PASADENA, Calif. -- As the Mars rover Curiosity plummeted toward its landing on Mars last night, NASA's orbiters, the storied Odyssey orbiter and Reconnaissance Orbiter, were sailing overhead and watching its progress. In an incredible feat of photography on another planet, MRO's HiRISE camera captured this image of the spacecraft on the parachute.
You can see the fully unfurled chute, which was capable of sustaining Mach 2.2 speeds, complete with the small hole at its top. The white area on the spacecraft is the Mars Science Laboratory's backshell, holding the Curiosity rover tucked inside. NASA managers were unsure as of 10 a.m. Pacific time Monday whether the heat shield is still attached in this image.
Capturing a snapshot of Curiosity's "seven minutes of terror" is really something -- MRO had to be in the right place at the right time, which itself was a feat of orbital mechanics.
Sarah Milkovich of the MRO team told a morning news conference that the orbiter was about 340 kilometers (211 miles) from the falling spacecraft when it took this image. It was almost directly overhead, at a slight angle.
We're waiting on lots of additional pictures later today from MRO, including potential images of Curiosity's sky crane descent stage, which safely crashed a few hundred meters from the rover. Stay tuned for more updates!