Mars Orbiter Takes Pictures of Ground-Based Probes

The newest spacecraft orbiting Mars has taken pictures of three NASA crafts used in previous missions to the red planet — the rover Spirit that landed on the surface in 2004 and the two Viking landers that set down in 1976.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, circling the planet since March, took images that show Spirit, the Viking landers and associated equipment as pinpoints or blobs against the surface.

The images were released Monday by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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The photo of Spirit is being used to plan the rover's daily activities. The orbiter previously used its high-resolution camera to photograph Spirit's twin, Opportunity, at the edge of a crater.

The Viking 1 scene includes the heat shield and back shell, both of which were jettisoned during descent and fell hundreds of feet away from the lander.

Tim Parker, the JPL scientist who helped figure out where to point the orbiter's camera to spot the Vikings, said the biggest surprise in the image is what appears to be the parachute.

Spirit and Viking 1 had previously been detected in pictures taken by NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft, which recently went silent after years in orbit.

Images of Viking 2, which also showed its back shell a quarter-mile away, are a priority of the new orbiter's powerful camera.

NASA is evaluating landing sites for the Phoenix Mars Lander, which will be launched next summer and is intended to land at a far northern site.

Viking 2 is not located at as high a latitude as where Phoenix will go but its site is the most comparable of any seen from the surface of Mars, JPL said.

"The Viking Lander 2 site, with its combination of lander-based and orbiter-based imaging, gives us an important anchor for evaluating the ground roughness and boulder densities at sites where we have only orbital imaging," said Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, chairman of the Phoenix landing site working group.