Two days after it happened, I still can’t believe the whole thing actually worked.
But we keep getting proof. One of the things that makes Curiosity awesomer than any previous Mars landing is the spacecraft’s ability to document, in pictures, what it did. Spacecrafts usually have great cameras, but it’s a sad fact that unless you have two spacecrafts in the same place, you usually can’t get a photograph of a spacecraft in space. Well, here’s a photograph of a piece of a spacecraft at Mars. It’s Curiosity’s photo of its heat shield, which it had jettisoned about 10 seconds previously. In the background is the ancient cratered floor of Gale crater, peppered with dark sand dunes. (I wrote more about the photo here.)
But wait — it gets better. That photo is just one of about 1000 frames in a video taken by the camera as Curiosity fell toward Mars. That’s right — we have a movie of a Mars landing. In color. At HD resolution. The video is still on Mars. About 300 of those frames have been returned to Earth at much-reduced resolution. (The full resolution is 1600 by 1200 pixels; the “thumbnails” we’ve received are 200 by 150.) Even at very low resolution and very low frame rate, the movie of the descent is electrifying. My favorite part is watching the dust swirl at landing. Whoooosh!
Eventually, we will get all the frames of this video at their full resolution, uncompressed, but it’s going to take some time, because vanity photos just aren’t as high-priority as science and engineering data. Sooner than that, we’ll get other cool spacecraft vanity shots taken for engineering purposes, to check out the condition of the rover. Stay tuned tomorrow, when we should get a bunch of photos of the rover’s deck taken from a black-and-white camera atop its mast. Next month, we will get some cool self-portraits of the rover taken by the camera mounted on the end of its arm.
Now, this is not the first time we’ve seen a movie of Curiosity in space. I absolutely love this view captured by the upper stage of its launch rocket, watching the release of the slowly spinning spacecraft on its trajectory toward Mars. We’re seeing the solar-panel-bedecked “cruise stage,” which was jettisoned shortly before Curiosity entered the Martian atmosphere, having done its job powering and steering the rover on its journey.
Including cameras on spacecraft purely for the purpose of watching mission events happen is becoming more common. Here’s some neat video from the Chinese lunar orbiter Chang’E 2, showing the deployment of its solar panels. After the panel has deployed and the vibration has damped, the spacecraft executes a roll that brings the brilliant ball of Earth into the field of view; the autoexposure then adjusts for the brightness of Earth. There are four other awesome Chang’E 2 videos here.
My favorite in-space video came from the adorable tiny little deployable cameras that flew with the Japanese solar sail mission IKAROS. Each was a tiny little cell-phone-sized camera with a radio transmitter that IKAROS pushed gently into space; they took and transmitted photos as long as their batteries lasted, about fifteen minutes, enough to document that the sail had deployed properly. Even though their operational lifetimes were very short, DCAM1 and DCAM2 (as they were called) had long lives in cyberspace, participating in Twitter conversation with their spacecraft IKAROSkun (“little brother IKAROS,” I think) for a year. (And while I’m linking to IKAROS stuff, I gotta link to the anime-riffic IKAROS theme song.)
But possibly the most impressive feat of in-space imaging of another spacecraft was achieved by Mars Global Surveyor in 2005, when it got pictures of the other two orbiters at Mars: Mars Odyssey and Mars Express. The pictures are not the best quality — but imaging an orbiter from another orbiter at another planet! Wow.