A few fortunate (and forward-thinking) skywatchers looked upward in the hours after Curiosity's launch and were able to see the spacecraft leaving Earth. For the skywatchers in Australia and east Asia, the spacecraft was close enough for viewers to see a transparent plume of gas behind the spent Centaur upper stage, resolved separately from the rover's cruise stage, passing in front of distant stars. Here's a photo, and below that, a really amazing video. Click through to watch this one in 1080p high-definition; at that scale, you're looking at it at the same resolution at which it was originally recorded.
Duncan Waldron, Brisbane Planetarium
Curiosity and its Centaur departing Earth
The Curiosity rover on its way to Mars, taken around 16:30 UT on November 26, just over an hour after its launch. The yellow circle shows the spacecraft; the fan-shaped plume is from the Centaur upper stage, the rocket that had just fired to send Curiosity from Earth orbit on to Mars.
On the 26th of November 2011, the Mars Science Laboratory was launched from Cape Canaveral. This timelapse sequence shows a plume drifting against the background stars, probably caused by venting from the Centaur rocket after it carried out a burn over the Indian Ocean. This is the fullest set of images available as a timelapse sequence. The original data is the same as the previous two videos, but with extra processing.
This sequence was built from cropped & processed frames (originals: JPEG; 3504x2336, cropped to 1440x1080). The 1080p HD version is therefore scaled 1:1 from the original image files. Exposure details given on image overlay. Observing site: -27.630779,152.966324, altitude 40m approx.
About 9 hours later, Austrian amateur observer Gerhard Dangl recorded another lovely time-lapse movie, of a much more distant, star-like Curiosity. In the 36 minutes comprising this video, Curiosity traveled 10,000 kilometers farther from Earth.
Austrian amateur astronomer Gerhard Dangl captured this video of the Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory) spacecraft departing Earth about 10.5 hours after its November 26 launch. A still image is available from his website.
How amazing to be able to watch a spacecraft actually departing Earth with your own eyes. One day, will we be able to look up at such a thing, and know that there are humans aboard?