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Photo shows Mars rover descent

Category: Headlines

Published: 6th Aug 2012 17:24:22

A spectacular image of the Curiosity rover descending to the surface of Mars on its parachute has been obtained by an overflying satellite.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter played a key role in Monday's (GMT) historic landing by recording telemetry from the robot as it approached the ground.

But Nasa also tasked it with trying to get a picture of the new arrival.

The rover - also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, MSL - is seen when still inside its protective shell.

Moments after this image was acquired, the vehicle would have dropped out of the capsule to ride its rocket-powered crane to the base of Gale Crater, its landing location.

The remarkable feat repeats MRO's effort in 2008 when it also managed to sight the incoming Phoenix lander.

Its prime instrument for the purpose is the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRise).

"This image was taken six minutes after MSL entered the atmosphere, and MRO was about 340km away from MSL at the time the picture was taken," said Sarah Milkovich, one of the scientists on the camera instrument.

"You can see the lines on the parachute; you can see the hole on the top.

"HiRISE has taken over 120 pictures of Gale as part of the landing site selection and characterisation process, but I really think this is the coolest one."

The one-tonne Curiosity rover landed in Gale Crater - a deep depression near the planet's equator - at 06:32 BST (05:32 GMT).

Curiosity will now embark on a mission of at least two years to look for evidence that Mars may once have supported life.

The mission's project scientist John Grotzinger said it looked as if the rover had touched down on a "familiar" looking gravel plain with soil of a relatively uniform grain size.

The "etched plains" lie just north of the sand dunes that fringe Mount Sharp, a peak that rises about 5.5km (3.4 miles) above the floor of Gale.

Curiosity will climb the rise, and, as it does so, study rocks that were laid down billions of years ago in the presence of liquid water.

The vehicle will be scouring Mount Sharp for evidence that past environments could have favoured microbial life.

Earlier on Monday, a signal confirming the rover was on the ground safely was relayed to Earth via Nasa's Odyssey satellite, another spacecraft in orbit around the Red Planet.

The success was greeted with a roar of approval here at mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter

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