August 13, 2012

Mysterious Smudge On Curiosity Photo Identified

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Was it wreckage from an extraterrestrial spacecraft? Was it a smudge of dirt on the camera lens? Was it a dust devil that just happened to be in the right place at the right time? As it turns out, it was none of the above.

The "it" in question was a mysterious smudge that appeared on a photo taken by the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity shortly after it landed at Gale Crater early Monday morning. The origin of the smudge in question, which was no longer visible in later pictures, quickly became the subject of tremendous speculation online and in day-to-day life.

On Friday, NASA put an end to the discussion by announcing that the $2.6 billion rover had actually managed to capture an image of "the aftermath of its rocket-powered backpack crash-landing in the distance," according to AP Science Writer Alicia Chang.

Steve Sell, an engineer helping to oversee the mission at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, told the AP that it was "an amazing coincidence that we were able to catch this impact," adding that Curiosity was simply, in Chang's words, "in the right place at the right time and facing the right direction."

Also on Friday, NASA engineers began the process of installing new computer software into Curiosity. The new programs would allow the rover to travel across the planet's surface, Reuters' Steve Gorman said. That process, which was expected to take a total of four days to complete, would replace the program used to land the vehicle, allowing NASA engineers to drive it and use its robotic arm and drill in order to collect samples.

"The $2.5 billion project, formally named the Mars Science Laboratory, is NASA's first astrobiology mission since the Viking probes of the 1970s and is touted as the first full-fledged mobile biochemistry lab ever sent to a distant world," Gorman said. "The rover comes equipped with an array of sophisticated instruments capable of analyzing samples of soil, rocks and atmosphere on the spot and beaming results back to Earth."

Curiosity's primary mission is scheduled to last approximately two years.