Tag Archives: Curiosity

Curiosity’s new drilling technique declared a success

In order to bypass a failed feed mechanism in the rover’s drill, Curiosity’s engineering team has declared successful the new techniques they have developed for drilling and getting samples.

They had successfully completed a new drill hole two weeks ago, but are only now are satisfied that the new method for depositing samples in the laboratories will work.

This delivery method had already been successfully tested at JPL. But that’s here on Earth; on Mars, the thin, dry atmosphere provides very different conditions for powder falling out of the drill. “On Mars we have to try and estimate visually whether this is working, just by looking at images of how much powder falls out,” said John Michael Moorokian of JPL, the engineer who led development of the new sample delivery method. “We’re talking about as little as half a baby aspirin worth of sample.”

Too little powder, and the laboratories can’t provide accurate analyses. Too much, and it could overfill the instruments, clogging parts or contaminating future measurements. A successful test of the delivery method on May 22 led to even further improvements in the delivery technique.

Part of the challenge is that Curiosity’s drill is now permanently extended. That new configuration no longer gives it access to a special device that sieves and portions drilled samples in precise amounts. That device, called the Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis (CHIMRA), played an important role in delivering measured portions of sample to the laboratories inside the rover.

I suspect that they still need to do more tests, and that the new method of shaking off material from the drill itself will not always work. At the same time, it reopens the option of using the drill and getting samples from it, which is a very good thing.

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Mars rover update: May 23, 2018

Summary: Curiosity drives down off of Vera Rubin Ridge to do drilling in lower Murray Formation geology unit, while Opportunity continues to puzzle over the formation process that created Perseverance Valley in the rim of Endeavour Crater.

For a list of past updates beginning in July 2016, see my February 8, 2018 update.

Curiosity

Curiosity's travels on and off Vera Rubin Ridge

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Since my April 27, 2018 update, Curiosity has continued its downward trek off of Vera Rubin Ridge back in the direction from which it came. The annotated traverse map to the right, cropped and taken from the rover’s most recent full traverse map, shows the rover’s recent circuitous route with the yellow dotted line. The red dotted line shows the originally planned route off of Vera Rubin Ridge, which they have presently bypassed.

It appears they have had several reasons for returning to the Murray Formation below the Hematite Unit on Vera Rubin Ridge. First, it appears they wanted to get more data about the geological layers just below the Hematite Unit, including the layer immediately below, dubbed the Blunts Point member.

While this is certainly their main goal, I also suspect that they wanted to find a good and relatively easy drilling candidate to test their new drill technique. The last two times they tested this new technique, which bypasses the drill’s stuck feed mechanism by having the robot arm itself push the drill bit against the rock, the drilling did not succeed. It appeared the force applied by the robot arm to push the drill into the rock was not sufficient. The rock was too hard.

In these first attempts, however, they only used the drill’s rotation to drill, thus reducing the stress on the robot arm. The rotation however was insufficient. Thus, they decided with the next drill attempt to add the drill’s “percussion” capability, where it would not only rotate but also repeatedly pound up and down, the way a standard hammer drill works on Earth.

I suspect that they are proceeding carefully with this because this new technique places stress the operation of the robot arm, something they absolutely do not want to lose. By leaving Vera Rubin Ridge they return to the more delicate and softer materials already explored in the Murray Formation. This is very clear in the photo below, cropped from the original to post here, showing the boulder they have chosen to drill into, dubbed “Duluth,” with the successful drill hole to the right.
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Drilling success for Curiosity

For the first time in more than a year, Curiosity has successfully used its drill to obtain a sample from beneath the surface of Mars.

Curiosity tested percussive drilling this past weekend, penetrating about 2 inches (50 millimeters) into a target called “Duluth.”

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has been testing this drilling technique since a mechanical problem took Curiosity’s drill offline in December of 2016. This technique, called Feed Extended Drilling, keeps the drill’s bit extended out past two stabilizer posts that were originally used to steady the drill against Martian rocks. It lets Curiosity drill using the force of its robotic arm, a little more like the way a human would drill into a wall at home.

I plan to post a rover update either today or tomorrow, with more details about this success. Stay tuned!

