Tag Archives: Curiosity

Mars rover update

It is time for an update on the journeys of Curiosity and Opportunity on Mars!

First, Curiosity. Though the science team has not yet updated the rover’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter traverse map showing its travels, it appears from Curiosity’s most recent navigation camera images that the rover has moved passed the first butte that had been ahead and directly to the south in the traverse map shown in the last image of my post here. The image below the fold, cropped and reduced to show here, looks ahead to the second butte and the gap to the south. Beyond Mt Sharp can be seen rising up on the right, with the upcoming ground open and relatively smooth. The only issue will be the steepness of that terrain. Based on my previous overall look at the rover’s journey, I suspect they will contour to the left.
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The alien buttes of Mars

Weird Mars

The image above is cropped from a panorama created by reader Phil Veerkamp from images taken by Curiosity’s mast camera on August 25, 2016 of the terrain that partly surrounds the rover since it passed the Balanced Rock and traveled beyond Murray Buttes

The full image is too large to post here. However, if you click on the first link above you can either download it and peruse it at your leisure, or view it with your browser. You will definitely want to do so, as it is high resolution and shows a lot of strange and alien geology, including multiple slabs seemingly hanging in space because of the low gravity. (Hint: Be sure to pan all the way to the right!) On the image’s left Mount Sharp can be seen raising in the background. Below the fold I have annotated the most recent Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image of Curiosity’s location to indicate what I think is the area included in this panorama. This MRO image also shows that once Curiosity gets through the narrow gap to the south, the path heading south up the mountain’s slopes will, for awhile at least, be relatively open with few large obstacles. The view will also change, as the rover will be out of the region of buttes.
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Another balanced rock!

A new balanced rock

Cool image time! The image to the right, cropped to show here, was taken by Curiosity’s mast camera this week as it surveys the upcoming terrain so that scientists can choose its route. It shows another balanced rock that is far more unbalanced than the one the rover passed last week.

In reviewing the survey images, I am not exactly sure whether this rock is located along Curiosity’s future route, as I have not been able to locate it in any of the panorama images the rover has taken. If it is in the gap they are aiming for, then we shall soon see some additional close-ups. If not, then we will have to content ourselves with some other views that, when you think about it, are really just as good.

Beyond Murray Buttes

Panorama ahead for Curiosity, Sol 1438

Time for a Curiosity update. Above is a panorama I’ve created from raw images released today from the rover’s left navigation camera of the mesa filled terrain within which Curiosity now sits. Since my last update they have traveled about 200 feet south, moving away from the mesa with the balanced rock

Below the fold is a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image with Curiosity’s path indicated. I have marked the balanced rock with an X, and have indicated with the yellow lines the area covered by the panorama above.

They appear to be aiming due south for the narrow gap between the long ridge-like mesas. This will bring Curiosity out into the open and sloping terrain that can be seen in the distance in the last image of my last update. I suspect they want to get a closer look at those parallel grooves, even if it means the journey will be a little rougher.
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Murray Buttes panorama by Curiosity released

The Curiosity science team has released a full panorama taken by Curiosity of Murray Buttes prior to its journey through them.

The reason I am not posting this new panorama here on Behind the Black is because I had already posted an almost identical panorama more than a week ago, and my assembled panorama used higher resolution images from Curiosity and was not partly obscured by Curiosity itself. Moreover, I provided better context for that panorama, placing it within Curiosity’s overall travels, something NASA in today’s press release fails to do.

So, if you want to see the best cool images from space and see them sooner than everyone else, why bother reading NASA press releases? Read Behind the Black instead! :)

Balanced Rock at last

Balanced rock close-up

My pessimistic prediction that Curiosity’s science team would take the least risky route and thus not pass close to the butte with the balanced rock has fortunately turned out to be very wrong! They have moved Curiosity into the closest gap to get the best views of both the balanced rock as well as the butte behind it. The image on the right, cropped, was taken by the rover’s mast camera as Curiosity entered the gap between the buttes. It shows clearly that balanced rock broke off from the layers above and landed on its side.

The image below the fold shows the same butte after Curiosity had passed the balanced rock (inside red box).
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Curiosity prepares to move on

Route through Murray Buttes

After several days of drilling, the Curiosity science team is preparing to move forward. As one member of the team notes,

After a short drive we’ll acquire images for context and targeting. Overnight, Curiosity will complete a SAM electrical baseline test to monitor instrument health. Based on some of the recent Mastcam images that we’ve acquired…, the view ahead should be quite scenic as we drive through the Murray Buttes!

The image above is a close-up of those Buttes, showing Balanced Rock on the left, taken from one of three raw left navigation images. The image below is a panorama I have created from those navigation images, with an inset box to show the location of the above picture.
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New evidence suggest lake once existed in Gale Crater

Scientists have concluded that mineral veins seen by Curiosity in Gale Crater were created when a lake existed there.

