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Curiosity's mysterious Mars photo stirs speculation

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Did Curiosity capture the galactic equivalent of the Zapruder film when it landed on Mars?

Seconds following the NASA robot's landing Sunday night, Curiosity managed to squeeze off a number of fuzzy, black-and-white photographs. One, taken with a device on its rear referred to as a Hazcam, captured the pebble-strewn ground underneath the rover and something of their wheels - along with a blotch, faint but distinctive, on the horizon.

The pictures were relayed with a passing satellite. 2 hours later, the satellite passed overhead again. This time around, Curiosity told to go home a brand new batch of higher-resolution photos. They showed exactly the same 

The blotch vanished.

Space junkies raced online with giddy speculation concerning the distinction between the photos.

Curiosity, the largest spacecraft ever delivered to another planet, had just sailed through deep space for nearly nine months and more than 350 million miles. It landed on its own, meaning scientists had no control over where, exactly, it would find yourself, what direction it would be pointed in or if this would snap its first images.

After all of these variables, the space junkies insisted, Curiosity had somehow snapped a photograph of their chariot crash-landing a safe distance away, as planned. The camera shutter had been open for 200 milliseconds.

The blotch did seem like a billowing plume of some kind, erupting from the horizon. However the image "would be a crazy coincidence," one engineer said. Most dismissed the chatter as wild-eyed speculation and a statistical impossibility. It had been just dirt around the lens, some said - maybe a dust devil swirling in the distance, but simply that.

Yet an annoying fact remained. In the first photo, the blotch is there. "And then it is not," said Sarah Milkovich, a scientist in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge along with a leader of the team responsible for delivering images documenting the mission.

Early Tuesday morning, JPL engineers received a brand new picture of the landing zone, taken by another satellite. With tongue in cheek, this photo was labeled the "crime scene" photo, since it not only showed Curiosity on the ground, but all the bits of the spacecraft the rover had discarded on the way down.

To the southwest was the supersonic parachute which had taken Curiosity out of free-fall, and was then jettisoned therefore it wouldn't land on top of the rover and smother it.

Towards the southeast was the heat shield, which soared to temperatures as high as 3,800 degrees and ended up being ditched to ensure that Curiosity could turn on its radar to navigate its landing.

And also to the northwest was the spacecraft that had deposited Curiosity at first glance. Referred to as "sky crane," it was the remnants from the final stage from the rover's intricate descent.

Minutes before landing, Curiosity have been found in an experimental "backpack" that lowered itself down using powerful rocket engines. The engines could have kicked up a lot dust that it suffocated the rover. So, just 66 feet over the ground, the backpack spat out Curiosity, leaving the rover dangling by three ropes.

The hovering spacecraft lowered Curiosity down and was then cut loose. Once free, the crane throttled up its engines and arched across the Martian sky.

The crime scene photo showed that the sky crane had crash-landed, as designed, about 2,000 feet away - as well as in the direction Curiosity's rear was pointed toward when it snapped the very first photo showing the blotch. The brand new photo also showed that the sky crane, when it crash-landed, kicked up a violent wave of dirt which had scarred the top of Mars.

The impossible, it seemed, was possible.

"I don't believe you are able to rule it," Curiosity mission manager Michael Watkins said Tuesday. "It bears looking into."

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