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Mars Odyssey looks down at Curiosity

Gale Crater

The Mars Odyssey team today released an image the spacecraft took of Gale Crater on January 16, 2018. This image, reduced in resolution, is posted on the right and captures the entire region that the rover Curiosity has been traversing for the past six years. If you click on the image you can view the full resolution original.

I have placed Curiosity’s full route since its landing on this image so that we can see where the rover has been. The actual peak of Mount Sharp is a considerable distance to the south and is not visible in this image. (For the full context of the crater and Curiosity’s travels see my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater)

The river-like flow feature cutting through the north rim is called Peace Vallis. Scientists think this was formed by water flowing into the crater when the climate of Mars was wetter and there was a lake inside the crater floor.

You can get another perspective of this same view by looking at the panorama looking north that Curiosity took once it climbed up onto Vera Rubin Ridge.

I have said this before, but this Mars Odyssey image once again illustrates how little of Mars we have so far seen. Curiosity has barely begun its climb into the foothills of Mount Sharp. The mile-high mountains that form the rim of Gale Crater are far away, and will not be walked for probably generations. I do not expect any space probe or explorer to enter Peace Vallis for at least a hundred years, since there are so many other places on Mars to visit and Gale Crater has already gotten its first reconnaissance by Curiosity.

The image also gives as a view of Curiosity’s future travels. Based on this October 3, 2016 press release, Curiosity will eventually head into the mouth of the large canyon directly to the south of its present position. Whether the mission will continue up this canyon wash, using it as the route up Mount Sharp, will depend on many things, including the roughness of the terrain in that canyon and the simple question of whether the rover will be able to operate that long.

If it does, the views then from inside that canyon should be quite breathtaking.

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Mars rover update: April 27, 2018

Summary: Curiosity’s exploration of Vera Rubin Ridge is extended, while an attempt by Opportunity to climb back up Perseverance Valley to reach an interesting rock outcrop fails.

For a list of past updates beginning in July 2016, see my February 8, 2018 update.

Curiosity

Curiosity's traverse map, Sol 2030

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Since my March 21, 2018 update, it has become apparent that the Curiosity science team has decided to extend the rover’s research on Vera Rubin Ridge far beyond their original plans. They have continued their travels to the northeast well past the original nominal route off the ridge, as indicated by the dotted red line on the traverse map above. Along the way they stopped to inspect a wide variety of geology, and have now moved to the north and have actually begun descending off the ridge, but in a direction that takes the rover away from Mount Sharp and its original route. As noted in their April 25 update,
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Mars rover update: March 21, 2018

Summary: Curiosity continues its exploration of Vera Rubin Ridge, including several drilling attempts. Opportunity is halfway down Perseverance Valley.

For a complete list of all past updates going back to July 2016, see my February 8, 2018 update.

Curiosity

Curiosity's traverse map, Sol 1993

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Since my February 8, 2018 update, the Curiosity science team has apparently been loath to leave Vera Rubin Ridge. They had begun the trek to the northeast that would take them towards the exit ridge heading to the southeast, as indicated by the dotted red line on the traverse map above, but then continued past that planned route to continue to the northeast. Along the way they attempted to drill twice using an improvised approach that they hoped would bypass the drill’s stuck feed mechanism, without apparent success.

The panorama below is looking to the west and south, as indicated by the yellow lines in the image above.
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Ground too hard for Curiosity’s drill

A second drill attempt by Curiosity, using an improvised drilling technique designed to bypass the failure of the drill’s feed mechanism, once again failed to drill deep enough to obtain a sample.

After two drilling attempts, Curiosity’s drill was not able to dig into the bedrock sufficiently to collect a sample of rock at this location. Curiosity’s engineers are continuing to refine the new drilling method. In the future, this might include adding percussion, which could enable drilling into harder rock.

Either the ground on Vera Rubin Ridge is too hard for Curiosity’s drill, or the new drilling technique does not allow the drill to push with the same force as previously. The update at the link implies the former, but I suspect the latter is a factor as well.

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Curiosity attempts to drill with improvised technique

The Curiosity engineering team has made the first attempt to drill in more than a year, using an improvised technique that has the rover arm push the bit into the ground rather than its presently non-function feed mechanism.

