We've been expecting to see an image from the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) sometime today (that would be, Sol 1 for Curiosity on Mars), and here it is, more amazing than we could ever have imagined. You're seeing one single low resolution thumbnail from a video looking straight down that MARDI recorded between the time that the heat shield detached and the time that Curiosity touched down, showing the shield dropping away from Curiosity as she heads for the surface. And there's more.
[UPDATE: NOW WITH VIDEO!]
The above pic is taken from high up, but this one is taken from much lower down (at about 20 meters in altitude), as the sky crane thrusters kick up a cloud of dust:
Even more incredible: video!
MARDI, remember, is mounted on the side of Curiosity, positioned at the left front corner and pointing downwards. Its entire job is to take descent imagery for a few critical minutes: after that, it's not intended to be used for anything else. [UPDATE: I asked Mike Malin about this at the press conference, and he said it will be used, they're just not quite sure how yet.] The pictures that MARDI gets will give geologists and rover drivers a Martian bird's eye view of the touchdown area, taking hundreds of images of an area around the rover that covers a rectangle that's 2.4 km by 1.8 km. This ought to be enough area that Curiosity will have a detailed overhead map for her first few weeks of operations.
Obviously, we're very much looking forward to getting the 1,200 x 1,600 pixel HD video in its entirety. We've been warned that some of the frames will likely be blurry due to vibrations from the sky crane engines, but we have a feeling that it won't detract all that much from what we end up seeing. What we'll probably get first is a sequence of thumbnail images that may make for a tiny little preview vid, and it may take a while (like a week or more) to get the entire HD clip back.
We also know that within an hour or two, Curiosity should have deployed her high-gain antenna. This will enable much more data to be sent to Odyssey and MRO for relay, so from this point forward, we should start getting much more detailed images from Curiosity much faster. As always, stay tuned!
[UPDATE: what looks like a heat shield impact farther down in the MRO image!]
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Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.