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Headshot of Emily Lakdawalla

We are on Mars

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla

06-08-2012 5:19 CDT

Topics: pretty pictures, mission status, Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory)

Oh my goodness. Where do I begin?

I guess this is the best place to start: we have six shiny new wheels sitting on Martian soil, and a rover throwing its shadow onto the surface. Fuzzy and dust-spattered as they are, I agree with Project Scientist John Grotzinger that these are among the most beautiful pictures of Mars that I have ever seen.

Curiosity's first photos


Curiosity's first photos
Top row: left and right front hazcam images; bottom row: left and right rear hazcam images. These were the first taken by Curiosity after landing, shot before the transparent lens covers were flipped open. They were taken on August 6, 2012 at 05:20 UTC. Most of the black spots are dust kicked up from the landing.

I needn't retell the details of how the landing happened, because it was completely according to plan. I don't think a single thing happened that was unexpected.

The landing was successful, and in the end, after all that anticipation, it was over so fast. Trying to gather my thoughts, the one that dominates is "I really can't believe that worked." But it did. It actually did. Up there, on Mars, there's a new rover, bringing us back up to two. Nothing could replace Spirit, but Curiosity will carry her torch.

This is the dawn of a new era in the exploration of Mars. Just as every previous mission has, the data that Curiosity sends back will completely change our view of the planet.

I live-tweeted the whole thing. I could keep up with the narration through the entry phase, but once the parachute opened things happened very quickly. With every milestone successfully passed, you could hear the anticipation and excitement in Allan Chen's voice ticking up a notch. He was practically screaming the last milestones. We certainly were yelling in the press room. Once it was all over, and there was jubilation in the mission control area, I actually started hyperventilating. I would've passed out if I'd been standing up. (Fortunately, I have a very comfy chair.)

There's not a lot of information yet available on details of the landing -- accuracy, position, and whatnot -- but those details really don't seem all that important to me right now. It's the road ahead of us that's important. From what I can see in the images downlinked so far, that road will be a smooth one, at least at the start. The pebbles on the ground in front of us look pretty small. Of course it's important to remember that the wheel that we see in those images is twice the size of the wheels on Opportunity. All of those pebbles would look a lot bigger to our little friend down in Meridiani.

Before I go on about those images, I think we should all stop and spare a thought for the machinery that didn't land so softly. The cruise stage; the heat shield; the aeroshell and parachute; the descent stage. Thousands of people labored for years to design, build, program, and test those machines, and they are now wreckage scattered across Gale crater. Curiosity will almost certainly not visit any of them, but we'll get a very good look at them soon when Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter images the landing site, possibly in the next day or two. If the sharp-eyed HiRISE doesn't catch them in its skinny field of view, the Context Camera surely will.

So: What can we learn from the first photos? First of all, I should probably explain that these images were taken with fish-eye cameras on the belly of the rover whose purpose is to assess the terrain in the immediate vicinity of the rover's wheels. The horizon is warped due to the fish-eye view; it's actually quite flat.

Note the direction of the rover's shadow. The rover is near the equator, and it was midafternoon when it landed. Therefore, the rover is facing almost directly east.

Next, what an incredibly smooth surface! Look at all those little pebbles! Once they're ready to drive -- which I should remind everyone will not be for a few weeks, not more than baby steps anyway -- it should be pretty clear sailing.

Here's the only image released from the second Odyssey communications pass. It was a low-elevation pass, so not much data was transmitted. This one is from the rear hazcam and was taken after deploy of the lens covers. The rover is facing due east. In the hour-plus since landing, the Sun sank considerably to the west, and is now in the rear hazcam field of view. Its glare is washing out almost all of the detail.

Rear hazcam view from Curiosity, end of sol 0


Rear hazcam view from Curiosity, end of sol 0
At the end of Curiosity's landing sol, its rear hazcam caught a view of the Sun sinking toward the horizon, which washed out most detail.

This one provides a good test for how much information is being lost in the compression that they do before they post raw images online. Let's see if we can get any detail at all out of it by adjusting the contrast. There you go -- the rim of Gale crater. The blockiness results from it being JPEG-compressed. Still, I'm pleased that I can get any detail at all out of this.

Rear hazcam view from Curiosity, end of sol 0 (stretched)

NASA / JPL / Emily Lakdawalla

Rear hazcam view from Curiosity, end of sol 0 (stretched)
Adjusting the contrast of the end-of-sol-0 rear hazcam image from Curiosity brings out detail on the horizon: the rim of Gale crater.

Here's a different stretch of the same image, one released by NASA. This one looks better because, of course, they had access to the real data. It brings out much detail in the pebbled plain and on the left rear wheel of the rover (right side of this image, which is facing rearward). I'm trying to figure out the maximum size of the pebbles, but it's hard. This camera is identical in most ways to the hazcams on Opportunity, but its position is higher and significantly to the right of center (which is why we only see one wheel); and the wheel in the foreground is twice the size of Spirit and Opportunity's. In my tired state I can't figure out their size.

Shiny new wheel on soil


Shiny new wheel on soil
A rear hazcam view of Curiosity's left rear wheel sitting on Martian soil at the end of landing day, stretched to reveal details in the foreground.