This early test produced a hole about a half-inch (1-centimeter) deep at a target called Lake Orcadie — not enough for a full scientific sample, but enough to validate that the new method works mechanically. This was just the first in what will be a series of tests to determine how well the new drill method can collect samples. If this drill had achieved sufficient depth to collect a sample, the team would have begun testing a new sample delivery process, ultimately delivering to instruments inside the rover.

According to the mission update page, for some reason the drill was unable to penetrate the ground very deeply.

They plan to do more tests, with the goal of eventually getting a hole deep enough to provide good samples.

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Curiosity science team to attempt first drilling in a year

After a year of tests and engineering rethinking, the Curiosity science team has decided to attempt drilling its first hole in more than a year.

From yesterday’s Curiosity mission update:

Because there is only so much data volume and rover power to go around, performing drill activities must temporarily come at the expense of scientific investigations (although you’d be pressed to find a disappointed science team member this week, as the drilling campaign will bring loads of new scientific data!). As a result, with the exception of some environmental observations by the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) instrument, today’s plan does not have any targeted scientific observations within it. Today will instead be dedicated to drill preload activities and imaging for engineering and rover planning purposes in preparation for a full test of the revised drilling operations.

The problem with the drill has been its feed mechanism, the equipment that moves the drill downward into the hole. As designed the robot arm would get planted on the surface to provide stability for the drill, which as it drilled would be pushed downward that that feed mechanism. Last year they found something had clogged that mechanism so that it would not retract properly.

From what I understand, what they have tested and have decided to try instead is to place the drill against the surface in an extended position, and use the arm itself to push the bit downward. The concern is whether the arm can hold the drill steady. They have done some tests and think it can. We shall soon find out.

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Mars rover update: February 8, 2018

Summary: Curiosity remains on Vera Rubin Ridge, though it has begun moving toward the point where it will move down off the ridge. Opportunity remains in Perseverance Valley, though it has finally taken the north fork down.

Before providing today’s update, I have decided it is time to provide links to all previous updates, in chronological order. This will allow my new readers to catch up and have a better understanding of where each rover is, where each is heading, and what fascinating things they have seen in the past year and a half.

These updates began when I decided to figure out the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, which resulted in my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater. Then, when Curiosity started to travel through the fascinating and rough Murray Buttes terrain in the summer of 2016, I stated to post regular updates. To understand the press releases from NASA on the rover’s discoveries it is really necessary to understand the larger picture, which is what these updates provide. Soon, I added Opportunity to the updates, with the larger context of its recent travels along the rim of Endeavour Crater explained in my May 15, 2017 rover update.

Now to talk about the most recent news from both rovers!
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Curiosity takes a panorama that shows its entire journey so far

Cool image time! The Curiosity science team has released a panorama taken in October 2017 that looks north across the floor of Gale Crater and shows the rover’s entire journey since it landed in 2012.

Rather than post the image here, I have posted below the fold a video produced by the science team that pans across the entire panorama, and then shows where Curiosity has traveled in that panorama. Look close, and you will realize how truly little of Mars we have so far explored.
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Mars rover update: January 16, 2018

Summary: Both rovers have moved little in the past month, Opportunity because it is in a good science location and because it must save energy during the winter and Curiosity because it is in a geological location so good the scientists appear to almost be going ga-ga over it.

Curiosity

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For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

In the month since my December 18 update, Curiosity has continued to head south rather than east as originally planned (as indicated by the dotted yellow line in the traverse map to the right). Moreover, the rover has not moved very much, because the science team has decided that there is just too much significant geology in this area on Vera Rubin Ridge, also part of a geological unit they have dubbed the Hematite Unit.

Right now the rover is located at an area they call “Region e,” one of the three patches I have also indicated on the image to the right. From the second update below:

This location is a slight depression with exposed fractured bedrock that appears more “blue” from orbit than the surrounding region. In addition, the orbital evidence and observations from the ground suggest that this location is similar to “Region 10” that we visited just last week, which was shown to have some pretty spectacular small-scale features that were of particular interest to many on the science team. As a result, the team was very excited to reach “Region e” and begin our scientific investigation!

The last few updates on the Curiosity mission update page indicate the excitement the geologists have for this site:
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Curiosity images small tubelike rock features on Vera Rubin Ridge

tubes on Mars

During Curiosity’s extended science observations in the past month on Vera Rubin Ridge the rover has found a number of rocks with strange tubelike features that remind some scientists of fossils. The image on the right, taken by the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) and cropped and reduced to post here, shows some of these weird tubes.

