Curiosity landing site: the whole mess

By Phil Plait | August 8, 2012 7:00 am

A new picture returned from the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows an overview of the Mars Curiosity rover landing site, showing all the hardware that took it safely to the surface!

Coooool. Click to barsoomenate.

It’s like an episode of CSI: Gale Crater. You can see the Curiosity rover itself (labeled MSL for Mars Science Laboratory, the official name), sitting in a circle of dust disturbed by the landing rockets in the sky crane at final moments of descent. The sky crane impact site is to the upper left, several hundred meters away. The crane lowered the rover to the surface, disconnected the cables, then flew off to a safe distance. Note the plume of disturbed material pointing away from the direction to the rover, indicating the crane hit the ground at a low angle and not straight down (in which case the splash pattern would be more circular).

The parachute and backshell are off to the left. The backshell was literally that: a protective shell on the back of the rover and crane assembly to which the parachute was attached. That disconnected while the crane and rover were still well off the surface, to avoid getting tangled.

Finally, the heat shield is off to the lower right. That was the blunt capsule under the whole package that protected it from the heat of atmospheric entry; you can see it detach and fall to the ground in the descent video I posted recently.

These images are cool, but serve a solid purpose: they provide the engineers and scientists here on Earth evidence of precisely how the hardware performed. By looking at locations, dust patterns, and more, they can determine how well these devices did versus what was predicted. That’s important info for planning future missions, especially given how complex this landing sequence was. It really is a bit of forensics.

But it also says something else: we have hardware that made it to Mars! And we have photographic evidence of it!

The future. We are in you.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona


Related Posts:

- VIDEO of Curiosity’s descent… from the rover cam itself!
- Curiosity update: Heat shield spotted!
- Mars orbiter catches pic of Curiosity on its way down!
- Humans send their Curiosity to Mars!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures

Comments (66)

  1. Big Steve

    So we Earthlings have created a Martian Area 51.

  2. Chris

    I’d really wish they’d put a little legend in the corner so we’d know what distances we are looking at here. I’d be nice to have a sense of scale here.

  3. Ken (a different Ken)

    Wikipedia says the parachute is 160ft long, and it looks failrly well laid out in the image, so that is usable as a rough scale IMHO.

    So you could probably walk the whole image without too much trouble, if you were so inclined (and happened to be on Mars).

  4. Tara Li

    @Chris – I agree. I expected the backshell and the heatshield at least to be quite a bit further away. I really didn’t have any idea how far the skycrane would go – but still, a good distance. So the rover has probably a day or two drive to get out of the disturbed area, but there’s a nice different area right above it that should be worth a look.

  5. Grizzly

    Phil,

    Listening to the press conference I heard mention that the first picture from MSL may have included the sky crane in flight as it was about to crash. Have you heard anything about that?

    @Chris: 1200 metres to heat shield, 600 to parachute and about 650 to sky crane, this according to press conference.

  6. Wayne Conrad

    It seems so improbable that it all worked. Had someone written that landing sequence in a story along with unicorns, magic, and time travel, I would have thought the landing sequence to be the unbelievable part.

    I’m still in awe.

  7. Mejilan

    I still don’t understand just how a technique as insane and unprecedented and seemingly Hollywood, like the sky crane, went off without a hitch. I’m certainly no expert, but seeing photographic evidence showing where each component came to rest, and in some cases, just how it hit earth (errr, Mars), it appears to literally have gone off perfectly. That, I think, is almost as amazing as the fact that we’ve got orbiters flying about the planet to snap these crazy photos!

  8. Very impressive image. of an even more impressive feat. 8)

    A new picture returned from the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows an overview of the Mars Curiosity rover landing site, showing all the hardware that took it safely to the surface!(Emphasis added.)

    [Pedant mode.] Arguably not quite *all* tho’ – where’s the cruise stage? ;-) [/Pedant mode.]

    See the black pineapple ring shaped component ejected at the 55 second mark of the clip linked to my name here.

    (Not sure but think it may have missed the planet entirely – wondering if anyone’s calculated its future / present trajectory?)

    Incidentally, I’d be surprised if the Curiosity rover doesn’t eventually check out the scattered remains of the skycane, heat shield etc .. in its journey. Hope it does.

