In its first color picture from the surface of Mars, released Tuesday, NASA's Curiosity rover shows the rim of its new home, 15,000-foot-deep (4,600-meter-deep) Gale Crater, shortly after landing on Monday.
The photo was shot with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on the end of Curiosity's robotic arm. But because the arm hasn't yet been fully activated and the rover isn't yet mobile, the camera for now can point only in the direction dictated by the landing position.
"We can't control the orientation of the rover on landing," Peter Theisinger of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) said at a pre-landing press conference. "If it's pointed at the mountain, we'll get a great picture of the mountain. If it's pointed at the rim, we'll get a great picture of the rim."
Actually, the idea of a great picture may be a bit optimistic at the moment, regardless of orientation.
Dust kicked up by the Mars landing has settled on the transparent shield meant to protect the camera during descent. In about a week, though, the cap will be removed, NASA scientists say, allowing sharper images in the future.
—Richard A. Lovett
Image courtesy MSSS/Caltech/NASA
Curiosity, Sharp Shooter
Ansel Adams, eat your heart out.
On the opposite side of the rover, one of Curiosity's eight hazard-avoidance cameras shot this black-and-white picture of the rover's shadow stretching toward Mount Sharp on Monday.
Centered in Gale Crater, the 18,000-foot (5,500-meter) peak "is taller than any mountain in the lower 48 [U.S.] states," geologist John Grotzinger, part of the Curiosity team, said at a July 16 press conference. The goal is for the rover—also called the Mars Science Laboratory—to climb Mount Sharp and analyze layers spanning all of Mars's major geological epochs.
Along the way, the so-called Hazcams will help spot obstacles that could stymie even this remarkably capable rover.
Curiosity is capable of climbing slopes inclined up to 30 degrees, depending on the firmness of the surface.
"We [have done] simulations with the engineering teams to find paths that we could be very secure in," Grotzinger said. "If one doesn't work, we can go down and pick another."
Two and a half minutes before landing Monday—and four miles (seven kilometers) up—Curiosity's Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) snapped this low-resolution picture of its falling, 15-foot-wide (4.5-meter-wide) heat shield.
The shield, which protected the rover from 3,500-degree (1,900-degree-Celsius) friction heat during the descent, is shown three seconds after being ejected by the Mars rover.
High above Curiosity, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) caught this picture of the rover dangling from its parachute about one minute before landing on Monday. The parachute cords can't be seen, but details of the parachute design are clearly apparent.
Shortly after this image was taken, the rover released its upper heat shield (visible above) and the attached parachute to begin the rocket-powered phase of Curiosity's descent.
"We rely on the engineers to calculate everything perfectly for us," HiRISE camera team leader Alfred McEwen told the Arizona Daily Star. "You just have to double- and triple- and quadruple-check everything."
Looking something like scorch marks, the dark areas shown in an orbiter's picture were actually created by the planned crash of the "sky crane" lander, which exposed darker, lower Martian soil Monday. While hovering above Mars earlier, the rocket-powered lander gingerly lowered Curiosity to the surface.
When Curiosity was safely on the ground and the sky-crane tethers released, the rocket used its remaining fuel to zip toward its doom at an angle, to avoid crashing atop the rover. The lander itself is too small to be seen, but the longest streaks are about 400 feet (120 meters) long.
In addition to the parachute, upper heat shield, and sky-crane vehicle, NASA scientists believe that they've spotted both the rover and its lower heat shield in images from the orbiter. So far, however, these two are only tiny dots in the wide-angle photos of Gale Crater.