Curiosity Rover Photographed Over Mars From Orbiting Satellite

By Max Eddy on August 6, 2012 4:32 PM EDT

Curiosity Landing on Mars
NASA's MRO captured this image of the Curiosity rover parachuting onto Mars. (Photo: NASA / HiRISE)

While flight engineers waited nervously as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) completed its nail-biting trip to the Red Planet, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) hung quietly above the rover's landing site. It's primary goal, along with other nearby satellites, was to help relay updates from the Curiosity rover as it approached the planet. However, it also managed to snap this amazing photograph with its High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE camera.

In orbit around Mars since 2006, the MRO's HiRISE camera has a 0.3 meter resolution from its orbit some 300 kilometers from the Martian surface. The picture it managed to capture shows the MSL, still in its protective casing and with its enormous parachute deployed.

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Earlier in the week, Christian Schaller from the HiRISE team told the Universe Today that the MRO would only have one shot at catching this historic moment on film. "The EDL (Entry, Descent and Landing) image is set up so that as MSL is descending, MRO will be slewing the HiRISE field of view across the expected descent path. The plan is to capture MSL during the parachute phase of descent."

Before the MSL entered the Martian atmosphere, it and other satellites orbiting Mars were repositioned to serve as relay stations for Curiosity's UHF signals. This meant that the MRO would already be near by, and attempting to photograph its descent was just a convenient opportunity.

In fact, the MRO managed this feat once already during the Mars Phoenix mission when it snapped a photo of the lander parachuting onto Mars.

In order to sync up efforts between the MSL and the satellites around Mars, mission planners had to relay information about the MSL's approach from the time of its launch. Using this, engineers were able to make slight adjustments to the satellites' orbits over time. Despite all the advanced notice, coordinating a photograph with the MRO's HiRISE camera would be difficult, as the optical equipment can only image a very small area at a time.

Just before the MSL entered the atmosphere, the MRO took a long exposure image to warm up the HiRISE camera to its optimal operating temperature. Then, relying on pre-scripted operations from its controllers, the MRO snapped a photo as it flew over where mission planners hoped the MSL would be flying.

The result was the image above, showing off the saucer-like descent stage but its enormous super-sonic parachute. "The parachute appears fully inflated and performing perfectly," writes Alfred McEwen on the HiRISE website. "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 astonishing photo was taken towards the beginning of the so-called "Seven Minutes of Terror." This audacious procedure involved not only a parachute, but an ingenious rocket system which lowered the Curiosity rover by cable to the surface of the planet in what was called the "Skycrane Maneuver." The parachute deployed by the MSL is the largest ever used outside of the Moon-Earth system, and is clearly visible in the HiRISE image.

Though scale is difficult to discern in the image, the parachute is 51 feet in diameter and 16 stories tall.

A triumph in its own right, the relationship between Curiosity and the MRO is far from over. Universe Today quoted HiRISE team member Sarah Malkovich saying during a press conference that they hope to capture images of the MSL on the ground as well. Get ready for your close-up, Curiosity.

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