Mars Orbiters Will Attempt to Take Pictures of the Curiosity Rover as It Lands

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera captured this image of Phoenix hanging from its parachute as it descended to the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.


Remember this amazing image from 2008? The HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured the Phoenix lander descending on a parachute to land on Mars’ north polar region. MRO will attempt a repeat performance in August of 2012 when the Mars Science Laboratory rover “Curiosity” will be landing in Gale Crater on Mars. Capturing this event would be epic, especially with MSL’s unique “skycrane” landing system.

“Yes, MRO is planning to image the descent of MSL with both HiRISE and CTX (Context Camera),” Alfred McEwen, HiRISE principal investigator told Universe Today. “For Phoenix we got a bit lucky with HiRISE in terms of the geometry, giving us a high probability of success. It may not work out so well for MSL. What I’d really like is to capture the rover hanging from the skycrane, but the timing may be difficult.”

Again, the word here is epic.

So, how challenging is it for a spacecraft orbiting Mars to try and track another spacecraft coming in?

“If we were not to do anything, the Mars’ orbiting spacecraft may be on the other side of the planet,” said MSL navigation team chief Tomas Martin-Mur, during an interview with UT. “So as soon as we launch, we tell the other spacecraft where we are going to be by the time of entry so they can change their orbits over time, so they will be flying overhead as MSL approaches the planet.”

The orbiters – which also includes NASA’s Mars Odyssey and ESA’s Mars Express – will have to do special maneuvers to be aligned in just the right place – nearby to MSL’s point of entry into Mars’ atmosphere — and they may even have to change the plane of their orbit.

This artist's concept shows the sky crane maneuver during the descent of NASA's Curiosity rover to the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

“The other thing that we’ll need them to do is to point their UHF antennas towards MSL,” Martin-Mur said. “Normally their antennas will be pointed to take pictures, but they will have to go to a special attitude to point to MSL. This will enable them to try — like they did with Phoenix — to take a picture of the spacecraft as it is coming down to the planet. We are hoping to see the parachute deployed and maybe more.”

“That was a great picture for Phoenix, and we will attempt to repeat that,” Martin-Mur added.

While Odyssey and Mars Express’ cameras may not have the resolving power to capture such an image, MRO’s powerful HiRISE camera does. However it has a narrower field of view, so as much skill and planning as this requires, the team will need a little luck, too. But there’s also the CTX.

“CTX has a much larger field of view and will likely capture it,” McEwen said, “but at 20X lower resolution than HiRISE, which should still be good enough to detect the parachute.”

Here’s a preview of what MSL will be going through during the perilous entry descent and landing:

Learn more about the navigation for MSL, currently traveling on its way to Mars, in our previous interview with Tomas Martin-Mur.

The Longest Martian Odyssey Ever

Noctis Vista: West of Valles Marineris lies a checkerboard named Noctis Labyrinthus, which formed when the Martian crust stretched and fractured. As faults opened, they released subsurface ice and water, causing the ground to collapse. This westward view combines images taken during the period from April 2003 to September 2005 by the Thermal Emission Imaging System instrument on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. It is part of a special set of images marking the occasion of Odyssey becoming the longest-working Mars spacecraft in history. The pictured location on Mars is 13.3 degrees south latitude, 263.4 degrees east longitude. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU


At 3,340 days and counting, NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter established a new record for longevity as of Dec. 15 and thereby worked longer at the red planet than any other spacecraft in human history.

The previous Martian record holder was the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) orbiter which operated in orbit from Sept. 11, 1997 to Nov. 2, 2006 until contact was lost following a computer glitch.

Odyssey has made numerous high impact scientific discoveries along the way. The probe also relayed most of the science data from Spirit, Opportunity and Phoenix and will continue that task for NASA’s upcoming Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover named Curiosity.

The spacecrafts name – 2001 Mars Odyssey – was chosen as a tribute to the vision and spirit of space exploration as embodied in the works of renowned science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke – including the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”.

It was way back on Oct. 24, 2001 that the Odyssey spacecraft fired its main engine to brake the crafts speed and allow it to be captured by Mars and enter a highly elliptical orbit. A technique known as aerobraking was used over the next three months to fly through the upper atmosphere and utilize drag to gradually lower the crafts altitude and eventually enter its mapping orbit.

Ares Vallis: In Ares Vallis, teardrop mesas extend like pennants behind impact craters, where the raised rocky rims diverted the floods and protected the ground from erosion. Scientists estimate the floods had peak volumes many times the flow of today's Mississippi River. The pictured location on Mars is 15.9 degrees north latitude, 330 degrees east longitude. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Science operations began in earnest in February 2002. Within a few months, Odyssey made the key discovery of the entire mission when it found that the polar regions harbored substantial caches of water ice within a meter of the dry surface of Mars.

The detection of water – in the form of hydrogen — from orbit using the crafts Gamma Ray Spectrometer led directly to the proposal for the Phoenix mission which confirmed the discovery in 2008. Phoenix landed directly on top of vast sheets of frozen water ice in the northern polar region of Mars and scooped up samples of ice for analysis by the landers science suite.

Another notable achievement by Odyssey during the primary mission phase was to complete a survey of the radiation environment to determine the radiation-related risk to any future human explorers who may one day go to Mars.

In another first, Odyssey’s instruments globally mapped the amount and distribution of many chemical elements and minerals that make up the martian surface. Such data helps explain how the planet’s landforms developed over time, provides clues to the geological and climatic history of Mars, informs about the potential for finding past or present life and where are the best locations to search for life and send future landers such as the Curiosity rover set to launch in November 2011.

