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Mars orbiter captures rover in midair


NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spots the Curiosity rover and its parachute during its descent on Sunday night, just a minute before landing.

NASA's Curiosity rover may be the star of the Martian show, but it was the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter that wowed the crowd this morning with an incredible picture of the rover at the end of its parachute, six minutes into its "seven minutes of terror."

The orbiter's imaging team had planned the shot for months, and the payoff came Sunday night when MRO snapped the picture from a distance of 211 miles (340 kilometers). At the time, Curiosity was about 2 miles (3 kilometers) above the Martian surface, still protected inside its Mars Science Laboratory back shell and heat shield.

Journalists applauded when the image was unveiled at this morning's news briefing by Sarah Milkovich, a scientist on the team for MRO's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE.

"If HiRISE took the image one second before or one second after, we probably would be looking at an empty Martian landscape," Milkovich said in a news release. "When you consider that we have been working on this sequence since March and had to upload commands to the spacecraft about 72 hours prior to the image being taken, you begin to realize how challenging this picture was to obtain."

Milkovich said the image resolution was 13.2 inches (33.6 centimeters) per pixel. The operation was more difficult to take than expected, due to the relative positions of the two spacecraft as their paths crossed, but MRO managed to get the shot and send it back overnight. In the days ahead, the orbiter has been programmed to take additional pictures of the rover on the ground, within Gale Crater.

"Guess you could consider us the closest thing to paparazzi on Mars," Milkovich said. "We definitely caught NASA's newest celebrity in the act."

By the way, this isn't the first time MRO has caught a falling star on Mars: Back in 2008, the orbiter snapped a similarly amazing picture of Phoenix Mars Lander during its descent to the Red Planet's north polar region.

Update for 7:55 p.m. Aug. 7: Another section of the same image apparently shows the spacecraft's heat shield, which was flung away from Curiosity just before this picture was taken. The fact that the disk-shaped shield is standing out in such sharp relief against the background of the Martian terrain, with no disturbance surrounding it, suggests that we're seeing it as it's falling through the air. Here's the wide-angle view:

NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Arizona

This is a wide-angle view of Gale Crater's interior, seen during the descent of the Curiosity rover. The upper inset zeroes in on the rover's backshell and parachute, while the lower inset appears to show the spacecraft's heat shield descending separately.

A post-landing picture from MRO shows Curiosity as well as the heat shield and other spacecraft components on the ground.

More about Mars:

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.