Hey everyone, look! It's NASA's space litter!
You're looking at one of the latest images captured by HiRISE, the superpowered camera that photographed Curiosity from Mars orbit while it was parachuting to the surface of the planet. Now, members of the HiRISE project have tracked down all of the hardware that played a role in Curiosity's flawless entry, descent and landing.
The first find actually came upon closer inspection of the first photo — the one of MSL descending on its parachute. According to Alfred McEwen, head of the HiRISE project, the second inset image on the photograph featured below is actually the heat shield that was ejected from the entry vehicle's backshell. Even cooler? He says the team suspects the heat shield is pictured below in free-fall.
"We think the object is still in free flight, because we would expect it to disturb a larger area of dust upon impact with the surface. The HiRISE image of the Phoenix lander on its parachute also captured the heat shield in free fall."
And it gets better. Twenty-four hours after Curiosity landed, HiRISE, which is onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, looped back around the planet and captured a spellbinding oblique view view of Gale Crater's central mound, "Mount Sharp." Click here to see it in very hi-res, with color. (If you've never seen the imaging power of HiRISE for yourself, this is a perfect introduction.)
"The image the HiRISE camera captured last night of the MSL landing site in Gale Crater has now been released," writes HiRISE operation specialist Richard Leis. "The MRO spacecraft had to slew about 41 degrees to capture the image, so it is not quite as high resolution as it could be and the hardware did not end up in the camera's color swath. However, it is good enough to be spectacular and show all the hardware!"
"The viewing angle is 45 degrees, like looking out an airplane window," writes McEwen. "The subimage has been rotated 90 degrees to provide this perspective."
But here's one of the coolest views yet — all of the hardware NASA used to put Curiosity on Mars in one image (click here for the hi-res version):
That hardware includes the rover itself, the supersonic parachute, the sky-crane, the backshell and the heatshield (closeups are featured in the image at the very top of this post). Unimpressed with the detail? Keep in mind that this photo was taken under sub-optimal conditions; we should have even better shots of the hardware soon. According to McEwen:
This image was acquired from a special 41-degree roll of MRO, larger than the normal 30-degree limit. It rolled towards the west and towards the sun, which increases visible scattering by atmospheric dust as well as the amount of atmosphere the orbiter has to look through, thereby reducing the contrast of surface features. Future images will show the hardware in greater detail.
"We will be taking the next image of the MSL landing site in 5 days," explains Leis, "this time with the hardware hopefully in our color swath and at even higher resolution."