Science & Environment

Nasa's Curiosity rover pictured on Mars by MRO satellite

Landing site
Image caption The base of Gale Crater: The MSL-Curiosity rover and its discarded landing components (Nasa/JPL/U.Arizona)

Nasa has used one of its satellites to image the Curiosity rover on Mars.

The picture shows not only the six-wheeled vehicle, but also all the components of its discarded landing system.

These items include the heatshield, the parachute and backshell of the entry capsule, and the skycrane that lowered the rover to the surface.

The image was acquired by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter from 300km and at an oblique angle of 41 degrees.

"Even though these weren't the best viewing conditions, you can still see a lot of detail," said MRO and Curiosity scientist Sarah Milkovich.

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Media captionSarah Milkovich: Image had been planned for weeks

"You can see a lot of dark regions around the different components where when they came in, they disturbed the bright dust and exposed a darker surface underneath," she told BBC News.

This is most evident at the crash site of the skycrane, which clearly kicked up a shower of dusty debris on impact that then fanned off to the northwest.

And by the rover itself, it is possible on the close-up view to see two darker lobes either side of the vehicle. These are the patches of ground that were disturbed by the rockets of the skycrane at the moment of touchdown.

To give a sense of scale, the distance from the rover to the heatshield is 1,200m; to the parachute and backshell, 615m; and to the skycrane, 650m.

Image caption It is just possible to discern dark patches either side of the rover in the one and seven o'clock directions

MRO will get another picture of the landing site in five days' time but on that occasion it will be looking almost straight down instead of off to the side.

In this image, the team hope to get much better definition on the vehicle.

The main camera on the satellite - its High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRise) - can achieve a resolution of 30cm/pixel, so it may even be possible to see the shadows the robot casts on the ground.

The geologists on the mission team have taken a keen interest in the landing site image for what it tells them about the nature of the rocks in the area.

It is apparent from the picture that there are three distinct zones of ground.

At top-right is an area that previous observations have revealed to have high thermal inertia - it stays warmer longer at night, for example - than the broad area off to the left that holds all of the landing components other than the heatshield.

Image caption The pattern of soil disturbance suggests the skycrane hit the surface at a very shallow angle

The third zone at bottom-right seems to display more impact cratering, which is usually indicative of being an older surface.

Visiting the intersection of all three zones is now being considered as a possible science destination once the rover starts some serious driving in September.

A signal confirming the Curiosity rover (also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, MSL) had landed on the Red Planet was received here at mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at 05:32 GMT; 06:32 BST on Monday (22:32 PDT Sunday).

The robot rover put down on the floor of a deep depression on Mars' equator known as Gale Crater.

The first hours on the surface have been spent checking out the health of the vehicle and retrieving some early engineering pictures that tell the mission team about the immediate vicinity where Curiosity landed.

Efforts are currently under way to deploy the vehicle's high-gain antenna (HGA), which would provide a direct-to-Earth link through which to pass data. At the moment, it is all being relayed back via MRO and Nasa's other Mars satellite, Odyssey.

The HGA task should have been completed on Sol 1 - the first full day of Martian surface operations - but the team is having to deal with a pointing error on the antenna. This should be fixed on Sol 2.

Also on Sol 2, a command will be sent to lift the rover's mast, which holds its navigation cameras and the ChemCam laser instrument that can determine the chemistry of rocks from a distance.

Image caption This image from the Mahli instrument is MSL's first colour photo from the ground

Perhaps one of the best pictures returned from the rover so far is the test shot from Mahli - the Mars Hand Lens Imager.

This camera is mounted on the rover's tool-bearing turret at the end of its robotic arm.

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Media captionKen Edgett: Mahli is a very versatile camera

The picture, which was released early on Tuesday, gives us a real sense of being on Mars.

You can see some rocks in the near-field and the rim of Gale crater in the far-field.

It looks hazy simply because the transparent dust cover was left in place when the shot was taken, but the camera team says the image tells them the Mahli is in great shape.

"If it did not have dust on it, you would not know it had dust on it," explained Ken Edgett, the camera's principal investigator.

"The purpose of the first picture? We haven't used the camera and its focus mechanism since July last year [before we launched from Earth]. It was to check the instrument was working properly - and it is," he told BBC News.

  • (A) Curiosity will trundle around its landing site looking for interesting rock features to study. Its top speed is about 4cm/s
  • (B) This mission has 17 cameras. They will identify particular targets, and a laser will zap those rocks to probe their chemistry
  • (C) If the signal is significant, Curiosity will swing over instruments on its arm for close-up investigation. These include a microscope
  • (D) Samples drilled from rock, or scooped from the soil, can be delivered to two hi-tech analysis labs inside the rover body
  • (E) The results are sent to Earth through antennas on the rover deck. Return commands tell the rover where it should drive next and follow me on Twitter

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