Scene of a Martian Landing

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona


It has the feel of a crime scene shot—a grainy black-and-white photo with arrows pointing to where the salient evidence was found. Back shell, parachute, sky crane, heat shield, and at the center, Curiosity.

But the absorbing image is instead a marvel of space science, an actual photo that shows where the five portions of the now celebrated Mars Science Lab/Curiosity descent capsule landed.  Taken from 200 miles up by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on Monday—less than a day after the landing—it clearly shows that all the main components landed close by the rover, and almost exactly where they were expected to land.

The heat shield that withstood temperatures as high as 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit—it’s about 1,300 yards away from the rover.  The parachute that held despite facing 900 mph conditions and the back shell connected to it—a little more than 600 yards away. The first-ever “sky crane” that hovered over the surface and gently dropped the rover to the ground, then flew away and crashed: 660 yards away.  They not only all worked according to plan, but they fell away as planned too and appear to be in, well, pretty good shape on the surface.

The layout speaks to the precision maneuvering and engineering displayed on landing day, but also the fact that Curiosity is not alone on or around the planet.  The United States now has three other working assets at the planet: the long-roving Opportunity and the MRO and Odyssey satellites to send back data and images.  The European Space Agency’s Mars Express is also orbiting and sending back Curiosity information.

Put it all together, and this is beginning to look like what could be a most promising future.  Going to Mars is no longer a “one off” kind of adventure; it’s part of a plan to eventually know enough about the planet to send humans there and to say, with some level of definitiveness, whether life ever existed on the planet.  We clearly have the know-how to make both happen;  the issue is whether we have the resolve to actually support and fund the effort.

Back to the crime scene for a moment.  Planetary science is all about searching for clues that will  put together a credible story about the possibility of life on Mars, or the history of Mars, or current conditions on the planet.  Curiosity will be conducting a lot of chemistry in search of those clues, but geologists will also play a central role.

And already, from one image taken on Martian day (or “sol” 2) geologists can see a most interesting intersection of three different kinds of rock or soil zones, only about 200 yards (two football fields) away from Curiosity. One zone is whitish and apparently rather like cement, one is softer and has a lot of small crater holes, and another has many small boulders absent on the other two.

It’s way too early to even speculate about what the different zones might be telling us regarding Mars and the Gale Crater landing site, but this we already do know:  The 2012 season of “CSI: Mars” has begun, and the trailers at least look fabulous.

More from National Geographic:

Mars Rover Landing a Success — What Happens Now?

Pictures: Mars Rover’s “Crazy” Landing, Step by Step.

Explore an interactive time line of Mars exploration in National Geographic magazine.

Get the basics on the Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory rover.

Marc Kaufman’s National Geographic e-book Mars Landing 2012.
Download the full text >>

Changing Planet