Curiosity landing site: the whole mess

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Aug. 8 2012 7:00 AM

Curiosity landing site: the whole mess

A new picture returned from the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows an overview of the Mars Curiosity rover landing site, showing all the hardware that took it safely to the surface!

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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It's like an episode of CSI: Gale Crater. You can see the Curiosity rover itself (labeled MSL for Mars Science Laboratory, the official name), sitting in a circle of dust disturbed by the landing rockets in the sky crane at final moments of descent. The sky crane impact site is to the upper left, several hundred meters away. The crane lowered the rover to the surface, disconnected the cables, then flew off to a safe distance. Note the plume of disturbed material pointing away from the direction to the rover, indicating the crane hit the ground at a low angle and not straight down (in which case the splash pattern would be more circular).

The parachute and backshell are off to the left. The backshell was literally that: a protective shell on the back of the rover and crane assembly to which the parachute was attached. That disconnected while the crane and rover were still well off the surface, to avoid getting tangled.

Finally, the heat shield is off to the lower right. That was the blunt capsule under the whole package that protected it from the heat of atmospheric entry; you can see it detach and fall to the ground in the descent video I posted recently.

These images are cool, but serve a solid purpose: they provide the engineers and scientists here on Earth evidence of precisely how the hardware performed. By looking at locations, dust patterns, and more, they can determine how well these devices did versus what was predicted. That's important info for planning future missions, especially given how complex this landing sequence was. It really is a bit of forensics.

But it also says something else: we have hardware that made it to Mars! And we have photographic evidence of it!

The future. We are in you.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona



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