Q: What Became of the Parachute That Delivered Curiosity to Mars?

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A sequence of seven images from the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows wind-caused changes in the parachute of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

Remember the "seven minutes of terror"? Those tense, breathtaking moments, back in August, between the descent of the spacecraft carrying the Mars Curiosity rover into the Martian atmosphere and the vehicle's (ultimately successful) landing on Mars?

NASA remembers. So it periodically checks up on one of the tools that allowed for Curiosity's safe landing: the parachute that floated Curiosity gently down onto the rocky surface of the Red Planet. Images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have captured the parachute lying in its rocky grave. But they've shown it doing something else, too: shifting its shape.

Photos obtained by the orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera show the chute flapping, beautifully and just a little bit creepily, in the Martian wind -- a high-tech instrument turned into a friendly ghost. The seven photos GIFed above were captured by HiRISE between August 12, 2012 -- just after Curiosity's landing -- and January 13, 2013.

Researchers have used HiRISE to produce many more time-lapses of Mars like this, as well as moments of spectacular drama. HiRISE's first image of Curiosity's parachute captured the spacecraft suspended from the chute during its descent to the Martian surface:

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The Curiosity rover and its parachute, spotted by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as they descended to the Martian surface on August 5, 2012 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

The cameras shot the chute doing its job, and now they're recording its retirement -- one that has the rare and dubious distinction of playing out on another planet.

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.


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