Curiosity's mysterious Mars photo stirs speculation

Aug 09, 2012 By Scott Gold, Los Angeles Times
Credit: NASA

Did Curiosity capture the galactic equivalent of the Zapruder film when it landed on Mars?

Seconds after the robot's landing Sunday night, managed to squeeze off a handful of fuzzy, black-and-white photographs. One, taken with a device on its rear known as a Hazcam, captured the pebble-strewn ground beneath the rover and one of its wheels - and a blotch, faint but distinctive, on the horizon.

Update: Photo mystery solved? Mars rover snapped pic of rocket stage crash, NASA says

The images were relayed by a passing satellite. Two hours later, the satellite passed overhead again. This time, Curiosity sent home a new batch of higher-resolution photos. They showed the same horizon.

The blotch was gone.

Space junkies raced onto the Internet with giddy speculation about the difference between the photos.

Curiosity, the largest spacecraft ever sent to another planet, had just sailed through for almost nine months and more than 350 million miles. It landed on its own, meaning scientists had no control over where, exactly, it would wind up, what direction it would be pointed in nor when it would snap its first images.

After all of those variables, the space junkies insisted, Curiosity had somehow snapped a photo of its chariot crash-landing a safe distance away, as planned. The camera shutter had been open for 200 milliseconds.

The blotch did look like a billowing of some sort, erupting from the horizon. But the image "would be an insane coincidence," one engineer said. Most dismissed the chatter as wild-eyed speculation and a statistical impossibility. It was just dirt on the lens, some said - maybe a swirling in the distance, but nothing more than that.

Yet a pesky fact remained. In the first photo, the blotch is there. "And then it's not," said Sarah Milkovich, a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge and a leader of the team responsible for delivering images documenting the mission.

Early Tuesday morning, JPL engineers received a new image of the landing zone, taken by another 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 spacecraft that the rover had discarded on the 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 "," 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 direction Curiosity's rear was pointed toward when it snapped the first photo showing the blotch. The new 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 impossible, it seemed, was possible.

"I don't think you can rule it out," Curiosity mission manager Michael Watkins said Tuesday. "It bears looking into."

Although the coincidence would be of little scientific value, "it would be incredibly cool. ... A crazy, serendipitous thing," Watkins said.

Justin Maki, a JPL engineer and scientist who led the team that developed the Hazcams, shorthand for hazard-avoidance cameras, said further review had suggested that the photograph might not be as crazy as it sounded initially. Between the front and rear Hazcams, the cameras covered 240 degrees of the horizon, or about two-thirds. And the material the sky crane kicked up when it crashed could have hung in the air for a minute or two, he said - Mars' gravity is 38 percent as strong as Earth's - which could have increased the chances of capturing the image.

"Something was out there," he said.

New images scheduled to arrive in the next two weeks will give engineers a higher-fidelity understanding of the landing and the orientation of the pieces on the ground. But there's a chance that the mystery of the photograph may never be solved - it was a one-time event, over in seconds, and there will never be new images of that moment.

"It's circumstantial evidence - but it's pretty good circumstantial evidence," said Emily Lakdawalla, senior editor at the Planetary Society, a nonprofit Pasadena organization that advocates for space research and exploration. "It looks like we may actually have seen it, but it's hard to know."

Also Tuesday, engineers began turning on components of Curiosity's roving geochemistry laboratory, including a high-gain antenna that will permit a higher-bandwidth conversation between the rover and scientists back home.

An on-board radiation detector, officials said, had already begun sending home data. Understanding Mars' radiation environment is important to Curiosity's central mission - determining whether the Red Planet was ever capable of fostering life - and to potential human exploration of Mars.

On Wednesday, engineers are scheduled to take their most advanced step since Sunday's landing, deploying Curiosity's "mast."

The Remote Sensing Mast carries cameras that will deliver full-color video of Mars and study geological features at infrared wavelengths. And its "ChemCam" - a glass-covered circle at the top that many identify as the machine's eye - will examine minerals from as far as 23 feet away by shooting a laser and analyzing the light signature of the dust that is kicked up. The mast will rise nearly four feet above the "deck" of Curiosity.

"You could not look this in the 'eye' unless you were an NBA player," Watkins said. "These are the days that people worked five and 10 years for."

Explore further: Meteorites yield clues to Martian early atmosphere

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User comments : 18

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nick_bauer_7923
1 / 5 (11) Aug 09, 2012
Why didn't NASA program this thing to take pictures on it's descent? WHY?!?!?!?
PhotonX
5 / 5 (10) Aug 09, 2012
They did. Where do you think the series showing the heat shield falling away came from?
Silverhill
5 / 5 (13) Aug 09, 2012
Remember the Mars Climate Orbiter failure in 1999? (Caused by two mission teams who did not realize that they were using different systems of units (Imperial/US and SI) for the propulsion commands.)

Phys.Org writers, get modern! Do not use phrases such as
just 66 feet above the ground
...
"ChemCam" ... will examine minerals from as far as 23 feet away
...
The mast will rise nearly four feet above the "deck" of Curiosity.
when the original data were "just 20 meters", or "as far as 7 meters", or "rise 1.1 meters".
If you feel that you *must* use antiquated units for the "benefit" of the stick-in-the-mud Americans, use them as auxiliaries. Example: "just 20 meters (about 65 feet)".

