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NASA satellite photo shows Mars rover, parachute out, on descent

August 06, 2012|By Jon Bardin | This post has been corrected. See note at the bottom for details.
  • A photo taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows Curiosity descending toward the planet.
A photo taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows Curiosity descending… (NASA )

About six minutes in to the rover’s seven minutes of terror -- the time it took for Curiosity to reach the surface of Mars from the edge of its atmosphere -- the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took a pass over the landing site, the Gale crater.

When it did, it took a stunning photo. In it, you can clearly see Curiosity, its parachute deployed, floating toward the surface of the planet.

The Odyssey satellite got all the credit Sunday night because it was responsible for relaying signals back to Earth about whether the descent and landing were working correctly. But, JPL scientist Sarah Milkovich said Monday morning, Odyssey “wasn’t the only orbiter listening.” The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, or MRO, was also circling Mars.

PHOTOS: Mars rover mission

“And with the MRO we weren’t just listening, we were watching,” Milkovich said. The MRO's high-resolution camera, called HiRISE, also played a key role in helping NASA scientists choose the Gale crater as the landing site.

The HiRISE camera is capable of taking images of 30 centimeters per pixel. The new image was reported by Milkovich to be about 33 centimeters per pixel.

At the time of the picture, the MRO was only about 210 miles away from Curiosity -- a tiny distance when you consider that Curiosity had traveled about 350 million miles. It was not a certainty that the image could be taken: Milkovich said they had estimated their chances of capturing it at about 60%.

“HiRISE has taken over 120 pictures of Gale as part of the landing site selection process. But I think this is the coolest one,” Milkovich said with a big smile.

[For the Record, 1:52 p.m., August 6: An earlier version of this post said that Curiosity had traveled about 154 million miles. Though Earth and Mars are 154 million miles apart now, Curiosity had traveled about 350 million miles.]

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