SCIENCE
04/05/2013 02:05 pm ET

Curiosity Rover Parachute Flaps In Mars Wind In NASA Orbiter Photos

Scientists have spotted new activity on Mars -- but it's not extraterrestrial life.

Instead, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has sent back images of the Curiosity rover's parachute being blown around by the Martian wind.

The sequence of seven snapshots, taken by the orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera between Aug. 12, 2012, and Jan. 13, 2013, shows the yellow chute changing positions periodically after it helped lower the $2.5-billion rover to the Red Planet's surface on Aug. 5. Its descent is captured by the Mars Descent Imager camera, or MARDI, in the video below.

The parachute has a diameter of 65 feet, making it the largest ever used for a Mars landing. It's made of Technora, a super-strong material similar to Kevlar.

After entering Mars' atmosphere at 13,200 mph, it was deployed seven miles above the planet's surface. Then, twelve seconds before landing, the rover was lowered to the surface by a rocket-powered "sky crane" at a leisurely 1.7 mph.

Who knew there was wind on Mars, anyway? Actually, back in the 1970's, NASA's Viking Landers recorded wind speeds up to 60 mph on the planet. While Mars has trade winds that are surprisingly similar to those on Earth, its atmosphere is made up almost entirely of carbon dioxide, unlike Earth's mixture of nitrogen, oxygen, and other gases. These Martian winds have helped shape the planet's surface -- windstreaks, which form downwind from craters hit by strong gusts, shifting sand dunes, and giant dust storms have all been observed.

But these Martian winds are more than just an interesting phenomenon -- they also help make objects on Mars' surface more visible, because they wipe off Martian dust that might otherwise obscure their equipment in aerial photographs.

"This type of motion may kick off dust and keep parachutes on the surface bright, to help explain why the parachute from Viking 1 (landed in 1976) remains detectable," HiRISE Principle Investigator Alfred McEwen writes in a statement.

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