    @1. Big Steve : “So we Earthlings have created a Martian Area 51.”

    Using (as someone has pointed out via a facebook image) an earthican flying saucer! ;-)

  9. Kirk

    Great. Now we are not just littering one planet. We are creating messes everywhere. ;-)

  10. Brian

    What a mess!

    I’ll go clean things up a bit, but I’m going to need to bum a ride.

  11. Manimal

    @Chris: Although @Grizzly beat me to it…

    From the NASA caption:

    “The Curiosity rover is approximately 4,900 feet (1,500 meters) away from the heat shield; about 2,020 feet (615 meters) away from the parachute and back shell; and approximately 2,100 feet (650 meters) away from the discoloration consistent with the impact of the sky crane.”

  12. Aaron B

    @Big Steve, that was the first thing that I thought too, Mars’ very own Roswell!

  13. if there were media in mars , how would they have seen the news of curiosity rover of nasa land on their surface ? Read an imaginative transcript of a news report from mars in my blog below :)
    http://theeternaltruth.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/meanwhile-in-mars/

  14. Peter B

    Mejilan @ #7 said: “I still don’t understand just how a technique as insane and unprecedented and seemingly Hollywood, like the sky crane, went off without a hitch.”

    People said much the same thing about the Saturn V rocket back in 1968. Back then the view of the engineers who designed and built it was that if you build it according to the plans, it’ll work.

    And as one of the engineers says in the “Seven Minutes of Terror” video, “It’s the result of reasoned engineering and thought.” I’m sure that in just about any area of expertise there are things which defy the logic of people without the relevant expertise.

  15. “big Thumbs Up to NASA” – Signed: Rube Goldberg.

  16. Diego Azuaga

    It would be good that the first task of a future human exploration is that of clean -or at least accommodate, the mess of this landing!

  17. Hoorah! for NASA/JPL! First they freaked me out with their insane landing sceme and now they show me their mess!!

    great

    Now show me the real pics.

  18. *tap*tap*tap*tap*tap*tap*

  19. @ Diego Azuaga:

    One could say the same thing about the “mess” of ancient shipwrecks. Sure, we could just clean them up, but it’s much better to actually study them and learn everything they can teach us about a different era.

    Frankly, I think it’s a beautiful mess.

  20. Paul

    #8: the cruise stage separated from the entry vehicle just ten minutes from entry, so it too entered Mars’ atmosphere. I think its ballistic coefficient (mass/area) was less than the entry vehicle, so it would have slowed faster and fallen well behind. It also would have melted/fragmented since it lacked a heat shield.

    The various tungsten weights jettisoned by the entry vehicle would have landed downrange of the rover.

  21. Blargh

    @ Peter B.
    The Saturn V wasn’t exactly unprecedented. It was just like the previous rockets, but bigger – perfectly tried-and-true technology at that point.

    The Curiosity skycrane really was something never tried before. Not just a lander, but an almost-lander that has to autonomously hover and carefully lower an extremely heavy load (with all that implies of changing c_m and moment of inertia) in an alien atmosphere, without getting anything tangled or damaging the rover itself, and then flying off to crash at a safe distance.

    @ kuhnigget
    In this case, it could actually be used to study e.g. dust deposition rates in the short term.

  22. I can´t so not wait for what will come in from this new explorer.
    I´m in a a “gimme gimme gimme” kinda state.
    And that´s also something terrificly great about NASA/ESA/JPL/ETC, all their data they gather is right here for us to enjoy, explore and in some cases to do fantastic things with.
    All those freaking pictures that will come to us we get for “free”.
    And it´s not only American taxdollars, Europe also contributed.
    Ain´t that, pardon my french, terrific or what?
    Hip hip hoorah!

  23. Alan D

    As I watched the simulation, I thought it did look pretty insane and more than a bit worrisome. Then I thought about all the smart folks working on this mission, all very much wanting it to succeed, and realized they weren’t about to try anything that didn’t have a high probability of success.

    Clear skies, Alan

  24. well, we landed.

    Now I have to ask: how many trash will we send to Mars until walk there?

    The ship left part before entering Mars, then the shield , then the parachute, then the lander, I´m concerned with the increasing discarded items for any mission left behind.

