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Headshot of Emily Lakdawalla

Some fun with Curiosity MARDI images

Posted By Emily Lakdawalla

16-08-2012 11:36 CDT

Topics: pretty pictures, amateur image processing, Mars, Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory), animation

Yesterday Curiosity returned a pile of full-resolution descent imager photos to Earth. Curiosity's data return process is quite different to Spirit and Opportunity's. To oversimplify, those two kept all their data on a single flash drive; each data item gets a priority, and the rover fills each data pass with as much as it can downlink, beginning with the highest-priority data. Curiosity's instruments generate a huge and widely variable amount of data; that approach to data management just didn't scale up. So Curiosity's instruments mostly all have their own internal data storage, and each team tracks what data they still have onboard. But what that means is there has to be this "staging" step where data gets shifted from an instrument to the main computer for transfer to Earth. That hadn't been done for most of the MARDI data until yesterday.

The full-resolution MARDI images are just as great as we anticipated. As of the moment that I write this, there are 110 full-resolution frames on the ground out of the roughly 1500-image sequence. Most of these are separated in time by several seconds, but among the recently returned data are the first 42 frames, inclusive; we're on our way to getting the full-resolution movie speaking both in terms of temporal and spatial resolution. Of the first 42 frames, the first 26 are dark, taken before the heat shield separated. This is the 27th. I animated these and the subsequent ones, aligning them all (without rotating them) on a crater at the bottom center of the visible Martian surface, and was really quite amazed at how smooth the descent of the heat shield was. This version is at half the full resolution.

Curiosity MARDI descent animation, half-resolution

NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS / Emily Lakdawalla

Curiosity MARDI descent animation, half-resolution

Some neat things to notice in this video: Look for the nine huge Wile-E.-Coyote-ACME springs located at the perimeter of the heat shield, which were what pushed it away from the rover when it was released. Also I like the shadow of the backshell cast onto the heat shield in the first several frames. You may notice some streaking from the heat shield; that's not dust or anything, that's an image artifact called "interline transfer smear."

Here's another idea I had for something fun to do with the MARDI images. I didn't have time to follow through on it, though, so I tossed the idea to the guys at and in a few hours I had my wish granted by Francis X. Murphy, who goes by "Big Joe" on the forum (this is a reference to a named rock at the Viking 1 landing site). I wanted to see a mosaic of some of the descent images with multiple views of the heat shield preserved, in the spirit of one of my favorite-ever images, the "Many Rovers" version of the Pathfinder Presidential Panorama.

MARDI Camera

Another sharp-eyed member of noticed that you can actually see the heat shield impact the surface in the MARDI descent images! He pointed to the original frame, here, where you can see a tiny "splat" at bottom center. Glen Nagle did a quick-and-dirty blink comparison of two MARDI images to show the before and after. KERRUNCH!

This data set just keeps getting better and better!

See other posts from August 2012


Read more blog entries about: pretty pictures, amateur image processing, Mars, Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory), animation


Nahum: 08/16/2012 12:23 CDT

Hi Emily, First, thanks for pointing at my Saturn video in the post about the keeler gap. Second, there are now 192 full frames released from MARDI, and the sequence is getting better every new frame. I made a video at 720p that you can see here: and download here: Thanks for all your work covering this fascinating mission!!!

laserfloyd: 08/16/2012 06:01 CDT

Fantastic! I can't wait for more. Kinda funny though, turns the seven minutes of terror into about seven seconds. I'm sure the controllers wouldn't have minded that. :)

panovoyant: 08/16/2012 07:15 CDT

By my reckoning both those images also cover he impact points of the six ballast masses, towards the top left. I'm guessing they hit the ground before the heat shield - it will be interesting to see if they are visible in any of the full resolution images.

Lauren: 08/16/2012 09:23 CDT

After following your Curiosity updates for the past couple weeks, I took the plunge and became a member. Even with all the great media coverage, it's still difficult to find updates for non-specialists who want to hear a little more in-depth about all the technical stuff. Thanks for filling that niche so expertly, and for being a fantastic role model for women in the space sciences. And damn, we really need to put that microphone on Mars - how amazing would it be to hear a Martian dust storm?

Aaron Thornton: 08/17/2012 07:22 CDT

Another great blog Emily. I quickly stabilized the original low resolution MARDI frames showing the heat shield release a few days ago using Photoshop, and saved it in the form of an animated gif. The gif is 10 frames per second, so about 2.5x actual speed. Even in low resolution it looks great. I can't wait to see the HD video professionally stabilized - it's going to be incredible.

gellis: 08/17/2012 07:42 CDT

@Nahum: great video sequence so far but by all means slow it down a bit :) I notice that Emily now leaves to others those image manipulations that will be used by crackpots as proof of a NASA conspiracy :)

Winston: 08/17/2012 10:34 CDT

What I'd like to see from one of you image processing wizards is a full resolution, _real time (1x)_ animation once all of the full rez MARDI images become available. I suspect NASA/JPL will do this, but a private effort might benefit from morphing between frames. However, I have no idea of how realistic the morphing of a receding object may or may not be since I've only seen morphing of things like human faces, volcano eruptions, etc. And, come to think of it, a morphed sequence would probably benefit from a greater than 1x playback frame rate.

Emily: 08/17/2012 09:03 CDT

@Lauren: Wow, thanks and welcome!! @Winston: Watch this discussion forum thread for progress on that:

Bob: 08/20/2012 11:25 CDT

The heat shield dropping away reminded me of the Apollo 4 footage of the Saturn V staging. I'm looking forward to the rest of the full frames.

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