The origin of these odd features — geological or biological processes — is in TBD limbo at the moment. Regarding trace fossils on Mars, “we don’t rule it out,” Vasavada said, “but we certainly won’t jump to that as our first interpretation.”

Close-up looks at these features show them to be angular in multiple dimensions. That could mean that they are related to crystals in the rock, perhaps “crystal molds” that are also found here on Earth, Vasavada added. Crystals in rock that are dissolved away leave crystal molds, he said.

Still, that’s just one of a few possibilities, Vasavada explained. “If we see more of them … then we begin to say that this is an important process that’s going on at Vera Rubin Ridge,” he said.

The article outlines a number of other possible explanations, including fossil remains. None are convincing at this time, based on the limited data. Nor does Curiosity have the equipment to clarify things much.

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A faint seasonal fluctuation of methane on Mars?

The uncertainty of science: Data from Curiosity during its two Martian years on Mars have revealed a faint but distinct seasonal fluctuation in the amount of methane in the local atmosphere, a fluctuation that scientists do not have a good explanation for.

Since landing in 2012, Curiosity has on 30 occasions opened a few valves to the martian night and taken a sniff of the thin, frigid air. In a small, mirrored chamber, it shines a laser through the air sample and measures the absorption at specific wavelengths that indicate methane. At the meeting, Webster reported vanishingly small background levels of the gas: 0.4 parts per billion (ppb), compared with Earth’s 1800 ppb.

Where that whiff comes from is the heart of the mystery. Microbes (including those that live in the guts of cows and sheep) are responsible for most of Earth’s methane, and Mars’s could conceivably come from microbes as well—either contemporary microbes or ancient ones, if the methane they produced was trapped underground. But methane can also be made in ways that have nothing to do with biology. Hydrothermal reactions with olivine-rich rocks underground can generate it, as can reactions driven by ultraviolet (UV) light striking the carbon-containing meteoroids and dust that constantly rain down on the planet from space.

Now, add to the methane puzzle the seasonal variation Curiosity has detected, with levels cycling between about 0.3 ppb and 0.7 ppb over more than two martian years. Some seasonality is expected in an atmosphere that is mostly carbon dioxide (CO2), says François Forget, who models the climate of Mars at the Laboratory of Dynamical Meteorology in Paris. In the southern winter, some of that CO2 freezes out onto the large southern polar cap, making the overall atmosphere thinner. That boosts the concentration of any residual methane, which doesn’t freeze, and by the end of northern summer this methane-enriched air makes its way north to Curiosity’s location, Forget says. Seasonal variations in dust storms and levels of UV light could also affect the abundance of methane, if interplanetary dust is its primary source.

But, Webster said at the meeting, the seasonal signal is some three times larger than those mechanisms could explain. Maybe the methane—whatever its source—is absorbed and released from pores in surface rocks at rates that depend on temperature, he said. Another explanation, “one that no one talks about but is in the back of everyone’s mind,” is biological activity, says Mike Mumma, a planetary scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “You’d expect life to be seasonal.”

They have a lot of theories, from asteroids to alien life, but none really explains this adequately.

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Mars rover update: December 18, 2017

Summary: The scientists and engineers of both Curiosity and Opportunity have route decisions to make.

Curiosity

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For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Since my November 16 update, Curiosity’s travels crossing Vera Rubin Ridge, a geological bedding plain dubbed the Hematite Unit, has continued apace. They however have not been following the route that had been planned beforehand, as shown by the yellow dotted line on the right. Instead, they have headed south, along the red dotted line. For the past week or so they have been doing a variety of research tasks in the same area, analyzing samples taken months before, studying sand deposits, and taking many images of some interesting rock layers.

I also suspect that the lack of movement in the past week is partly because they need to make some route-finding decisions. The planned yellow route shown above appears to be somewhat rough in the full resolution orbital image. While I suspect they will still head in that direction, I also think they are doing some very careful analysis of this route and beyond, to make sure they will not end up in a cul de sac where the rover will not be able to continue its climb of Mount Sharp.