    A shield, a parachute a lander, bag, another crashed lander, another bag, another two hovers, etc the list is increasing, when somebody go to Mars to live there will not be there, just trash.

    Please make a subject on the blog about Mars liter/trash today and how will be in the future.

  25. UmTutSut

    Just curious: Do we know if the Martian winds in that area can get strong enough to blow the parachute and backshell across the surface?

  26. Jamie

    @Messier Tidy Upper:
    “Incidentally, I’d be surprised if the Curiosity rover doesn’t eventually check out the scattered remains of the skycane, heat shield etc .. in its journey. Hope it does.”

    In the press conference they said they wanted to stay as far away as possible from the skycrane due to any unspent fuel still lying around. Seems that would contaminate a few of the science experiments on the rover.

  27. Brian

    Sure if you build it to plan and test the h*ll out of it it will work, but every moving part increases the chance of failure or unpredictable behavior. Sooner or later we need to make space travel reliable without years of simulation and testing first.

    I wonder if Burt Rutan could have thought up a simple, reliable re-entry method for Mars like he did for Earth – unfortunately his current Earth method requires a landing strip at the end, so would not work for Mars.

  28. Douglas

    This whole thing was kind of epic until I realized how much garbage it left behind.

  29. BTW I wonder. All those guys and gals we saw during the landing at JPL in their blue shirts (yep I want one too), are they “just” the “pilots” (with a delay) or were they actually also involved in building the craft. And if so, what did they build/design, and what did they do at missioncontrol?
    I mean, a comprehensive who is who would be nice. I mean it was a team effort, so I want to meet the team.
    Also, that way everybody we have seen can get their credit. And not solely on their mohawk ;)
    Just made me curious.

  30. Ted Hartley

    It’s been 2 days and I still can’t muster an intelligent thing to say. All I can do is plagerize the best tweet of the event.

    Today I saw a man with no legs run in the Olympics and an insane but successful landing on Mars. Science is awesomely cool!!

  31. Keith Hearn

    #8 Messier Tidy Upper: They say they won’t go visit any of the other parts because they don’t want to take a chance of contaminating the rover. I think that’s mainly in reference to the 140kg of excess hydrazine fuel that was in the skycrane that they don’t want to get anywhere near. I don’t see any reason not to visit the backshell/parachute or the heatshield, but they’ve said they don’t intend to do so.

    Plus, it would take around 20 hours of travel time (at the expected 30m/hour speed) to get to the parachute/backshell, or 40 hours to the heatshield. They may prefer to spend that time heading towards their primary objective.

    #21 UmTutSut: The Martian atmosphere is about 1% as dense as Earth’s, so it can’t do very much. Someone asked in a press conference if the winds could make the ‘chute billow up and the engineers were doubtful about even that much movement. Moving the whole ‘chute and actually dragging the backshell certainly won’t happen.

  32. @24
    Now imaging a “running start”.
    That guy lowered just at the right speed…

  33. Chip

    The sky crane debris field is quite large and appears to be fanning off in one direction suggesting a sharply angled impact.

  34. Janis

    #23, I believe that the folks in the blue polo shirts were the EDL team and maybe the leaders of some others. Each segment of the mission has their own team: the people that build the thing here, the people that launch it, the ones that are in charge of the trip to Mars, the ones in charge of entry, descent, and landing, and then the science team who goes, “Ooh cool rock, let’s look at it.”

    So I’m guessing that the people in the blue polos were mostly EDL team actively doing stuff necessary to landing, with some bigwigs of the other teams probably in attendance.

    I feel the same way as everyone else about it. That skycrane looked insane, and I recall thinking to myself while watching the live feed, “I hope they field tested it!”

    “I think they’re field-testing it right now.”

    “… oh. Oy.”

    Amazing, incredible work — well worth $7 per American. Best $7 I ever spent!

  35. JoeyD

    I should think NASA would want to stay away from the parachute site as well, lest a sudden wind gust (however unlikely) entangle Curiosity in the chute/lines. Can you imagine if the parachute suddenly billowed up and covered the poor rover after all it’s been through?