The study suggests that the veins formed as the sediments from the ancient lake were buried, heated to about 50 degrees Celsius and corroded. Professor John Bridges from the University of Leicester Department of Physics and Astronomy said: “The taste of this Martian groundwater would be rather unpleasant, with about 20 times the content of sulphate and sodium than bottled mineral water for instance!”

Heading directly for Balanced Rock

Curiosity's course to Balanced Rock

As I predicted Sunday, the Curiosity science team is aiming the rover directly towards the gap in the mesas, dubbed the Murray Buttes, that also has the balanced rock seen in earlier images.

The image on the right shows the rover’s most recent two traverses, superimposed on a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image. I have cropped it to focus in on the area of most interest.

Based on the rover’s general rate of travel, I would expect them to enter the gap after about two or three more traverses. This means they will be there in about a week, since after each traverse they usually stop and do science and reconnaissance before resuming travel.

Curiosity’s way forward

Panorama with balanced rock

As Curiosity moves up into the foothills of Mount Sharp the terrain is getting increasingly interesting. The image above is a panorama I have created from three Left Navigation Camera images posted here on Sunday evening. It shows what I think will be the general direction mission scientists wish to send Curiosity. (Note that the top of the leftmost mesa is not as flat as shown, as its top was cut off in the original image.)

Below is a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image showing Curiosity’s present position from above. I have annotated it to show the general view as shown in the above image. I have also marked on both the location of the balanced rock first photographed on July 7.
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Route to Balanced Rock

Route to Balanced Rock on Mars

The image above is a panorama I have created from the raw images taken by Curiosity’s left navigation camera today, using this image for the left half and this image for the right half. They show the terrain in front of the rover, including the balanced rock on the horizon, indicated by the arrow.

I have no idea what route the science team plans, but looking at all of the images, as well as their desire to get a closer look at the rock, I suspect they will head up to the left on the smoother ground, aiming almost directly at the balanced rock. I also suspect that they will eventually veer right before getting to the rock, since the rover can’t go over the rough terrain in that area. Stay tuned to find out.

Balanced rock on Mars

Balanced rock on Mars

Cool image time! Prior to going into safe mode Curiosity’s mast camera took a series of images of its surroundings, as is routine as the rover travels. Among those images was the image above, though I have cropped it and reduced its resolution to show here. It reveals a balanced rock on the horizon. It also shows, as do the other survey images, how increasingly rough the terrain is becoming that Curiosity is traveling through.

The Curiosity science team has no intention of getting too close to this rough terrain, but they do hope to get better views of this rock as they continue the rover’s journey uphill.

Curiosity in safe mode

For the first time in three years, Curiosity has entered safe mode.

On July 2, Mars rover Curiosity ceased science operations on the slopes of Mount Sharp after a fail safe was tripped, forcing the nuclear-powered robot into a low-power “safe mode.” According to a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory report, preliminary information communicated by Curiosity suggests an “unexpected mismatch between camera software and data-processing software in the main computer” may have been the culprit and the rover’s automated systems took over, preventing any permanent damage from being caused.

They are in communications with the rover, and expect a full recovery.

Curiosity heads south

After four years of southwest travel to skirt a large dune field at the base of Mount Sharp, Curiosity has finally turned due south to aim directly up the mountain.

“Now that we’ve skirted our way around the dunes and crossed the plateau, we’ve turned south to climb the mountain head-on,” said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “Since landing, we’ve been aiming for this gap in the terrain and this left turn. It’s a great moment for the mission.”

Curiosity’s wheels handling rough terrain

Good news: The Curiosity engineering team has found that the rough and fractured rocky terrain the rover has been recently traveling across on Naukluft Plateau has not significantly increased the wear & tear on the rover’s wheels.

The rover team closely monitors wear and tear on Curiosity’s six wheels. “We carefully inspect and trend the condition of the wheels,” said Steve Lee, Curiosity’s deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “Cracks and punctures have been gradually accumulating at the pace we anticipated, based on testing we performed at JPL. Given our longevity projections, I am confident these wheels will get us to the destinations on Mount Sharp that have been in our plans since before landing.”

Inspection of the wheels after crossing most of the Naukluft Plateau has indicated that, while the terrain presented challenges for navigation, driving across it did not accelerate damage to the wheels.

Curiosity drills again

The Curiosity science team has paused the rover’s journey up Mt Sharp in order to drill another hole, this time on the fractured rock covering the surface of Naukluft plateau.

The drill effort was a success, and they are now gathering data from the hole and the material from it. At the same time, the drilling process drained the rover’s batteries, which means they are now taking a break from science to let them recharge.

