Western helps HiRISE capture InSight image

A compilation image showing InSIGHT landing on Mars.

NASA, HiRISE //Special to Western NewsA compilation of images showing InSIGHT landing on Mars.

Houston, there is no problem here.

On Nov. 26, NASA’s InSight mission knew the spacecraft touched down within an 81-mile-long (130-kilometer-long) landing ellipse on Mars. Now, the team has pinpointed InSight’s exact location using images from HiRISE, a powerful camera onboard another NASA spacecraft, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

The InSight lander, its heat shield and parachute were spotted by HiRISE – High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment – in one set of images on Dec. 6 and Dec. 11. The lander, heat shield and parachute are within 1,000 feet (several hundred meters) of one another on Elysium Planitia, the flat lava plain selected as InSight’s landing location.

Western postdoctoral scholar Eric Pilles assisted in capturing – for the first-time ever – these extraordinary and highly significant images. Pilles, who participated in Western’s first HiRISE cycle in 2014, worked directly with University of Arizona-based HiRISE Targeting Specialist Kristin Block to capture the full-colour HiRISE image of InSight, officially revealed today at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in Washington, D.C.

In the compilation, it appears that the heat shield (upper right) has its dark outside facing down, since it is so bright, likely due to a specular reflection. The lander (middle) disturbed dust over a fair distance and has darkened the surface, as seen previously at both the Phoenix and Curiosity landing sites.

The bright spot associated with the lander itself is probably another specular reflection, and there are two smaller dark, bluish extensions that are the solar arrays, plus their even darker shadows.

The backshell attached to the parachute (lower left) may show yet another specular reflection; the streak extending to the south well beyond the parachute is probably a pre-existing dust devil track. The lander is approximately six meters wide when the solar arrays are fully deployed.

A “rising star” at Western’s Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX), Pilles started his academic career in economic geology but has since transitioned into Planetary Sciences now as a postdoctoral scholar under the supervision of Earth Sciences professor Livio Tornabene and CPSX Director Gordon Osinski. Tornabene is a long-time scientific team member of HiRISE, based at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

HiRISE team members take turns leading the scientific planning of image captures and this marks the eighth time Tornabene has supervised a two-week imaging ‘cycle’ from Western. Tornabene always includes students in the process, allowing new planetary scientists like Pilles an opportunity to collaborate with the best minds in space exploration while using the best tools and technology.

“While the knowledge gained on space missions like HiRISE is vital to understanding Earth and its place in the universe, it’s equally important for mission veterans like myself to train the next generation of planetary scientists,” Tornabene said. “Canada was the third country in space and collectively, we have invaluable experience and knowledge to share, which is why it’s so important that we continue to support space research in Canada financially, functionally and fundamentally.”

Western’s contributions to the 315th HiRISE cycle, planned in part at the CPSX Mission Control facility in Western’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, will result in 271 new images of Mars. The current cycle continues through December 22. Pilles and Tornabene are joined on the current mission by PhD candidate Shannon Hibbard and Department of Earth Sciences Adjunct Professor and Research Engineer Matthew Bourassa.