  36. Dan_Veteran

    We haven’t settled Mars yet and we are already leaving our junk laying around. Isn’t one planet enough to mess up? :)

  37. #23 SkyGazer: I’m not connected with this mission, but from experience I can say that while some of the people in the Mission Operations Center were “pilots” (ops people), I’m sure many (probably most) of them were systems engineers and subsystem leads. Remember, it’s all autonomous because of the delay, so you really only need a couple people to actually handle the commanding. The rest of the people are there to answer questions and solve problems if something unexpected happens (earlier when there was still time do do anything). Of course, by the time the landing sequence has started, there’s pretty much jack you can do, so they could have just left. It was nice of them all to stay, doncha think?

    As for the craziness of the scheme, none of it is really anything that we don’t already know how to do. What makes it hard is that every link in the chain has to work, or the whole mission fails. It only takes one minor mistake (or bit of bad luck) and the whole thing is lost. It’s incredibly hard to get that many mechanisms and systems to work so well. It’s an engineering feat, to be sure, but also (and I say this as a management-hating engineer) huge kudos to the management team. You don’t get that much stuff to work right without successfully balancing the competing sides of trusting your team and providing additional eyes to make sure they didn’t miss anything.

    Also, sometimes the harder stuff is actually easier, in the sense that it attracts the best people. You don’t get the A team unless you’re doing something interesting.

  38. @25. Keith Hearn & #22. Jamie : Oh. Okay. Pity. Thanks for that.

    @29. Dan_Veteran :

    We haven’t settled Mars yet and we are already leaving our junk laying around. Isn’t one planet enough to mess up?

    Well, we’ll just have to send some people round there to clean it up won’t we? ;-)

    @19. SkyGazer : “And it´s not only American taxdollars, Europe also contributed.”

    Plus we Aussies made sure we recieved the signal just as we did with the first Apollo Moon landings as seen in The Dish movie so we helped out too! ;-)

  39. Trikester

    Who are you guys kidding? That isn’t junk. That’s a future memorial to man’s exploration of space waiting for human Martian colonists to arrive and appreciate what it meant towards getting them there! Preserved through the efforts of Mars Planetary Park Service or somesuch, complete with paths and handrails and informational signs.

    Or it may all just get filched and moved to private collections. Either way, I’d bet long odds that the future won’t consider it junk. I’d bet there are people right here on this planet already thinking about how much they’d like to be able to get hold of some of that “trash”.

    One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. It sure looks like treasure to me!

  40. Kevin

    @UmTutSut I assume that since Mars atmospheric pressure is something like 1% of Earth, a strong windstorm wouldn’t be able to budge the parachute much. It had to be going supersonic to even work. But I’d love to hear about this from someone who knows what they’re talking about.

  41. Menyambal

    Just to emphasize: The cruise stage went in on much the same trajectory and a few bits may have made it to the surface. The descent stage ejected two 160-pound (or so) tungsten weights after the worst of the re-entry, and 6 smaller ones before popping the chute—those definitely made it to the ground, and might be worth looking for (as a study of impacts and as valuable salvage someday).

  42. Keith Hearn

    #42 Menyambal: In this morning’s press conference, they showed images of where the tungsten weights landed. They’re several kilometers downrange from the lander.

  43. Wayne Conrad

    Are these press conferences archived anywhere?

  44. WOW!!! Go NASA!
    Man can accomplish anything he can imagine!
    (As long as woman approves that is)
    Can’t wait for future pictures and videos!
    Go NASA!

  45. Keith Hearn

    #44 Wayne Conrad: The news conferences are happening every mornign at 10am (PDT) and are streamed live at http://www.ustream.tv/nasajpl

    They also have links to previous new conferences there.

  46. @38. Johnny Vector
    Thanks for clearing some up.
    It´s a thing that´s almost always overlooked.
    We all take those guys in the mission control room for granted, without actually really knowing who they are and what they do.

    @39. Messier Tidy Upper
    And thanks for that mate! (Nice movie btw, thanks for reminding, downloading now)

  47. George Martin

    I don’t know if the images are available, but at today’s briefing (~1.5 hrs ago as I type) it was announced that they have located the six balance weights dropped just before parachute deployment. They were able to do this by comparing before and after landing images from a lower resolution, wider field of view camera on the MRO. Sorry, I don’t remember how far away they were. Likely when the before and after images are put up, the caption will say that. My memory is that it was said they are about where they thought they’d likely be.

    George

  48. Wayne Conrad

    @46 Keith Hearn
    Thanks!

