Video: Video shows rover's-eye view of descent to Mars

NBC News and news services
updated 8/6/2012 11:31:16 PM ET 2012-08-07T03:31:16

NASA on Monday unveiled a low-resolution, color video from its Curiosity rover that shows what travelers could see if they were riding along for the last couple of minutes of the craft's descent to Mars.

The recording begins with the protective heat shield falling away, and ends with dust being kicked up as the rover is lowered by cables inside an ancient crater.

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Curiosity was successfully deposited on the floor of Gale Crater on Sunday night, using a sky-crane procedure that had never been tried before in a space mission. Since then, the rover has returned a flood of pictures, including black-and-white views of the 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) mountain it's heading for.

Still more pictures will be on the way, including a panorama of Curiosity's surroundings and a higher-resolution version of the video from Curiosity's Mars Descent Imager, also known as MARDI.

Oohs and ahhs
Onlookers oohed and ahhed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the scientist in charge of the camera, Michael Malin, showed off the low-res version on Monday afternoon. Because of the rover's current limitations on bandwidth, it sent back only thumbnail versions of the images. The higher-resolution pictures are being stored for later transmission.

Malin compared the sequence to "that grainy onboard film from Apollo 11, when they were about to land on the moon."

The MARDI camera is mounted on the rover's chassis, looking down toward the ground. The video was assembled from 297 still images taken during the last two and a half minutes of Curiosity's flight.

The early pictures show the Mars Science Laboratory's heat shield falling away from the rover and disappearing into the Martian landscape. Later in the sequence, the exhaust from rockets on Curiosity's sky crane causes dust to billow up even as the crane was lowering the rover to the surface.

Malin said the pictures would come in handy for future operations on Mars. "These images will help the mission scientists interpret the rover's surroundings, the rover drivers in planning for future drives across the surface, as well as assist engineers in their design of forthcoming landing systems for Mars or other worlds," he said.

The Curiosity team compared the pictures with pre-existing orbital imagery to pinpoint the rover's position on Mars to an accuracy of "about a meter," Malin said. The coordinates are -4.5895 degrees S, 137.4417 E.

Virtually right on target
Curiosity, a roving laboratory the size of a compact car, landed virtually right on target late Sunday after an eight-month, 352-million-mile journey. It parked its six wheels about 4 miles (6 kilometers) from its ultimate science destination — a peak variously called Mount Sharp or Aeolis Mons, rising from the floor of Gale Crater near the equator.

Image: Mount Sharp as seen by Curiosity
NASA / JPL-Caltech
A processed picture from a hazard avoidance camera on NASA's Curiosity rover shows the rover's shadow in the foreground, and the mountain known as Mount Sharp or Aeolis Mons in the background.
Image: Crater rim
NASA / JPL-Caltech
A view looking out from the rear of the rover, captured by one of Curiosity's hazard avoidance cameras, shows a wheel in the foreground and the rim of Gale Crater in the far background.

Extraordinary efforts were needed for the landing because the rover weighs one ton, and the thin Martian atmosphere offers little friction to slow a spacecraft down. Curiosity had to go from more than 13,000 mph to zero in seven minutes, unfurling a parachute, then firing rockets to brake. In a Hollywood-style finish, cables delicately lowered it to the ground at less than 2 mph (0.75 meters per second).

At the end of what NASA called "seven minutes of terror," the vehicle settled into place almost perfectly flat in the crater it was aiming for, just a little east of the target point.

"We have ended one phase of the mission, much to our enjoyment," mission manager Mike Watkins said. "But another part has just begun."

Pictures hint at wide vistas
The nuclear-powered Curiosity will dig into the Martian surface to analyze what's there and hunt for some of the molecular building blocks of life, including carbon. It won't start moving for a couple of weeks, because all the systems on the $2.5 billion rover have to be checked out. Color photos and panoramas will start coming in the next few days.

On the first day, NASA used tiny cameras designed to spot hazards in front of Curiosity's wheels — mostly showing nearby gravel and shadows, but also hints of the vistas beyond.

The photos show "a new Mars we have never seen before," Watkins said. "So every one of those pictures is the most beautiful picture I have ever seen."

One of the photos, from a hazard avoidance at the front of the rover, showed "a silhouette of Mount Sharp in the setting sun," said an excited John Grotzinger, chief mission scientist from the California Institute of Technology. Another camera, looking out from the rear, revealed the rim of Gale Crater, about 17.5 miles (28 kilometers) distant.

Meanwhile, a high-resolution camera on the orbiting 7-year-old Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, flying 211 miles (340 kilometers) directly above the plummeting Curiosity, snapped a photo of the rover dangling from its parachute about a minute from touchdown. The parachute's design can be made out in the photo.

"It's just mind-boggling to me," said Miguel San Martin, chief engineer for the landing team.

