Best Reality TV Ever: Camera Will Take Video of Next Mars Rover Landing

Written by Nancy Atkinson

This graphic portrays the sequence of key events in August 2012 from the time the NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft, with its rover Curiosity, enters the Martian atmosphere to a moment after it touches down on the surface. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

Now THIS is what I call "must-see TV!" A camera on the next Mars Rover — MSL, also known as Curiosity – will start recording high-definition video about two minutes before the rover lands on Mars, currently scheduled for August 2012. The Mars Descent Imager, or MARDI, will provide all of us Martian-wannabes with the first-ever ride along with the landing. And this will be a very unique landing, with the "Sky –Crane" lowering Curiosity to the planet's surface. The video won't be live, however – that's way too much data for the spacecraft to send back to Earth at such an important event, but we will get to see it later. JPL provided a description of what the video should look like:

This Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) camera will fly on the Curiosity rover of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

MARDI 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 (a few miles) 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.

The spacecraft's own shadow, unnoticeable at first, will grow in size and slide westward across the ground. The shadow and rover will meet at a place that, in the final moments, becomes the only patch of ground visible, about the size of a bath towel and underneath the rover.

Dust kicked up by the rocket engines during landing may swirl as the video ends and Curiosity's surface mission can begin.

All of this, recorded at about four frames per second and close to 1,600 by 1,200 pixels per frame, will be stored safely into the Mars Descent Imager's own flash memory during the landing. But the camera's principal investigator, Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, and everyone else will need to be patient. Curiosity will be about 250 million kilometers (about 150 million miles) from Earth at that point. It will send images and other data to Earth via relay by one or two Mars orbiters, so the daily data volume will be limited by the amount of time the orbiters are overhead each day.

"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."

Subsequent downlinks will deliver additional frames, selected based on what the thumbnail versions show. The early images will begin to fulfill this instrument's scientific functions. "I am really looking forward to seeing this movie. We have been preparing for it a long time," Malin said. The lower-resolution version from thumbnail images will be comparable to a YouTube video in image quality. The high-definition version will not be available until the full set of images can be transmitted to Earth, which could take weeks, or even months, sharing priority with data from other instruments."

Read more about the MARDI camera and MSL at JPL's website.

Filed under: Mars, Missions

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