Opportunity

For the context of Opportunity’s recent travels along the rim of Endeavour Crater, see my May 15, 2017 rover update.
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Mars rover update: November 16, 2017

Summary: Curiosity does drill tests, crosses Vera Rubin Ridge. Opportunity finds evidence of either ice or wind scouring on rocks in Perseverance Valley.

Curiosity

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Curiosity looks up Vera Rubin Ridge, Sol 1850

Since my last update on September 6, Curiosity has continued its travels up and across Vera Rubin Ridge, a geological bedding plain dubbed the Hematite Unit. The panorama above, created by reader Phil Veerkamp, shows the view looking up the ridge slope. If you click on it you can see the full resolution image, with lots of interesting geological details.

The panorama below, also created by Veerkamp, shows the view on Sol 1866, two weeks later, as the slope begins to flatten out and the distant foothills of Mount Sharp become visible. (If you click on the image you can see a very slightly reduced version of the full resolution panorama.) This image also shows the next change in geology. From orbit the Hematite Unit darkens suddenly at its higher altitudes, and Curiosity at this point was approaching that transition. The rover is now, on Sol 1876, sitting on that boundary, where they will spend a few days making observations before moving on.

Curiosity on the Hematite Unit, Sol 1866

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The image on the right shows Curiosity’s approximate position, about halfway across the Hematite Unit and with the rover’s approximate future route indicated, as shown in this October 3, 2016 press release.

In the two months since my last rover update the Curiosity engineering team has spent a lot of time imaging and studying the Hematite Unit. They have also spent a considerable amount of time doing new tests on the rover’s drill in an effort to get around its stuck feed mechanism in order to drill again. Only yesterday they took another series of close-up images of the drill in this continuing effort.

As indicated by the October 3 2016 press release, the rover still has a good way to go before it begins entering the distant canyons and large foothills. While they should leave the Hematite Unit and enter the Clay Unit beyond in only a few more months, I expect it will be at least a year before they pass through the Clay Unit and reach the much more spectacular Sulfate Unit, where the rover will explore at least one deep canyon as well as a recurring dark feature on a slope that scientists think might be a water seep.

Opportunity

For the context of Opportunity’s recent travels along the rim of Endeavour Crater, see my May 15, 2017 rover update.
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Engineers develop new technique to resume drill use on Curiosity

Engineers have successfully tested a new drill procedure on a duplicate rover on Earth that bypasses the problem in Curiosity’s drill.

The problem with the drill has been its feed mechanism, which pushes the drill bit downward as it drills its hole. The tests with the duplicate rover on Earth have instead had the drill bit fully extended and used the robot arm itself to push downward. It worked, but the problem on Mars is holding the drill bit perfectly straight and not slipping sideways. They are now doing a test with Curiosity to address this.

Curiosity touched its drill to the ground Oct. 17 for the first time in 10 months. It pressed the drill bit downward, and then applied smaller sideways forces while taking measurements with a force sensor. “This is the first time we’ve ever placed the drill bit directly on a Martian rock without stabilizers,” said JPL’s Douglas Klein, chief engineer for the mission’s return-to-drilling development. “The test is to gain better understanding of how the force/torque sensor on the arm provides information about side forces.”

This sensor gives the arm a sense of touch about how hard it is pressing down or sideways. Avoiding too much side force in drilling into a rock and extracting the bit from the rock is crucial to avoid having the bit get stuck in the rock.

Stay tuned for a Mars rover update, coming shortly!

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Curiosity tops Vera Rubin Ridge

Curiosity's view from on top of Vera Rubin Ridge, sol 1812

The image above is a reduced resolution version of a panorama created by reader Phil Veerkamp of images downloaded today from Curiosity. If you click on the image you can see the full resolution image. It looks to more to the east than the panorama shown in my September 6 rover update, revealing more of the type of surface the rover will have to cross on its drive forward on this new geological layer called the Hematite Unit.

Curiosity has now topped Vera Rubin Ridge, but the plateau above is really not as flat as the image implies. The Hematite Unit that the rover is now traversing still climbs upward, and they will continue to gain altitude now with almost every drive.

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Mars rover update: September 6, 2017

Summary: Curiosity ascends up steepest part of Vera Rubin Ridge, getting just below the ridgetop, while Opportunity inspects its footprint in Perseverance Valley.

