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

Aug 10, 2012
The distant blob seen in the view on left, taken by a Hazard-Avoidance camera on NASA's Curiosity rover, may be a cloud created during the crash of the rover's descent stage. Pictures taken about 45 minutes later (right) do not show the cloud, providing further evidence it was from the crash. The bright spot at upper center, which is larger in the view at right, is due to image saturation from looking at the sun. These images are from the rover's rear Hazard-avoidance cameras. They are one-quarter of full resolution. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Space enthusiasts have been abuzz for days over whether the Mars rover Curiosity captured an extraterrestrial crash. On Friday, NASA declared the mystery solved.

Seconds after the car-size rover parked its six wheels in an ancient crater, a tiny camera under the chassis snapped a picture revealing a smudge on the horizon. The feature disappeared in a later photo.

Was it dirt on the camera lens or a spinning dust devil? It turned out Curiosity spotted the aftermath of its rocket-powered backpack crash-landing in the distance.

It "was an amazing coincidence that we were able to catch this impact," said engineer Steve Sell of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the $2.5 billion mission.

The nuclear-powered rover landed in Gale Crater near the equator Sunday night to study whether environmental conditions could have favored microbes. Its ultimate target is a mountain looming from the crater floor where mineral signatures of water have been spied.

Curiosity performed a novel, complex landing routine. In the final seconds, the rocket stage hovered as cables delicately lowered the rover to the ground. After landing, it cut the cords and the rocket stage flew out of the way, crashing 2,000 feet (610 meters) from the landing site.

Speeding at 100 mph (161 kph), the high-speed impact kicked up a plume of dust — which showed up in Curiosity's field of view.

Curiosity was in the right place at the right time and facing the right direction, Sell said.

Since the feat, Curiosity has returned a flood of pictures including a 360-degree color view and a low-resolution video featuring the last minutes of its descent. Over the weekend, it will get a software update, a process that will take four days. During the hiatus, stored data will continue to be downloaded.

It will be weeks before Curiosity can take its first drive, zap at boulders or dig up soil in search of the chemical building blocks of life. The prime mission lasts two years.

A preliminary reconstruction of the "seven minutes of terror" plunge through the Martian atmosphere revealed everything went as planned. Curiosity ended up 1 1/2 miles (2.41 kilometers) downrange from the bull's-eye target, probably because of tail winds and a late steering turn.

"We're still happy where we landed," said Gavin Mendeck of the NASA Johnson Space Center.

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User comments : 8

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not rated yet Aug 10, 2012
Anything to do with any of this is like being there. It's like it's 1969 and my dad got me out of bed to see man walk on the moon, representing the whole earth.
4 / 5 (4) Aug 10, 2012
Only 610 meters? The impact site would seem to be a good test drive target. Besides getting a look at the debris, of interest to engineers, it would have exposed buried material, which would be easier than digging for it.
5 / 5 (5) Aug 11, 2012
The impact site would seem to be a good test drive target.

Unfortunately, their plan is to avoid the impact site. It's too contaminated by fuel, which makes it unsuitable for the chemistry testing that they're aiming for.

I got the impression that this goes for all the discarded parts, not only the sky crane but also the heat shield and the back shell with the parachute. I find this odd, I don't see how the heat shield and back shell can be more contaminated than Curiosity itself, since Curiosity rode down in a fierce cloud of descent-stage rocket exhaust.

But when they spoke about the ballast-weight impact sites, they explained that driving to them would require a very long roundabout route, to avoid soft dunes where Curiosity could get stuck in the sand. Maybe that goes for the heat shield and the back shell too.

In any case, if Curiosity stays in good health for many years, I bet eventually they'll want to visit those impact sites for their geology information.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 11, 2012
So the design works build ten more of the damn things with a lot more compute power and scatter them across the planet.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 11, 2012
not rated yet Aug 11, 2012
Kafpauzo: Thank you. I can see their point, but I was thinking more of a physical examination, to see how the hardware came through the descent and landing, and just to look at the subsurface. Chemical examination could be done elsewhere, and if nothing interesting appeared in the disturbed ground, they'd know not to waste time on nearby sites. On the other hand, if it did look unusual, digging a hundred meters away should find uncontaminated samples of the same material.

I also can't see how the parts discarded before the braking rockets fired could be contaminated. But, then, I'm not a rocket scientist, and they surely know more about their own machine than I do!
not rated yet Aug 12, 2012
A little tongue-in-cheek, but to corroborate nkalanaga's suggestion, it would seem an obvious point in a search for life on Mars to inspect the impact sites with numerous photos, then come back weeks or months later to see if anything has changed "on its own."
not rated yet Aug 12, 2012
I hadn't thought of that, but it would be one way to see if Curiosity had hitchhikers.

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