At NASA's August 6 press conference discussing a safe landing of the $2.5-billion Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover, researchers from the University of Arizona pulled a stunning rabbit out of a hat – a picture of the rover descending to the surface under its deployed parachute.
The photo is a masterful feat of engineering and programming.
The supporting star of today's show, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), entered into a preliminary orbit around the red planet on March 10, 2006 and used a series of aerobraking maneuvers over five months to put it into its final, fine-tuned orbit between 160 to 196 miles above the surface.
MRO's primary mission was to map the Martian surface with high-resolution cameras in order to choose landing site for future missions, such as the Curiosity Rover.
MRO's primary imaging instrument is the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera. It has a half-meter aperture telescope, enabling it to take pictures of Mars with resolutions of around 33 centimeters – a bit more than a foot – per pixel.
HiRISE was built by Ball Aerospace under the direction of the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, and is currently operated by the lab.
MRO has been used twice to capture the landing of probes on Mars. Its first "money shot" was catching the landing of the Mars Phoenix Lander near the north polar cap. Phoenix was designed to study the flow of water and carbon dioxide ices.
MRO's orbit was adjusted and tweaked just right to capture the descent of Phoenix on its parachute on May 25, 2008, the first time one spacecraft had caught the descent of another one landing on a planet.
Later, MRO took pictures of Phoenix successfully deployed on the surface.
Consider for a moment all the variables necessary to take a picture of one spacecraft descending and rapidly decelerating down to Mars' surface. First, you have to hope to calculate the time window and place where the descending probe will be arriving, then carefully position the photographing satellite at an orbit that allows you to take the picture, then point the camera at the "scene" and take the shot.
Plus allow for 7 minutes of communications time lag between Earth and Mars.
The University of Arizona accomplished this masterpiece of science and art again yesterday as Curiosity arrived at the red planet. NASA's composite picture of the descent one minute before landing can be found here.
The large illustration clearly shows Curiosity under its parachute, while the insert blowup depicts more details, including the central vent hole.
As amazing as the MRO photo is, better pictures from Curiosity's landing are coming. The rover is transmitting back the first of its own on-the-way-down pictures, including high-resolution color photos.
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Edited by Braden Becker