7 August 2012
Orbiter captures Curiosity's descent
by Will Parker
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has transmitted to Earth an astounding picture of the rover Curiosity as it descends by parachute towards the surface of Mars. The rover was still encased in its protective shell when the picture was taken. Moments later, the shell and parachute were jettisoned and the rover began its powered descent into the Gale Crater.
The one-tonne Curiosity rover landed on flat ground, on the northern side of Gale's central mountain, known as Mount Sharp (pictured below).
The mission's project scientist John Grotzinger said the first pictures from the rover's low resolution hazcams had a recognizable look about them. "You see a scene that's very familiar to you from other images of Mars - what is undoubtedly a windswept plain with coarse fragments left behind. The science team is initially impressed by the rather uniform grain-size distribution of the coarser particles."
The surface mission management team at JPL plans to spend the next week or so bringing the rover and its instruments to full operational status.
Eventually, the rover will begin traversing the crater to the base of Mount Sharp where it is expected to find rocks that were laid down billions of years ago in the presence of liquid water. Curiosity's instruments will probe these sediments for evidence that past environments on Mars could once have favoured microbial life.