AN IMAGE FROM THE High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance orbiter (MRO) captured the Curiosity rover still connected to its almost 16-metre-wide parachute as it descended towards its landing site at Gale Crater.
“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.
“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 realise how challenging this picture was to obtain.”
The image was taken while MRO was 340 kilometres away from the parachuting rover. Curiosity and its rocket-propelled backpack, contained within the conical-shaped back shell, had yet to be deployed. At the time, Curiosity was about three kilometres above the Martian surface.
“Guess you could consider us the closest thing to paparazzi on Mars,” said Milkovich. “We definitely caught NASA’s newest celebrity in the act.”
Curiosity’s parachute performed perfectly
HiRISE captured the image while the orbiter was listening to transmissions from the rover. Curiosity and its parachute are in the centre of the white box; the inset image is an enlargement, adjusted to avoid brightness saturation.
The rover was seen descending toward the etched plains just north of the sand dunes that fringe “Mt. Sharp”. From the perspective of the orbiter, the parachute and Curiosity were flying at an angle relative to the surface, so the landing site does not appear directly below the rover.
The parachute appeared fully inflated and performing perfectly. Details in the parachute, such as the band gap at the edges and the central hole, are clearly seen. The cords connecting the parachute to the back shell cannot be seen. The bright spot on the back shell containing Curiosity might be a specular reflection off of a shiny area. Curiosity was released from the back shell sometime after this image was acquired.
Rover’s second day on Mars
In other Curiosity news, one part of the rover team at the JPL continues to analyse the data from yesterday’s landing while another continues to prepare the one-tonne mobile laboratory for its future explorations of Gale Crater.
One key assignment given to Curiosity for its first full day on Mars is to raise its high-gain antenna. Using this antenna will increase the data rate at which the rover can communicate directly with Earth. The mission will use relays to orbiters as the primary method for sending data home, because that method is much more energy-efficient for the rover.
Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Arizona.
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