Mars flying saucer is Curiosity’s heat shield

NASA released a spectacular new photo of a “flying saucer” over Mars today. The circular object is really a new high-resolution view of the Curiosity rover’s heat shield falling away as the craft descended through the martian atmosphere.

A high-resolution image of Curiosity's heat shield falling away during the rover's descent
A high-resolution image of Curiosity’s heat shield falling away during the rover’s descent. Credit: NASA

The picture was taken about three seconds after the 4.5-metre diameter shield had been ejected and two and a half minutes before landing when the shield was about 16 metres away. It was taken with the Mars Descent Imager instrument known as MARDI.

The picture shows the inside surface of the heat shield, with its protective multi-layered insulation. It is such a detailed image that the stitching can be seen in the shield’s thermal insulation. Space scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California are delighted with the quality of the site where their $2.5 billion runabout touched down on Monday.

They have picked out a number of interesting rocks and other features to travel to and explore when Curiosity is ready to move on its two-year mission inside Gale Crater.

They also released a panorama formed from the first two full-resolution images of the Martian surface taken by the Navigation cameras on NASA’s Curiosity rover, which are located on the rover’s “head” or mast. The rim of Gale Crater can be seen in the distance beyond the pebbly ground.

The foreground shows two distinct zones of excavation which were probably carved out by blasts from the rover’s Sky Crane descent stage thrusters.

The view towards the mountainous edge of Gale Crater includes foreground areas blasted by Sky Crane's thrusters
The view towards the mountainous edge of Gale Crater includes foreground areas blasted by Sky Crane’s thrusters. Credit NASA
Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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