Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Video Camera Will Show Mars Rover's Touchdown

A downward pointing camera on the front-left side of NASA's Curiosity rover will give adventure fans worldwide an unprecedented sense of riding a spacecraft to a landing on Mars.

The Mars Descent Imager will start recording high-resolution video about two minutes before landing in August 2012. Initial frames will glimpse the heat shield falling away from beneath the rover, revealing a swath of Martian terrain below illuminated in afternoon sunlight. The first scenes will cover ground several kilometers across. Successive images will close in and cover a smaller area each second.

The full color video will likely spin, then shake, as the Mars Science Laboratory mission's parachute, then its rocket-powered backpack, slow the rover's descent. The left-front wheel will pop into view when Curiosity extends its mobility and landing gear.

"We will get it down in stages," said Malin. "First we'll have thumbnails of the descent images, with only a few frames at full scale."

Malin Space Science Systems delivered the Mars Descent Imager in 2008, when NASA was planning a 2009 launch for the mission. This camera shares many design features, including identical electronic detectors, with two other science instruments the same company is providing for Curiosity: the Mast Camera and the Mars Hand Lens Imager.

The company also provided descent imagers for NASA's Mars Polar Lander, launched in 1999, and Phoenix Mars Lander, launched in 2007. However, the former craft was lost just before landing and the latter did not use its descent imager due to concern about the spacecraft's data handling capabilities during crucial moments just before landing.