August 07, 2012, 9:59 AM — A short, low resolution video captured the final minutes of Mars rover Curiosity's descent onto the planet. At the beginning of the clip the 15-foot wide heat shield can be seen separating from the capsule carrying the rover.
The images were recorded by the Mars Descent Imager, or MARDI, and pieced together at four frames per second to detail the final two and a half minutes of the rover's descent. According to NASA, the images needed to be reduced by a factor of eight in order for them to be sent back to Earth quickly. Higher resolution images (1600 by 1200) will be beamed to Earth in the coming months.
During the descent the passing Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped a shot of the rover's supersonic parachute, which was designed to slow it from 900 miles per hour to around 200 miles per hour. The separated heat shield can be seen falling towards the surface.
The rover also sent a picture that shows the north wall and rim of Gale Crater, the section of the planet where Curiosity touched down. The image is murky because the dust cover on the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) hasn't been removed. During the descent, dust kicked up by the Sky Crane's rockets coated the lens, but the protective cover will be removed in the coming weeks. MAHLI's main purpose is to capture close-ups of rocks and soil -- it can focus as close as 2.1 centimeters -- but can also focus to infinity, allowing it to capture images like the one of the Martian landscape.
Curiosity's mission on Mars will last about two years and as NASA scientists enable more of the rover's imaging systems, higher resolution photos are expected in the coming days.