Wow! Mars orbiter captures rover in midair

Success of the sky crane
Curiosity is the heaviest piece of machinery NASA has landed on Mars, and the sky crane's success gave the space agency confidence that it can unload equipment that astronauts may need in a future manned trip to the Red Planet.

The landing technique was hatched in 1999 in the wake of devastating back-to-back Mars spacecraft losses. Back then, engineers had no clue how to land super-heavy spacecraft. They brainstormed different possibilities, consulting Apollo-era engineers and pilots of heavy-lift helicopters.

"I think it's engineering at its finest. What engineers do is they make the impossible possible," said former NASA chief technologist Bobby Braun. "This thing is elegant. People say it looks crazy. Each system was designed for a very specific function."

Because of budget constraints, NASA canceled its joint U.S.-European missions to Mars, scheduled for 2016 and 2018.

"When's the next lander on Mars? The answer to that is nobody knows," Bolden said in an interview with The Associated Press recently.

But if Curiosity finds something interesting, he said, it could spur the public and Congress to provide more money for more Martian exploration. No matter what, he said, Curiosity's mission will help NASA as it tries to send astronauts to Mars by the mid-2030s.

More about Mars:

This report includes information from NBC News and The Associated Press.

© 2013 msnbc.com

Explainer: 11 amazing things the Mars rover can do

  • The car-sized Curiosity rover is a 1-ton robotic beast that will take planetary exploration to the next level.

    Curiosity rover is the centerpiece of NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory. Its main goal is to assess whether the Red Planet is, or ever was, capable of supporting microbial life. The rover will employ 10 different science instruments to help it answer this question once it touches down on the Red Planet. Here's a brief rundown of these instruments (and one more on the rover's heat shield).

    — Mike Wall, Space.com

  • Mast Camera (MastCam)

    T.A. Dutch Slager / NASA / JPL-Caltech
    This view of the Curiosity rover's remote sensing mast shows the ChemCam in the white box at top, and the two cameras of the Mastcam system just below. Additional navigation cameras are placed farther outward from the Mastcam cameras.

    The MastCam is Curiosity's workhorse imaging tool. It will capture high-resolution color pictures and video of the Martian landscape, which scientists will study and laypeople will gawk at.

    MastCam consists of two camera systems mounted on a mast that rises above Curiosity's main body, so the instrument will have a good view of the Red Planet environment as the rover chugs through it. MastCam images will also help the mission team drive and operate Curiosity. (Photos of NASA's Curiosity Rover)

  • Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI)

    NASA / JPL-Caltech
    The Curiosity rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager will acquire color close-up images of rocks and surface materials. A Swiss Army knife is shown for scale.

    MAHLI will function much like a high-powered magnifying glass, allowing Earthbound scientists to get up-close looks at Martian rocks and soil. The instrument will take color pictures of features as tiny as 12.5 microns — smaller than the width of a human hair.

    MAHLI sits on the end of Curiosity's five-jointed, 7-foot (2.1-meter) robotic arm, which is itself a marvel of engineering. So mission scientists will be able to point their high-tech hand lens pretty much wherever they want.

  • Mars Descent Imager (MARDI)

    NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS
    The Mars Descent Imager is flying on the Curiosity rover. A Swiss Army knife is included in the picture for purposes of showing scale.

    MARDI, a small camera located on Curiosity's main body, will record video of the rover's descent to the Martian surface (which will be accomplished with the help of a hovering, rocket-powered sky crane). (Video: Curiosity's Peculiar Landing)

    MARDI will click on a mile or two above the ground, as soon as Curiosity jettisons its heat shield. The instrument will then take video at five frames per second until the rover touches down. The footage will help the MSL team plan Curiosity's Red Planet rovings, and it should also provide information about the geological context of the landing site, the 100-mile-wide (160-km) Gale Crater.

  • Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM)

    NASA / JPL-Caltech
    This illustration of the mechanical configuration of the SAM shows the three instruments and several elements of the Chemical Separation and Processing Laboratory.

    SAM is the heart of Curiosity; at 83 pounds (38 kilograms), it makes up about half of the rover's science payload.

    SAM is actually a suite of three separate instruments — a mass spectrometer, a gas chromatograph and a laser spectrometer. These instruments will search for carbon-containing compounds, the building blocks of life as we know it. They will also look for other elements associated with life on Earth, such as hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen.

    The SAM instrument suite is located in Curiosity's main body. The rover's robotic arm will drop samples into SAM via an inlet on the rover's exterior. Some of these samples will come from the interior of rocks, powder bored out by a 2-inch (5-centimeter) drill situated at the end of the arm.

    None of Curiosity's predecessors could get deep into Martian rocks, so scientists are excited about the drill.

