NASA has released a stunning new image of the landing site of the Opportunity rover on Mars on January 25, 2004.
We’ve seen black-and-white images before, but this is the first time we’ve seen it in color. The view was taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).
NASA described this landing as a “hole in one” because, by chance, Opportunity came to rest in the middle of a crater 22 meters (72 feet) across called Eagle Crater. It studied this area before moving on to the larger Victoria and Endeavour craters, having now travelled about 44 kilometers (27 miles) across the surface in 13 years.
To land on the surface, Opportunity used parachutes to slow down through the atmosphere before giant air bags inflated. This bounced the rover across the surface before coming to a rest, and it then descended ramps on a landing platform to begin its mission. This was quite different to the Curiosity rover in August 2011, which was too large for this method and instead used a complex “sky crane” system.
In the top right of the image, taken on April 8, 2017, you can see the landing platform in the middle of Eagle Crater. At the bottom left is the backshell used to protect the rover on the way to the ground and the parachute that slowed Opportunity’s descent. The backshell has a blue tint because the color of the area has been exaggerated.
“The airbag-cushioned lander, with Opportunity folded-up inside, first hit Martian ground near the crater, then bounced and rolled right into the crater,” NASA said in a description of the image. “The lander structure was four triangles, folded into a tetrahedron until after the airbags deflated. The triangular petals then opened, exposing the rover. A week later, the rover drove off, and the landing platform's job was done.”
Opportunity landed three weeks after its twin rover, Spirit, which lost power in 2011. However, the former is still going strong, and has returned some fascinating science to Earth in its lifetime, including finding evidence for ancient water activity on Mars.
An animation of Opportunity leaving the landing pad in 2004. NASA