In the amazing photograph, the rover’s parachute is fully deployed and the spacecraft is slowing from the screaming speeds of approach — as Mars tugged on the spacecraft, it accelerated from 8,000 mph to as much as 13,200 mph — to a gentle, 2 mph plunkdown on the planet.
“If HiRISE took the image one second before or one second after, we probably would be looking at an empty Martian landscape,” said Sarah Milkovich, HiRISE investigation scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
The HiRISE camera is onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).
CNET – Tipping the scales at one ton, the nuclear-powered Curiosity, a rolling laboratory equipped with a suite of state-of-the-art cameras and instruments, is too massive to use airbags like the ones that cushioned the landings of NASA’s much smaller Pathfinder and the hugely successful Spirit and Opportunity rovers.
There is a NASA video animation (in this Colbert Report interview) of what was expected with the landing.