Mars rover photos will help scientists better understand planet
As the Mars rover Curiosity continues to send NASA dramatic images, scientists say the pictures will help them better understand the Red Planet.
At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, there is one scientist who seems to have become in some ways the face of the mission. With his red, white and blue mohawk haircut, flight director Bobak Ferdowsi has become known as "Mohawk Guy." He will discuss the mission and all the data that Curiosity is providing during a Google+ Hangout at 2 p.m. PDT.
He will be joined by Times Science Writer Amina Khan, who will have the latest on the treasure trove of photos and how they increase our understanding of Mars.
Several high-resolution images from Mars were released by NASA on Wednesday. Black-and-white photos stitched together from Curiosity’s cameras show gravelly terrain with what looks like well-cut, pyramidal mountains in the background -- the kind of terrain found in the Mojave Desert.
“You’ve been hearing us saying, ‘Just wait till you see the good stuff.’ Well, this is the good stuff,” said Mike Malin, lead scientist for the rover's MARDI descent imager.
Malin, who also works on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, pointed out a colleague’s find from the satellite: six dark spots showing the final resting place of the rover spacecraft’s half-dozen, 55-pound tungsten slugs jettisoned before its supersonic parachute deployed.
Finding the slugs will help scientists better understand how inert objects fall, Malin said.
On Tuesday, JPL engineers received a new image of the landing zone taken by an orbiting satellite. With tongue in cheek, this image was labeled the "crime scene" photo, because it not only showed Curiosity on the ground, but all of the pieces of the spacecraft that the rover had discarded on its way down.
To the southwest was the supersonic parachute that had taken Curiosity out of free-fall, and was then jettisoned so it wouldn't land on top of the rover.
To the southeast was the heat shield, which soared to temperatures as high as 3,800 degrees and was then ditched so Curiosity could turn on its radar to navigate its landing.
And to the northwest was the craft that had deposited Curiosity on the surface. Known as the "sky crane," it was the remnants of the final stage of the rover's intricate descent.
Minutes before landing, Curiosity had been contained in an experimental "backpack" that lowered itself to the ground using powerful rocket engines. The engines could have kicked up so much dust that it suffocated the rover. So, just 66 feet above the ground, the backpack spat out Curiosity, leaving the rover dangling by three ropes.
The hovering spacecraft lowered Curiosity to the ground and was then cut loose. Once free, the crane throttled up its engines and arched across the Martian sky.
The crime scene photo showed that the sky crane had crash-landed, as designed, about 2,000 feet away -- and in the same direction that Curiosity's camera was pointed when it snapped the first photo showing the blotch. The new satellite photo also showed that the sky crane, when it crash-landed, kicked up a violent wave of dirt that had scarred the surface of Mars.
-- Scott Gold and Amina Khan
Photo: This full-resolution color image shows the heat shield of NASA's Curiosity rover, snapped by the Mars Descent Imager, or MARDI, during the rover's journey to the Martian surface Sunday night; Middle: The four main pieces of hardware that arrived on Mars with NASA's Curiosity rover are spotted by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Credit: NASA / AFP/Getty Images; Getty Images