HiRISE Captures Curiosity's Descent to Mars
While Curiosity - the centerpiece of the Mars Science Laboratory Mission, or MSL - hurtled toward the ground at twice the speed of sound, another spacecraft, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, or MRO, pointed its HiRISE camera at Curiosity and snapped a photo of the spacecraft with the rover tucked inside, suspended from its 50-foot-diameter parachute. HiRISE stands for High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment.
"We have been planning this for some time," said Alfred McEwen, a professor in the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and principal investigator of the HiRISE mission. "We gradually adjusted MRO's orbit to make sure it would be right over Curiosity as it landed, and that put us in a great position for this image. It came back exactly as we expected in terms of brightness and contrast. The parachute looked beautiful, nice and sharp, fully inflated and working perfectly."
The snap shot required months of preparations to make sure the two spacecraft, traveling in directions perpendicular to each other and at several miles per second in the case of MRO, wouldn't miss each other. McEwen said it would have been great to have the descent image in color, but because HiRISE's color channel has a narrower field of view than the black and white channels, that wasn't possible under the circumstances.
"It's a good thing our field of view wasn't very much narrower or we could have missed it entirety," McEwen said.
"Touch-down confirmed. We're safe on Mars!" The announcement, shortly after 10:30 p.m. on Aug. 5, sent Mission Control into cheering and high-fiving.
No other planet has claimed as many spacecraft in its 50 years of exploration, said Shane Byrne, an assistant professor in the UA department of planetary sciences. More than half of the 40 attempts to land a probe on the Red Planet failed, either never making it out of Earth's orbit or crashing and burning upon arrival.
"The successful landing of rover Curiosity gets us one closer to tying the score," said Byrne, adding that landing on Mars is no easy feat. "Previous attempts have shown that you can go hundreds of millions of miles only to trip on your shoe laces."
The latest and greatest in a series of Mars exploration vehicles owes its safe touchdown on the floor of Gale Crater near the Martian equator in no small way to the data gathered by the UA-led HiRISE camera, which has been photographing Mars aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter for the past six years.
Selecting a landing site for Curiosity that is both safe to touch down and promising to yield as much scientific insight as possible would not have been possible without the high-resolution images taken by HiRISE.
"HiRISE imaged all potential landing sites that were being discussed," said Byrne, who is a co-investigator on the HiRISE team. "By the time it came down to four candidate sites, we had wall-to-wall covering of all the areas in question."
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