Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Curiosity sends back video of its own harrowing descent to the 'Red Planet'

NASA's Curiosity rover has transmitted a low-resolution video (embedded) that shows the last 2 and 1/2 minutes of the so-called "7 minutes of terror," when the craft was descending on the final stage of its trip to the Red Planet.

claro: Clear Case Protection
While not HD-quality, the clip gives Earth-bound humans the experience of "witnessing" a spacecraft landing on another planet. The recording begins with the craft's protective heat shield falling away; it ends as dust is kicked up as Curiosity is lowered by cables inside the ancient Gale Crater.

Curiosity won't start the "roving" part of its mission for a couple of weeks. NASA will use the intervening time to check out all the systems, prior to exploring the crater. That said, images are already coming in, and NASA will, most assuredly, be releasing them to the public.

The first images to come back from Curiosity, after it landed on Mars, came from its hazard avoidance cameras (or hazcams), which are positioned on the lower front and back of Curiosity. The hazcams are fixed position cameras, and thus have a wide field of view (approximately 120° both horizontally and vertically), allowing a large amount of terrain to be visible.

Curiosity's older sibling, the orbiting seven-year-old Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, snapped an image (shown) of the rover as it dangled from its parachute , approximately a minute prior to touchdown. The parachute's design can be made out in the photo.

Curiosity has six main scientific objectives:
  1. Determine the mineralogical composition of the Martian surface and near-surface geological materials.
  2. Attempt to detect chemical building blocks of life (biosignatures).
  3. Interpret the processes that have formed and modified rocks and soils.
  4. Assess long-timescale (i.e., 4-billion-year) Martian atmospheric evolution processes.
  5. Determine present state, distribution, and cycling of water and carbon dioxide.
  6. Characterize the broad spectrum of surface radiation, including galactic radiation, cosmic radiation, solar proton events and secondary neutrons.
Despite cutbacks in the U.S. space program, there is some hope that if the mission were to detect something of significance, the U.S. - or perhaps a joint venture - might attempt a manned Mars Landing.

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