Looking down on Curiosity's landing site from on high, a high-resolution camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has spotted crash sites with several pieces of the spacecraft that accompanied the rover to the floor of Gale crater.
There was a time when Martian landers made their dramatic passage through the planet's thin atmosphere and onto its bleak surface completely in isolation. No one back on Earth would know the landing's outcome until the spacecraft "phoned home."
But no longer. When NASA's Phoenix descended toward its polar landing zone in May 2008, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was waiting overhead to capture the dramatic descent of the capsule and its parachute.
Likewise, when Curiosity dropped to the floor of Gale crater on August 6th, three craft in orbit around Mars were listening for its radio transmissions and once again MRO was waiting and ready to photograph its parachute-assisted descent.
Now MRO has certified that Curiosity ended up where it's supposed to be — and spotted the wreckage of several pieces of the spacecraft that accompanied the rover to the floor of Gale crater. Taken just 24 hours after August 6th's landing, the scene above was recorded by MRO's ultrasharp HiRISE camera from a distance of about 210 miles (340 km). Even from so far away, HiRISE recorded details as small as 15 inches (39 cm) per pixel.
"It's like a crime-scene photo," notes Sarah Milkovich, HiRISE investigation scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Vague black smudges to the northeast and southwest of Curiosity show where rocket exhaust scoured away the surface's coating of bright dust. The parachute and back half of the descent capsule are sprawled across the ruddy surface some 2,020 feet (615 m) to the rover's southwest. The forward-facing heat shield, which fell away several miles up, lies nearly twice as far to the southeast.
Some 2,100 feet (650 m) to the northwest is the rocket-equipped "sky crane" — or rather what's left of it. There's a big, dark splash, with rays extending away from the rover. The rocket assembly had been preprogrammed to fly itself some distance from the touchdown site after cutting itself loose from the rover, and Milkovich notes that the lopsided pattern is consistent with an oblique impact.
As tempting as it might be to have Curiosity check out the piles of wreckage, that won't happen, says Michael Watkins, JPL's manager for the mission. The risk of the rover becoming contaminated (say, from leftover hydrazine in the rockets' fuel tanks) is too great.
Of more interest to the science team is the convergence of three very different terrains only a few hundred yards to the rover's east. Don't be surprised to see the rover trundling toward that nexus in the weeks ahead. The brightest of these disparate surfaces consists of some material that must be solidly compacted (orbital scans show that it retains heat longer than its surroundings). To the lower left is terrain with relatively few impact craters — and those appear muted, as if mostly eroded or mantled with a thick coating of dust. And the tract to the lower right looks peppered with craters, suggesting it might be oldest of the three.
Milkovich seemed almost apologetic about the quality of the image taken yesterday. To snap it, MRO had to roll 41° to one side, well beyond its usual 30° limit. Such an oblique view both reduced the resolution and introduced more atmospheric dust along the line of sight. She adds that notes that HiRISE has two opportunities to get much better views of the landing site within the next two weeks.