Curiosity reaches Naukluft Plateau

The view from Naukluft

Apropos to my post yesterday on Curiosity’s journey on Mars, the rover this week reached the flat area the science team has dubbed Naukluff Plateau.

The Sol 1281 drive completed as planned, crossing the Murray/Stimson contact at the edge of the Naukluft plateau. Now that we have a better view of the plateau, we are ready to start driving across it. But first, ChemCam and Mastcam will observe targets “Orupembe” and “Witvlei” on the bedrock in front of the rover. Mastcam will also take pictures of the rocks in front of the rover and targets “Natab East” and “Natab West” on either side of the vehicle before the Sol 1282 drive. After the drive, in addition to the usual post-drive imaging, the Left Mastcam will acquire a full 360-degree panorama, as the view from the new location (near the left edge of the image above) is expected to be good. We are looking forward to seeing the new data!

The second link above leads to the rover’s daily update site. It was here that the science team reported an issue with the rover’s scoop back in early February. Since then, however, they have never revealed if the problem was solved. Nor have they used the scoop in any way since then. I now wonder if it is no longer operational and am considering pursuing that question a bit to find out.

Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater

Curiosity's traverse

The Curiosity science team recently released a new Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image, showing Curiosity’s overall route since its landing on Mars in August 2012. I have posted a reduced version on the right.

Similarly, on the Curiosity website you can view this more detailed map of its traverse route. This map is updated regularly as Curiosity continues its climb up Mount Sharp.

Neither of these maps is to me very satisfying or useful, however. Neither shows the overall location of Curiosity within Gale Crater. Nor do they give one a sense of how far it is has come on its climb up the mountain. In fact, it is very unclear how close the rover actually is to the peak from either image.

Thus, I decided to do a little research to get some better context of Curiosity’s position and its overall journey.
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Getting higher on Mount Sharp

Looking across Gale Crater

Cool image time! The above image, cropped and reduced slightly for presentation here, was taken by one of Curiosity’s navigation cameras on March 2. Though the science team has not captioned it, I think it is looking down from the heights that Curiosity has climbed and across the plains of Gale Crater to its rim in the far distance. The image itself appears to have been taken after the rover spent several days climbing up to what they have dubbed Naukluft Plateau.

Be sure to check out the full resolution image that can be found here.

Curiosity moves on, scoop still not working

Curiosity’s science team has finished its work at Namib Dune and has decided to move on, even though they are still analyzing an unspecified issue with the rover’s scoop instrument.

So far, in the week since they first had a problem while sifting sand from the dune, they have not described in any way what the problem is. All they have said is this:

Unfortunately, the CHIMRA behaved in an unexpected way during processing of the third scoop on Sol 1231, which prevented completion of the arm activities planned for last weekend.

The robot arm functions, and they used it yesterday to get some extreme close-ups of the sand, but it appears they cannot use the scoop at this time.

An issue with Curiosity’s scoop

The unit at the end of Curiosity’s robot arm that scoops up sand and processes it through sieves experienced “an anomaly” on January 25, causing a halt in arm operations.

The instrument has been scooping up sand from the sand dune that the rover has been studying recently. So far there has been no details at all about the “anomaly”, so it is unclear how serious the problem is. In the meantime the rover has been using its cameras and other instruments to do other observations.

Curiosity arrives at Martian dune

Close-up of Martian dune

Curiosity has arrived at the first Martian dune ever observed up close and has begun its investigation.

The image above is a cropped version of a close up image showing the sand ripples on the surface of the dune. The press release also includes an amazing very very very close-up image of the pock-marked grain-covered surface. [link fixed]

Curiosity heads for the dunes

Bagnold Dunes

The Curiosity science team has decided to send the rover towards some large active dunes, visible in its journey ahead up Mt. Sharp.

On its way to higher layers of the mountain where it is investigating how Mars’ environment changed billions of years ago, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover will take advantage of a chance to study some modern Martian activity at mobile sand dunes.

In the next few days, the rover will get its first close-up look at these dark dunes, called the “Bagnold Dunes,” which skirt the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. No Mars rover has previously visited a sand dune, as opposed to smaller sand ripples or drifts. One dune Curiosity will investigate is as tall as a two-story building and as broad as a football field. The Bagnold Dunes are active: Images from orbit indicate some of them are migrating as much as about 3 feet (1 meter) per Earth year. No active dunes have been visited anywhere in the solar system besides Earth.

In the image on the right the target dune is in the center beyond the dark ridge line in the foreground. It looks kind of like a pointed mesa. the dark sandy area on the center right just below the dark ridge line in the center of the image. (Newer images released today gave me a more correct idea of the dunes as shown in this image.) Click here to see the full image. The rover is presently about 200 yards from the first dune, and should reach it in the next few days.