Artist concept of Mars Odyssey probe in orbit since Oct. 24, 2001

Mars Odyssey is equipped with three primary science instruments to accomplish the goals set out in NASA Mars Exploration Program:
• THEMIS (Thermal Emission Imaging System), for determining the distribution of minerals, particularly those that can only form in the presence of water;
• GRS (Gamma Ray Spectrometer), for determining the presence of 20 chemical elements on the surface of Mars, including hydrogen in the shallow subsurface (which acts as a proxy for determining the amount and distribution of possible water ice on the planet); and,
• MARIE (Mars Radiation Environment Experiment), for studying the radiation environment.

The primary mission lasted until August 2004. Since then the mission lifetime has been extended several times and further extensions are in the works according to Guy Webster, the Public Affairs Officer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., which manages the Odyssey mission.

“We are currently in the fourth extended mission which is funded through the end of September 2012,” Webster told me. “Extended missions are funded for about a one-Mars-year period, which is approximately equal to two years. The next extended mission period will be during the MSL’s prime surface mission and Odyssey is an integral part of the effort to relay MSL’s data from the surface and back to Earth.”

MSL is slated for an August 2012 landing on Mars. “It is expected that Odyssey will be approved for a fifth extended mission,” said Webster.

“The total investment in this mission so far — including development, assembly & test, launch, and operations — is $508 million,” added Webster.

Udzha Crater: Although it is 45 kilometers (28 miles) wide, countless layers of ice and dust have all but buried Udzha Crater. Udzha lies near the edge of the northern polar cap, and only the topmost edges of its crater rim rise above the polar deposits to hint at its circular shape. The pictured location on Mars is 81.8 degrees north latitude, 77.2 degrees east longitude. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

A huge bonus of scientific accomplishments has been enabled during the extended mission phase that otherwise would not have been possible.

“The extra years have allowed us to build up the highest-resolution maps covering virtually the entire planet,” said Odyssey Project Scientist Jeffrey Plaut of JPL.

The maps were constructed using nearly 21,000 images taken by the THEMIS camera which was built and is operated by Arizona State University, Tempe. Surface details as small as 100 meters (330 feet) wide are visible. Check out this slide show of some of Odyssey’s greatest hits as compiled by the camera team and NASA:

Chasma Boreale is a long, flat-floored valley that cuts deep into Mars' north polar icecap. Its walls rise about 1,400 meters (4,600 feet) above the floor. Where the edge of the ice cap has retreated, sheets of sand are emerging that accumulated during earlier ice-free climatic cycles. Winds blowing off the ice have pushed loose sand into dunes and driven them down-canyon in a westward direction, toward our viewpoint. This scene combines images taken during the period from December 2002 to February 2005 by the Thermal Emission Imaging System instrument on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. The pictured location on Mars is 84.9 degrees north latitude, 359.1 degrees east longitude. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

The ability to monitor seasonal changes on Mars from year-to-year, such as the cycle of carbon-dioxide freezing out of the atmosphere in polar regions during each hemisphere’s winter, is another example of bonus science from the extended mission.

“It is remarkable how consistent the patterns have been from year to year, and that’s a comparison that wouldn’t have been possible without our mission extensions,” Plaut said.

The science team comprises numerous additional partners including the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, the University of Arizona, and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Odyssey has served as the primary means of communications for NASA’s Mars surface explorers in the past decade and will continue that role for the upcoming Curiosity rover.

“More than 95 percent of the data from Spirit and Opportunity and approximately 79 percent of the data from Phoenix was relayed by Odyssey,” Webster stated.

Given the propellant reserves on board, Odyssey could continue operating until at least about 2016 and perhaps even well beyond if the ships systems remain healthy.

“21.6 kg of propellant remains with an average consumption rate of about 1.4 kg per year,” according to Webster. “However, there are other elements of the spacecraft that might suggest that Odyssey’s life expectancy could be closer to six years. Lifetime issues are extremely difficult to estimate. The best policy is to reevaluate the spacecraft’s health at regular intervals, and prior to important events, and determine if we’re up to a given task. So far we have been.”

Odyssey remains in good shape overall and will continue to actively pursue many science investigations in the years ahead.

Among the top priorities are extended coverage of Mars with mid-afternoon imaging by THEMIS. The orbit was adjusted last year to enable surface observations in mid-afternoon instead of late afternoon. Another goal is to extend year-to-year comparisons of seasonal changes on Mars.

Concerning the status of the science instruments, Webster informed me, “THEMIS and two parts of the GRS suite — the neutron spectrometer and the high-energy neutron detector — are currently in use. The third sensor for that suite — the gamma ray detector — is no longer in use. The payload’s MARIE radiation experiment stopped taking measurements several years ago.”

Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver built the Odyssey spacecraft which is operated in partnership with JPL.

Mars Odyssey was launched on April 7, 2001. For more information visit the mission website:

Noctis Canyon: A false-color mosaic focuses on one junction in Noctis Labyrinthus where canyons meet to form a depression 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) deep. Dust (blue tints) lies on the upper surfaces, while rockier material (warmer colors) lies below. The pictures used to create this mosaic image were taken from April 2003 to September 2005 by the Thermal Emission Imaging System instrument on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. The pictured location on Mars is approximately 13 degrees south latitude, 260 degrees east longitude. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU
Bunge Crater Dunes: Fans and ribbons of dark sand dunes creep across the floor of Bunge Crater in response to winds blowing from the direction at the top of the picture. The frame is about 14 kilometers (9 miles) wide.The pictured location on Mars is 33.8 degrees south latitude, 311.4 degrees east longitude. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/AS
Dual Crater: If a meteorite breaks in two shortly before hitting the ground, the typical bowl shape of a single impact crater becomes doubled. The two circular blast regions intersect, creating a straight wall separating the two craters. At the same time, 'wings' of ejected debris shoot out to the side. The image covers an area 13 kilometers (8 miles) wide. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU