The Curiosity rover is a car-sized Mars rover currently exploring Gale Crater, near the equator of Mars. The rover is the largest to date, and is designed to examine whether Mars could have once supported life. It arrived on the Martian surface on 6 August 2012, after leaving Earth on 26 November 2011. These are the first pictures that Curiosity sent back to Earth.
After traveling through space for over eight months at around 8,000 miles per hour, the spacecraft began to pick up speed as it approached the planet, egged on by the ever-increasing pull of Mars’ gravitational forces. By the time it hit Mars atmo at 22:25 PT, Curiosity had reached a blazing 13,200 miles per hour.
At 22:30 PT, NASA confirmed that Curiosity had made radar contact with the ground and was traveling at 86 meters per second.
At 22:32, JPL erupted. “Touchdown confirmed,” said engineer Alan Chen. “We’re safe on Mars.”
The Landing Zone
In order to access these layers, Curiosity will first touch down in a relatively flat section of the northwestern crater floor, called The Gale Crater. (Curiosity’s landing zone, like Spirit’s above, is marked with an ellipse. The size of Curiosity’s landing ellipse relative to Spirit’s is a testament to the precision necessary to land NASA’s newest rover.)
After touching down, Curiosity will begin slowly working its way up Gale’s mound, sampling layer upon layer of rock and soil along the way. In doing so, Curiosity will provide us with a much better understanding of the environments in which these layers formed, how they formed, and whether Mars is, or ever was, capable of supporting life.
This quick video shows the images that Curiosity took during the final 2 and a half minutes of decent as it landed on the Martian surface.
The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera is a 0.5 m reflecting telescope, the largest ever carried on a deep space mission, and has a resolution of 1 microradian (μrad), or 0.3 m from an altitude of 300 km. In comparison, satellite images of Earth are generally available with a resolution of 0.5 m, and satellite images on Google Maps are available to 1 m. HiRISE collects images in three color bands, 400 to 600 nm (blue-green or B-G), 550 to 850 nm (red) and 800 to 1,000 nm (near infrared or NIR).
HiRISE image of the ‘face’ at Cydonia Mesa
Red color images are 20,264 pixels across (6 km wide), and B-G and NIR are 4,048 pixels across (1.2 km wide). HiRISE’s onboard computer reads these lines in time with the orbiter’s ground speed, and images are potentially unlimited in length. Practically however, their length is limited by the computer’s 28 Gigabit (Gb) memory capacity, and the nominal maximum size is 20,000 × 40,000 pixels (800 megapixels) and 4,000 × 40,000 pixels (160 megapixels) for B-G and NIR images. Each 16.4 Gb image is compressed to 5 Gb before transmission and release to the general public on the HiRISE website in JPEG 2000 format. To facilitate the mapping of potential landing sites, HiRISE can produce stereo pairs of images from which topography can be calculated to an accuracy of 0.25 m. HiRISE was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.
Photos via AP and NASA