The HiRISE team has outdone themselves this time. Using their incredible instrument, the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, they have captured an absolutely amazing image of the Curiosity rover, descending on a parachute through Mars’ atmosphere.
“Nailed it!” Tweeted Christian Schaller of the HiRISE team. “My goodness, @MarsCuriosity you look pretty.”
Schaller told Universe Today that the MSL Navigation team, the MRO Navigation team and the MRO FET (flight engineering team) “seriously rock. Seriously.”
The planning by those teams made this image possible.
Schaller is the software developer responsible for the primary planning tools the MRO and HiRISE targeting specialists and science team members use to plan their images.
“The Mars background looks a little blurry or smeared because we set up the timing to capture Curiosity, not the Martian surface,” Schaller said via email after the image was released at the press conference from JPL on Monday morning.
The image was set up so that as MSL was descending, MRO “slewed” the HiRISE field of view across the expected descent path. But obviously, MRO didn’t have to slew too much. “We were almost directly overhead, and had a very, very small angle to take the image,” said HiRISE team member Sarah Malkovich at the press conference. “MRO was essentially overhead.”
HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen said before the landing that they expected only a 60% chance of success.
McEwen wrote the HiRISE website of the image:
The parachute appears fully inflated and performing perfectly. Details in the parachute such as the band gap at the edges and the central hole are clearly visible. The cords connecting the parachute to the backshell cannot be seen, although they were seen in the image of Phoenix descending, perhaps due to the difference in lighting angles.
The bright spot on the backshell containing MSL might be a specular reflection off of a shiny area. MSL was released from the backshell sometime after this image was acquired.
This view is one product from an observation made by HiRISE targeted to the expected location of MSL about 1 minute prior to landing. It was captured in HiRISE CCD RED1, near the eastern edge of the swath width (there is a RED0 at the very edge). This means that MSL was a bit further east or downrange than predicted.
The image scale is 33.6 cm/pixel.
MRO was 340 km away from Curiosity when the image was taken, and that is line of sight distance, said Malkovich. “HiRISE has taken over 120 pictures of Gale Crater in preparation for MSL’s mission, but I think this is the coolest one,” she said.
McEwen said more details and image products will be available and we will post them as soon as they are available.
This animation shows how HiRISE planned to capture MSL’s descent:
Malkovich said that the HiRISE team already has plans to take images of Curiosity sitting on the surface of Mars later this week that will be of higher resolution than the descent image.
Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today’s Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT’s Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is the author of the new book “Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos.” She is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.