Curiosity

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Curiosity panorama, Sol 1807

Curiosity's location, Sol 1802

Since my last update on August 11, Curiosity has been slowly working its way along the base of Vera Rubin Ridge, and up its slope. Today’s update from the science team describes how the rover is now on the steepest part of that slope, which is also just below the ridgetop. The panorama above looks east at the ridge, at the sand-duned foothills in the Murray Formation that Curiosity has been traversing since March 2016, and the crater plains beyond.

The image on the right shows Curiosity’s approximate position, with the point of view of the panorama indicated. The image also shows their planned upcoming route across the Hematite Unit. As they note in their update:

Curiosity now has great, unobstructed views across the lowlands of Gale crater to the rear of the rover. The view is improving as the air becomes clearer heading into the colder seasons. The first image link below shows a Navcam view into the distance past a cliff face just to the left of the rover. The image is tilted due to the to the unusually high 15.5 degree tilt of the rover as it climbs the ridge. Part of Mount Sharp is in the background. The second link shows an image looking ahead, where we see much more rock and less soil. The foreground shows that some of the pebbles are relatively well rounded. The rock face up ahead is smooth, which will mean easier driving.

That report I think is somewhat optimistic.
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Mars rover update: August 11, 2017

Summary: After a two week hiatus because the Sun was between the Earth and Mars and blocking communications, both rovers are once again on the move.

Curiosity

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Curiosity panorama, Sol 1782

Vera Rubin Ridge close-up

Since my last update on July 12,, Curiosity spent most of the month waiting out the solar conjunction that placed the Sun between the Earth and Mars and blocked communications. In the past few days, however, the rover has begun to send down images again while resuming its journey up Mt. Sharp. The panorama above, reduced to show here, was taken by the rover’s left navigation camera, and shows the mountain, the ridge, and the route the rover will take to circle around the steepest sections to get up onto the ridge. To see the full resolution panorama click on the picture.

To the right is a full resolution section of the area in the white box. As you can see, the geology of the ridge is many-layered, with numerous vertical seams or cracks. In order to track the geological changes across these layers as the rover climbs, the science team is as expected taking a systematic approach.

Lately, one of our biggest science objectives is to conduct bedrock APXS measurements with every 5-meter climb in elevation. This allows us to systematically analyze geochemical changes in the Murray formation as we continue to climb Mount Sharp. Yesterday’s drive brought us 6 meters higher in elevation, so another touch and go for today it is!

Below is a cropped and reduced resolution image of the most recent orbital traverse image, dated sol 1754. The dotted line shows where I think the rover’s has traveled in the last 28 sols. I have also annotated what I think is the point of view of the panorama above.
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New images downloaded from Curiosity for the first time in two weeks

For the first time since communications with Mars ceased two weeks ago because the orbits of the Earth and Mars had placed the Sun in between, new images have been downloaded from Curiosity.

For the past two weeks, the last raw images posted had been from sol 1760. Today, the Hazard Avoidance Cameras (Hazcams) added daily images through sol 1774 (taken as per previously uploaded commands). The images all show the same view, the part of Vera Rubin ridge that the rover has been circling around to get to the place where it will be easier to climb up. The science team probably programmed this sequence so that they could look for any changes from wind, over time.

No new images from either Curiosity’s other cameras or from Opportunity have yet appeared, but I expect this to soon change.

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Mars rover update: July 12, 2017

Summary: Curiosity looks at some big dune ripples, then creeps up hill. Opportunity tests its wheels.

Curiosity

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

The interior of a dune ripple

Since my last update on June 23,, Curiosity has worked its way around and, for a few days, even into the small sandy field at the base of Vera Rubin ridge. The scientists noticed that the sandy here had a series of large ripples, and they wanted to take a close look at at least one. The image on the right, cropped to show here, was taken shortly after they had the rover drive through one ripple in order to expose its interior. You can see the robot arm directly above the cut created by the rover’s wheels. On the cut’s wall several distinctly different toned layers are visible. A close look reveals that they are wavy, and probably indicate numerous and repeated overlays as the wind brushes a new layer of dust on top of old layers, time after time. The different tones indicate a change in the material’s composition, which could reveal something about some past events in either Mars’ weather or geology.

In order to decipher this information, however, they will need to be able to date the layers, and figure out when each tonal change happened. I am not sure Curiosity can do this, especially since they have not scooped up any of this dust for later analysis.

