When NASA landed its Curiosity Rover on Mars in August 2012, it did create a dark blast zone, huge enough to observe from the satellite above in the orbit and surprisingly it is seen fast eroding as the latest pictures suggest.
“Curiosity (has) created these dark blast zone patterns where bright dust was blown away by the landing,” said Ingrid Daubar, a HiRISE team scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. He found that similar blast zones were found on the Red Planet due to meteor impact.
But the rate at which these black zones are fading is surprising the space scientists. They expected them to fade as the wind moved the dust gradually but even after years the “rate of change doesn’t appear to be consistent,” he said.
The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has sent pictures over two years ever since the landing of Curiosity on Mars and they show the fading has slowed and some of the scars may have even darkened again. Why?
The images showed changes in blast zones at 4 locations due to the heat shield during the descent stage of Curiosity. HiRISE is one of 6 instruments under the control of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that has been studying Mars surface since 2006.(See changes at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/spaceimages/details.php?id=PIA19159 )
Figure 1 shows the spacecraft’s back shell and parachute. Wind changes the shape of the parachute and fading of the dark zone is visible around the back shell.
Figure 2 sequence shows the spot the rover landed and the Curiosity moved away disappearing from the images but showing its wheel prints heading east, and they also fade over time.
Figure 3 is a 5-frame sequence of the location where the spacecraft’s heat shield touched the ground.
The findings provide immense insights into NASA’s preparation for its next Mars lander, InSight, due for launch in March 2016, especially in areas of designing the next landing technology on Mars. JPL said the InSight mission will first probe heat coming from the interior of the Red planet based on the brightness and dark surface. Brightness of the ground affects temperature below ground, because a dark surface warms in sunshine more than a bright one does, explains JPL researchers.
With three active NASA Mars orbiters and two Mars rovers, NASA is intensifying its Mars probe from the current and ancient viewpoint, to understand climate cycles, geology and biological potential. It may be noted that NASA is eyeing a human mission to Mars in 2022, if possible.
For its immediate needs, NASA will test a flying a rocket-powered, saucer-shaped test vehicle into near-space from the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii, in June 2015, as part of its Mars landing technology called the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project.
The 15-foot-wide, 7,000-pound vehicle will undergo a “spin-table” test to test breakthrough technologies enabling large payloads to be safely landed on the surface of Mars, or even Earth.