Curiosity, the car-sized rover that landed on Mars Sunday night, used possibly the most complicated landing systems ever devised. When engineers got confirmation that the rover was down Sunday night, they didn’t really know where it was or how exactly the landing had gone. They needed more data, and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) delivered. Late last Monday, a day after landing, the orbiter snapped an unbelievable shot of Curiosity and the pieces of its landing system littering Gale Crater.
MRO was launched on August 12, 2005. The spacecraft arrived at Mars on March 10, 2006 and ended it’s primary mission five and a half years later on December 31, 2010. But it’s still going strong.
At launch, MRO was the latest NASA’s “follow the water” missions – the idea being that since life on Earth needs water seeking water on other worlds will give us a shot at finding extraterrestrial life. Missions before MRO had found that water once flowed across the Martian surface, but nothing could conclusively demonstrate that the water had been around long enough to provide a habitat for life. MRO was designed to help answer that question, studying the Martian climate, atmosphere, weather patterns, as well as water-related land forms and other stratographic or compositional evidence for water.
One of MRO’s instruments is the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment or HiRISE. The $40 million instrument is a 19.7 in aperture reflecting telescope able to image the Martian surface at an incredibly high resolution – about one foot per pixel. At that power, HiRISE images can find and capture objects less than three feet across. HiRISE had no trouble spotting Curiosity’s parachute 65-foot parachute fully inflated about 40 or 50 seconds after it deployed. EDL engineer Devin Kipp calls the picture one of the most beautiful images he’s seen in his life.
That parachute shot was the first amazing image to come back but it wasn’t the most important for engineers. That shot was the debris shot. Like a blood splatter can help police understand what happened in a murder, the debris patter from Curiosity’s EDL helped engineers determine what really happened during landing.
“This latest image is another demonstration of the invaluable assistance the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter team, and its sister team with the Mars Odyssey orbiter, have provided the Curiosity rover during our early days on the Red Planet,” MSL mission manager Mike Watkins at JPL Said.
The picture not only satisfied the engineers’ curiosity, it provided vital information “on how these vital components performed during entry, descent and landing,” Watkins continues, adding that it was also an important piece in helping the team pinpoint Curiosity’s landing spot.
The Curiosity rover is in the center of the image. To the right, approximately 4,900 feet (1,500 meters) away is the heat shield that protected the rover during its fiery atmospheric entry when temperature rose up to 3,800-degree-Fahrenheit (about 2,100 degrees Celsius). On the lower left of the image are the parachute and back shell, about about 2,020 feet (615 meters) away from Curiosity; the back shell is still connected to the chute by 80 165 feet (50 meters) suspension lines. To the upper-left you can see a discoloration on the Mars surface consistent with what engineers think would have happened when the rocket-powered Sky Crane crashed into the surface. That’s about 2,100 feet (650 meters) away from the rover.
“This is the first of what I imagine will be many portraits HiRISE will be taking of Curiosity on the surface of Mars,” said HiRISE investigation scientist Sarah Milkovich, also from JPL. “The image was taken Monday at about 10:30 p.m. Pacific when MRO was at an altitude of about 186 miles (300 kilometers), and we are getting resolution on the surface down to 1.3 feet (39 centimeters) per pixel.”
This is also the first of many images to come from the MSL mission, both from orbit and from the surface. Already, Curiosity has returned some stunning shots from its landing site. But it’s the images from orbit that help us situation Curiosity on Mars. It should be fun, as the mission rolls on and MRO keeps snapping HiRISE images, to track Curiosity’s progress across the Martian surface.