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Crystal-clear images from Mars rover thrill NASA scientists

August 9, 2012 |  4:01 am

New images from the Mars rover Curiosity offered some of the best views yet of the Red Planet and left NASA scientists excited.

The rover is expected to transmit more photos of Mars in the coming days, the very preliminary step in a long mission of exploration.

Recent discoveries were filled with other pleasant surprises, such as a new, higher-resolution shot of the heat shield in mid-flight –- in shining detail showcasing the stitching in the shield’s thermal blanket.

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“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.

Several high-resolution images from Mars were released by NASA. Black-and-white photos stitched together from the Curiosity rover’s Navcams show gravelly terrain with what looks like well-cut, pyramidal mountains in the background -– the kind of terrain found in the Mojave Desert.

On Tuesday, 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.

INTERACTIVE: Curiosity, from liftoff to landing

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. 

Click for larger imageTo 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.

PHOTOS: Mars rover mission

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.

NASA has also released Curiosity's first color image from the Red Planet. The photograph, below, the first of the Martian surface to be taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager, shows the north wall and rim of Gale Crater.

Click for larger image Curiosity is expected to revolutionize the understanding of Mars, gathering evidence that Mars is or was capable of fostering life, probably in microbial form.

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.

LIVE VIDEO DISCUSSION: Talk to 'Mohawk Guy' today at 2 p.m.

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."

In a Times/Google+ Hangout, reporter Scott Gold talked about how the photos are a key first step in what will be a lengthy mission that scientists hope will provide massive amounts of new data about Mars. (See video below.)


VIDEO DISCUSSION: Talk to 'Mohawk Guy' at 2 p.m.

Mars rover Curiosity's successful landing 'made history'

NASA Mars rover Curiosity's landing 'rocked... Was that not cool?'

-- Scott Gold and Amina Khan

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 craft that carried the rover. The rover's shadow can be seen in the foreground, and the dark bands beyond are dunes. Bottom: Curiosity's first color photo from Mars shows the north wall and rim of Gale Crater. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems