Mars Orbiter Photographs Three Old Spacecraft
The parachute from Mars Exploration Rover Spirit is lying on the Martian surface. The cone-shaped back shell, which helped protect Spirit's lander during its trip to Mars, appears relatively undamaged.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

After circling the red planet for more than eight months, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has taken images of three spacecraft that the agency had previously sent to the Martian surface.

The orbiter provided high-resolution images of the Spirit rover [image] that has been active on the surface since 2004 and of the two Viking landers that reached Mars some 30 years ago.

Aerial views of the surrounding terrain and detailed features are helping scientists get a new perspective on some familiar sights [image].

"We know these sites well at ground level through the eyes of the cameras on Spirit and the Viking landers," said the project's principal investigator Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona. "Applying that knowledge as we view the new orbital images will help us interpret what we see in orbital images from other parts of Mars never seen from ground level."

In addition to helping scientists plan for future missions and current surface activities, the images have also left them in awe.

The view of Viking Lander 1 [image] shows the spacecraft's back shell 850 feet from the probe and its heat shield some 3,400 feet away from the probe. The spacecraft landed on the planet's surface on July 1976.

"The biggest surprise is that you can still see what appears to be the parachute after 30 years," said Tim Parker of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Images of the Viking Lander 2 site are especially interesting to NASA scientists as they are considering it a candidate landing site for NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander mission, scheduled to launch next summer.