More confirmation from Curiosity of past lakes in Gale Crater

New data from Curiosity has now provided further confirmation that the deeper sedimentary layers seen in Gale Crater were likely formed far in the past by flowing water.

“Paradoxically, where there is a mountain today there was once a basin, and it was sometimes filled with water,” said John Grotzinger, the former project scientist for Mars Science Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and lead author of the new report. “We see evidence of about 250 feet (75 meters) of sedimentary fill, and based on mapping data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and images from Curiosity’s camera, it appears that the water-transported sedimentary deposition could have extended at least 500 to 650 feet (150 to 200) meters above the crater floor.”

Furthermore, the total thickness of sedimentary deposits in Gale Crater that indicate interaction with water could extend higher still, perhaps up to one-half mile (800 meters) above the crater floor.

Above 800 meters, Mount Sharp shows no evidence of hydrated strata, and that is the bulk of what forms Mount Sharp. Grotzinger suggests that perhaps this later segment of the crater’s history may have been dominated by dry, wind-driven deposits, as was once imagined for the lower part explored by Curiosity.

This was always the reason to go and climb Mount Sharp. As Curiosity heads uphill it begins to map out the geological history of Mars, first as a wet place with liquid water, then as a dry place in which the water is gone.

Curiosity’s future path

Looking up Mt Sharp

Cool image time! The Curiosity science team has produced another panorama of Mount Sharp and the regions that the rover will soon traverse.

This composite image looking toward the higher regions of Mount Sharp was taken on September 9, 2015, by NASA’s Curiosity rover. In the foreground — about 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the rover — is a long ridge teeming with hematite, an iron oxide. Just beyond is an undulating plain rich in clay minerals. And just beyond that are a multitude of rounded buttes, all high in sulfate minerals. The changing mineralogy in these layers of Mount Sharp suggests a changing environment in early Mars, though all involve exposure to water billions of years ago. The Curiosity team hopes to be able to explore these diverse areas in the months and years ahead. Further back in the image are striking, light-toned cliffs in rock that may have formed in drier times and now is heavily eroded by winds.

They have adjusted the colors, adding blue, so that things look as they would on Earth, in order to help the geologists understand what they are looking at.

Be sure and click on the link. The full resolution image is quite amazing. Like mountains on Earth, from a distance things look a lot simpler than they do once you get there. The slopes of Mount Sharp are complex and rugged, and will be a big challenge for Curiosity to traverse.

Moreover, this rough terrain illustrates that the Martian surface has, like Earth, been significantly shaped by erosion. The surface we see here is not the surface produced by the impact that produced the crater. It has been reshaped and eroded over many eons by many later processes, including wind and water.

Curiosity spots a spoon on Mars!

The spoon on Mars

Very cool image time! In one of Curiosity’s recent images of the Martian surface on the slopes of Mount Sharp appears what looks like a long thin spoon jutting horizontally out of the ground.

The shadow below the feature is strong evidence that that this almost certainly a real object, shaped exactly as we see it. However, it is not an artificially created spoon. If you look at both the full raw image as well as zoom in on the feature itself, you will see that it is something that formed naturally due to Mars’ low gravity and the geology here. The spoon is a thin prong of harder material that has remained intact as the ground below it has been slowly eroded away by the ever-present but very weak Martian wind. If you look close you can see that harder material extend back into the rock behind the spoon.

Some of that erosion might also have been caused by flowing water sometime in the past, but to confirm this will take additional geological research.

Scientists narrow the next Mars rover candidate landing sites to 8

Jezero Crater

For the next Mars rover, scheduled to launch in 2020, scientists have now narrowed their candidate landing sites to eight, with Jezero Crater (pictured on the right) the favorite choice.

The top vote getter was Jezero crater, which contains a relic river delta that could have concentrated and preserved organic molecules. “The appeal is twofold,” says Bethany Ehlmann, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. “Not only is there a delta, but the rocks upstream are varied and diverse.”

The image clearly shows the scientific attraction of Jezero Crater, with an obvious meandering river canyon opening out into an obvious river delta. The crater in the delta will also give them an opportunity to do some dating research, since that crater had to have been put there after the delta was formed.

The choice however illustrates the difference in goals between scientists and future colonists. Scientists are looking for the most interesting locations for understanding the geological history of Mars. Future colonists want to find the best places to establish a home. Jezero Crater, as well as the other eight candidate sites, do not necessarily fit that settlement need. For a colonist it might be better to put a rover down on the flanks of Arsia Mons, one of Mars’ giant craters where scientists have evidence of both water-ice and caves. None of the candidate sites, however, are aimed anywhere close to this volcanic region, because scientifically it is not as interesting.

This is not to say that the candidate sites might not be good settlement sites. It is only to note that the focus of these scientists is research only. Furthermore, it is probably premature anyway to look for settlement sites. We need to know more about Mars itself.

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