They are now approaching Vera Rubin Ridge, and should climb up onto in the coming weeks. At that point they will move off the Murray Formation, where they have been since March 2016, made up of dried and ancient crushed mud, and up onto a lighter, yellowish layer of rock, dubbed the Hematite Unit. This October 3, 2016 press release. gives a good outline of the geology of these regions.
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Improved software uploaded to Curiosity to extend wheel life

Engineers have designed and uploaded new software to Curiosity to better protect and use the rover’s wheels as it travels over rough terrain.

The software, referred to as traction control, adjusts the speed of Curiosity’s wheels depending on the rocks it’s climbing. After 18 months of testing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the software was uploaded to the rover on Mars in March. Mars Science Laboratory’s mission management approved it for use on June 8, after extensive testing at JPL and multiple tests on Mars.

The timing is important, because Curiosity is about to move into terrain that looks far rougher than the ground it has so far traversed.

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Mars rover update: June 23, 2017

Summary: Curiosity continues up hill. Opportunity has wheel problems.

Curiosity

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

The march up Mt Sharp continues. Since my last update on May 15, Curiosity has continued working its way up towards what the science team has named Vera Rubin Ridge, the beginning of a lighter, yellowish layer of rock, dubbed the Hematite Unit, that sits higher up the mountain’s slope. They have been traveling on the Murray Formation now for more than a year, since March, 2016, so entering this new layer of geology is eagerly anticipated by the science team. (This October 3, 2016 press release. gives an overall picture of the geology Curiosity is traversing.)

Reader Phil Veerkamp sent me a beautiful panorama he stitched together from recent Curiosity images of Vera Rubin Ridge, directly to the south of the rover and higher up hill. Below is a reduced resolution version. Be sure you click on it to explore the full resolution image. This is a new type of terrain, significantly different than anything Curiosity has seen up to now. It also appears that the rover will see far less dust, and might be traveling mostly over solid boulders. Below I have cropped out a very small section of the ridge line near the center of the full image, just to illustrate this.
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Cumulative data from Curiosity shows Gale Crater lake stratified

The cumulative data from Curiosity since its arrival on Mars three and a half years ago shows that the lake that once filled Gale Crater lake had had a stratified chemical make-up.

Previous work had revealed the presence of a lake more than three billion years ago in Mars’ Gale Crater. This study defines the chemical conditions that existed in the lake and uses Curiosity’s powerful payload to determine that the lake was stratified. Stratified bodies of water exhibit sharp chemical or physical differences between deep water and shallow water. In Gale’s lake, the shallow water was richer in oxidants than deeper water was.

“These were very different, co-existing environments in the same lake,” said Joel Hurowitz of Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, New York, lead author of a report of the findings in the June 2 edition of the journal Science. “This type of oxidant stratification is a common feature of lakes on Earth, and now we’ve found it on Mars. The diversity of environments in this Martian lake would have provided multiple opportunities for different types of microbes to survive, including those that thrive in oxidant-rich conditions, those that thrive in oxidant-poor conditions, and those that inhabit the interface between those settings.”

While what Hurowitz says above is true, remember that this discovery provides zero evidence of past life on Mars. All it has done is teach us something about the different conditions in the lake at different depths.

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Curiosity data increases time water existed Gale Crater

New research using data from Curiosity has found evidence suggesting that significant water was present in Gale Crater for a very long time.

Lighter-toned bedrock that surrounds fractures and comprises high concentrations of silica — called “halos”— has been found in Gale crater on Mars, indicating that the planet had liquid water much longer than previously believed. The new finding is reported in a new paper published today in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

“The concentration of silica is very high at the centerlines of these halos,” said Jens Frydenvang, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the University of Copenhagen and lead author of the new study. “What we’re seeing is that silica appears to have migrated between very old sedimentary bedrock and into younger overlying rocks. The goal of NASA’s Curiosity rover mission has been to find out if Mars was ever habitable, and it has been very successful in showing that Gale crater once held a lake with water that we would even have been able to drink, but we still don’t know how long this habitable environment endured. What this finding tells us is that, even when the lake eventually evaporated, substantial amounts of groundwater were present for much longer than we previously thought—thus further expanding the window for when life might have existed on Mars.”

