Mars enthusiasts underwhelmed by some of the first dusty images of the planet to be beamed back to Earth by the Curiosity rover that landed there on Sunday were reassured by NASA Tuesday that more stunning photos will be coming over the next few days as the mobile science laboratory robot unfurls its mast and tests its instruments.
“I’m sure that there will be lots of surprises as we continue,” said Mike Watkins, NASA’s mission manager, at a press conference at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.
Curiosity, which landed on Mars Sunday night Pacific Time, is scheduled to raise its mast Wednesday, and that will open up more of the 17 cameras the robot is carrying.
Some of the new images will arrive as thumbnails at first, but full resolution photos will be on their way a week later, NASA said.
NASA scientists on Tuesday showed reporters an image taken during Curiosity’s landing by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting and studying Mars since 2006, that reveals where the rover landed in relation to its parachute and the other components it shed during its high-speed landing.
The black-and-white image taken by the orbiter’s High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera shows the discarded heat shield, parachute, sky crane and back shell lying on the Mars surface.
It also shows the dust tracks made by the rover on impact that along with the geographic information transmitted by the rover itself helped NASA confirm its position.
“By looking at these dusk streaks, we can determine what position Curiosity is at, and we have knowledge from Curiosity itself, and this matches up perfectly,” said Sarah Milkovich, a scientist who works with the orbiter.
NASA officials conceded on Tuesday that the first colour image of Mars’s surface snapped by Curiosity wasn’t that clear but said they expect the dust storm the rover kicked up on landing will eventually settle, allowing it to take better images.
The Martian dust generated during landing obscured the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), the camera on Curiosity that gives a front-seat view from the space vehicle.
Thankfully, Edgett said, what the dust actually covered is not the camera but the dust covers that were placed over the MAHLI camera.
“One of the scientists said, ‘Looks like the dust covers did what they were supposed to do’,” Edgett joked.
Once the covers are opened, people can expect to see full landscape pictures from the MAHLI camera.
The next step for Curiosity is to undergo a check-up to make sure the 10 sophisticated scientific instruments it is carrying were not damaged during the landing and are functioning well within Mars’s gravitational field.
Many of these instruments will come to life over the first 10 sols, or Martian days, of the rover’s two-year mission, as Curiosity begins exploring its surroundings.
“It works. It’s awesome, and I can’t wait to see whatever it is we can see,” said Ken Edgett, a geologist with the San Diego-based Malin Space Science Systems, who has worked on Curiosity’s design system.
It is during the initial commissioning phase that Curiosity will take its first drive around the planet, starting slow and eventually accelerating and exploring the Gale crater and beyond.