  49. George Martin

    SkyGazer said just above:

    We all take those guys in the mission control room for granted, without actually really knowing who they are and what they do.

    I watched the NASA live video stream for the landing. It was interesting and amusing to watch Adam Steltzner, the lead engineer for the EDL phase, pacing like an expectant father.* Right at the end he looks at a screen off camera and then gets the person standing next to him to look at it. A couple of seconds latter he taps the shoulder of the person doing the control room commentary and then we hear the word, “touchdown confirmed”. Then of course, the eruption of joy!

    There is a wikipedia page for Adam Steltzner. Quite an interesting background. He failed geometry in high school and was once going to be a musician.

    George

    *His wife is pregnant and the delivery date is about three weeks after the landing. This bit of information came out in the post landing press conference.

  50. artbot

    @41 – You mean like the mission leads at JPL? Your condescending reply aside, they said the hazards related to approaching the components are just too great. They also have only so much time available for the scheduled mission that a side trip would be nothing but a joyride.

  51. @50 George Martin
    :)

    Like the idea he failed geometry.
    Any more gossip?

  52. Alhazred

    Yeah, that’s definitely the ‘A’ team. I’m astounded. They just pulled off one of the most awesome feats imaginable.

  53. Doug Little

    I’m certainly no expert, but seeing photographic evidence showing where each component came to rest, and in some cases, just how it hit earth (errr, Mars), it appears to literally have gone off perfectly. That, I think, is almost as amazing as the fact that we’ve got orbiters flying about the planet to snap these crazy photos!

    It really is a testament to the power of science and the accuracy of our current theories as well as the simulation software that was built using it. You know that the code must have been tested exhaustively using a simulation.

  54. Wzrd1

    @Brian #10, I’ll join you.
    Let me just e-mail The Doctor for a lift and we can do a full forensic workup of the sites, collect the hardware and drop it off at one of the NASA centers for their own studies. ;)
    Aw, crap. I gained weight and my spacesuit is a bit tight…

  55. Duane

    That small crater, lying just “north west” of the MSL (at about the 1:00 position, about 500m away): It looks awfully familiar. Was there a full color photograph of it that illuminated the incredible wind blown dunes?

  56. Guysmiley

    @George Martin #48: They said the tungsten counterweights came down approximately 1km between each one. The photo showed them in a more or less line. In the briefing they said they’re not too far from the rover’s location but due to being across the large area of dunes that they’d rather avoid and being in the wrong direction from where the mission intends to go they’ll not be visiting their impact sites.

  57. Muz

    I keep going on about it, but I’m still staggered that the entire landing process worked so flawlessly. I must be getting old, it looked like science fiction when I first read of the concept. Now its science fact that will take a bit of time to get my head around. Absolutely incredible, I’m in total awe of the engineers that made this happen.

  58. George Martin

    Thanks to Guysmiley @57 above for the additional information which fled my memory. I just took a look at the NASA page for the mission, not jpl.nasa.gov, and the ballast discovery images are now there. The two images are shown in blink mode. (I’m sure Phil remembers a blink microscope from his student days.) When this gets out of moderation you can find the images showing the impacts of the ballast weights at:

    http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/msl/multimedia/pia16015.html

    The caption says the distance from Curiosity is about 12 kilometers. As I now remember, it was not so much the direct line distance, but that they would have to take a “big U-Turn” to avoid sand dunes in the way.

    George

  59. George Martin

    www nasa gov /mission_pages/msl/multimedia/pia16015.html

  60. George Martin

    Sorry, just trying to see if a relatively important URL to this site could be disguised. It doesn’t seem that I can cancel the post. Do please approve the prior post and I won’t try this trick again.

    http://www.google.com
    George

  61. KAAAAAAAAAAAAHN

    “click to barsoomenate” HA HA! Nice reference!

  62. Nigel Depledge

    Blargh (22) said:

    The Saturn V wasn’t exactly unprecedented. It was just like the previous rockets, but bigger – perfectly tried-and-true technology at that point.

    Not quite. Wasn’t the Saturn V’s first stage the first use of the F-1 engines?

  63. adamas

    @UmTutSut
    imagine if it blew into the MSL and broke something.it would be worse then that lenses cap incident.

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