    "For a geologist that studies rocks, there's nothing better than getting inside," said MSL deputy project scientist Joy Crisp, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

  • Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin)

    NASA / JPL-Caltech
    Clean-room workers carefully steer the hoisted CheMin instrument toward its installation into the Curiosity rover.

    CheMin will identify different types of minerals on Mars and quantify their abundance, which will help scientists better understand past environmental conditions on the Red Planet.

    Like SAM, CheMin has an inlet on Curiosity's exterior to accept samples delivered by the rover's robotic arm. The instrument will shine a fine X-ray beam through the sample, identifying minerals' crystalline structures based on how the X-rays diffract.

    "This is like magic to us," Crisp told Space.com. X-ray diffraction is a leading diagnostic technique for Earthbound geologists, she explained, but it hasn't made it to Mars yet. So CheMin should help Curiosity provide more definitive mineral characterizations than previous Mars rovers such as Spirit and Opportunity have been able to achieve.

  • Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam)

    NASA / JPL-Caltech
    An artist's conception shows the Curiosity rover's ChemCam firing its laser at Martian rock.

    For sheer coolness, it's tough to beat ChemCam. This instrument will fire a laser at Martian rocks from up to 30 feet (9 meters) away and analyze the composition of the vaporized bits.

    ChemCam will thus enable Curiosity to study rocks that are out of reach of its flexible robotic arm. It will also help the mission team determine from afar whether or not they want to send the rover over to investigate a particular landform.

    ChemCam is composed of several different parts. The laser sits on Curiosity's mast, along with a camera and a small telescope. Three spectrographs sit in the rover's body, connected to the mast components by fiber optics. The spectrographs will analyze the light emitted by excited electrons in the vaporized rock samples.

  • Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS)

    NASA / JPL-Caltech
    The sensor head for the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer is installed during testing. The head is 7.8 centimeters or about 3 inches tall.

    APXS, which sits at the end of Curiosity's arm, will measure the abundances of various chemical elements in Martian rocks and dirt.

    Curiosity will place the instrument in contact with samples of interest, and APXS will shoot out X-rays and helium nuclei. This barrage will knock electrons in the sample out of their orbits, causing a release of X-rays. Scientists will be able to identify elements based on the characteristic energies of these emitted X-rays.

    Spirit and Opportunity were outfitted with a previous version of APXS and used the instrument to help elucidate the prominent role water has played in shaping the Martian landscape. (Latest Mars Photos From Spirit and Opportunity)

  • Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN)

    NASA / JPL-Caltech / Roscosmos
    This diagram shows how the Detector of Albedo Neutrons could be used to sense the presence of subsurface water on Mars.

    DAN, located near the back of Curiosity's main body, will help the rover search for ice and water-logged minerals beneath the Martian surface.

    The instrument will fire beams of neutrons at the ground, then note the speed at which these particles travel when they bounce back. Hydrogen atoms tend to slow neutrons down, so an abundance of sluggish neutrons would signal underground water or ice.

    DAN should be able to map out water concentrations as low as 0.1 percent at depths up to 6 feet (2 m).

  • Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD)

    NASA / JPL-Caltech
    The RAD instrument is mounted just below the Curiosity rover's top deck, with the charged particle telescope pointing toward the zenith.

    The toaster-size RAD is designed specifically to help prepare for future human exploration of Mars. The instrument will measure and identify high-energy radiation of all types on the Red Planet, from fast-moving protons to gamma rays.

    RAD's observations will allow scientists to determine just how much radiation an astronaut would be exposed to on Mars. This information could also help researchers understand how much of a hurdle Mars' radiation environment might have posed to the origin and evolution of life on the Red Planet.

  • Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS)

    NASA
    This diagram shows the location of the REMS booms on the rover's mast, plus detailed views showing the location of wind, humidity and temperature sensors.

    This tool, which sits partway up Curiosity's mast, is a Martian weather station. REMS will measure atmospheric pressure, humidity, wind speed and direction, air temperature, ground temperature and ultraviolet radiation.

    All of this information will be integrated into daily and seasonal reports, allowing scientists to get a detailed look at the Martian environment.

  • MSL Entry, Descent and Landing Instrumentation (MEDLI)

    Lockheed Martin
    The MEDLI instrument package is the black box in the middle left of this photo, which shows the heatshield for the Mars Science Laboratory.

    MEDLI isn't one of Curiosity's 10 instruments, since it was built into the heat shield that protected the rover during its descent through the Martian atmosphere. But it's worth a few words here.

    MEDLI measured the temperatures and pressures that the heat shield experienced as the MSL spacecraft streaked through the Martian sky. This information can tell engineers how well the heat shield, and their models of the spacecraft's trajectory, performed.

    Researchers will use MEDLI data to improve designs for future Mars-bound spacecraft.

    You can follow Space.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter: @michaeldwall. Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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