Curiosity hasn’t moved a step yet, but the coolness keeps rolling in. First, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) snapped this shot of the backshell flying in under its parachute:
…which is phenomenal! When I think of the calculations that had to be worked out in order to change the MRO’s orbit and put it directly over Curiosity at exactly the right few seconds, I get a bit dizzy. And this is not the first time that the MRO has pulled off this trick—it also snapped the Phoenix lander’s descent in May 2008. Today’s photo was much harder, though, with engineers estimating only a 60% chance of getting it (versus 80% for Phoenix). Fortunately, we were on the right side of probability this day.
Then, just to add extra coolness, the MRO team posted an update:
Today we located another object in the image, not present in prior images, that is the right size to be the heat shield that was ejected from the backshell prior to the HiRISE image. We think the object is still in free flight, because we would expect it to disturb a larger area of dust upon impact with the surface.
A two-for-one—both the backshell and the heat shield in the same photo! And both caught in flight. I hope everyone at the MRO lab ran out to buy lottery tickets.
Just in case that wasn’t enough to make a geek’s heart palpitate, we’ve already got the footage from Curiosity’s descent camera, which shot four frames per second from the moment the heat shield separated until the rover landed. NASA assembled the preliminary photos into a video and posted it to YouTube. (Keep in mind that these are thumbnails; higher resolution photos will arrive later and we’ll have a bigger and better video.) As you watch, you’ll see the heat shield descend out of view, followed by a sudden swing in orientation—that’s from the backshell swaying beneath its parachute. The ground comes nearer and nearer, and then a sudden cloud of dust appears, which tells you that the rockets are firing. Finally you’ll see a wheel drop into view at top left—Curiosity has unfolded from the sky crane and is being lowered by the harness.
That landing went even better than expected, with Curiosity reporting an impact speed of just 0.67 metres per second, or 1.5mph. The sideways drift was 0.044 metres per second, less than 0.1mph. In airplane piloting parlance, it kissed the ground. But perhaps we should put it in Olympic parlance, given the timing: Curiosity stuck the landing.