After a successful landing on Sunday, the NASA rover Curiosity has begun sending back images of the planet including the first color pictures and 3D stereographs. In addition to images from the surface of the red planet, the lander has also sent back images captured by onboard cameras during the craft’s dramatic descent through the Martian atmosphere and landing. Meanwhile, an orbiter from an earlier NASA mission sent back images of Curiosity’s descent.
Curiosity landed on Mars with enough cameras to make a paparazzo jealous. Its mast alone carries seven cameras including the Remote Micro Imager and two color cameras called Mastcams.
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In addition, there are four black-and-white Navigation Cameras. Even the robot arm has a camera, the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) – which sounds like something Sherlock Holmes would use. If notable for nothing else, the first color image from Curiosity was taken by the MAHLI on the afternoon of the first Martian “sol” or day after landing (see the main photo, at the top of the page).
It may seem a bit disappointing and it is very blurry, but that's because the MAHLI still has its dust cover in place. This is a removable, transparent plastic shield intended to protect the lenses during landing. The first three weeks of the mission will be spent checking Curiosity’s systems and during that time the cover will be jettisoned, which will make for much better images.
The images taken during the descent of Curiosity and immediately after landing came from the nine cameras hard-mounted on the rover. These include eight black-and-white Hazard Avoidance Cameras and the color Mars Descent Imager (MARDI). As the name implies, the MARDI’s job was to snap pictures from Curiosity of the Martian surface on the way down.
One of the first taken by the MARDI camera is this one of Curiosity’s heat shield dropping away (above), which happened two and a half minutes before touchdown. All of the landing images are of low resolution, to allow for quick transmission back to Earth.
One way in which the Curiosity mission is different from previous landing attempts is that it had a bit of help from earlier spacecraft. To keep Mission Control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California from being completely in the dark during the descent, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was drafted into service. It acted as a data relay to send back telemetry from Curiosity to assure Mission Control that the spacecraft was still alive. One incredibly lucky benefit of this was that Orbiter’s high resolution camera caught a shot of Curiosity’s parachute, seen in the small box on the left side, as it flew over the Martian sand dunes.
This second shot shows the open supersonic parachute and rover in enough detail that you can make out the pattern on the chute.
However, JPL scientists later noticed that Orbiter had another stroke of luck. They saw that in the bottom of the image was Curiosity’s heat shield still tumbling to the ground. According to NASA, they knew it was still in flight because if it had hit the ground, it would have kicked up an impressive dust cloud.
Once the heat shield was gone, the descent camera kept taking hundreds of images, such as this one when Curiosity was dangling from its rocket-powered sky crane about 70 feet (20 m) above the ground. The sky crane was designed to remain high enough that its engines wouldn’t kick up instrument-damaging dust, but some backwash did reach the surface, as seen in these swirls of powdery dust.
Right before the moment of touchdown, Curiosity’s six wheels extended to act as landing gear. Taken a few meters above the ground, this image is blurry with dust, but you can still see the shadow of Curiosity’s left front wheel.
Back in 1976, the US Viking 1 lander took four minutes to send its first image back to Earth. Curiosity did it within 30 seconds, with this shot taken by one of the Hazard-Avoidance cameras. This image is particularly clear because the camera, as designed, has opened its dust cover.
This annotated version shows what is in the shot. Besides Curiosity’s wheel there is the spring that opened the camera’s dust cover and one of the fins that cool the radioisotope thermal generator that provides Curiosity with heat and power.
Another of the first shots sent back after landing is this image, again taken by a Hazard-Avoidance camera, showing Curiosity’s own shadow.
NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been busy taking more images of its own, such as this one taken 24 hours after landing that reveals the fate of the various pieces of the original spacecraft. The parachute and back shell of the aeroshell that housed Curiosity have landed close together while the heat shield is some ways away.
Meanwhile, the sky crane carried out its final mission. In order to avoid dropping straight down on Curiosity when its engines cut, the sky crane was programmed to fly off in a straight line and crash a safe distance away. For the benefit of any future museum expeditions, we know where it landed.
Along with the first color images, the latest views of Mars are in 3D with this stereoscopic image sent back by Curiosity. The robot explorer is still undergoing system checks, but if these first images are any indications of the future, the next couple of years will make Mars a very interesting place as Curiosity begins its mission to seek out areas where life might have or does exist on the red planet.
A time lapse video of Curiosity's landing can be seen below.