Curiosity -- Pictured on Descent to Mars

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The team trying to co-ordinate NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft reckoned there was a roughly 60% chance of snapping Curiosity on its way down to the surface of Mars. But, just like everything else that happened late last night Pacific time, all went well and the orbiting craft’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera grabbed this amazing photo of Curiosity about one minute away from touchdown.

Sarah Milkovich, science systems investigator for MRO says “we’ve been working on putting this image together since March, but the final commands were just sent up a couple of days ago.” Milkovich says the relative angles between the two spacecraft made it a tougher proposition to capture than when NASA first achieved a similar coup with the landing of Phoenix in 2008.

The photo, which has a resolution of 33 cm per pixel, was taken around some 340 km away (line of sight distance) but clearly shows the lines of the parachute and the hole in the upper cone of the back shell that had been packed with the chute two years ago. “MRO has taken over 120 pictures of Gale (Crater) – but I think this is the coolest one,” says Mikovich.

Further imagery, including a swath looking vertically down on the landing site, will be taken over the course of the next week or so. These are expected to detail the landing site, the relative setting of the rover and the position of the lander vehicle that performed the Skycrane role, as well as the back shell and heat shield. The HiRISE camera is operated by the University of Arizona, Tucson, and was built by Ball Aerospace.

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