Also, it's silly to write
the cameras covered 240 degrees of the horizon, or about two-thirds.
unless 240 degrees is now somehow *about* 2/3 of 360, instead of *exactly*.
marble89
5 / 5 (2) Aug 09, 2012
It did. Spend a few seconds googling !
spiorf
4.3 / 5 (3) Aug 09, 2012
it's in both left and right image, so it's definitely not on the lens.

cross-eyeing give a sense of volume to the "plume" and the shape to me seems to match the 3 streaks of the skycrane crash photo

TheGhostofOtto1923
3.3 / 5 (20) Aug 09, 2012
Anything on mars with seismic detection capability? Was the crash detected seismically and could this be time-correlated with the photo?
R2Bacca
not rated yet Aug 10, 2012
it's in both left and right image, so it's definitely not on the lens.


Good point.

Left - http://mars.jpl.n...&s=0

Right - http://mars.jpl.n...&s=0
islatas
2 / 5 (1) Aug 15, 2012
If you feel that you *must* use antiquated units for the "benefit" of the stick-in-the-mud Americans, use them as auxiliaries. Example: "just 20 meters (about 65 feet)".


I suppose you're refering to the stick-in-the-mud Americans who sent said rover to Mars? Yeah, what an antiquated bunch they are.
Silverhill
5 / 5 (2) Aug 16, 2012
I suppose you're refering to the stick-in-the-mud Americans who sent said rover to Mars? Yeah, what an antiquated bunch they are.
No, I was referring to the general populace who stubbornly resist efforts to teach them an easier way to measure and compute. (Note some of the ratios in use in the US system: 1:7000, 1:5760, 1:5280, 1:480, 1:437.5, 1:36, 1:16.5, 1:12, 1:4, 1:3, etc.)
The folks who messed up the trajectory for the Mars Climate Orbiter, as mentioned, are also at fault.
Osiris1
1 / 5 (1) Aug 16, 2012
Naaawwwwww, NASA is just coverin up the presence of the reeeeeeaall Martians!! They...crept...out like Hobbits and Dwarves from their Kingdom Under the Mountain!? LOL
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Aug 16, 2012
Phys.Org writers, get modern! Do not use phrases such as

Physorg does not write these articles. they're copy and pasted from the source (in this case the LA Times)
Osiris1
not rated yet Aug 16, 2012
A commenter here seems to be lobbying for a new number system based on 12, not ten. Such would be directly divisible by three as well as two. This was used by the Maya, did you know!? Then what do we do with the trillions of dollars worth of machine tools, measuring devices, books, etc, that we have, all in decimals, and metric units. However, we in the USA need to fully adopt the metric system. That way our exports would find more ready markets.
Silverhill
not rated yet Aug 16, 2012
Phys.Org writers, get modern! Do not use phrases such as

Physorg does not write these articles. they're copy and pasted from the source (in this case the LA Times)
OK, then, the writers/editors here should paraphrase, to counter the AP writers' laziness.
kochevnik
1 / 5 (2) Aug 16, 2012
OK, then, the writers/editors here should paraphrase, to counter the AP writers' laziness.
Imperial units are etched into the USA. For example land lots are ratios of miles. That has the knock-on effect of navigating with Imperial units, with which cities are gridded. Imperials will persist for millennia because everyone prefers integer units over decimal.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.1 / 5 (14) Aug 16, 2012
Phys.Org writers, get modern! Do not use phrases such as

Physorg does not write these articles. they're copy and pasted from the source (in this case the LA Times)
OK, then, the writers/editors here should paraphrase, to counter the AP writers' laziness.
How do you know theyre qualified to do that? How do you know they get paid to do that? How do you know their agreements with these various sources would allow them to edit copyrighted stuff?
Silverhill
not rated yet Aug 16, 2012
--Anyone with a grade-school education (a proper one, that is) is qualified to do the conversions and approximations.
--I don't know if the Phys.Org writers are paid or not; it would not matter. They could still "do the math".
--Anyone may legally paraphrase others' work, especially if it is not for commercial purposes (as here). Or, something like footnotes could be appended.
DarkHorse66
not rated yet Aug 17, 2012
A commenter here seems to be lobbying for a new number system based on 12, not ten. Such would be directly divisible by three as well as two. This was used by the Maya, did you know!? Then what do we do with the trillions of dollars worth of machine tools, measuring devices, books, etc, that we have, all in decimals, and metric units. However, we in the USA need to fully adopt the metric system. That way our exports would find more ready markets.

I agree with you about the need for adopting the metric system.We have already had this discussion on numerous past threads.Suffice it to say that technically, the US is officially already metric, but is the only country that is making a big song and dance about not wanting to 'modernise'.Even the Brits(when they officially converted a couple of years back)didn't put up that kind of fuss.BUT;mayans=base12??They used base=20:
http://en.wikiped...numerals
http://gwydir.dem...ndex.htm
Cheers, DH66
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2012
A commenter here seems to be lobbying for a new number system based on 12, not ten. Such would be directly divisible by three as well as two. This was used by the Maya, did you know!?

There are many recorsd of tribes using different number systems. The egyptians used a number set based on 60 (which has a lot of advantages when it comes to easy divisibility...and is also very likely the reason why we have 60 minutes in an hour and 60 seconds in a minute).

It doesn't really matter what base you use - as long as you keep consistent between orders of magnitude. That 12 inches are one foot isn't a problem - but that 1/12th (or 1/144th, etc.) of an inch isn't anything is a problem.

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