It looks like a snapshot from an alien encounter movie — an alien flying saucer zooming over a desert on Earth. However, that isn’t Earth. That is Mars. And mystery the flying saucer? That’s the heat shield of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). But to any hypothetical Martians living on the surface, it would certainly look very alien. It would also herald the beginning of a close encounter with a terrestrial robot. And that robot is about to dominate a crater on their planet.
During the MSL’s descent through the Martian atmosphere over the weekend, Mars rover Curiosity jettisoned its spent heat shield, allowing the rover’s Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) to look down at the surface of Mars for the first time. We’ve already seen the low-resolution animation of the heat shield dropping to the ground, but this single hi-res version shows a beautiful, shiny disk against a wonderfully detailed Martian landscape — the inner surface of Gale Crater and the landing site known as Aeolis Palus.
While we await more hi-res photos of the descent, it’s time to appreciate the irony. We sent a flying saucer to Mars. We landed a nuclear-powered, laser-toting rover on the surface. If the tables were turned and this happened on Earth, it would look like an alien invasion. In the future, it is hoped that a Mars sample return mission will be a possibility — should there be any microbial life on those samples, we would be the proverbial alien abductors.
UPDATE: During Wednesday’s Curiosity press briefing, new high-resolution images were released, including this one from the MARDI camera just after the heat shield had separated:
Image credit and source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS