to snap the image of Curiosity while the satellite was listening to transmissions emanating from the rover.
JPL reworked the image to include an inset box with an enlarged close up shot of Curiosity and its parachute. The terrain in the image shows the Martian plains and dunes that surround “Mt. Sharp.” Since the rover was making its landing at an angle, the actual landing site does not appear below Curiosity.
“If HiRISE took the image one second before or one second after, we probably would be looking at an empty Martian landscape,” said Sarah Milkovich, HiRISE investigation scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “When you consider that we have been working on this sequence since March and had to upload commands to the spacecraft about 72 hours prior to the image being taken, you begin to realize how challenging this picture was to obtain.”
The picture verifies what the MSL team on the ground already knew – that the parachute performed flawlessly. Details in the parachute such as the band gap and central hole are clearly visible. Curiosity was freed from the back shell and safely lowered to the ground via the Sky Crane shortly after this image was taken. The image scale is 13.2 inches (33.6 centimeters) per pixel.
This is the second time that JPL has captured an image of one of their spacecraft landing on Mars. During the Mars Phoenix Lander’s EDL in May of 2008, MRO captured the lander’s descent under parachute just as it did last night with MSL.