Published online 4 June 2008 | Nature 453, 712-713 (2008) | doi:10.1038/453712a

News in Brief: Snapshot

Planetary science: Stranger in a strange land

Click to see an enlarged version.NASA/JPL/UNIV. ARIZONA

On 25 May, NASA's Phoenix lander was 10 kilometres above the surface of Mars and less than three minutes from landing when it was captured passing in front of Heimdall crater by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The two spacecraft were moving with a relative velocity of about 3.4 kilometres a second at the time, and were as far apart as Paris and Dublin.

The picture almost didn't happen. Engineers worried that HiRISE would interfere with the radio on the MRO that was tracking Phoenix. The clinching argument was that, if things went wrong, the image would show whether the lander's parachute (inset) had unfurled properly or not. By the time the image data were returned to Earth the lander was known to be safe and sound and getting ready for science (see page 703). The HiRISE image wasn't needed for a post-mortem and could be appreciated for what it is: a remarkable testament to human achievement. 

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