But here's the coolest (and, admittedly, most speculative) thing I can see in the images. In both of the rear hazcam images taken just after landing, there is a strange shape on the horizon. It is not there in the later view. It is there in both left and right eye views. It is something that was there just after landing, and is not anymore. My hypothesis is that we may be seeing the cloud marking the crash site of the descent stage. Others on have proposed the same. It seems crazy that we should see that, but I can't think of any other explanation for a puff-shaped thing on the horizon seen right after landing and not later. Which makes me laugh, because I've always given Doug Ellison a hard time for not including that detail in his otherwise excellent animation showing the landing. (Which he responds to by asking me if I'm crazy to think that NASA will show themselves blowing things up on Mars.) Looking forward to asking the mission people what they think about this.

Dust puff?

NASA / JPL / Emily Lakdawalla

Dust puff?
There is a thing on the horizon in both eyes of the rear hazcam images taken by Curiosity immediately after landing and before the transparent dust covers were deployed. The thing is not visible in later images.

Via Twitter I've learned that HiRISE succeeded in getting its image of Curiosity under parachute, and the image allegedly looks spectacular; but we won't see it until the 9:00 PDT / 16:00 UTC press briefing. I can't wait! It's 3 a.m. here. It hardly seems worthwhile to go home at this point; my kids will be up in three hours anyway. Might as well stay here. The next Odyssey communications pass is around 11:00 (18:00 UTC). Not sure if I'll be able to make it until that.

See other posts from August 2012


Or read more blog entries about: pretty pictures, mission status, Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory)


Patrick Wiggins: 08/06/2012 06:12 CDT

Congratulations to all on the MSL team! Emily, regarding your comment about the rover not going to visit the various pieces that were discarded on the way down, could you ask about that in one of the press briefings? I seem to remember that at least one of the MERs was tasked to look for its heat shield so engineers could see how it handled entry. Seems like they'd want to do that again with MSL. Also, regarding the left/right pairs from the hazcams you posted, the top pair from the front hazcam shows stereo very nicely when viewed cross-eyed. The bottom pair, not so much, probably because there's much less detail.

wil: 08/06/2012 07:09 CDT

Congratulations to all of you wonderful folks! This is a mighty accomplishment! Thank you for all you have done.

John: 08/06/2012 07:33 CDT

Patrick, that MER rover was Opportunity, and she visited her heat shield somewhere in the vicinity of SOL 300 of her adventure.

John: 08/06/2012 07:37 CDT

Now, my question is regarding that last picture of Curiosity's wheel: Could that be "Mount Sharp" in the distance at right ? :)

Ranjones: 08/06/2012 07:39 CDT

Patrick, the "cross-eyed" idea is a good one. Thanx! Hope we can get more of those left-eye/right-eye pairs. :-)

Matt Bertram: 08/06/2012 07:39 CDT

Indeed, congratulations to everyone involved. It was a wonderful experience to be able to watch, even through Livestream. What I would have given to be there in all that energy... ah. It really reaffirmed my goal of one day working in the space industry. @Patrick - they covered the matter of approaching the wreckage during one of the panels at Planetfest. Because of the fear of potential contaminates present on the remains of the aeroshell/sky crane, they opted to not investigate the wreckage so as to not skew the results of Curiosity's findings.

George: 08/06/2012 08:07 CDT

I was sitting here in my office desk at 7 am local watching the NASA stream - landing occurred at 7:31 am local time here. It must be said that watching this event live (whatever that means in this case) is a HUGE difference compared to reading about a successful landing afterwards in the news. My heartbeat was way up and actually even increased when mission control announced that the skycrane maneuver is on… Well done! Unbelievable and outstanding. Can’t wait to see the HiRISE image, too.

George: 08/06/2012 08:10 CDT

AT my office desk, of course, haha :)

John: 08/06/2012 08:55 CDT

Referring to my own question earlier, here is the answer from NASA: "Curiosity's landing site is beginning to come into focus," said John Grotzinger, project manager of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "In the image, we are looking to the northwest. What you see on the horizon is the rim of Gale Crater. " Looking forward to seeing the Mountain we're going to climb. :)

Nat: 08/06/2012 09:09 CDT

Thanks for the great summary of the landing and first pictures. Are the early MSL press conferences going to available on the web? live? recorded?

tygered: 08/06/2012 03:31 CDT

First I want to say, Job well done. Thanks to everyone involved in this project. However, I am really curious (pun intended) as to why Curiosity is not going to investigate any of the jettisoned hardware. It seems to me that much info can be gathered from exploring these objects.

Zorbonian: 08/06/2012 03:33 CDT

Unbelievable - it actually worked! Quite amazing. We need more pictures. I want to see the pictures/video as it landed. And being able to get in sync with the MRO for that parachute shot is even more astounding. Nice going, people!

John: 08/06/2012 03:46 CDT

Nat, You can try the live feeds here: ... or, if there is too much lag (due to the very heavy traffic) you can view or download them here at NASA's YouTube channels: Have fun :)

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