The actual paper provides no time frame. What it does state is that for the halos to have formed requires a lot of time, and that during that time a lot of groundwater was required.

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Mars rover update: May 15, 2017

This update could also be entitled, “Up and down into Martian gullies,” as that is what both rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, are presently focused on doing.

Curiosity

Curiosity's position, Sol 1696 (May 12, 2017)

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

In the past month, since my previous April 21, 2017 update, Curiosity has been working its way up the dry wash, frequently stopping to inspect the rocky surface terrain within. As they note,

As we climb up Mount Sharp, recently over slopes of 4-6 degrees, we have seen more varied outcrop structures and chemistries than the rest of the Murray formation, and such changes catch the collective eye of the team.

Only in the last week have they shifted to the east, as planned. Their near term goal is the lighter, yellowish layer of rock, dubbed the Hematite Unit, that sits higher up the slope of Mount Sharp. As they have been traveling on the Murray Formation now for more than a year, since March, 2016, I am certain the science team is even more eager to get to this different layer of geology to find out what it is made of and why it is there.

You can get an overall view of the geology Curiosity is traversing from this October 3, 2016 press release. Below is a version of the traverse map shown at that site that I posted as part of my October 6, 2016 rover update, updated to show Curiosity’s present location. It is apparent that Curiosity is finally moving out of the foothills below Mount Sharp and beginning its climb up the mountain’s actual slopes.
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Curiosity’s last dune investigation

As Curiosity moves closer to the very base of Mount Sharp, it is presently making its last investigation of the various types of dunes found at the foot of the mountain.

From early February to early April, the rover examined four sites near a linear dune for comparison with what it found in late 2015 and early 2016 during its investigation of crescent-shaped dunes. This two-phase campaign is the first close-up study of active dunes anywhere other than Earth.

Among the questions this Martian dune campaign is addressing is how winds shape dunes that are relatively close together, on the same side of the same mountain, into different patterns. Others include whether Martian winds sort grains of sand in ways that affect the distribution of mineral compositions, which would have implications for studies of Martian sandstones. “At these linear dunes, the wind regime is more complicated than at the crescent dunes we studied earlier,” said Mathieu Lapotre of Caltech, in Pasadena, California, who helped lead the Curiosity science team’s planning for the dune campaign. “There seems to be more contribution from the wind coming down the slope of the mountain here compared with the crescent dunes farther north.”

The article also included a vague update on the status of Curiosity’s drill, out of commission since its drill feed mechanism had problems moving the drill up and down back in the fall of 2016.

Engineers are assessing how the use of vibration to deliver samples may affect the drill feed mechanism, which is used to move the drill bit forward and backwards. In addition, high winds at the linear-dunes location were complicating the process of pouring sample material into the entry ports for the laboratory instruments.

“A balky brake appears to be affecting drill feed mechanism performance,” said Curiosity Deputy Project Manager Steven Lee, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “In some cases, vibration has been observed to change feed effectiveness, so we’re proceeding cautiously until we better understand the behavior. In the meantime, the engineering team is developing several methods to improve feed reliability.”

What this release does not say is whether they are any closer to solving the problem, or whether the drill is essentially out of business for the reminder of Curiosity’s life. To me, the silence on this question is deafening, and strongly suggests that they have decided the drill cannot be used, for the foreseeable future.

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Mars rover update: April 21, 2017

Curiosity

Curiosity's position, Sol 1664 (April 10, 2017)

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Since my previous February 14, 2017 update, Curiosity has worked its way through the dunes and has emerged, as planned at the head of what looks like a dry wash flowing down from Mount Sharp. At the time I had predicted that the science team would then have the rover make a beeline to Mount Sharp, following the smoothest route. That prediction is almost certainly wrong. Instead, the scientists are probably going to have the rover zig-zag its way south into the dry wash so that they can study the geology there. This is what they have been doing, as shown on the traverse map to the right, which shows Curiosity’s location through Sol 1664 (April 10). Ideally I expect them to want to check out the flow areas of the central parts of the wash as well as the contact point on either side where the color of the terrain changes from dark to light. This appears to be what they doing now, two weeks later, based on this update posted yesterday.

The 23 m drive on Sol 1673 put Curiosity alongside Murray bedrock blocks that appeared to be capped with a different material, with a darker color and smoother texture relative to the Murray

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