Its images like these that restore your faith in mankind’s exploration spirit. After the flawless entry, descent and landing of Phoenix on Sunday night at 16:54 PST (00:54 GMT Monday morning), I took some time to contemplate the enormity of what the amazing team at NASA and the University of Arizona had achieved. I was a bit concerned as to whether the lander would make it through the “7 minutes of terror”, especially when thinking back to the silence that followed the UK’s Beagle 2 landing on Christmas Day, 2003. But it did make it, and with bags of confidence. Then we are flooded with news and images from the Red Planet, but one photo stood out from the rest. A photo, from an orbiting Mars satellite, looking down on Phoenix, floating through the Martian atmosphere, with a 10 km-wide crater as a backdrop. It doesn’t get much better than this…
Happily scanning through the stories on the Universe Today, I noticed Nancy had posted an update on the images coming from Mars. Yesterday we saw a pretty fuzzy image from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) of what looked like two blobs attached with some faded blobs. As described in text accompanying the image, the photo was of the Phoenix lander having just deployed its parachute. So I stopped rotating the image and squinting to make out what it was and took NASA’s word that it was in fact Phoenix, minutes from touch down. Cool.
Then today, NASA releases a far more polished version of the scene. This time there is no mistaking what we were seeing. A zoomed box with a resolved (and colour) lander with parachute, and behind, a monster of an impact crater (actually the crater isn’t that big, only 10 km across, but the contrast was stark). I think what adds to the image above is the angle at which the photo was taken. We very rarely see oblique angle shots of Mars; I’m used to the top-down view. Seeing this seemed to give a real scale to the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) watching over Phoenix from the MRO.
Not only is this view amazing, when you think about it, the situation is even more amazing. One orbiting robotic explorer taking pictures of another robotic lander entering the atmosphere on a planet millions of miles away. Now this is science!