Images from Curiosity mission include Mars 'crime scene' photo
Scientists and space buffs were poring over photos of Mars as the rover Curiosity began its mission.
Early Tuesday morning, Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers received a new image of the landing zone, taken by an orbiting satellite. With tongue in cheek, this photo 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 and smother it.
To the southeast was the heat shield, which soared to temperatures as high as 3,800 degrees and was then ditched so that Curiosity could turn on its radar to navigate its landing.
And to the northwest was the spacecraft 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.
The spacecraft is also expected to pave the way for important leaps in deep-space exploration, including bringing Martian rock or soil back to Earth for detailed analysis and, eventually, human exploration.
Curiosity's landing, it turned out, was as close to perfect as an eight-month journey through space can produce. In interviews with The Times, engineers said initial reviews of Curiosity's final minutes in flight revealed a startling fact: the landing ran into fewer problems than any of the hundreds of simulations they had run over the last two years.
"It was cleaner than any of our tests," said Al Chen, a JPL engineer and member of the mission's landing team, shaking his head with amazement. "It was a blast."
Photos, from top: Photos, from top: This photo taken by Curiosity moments after it landed on Mars shows a faint blotch in the distance that some believe is the crash-landing of the spacecraft that carried the rover. The rover's shadow can be seen in the foreground, and the dark bands beyond are dunes; Curiosity's first color photo from Mars shows the north wall and rim of Gale Crater. Credits: NASA; NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems
-- Scott Gold and Amina Kahn