Tag Archives: Curiosity

Help scientists plan Curiosity’s future travels

The Curiosity science team is asking the help of ordinary citizens in improving the software it uses to plan Curiosity’s future travels.

Using the online tool AI4Mars to label terrain features in pictures downloaded from the Red Planet, you can train an artificial intelligence algorithm to automatically read the landscape.

Is that a big rock to the left? Could it be sand? Or maybe it’s nice, flat bedrock. AI4Mars, which is hosted on the citizen science website Zooniverse, lets you draw boundaries around terrain and choose one of four labels. Those labels are key to sharpening the Martian terrain-classification algorithm called SPOC (Soil Property and Object Classification).

The goal is not to have citizens plan the rover’s route, but to use their judgments to refine the software that the scientists and engineers use to plan the route. This refinement will also be applicable to Perseverance when it gets to Jezero Crater in February 2021.

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Rover update: The state of Curiosity’s wheels

[For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater. For the updates in 2018 go here. For a full list of updates before February 8, 2018, go here.]

In my last rover update (April 16, 2020), I posted some new images taken of Curiosity’s wheels, showing the damage that they have experienced during the rover’s journey so far in Gale Crater.

At the time, I was unable to match any of the released images, taken on Sol 2732 (April 13, 2020), with the previous wheel image I have used to quickly gauge any new damage (see my July 9, 2019 report).

As it turns out, one of those images did match the earlier image. I simply failed to realize it. Today’s daily download of raw images from Curiosity included additional photos of the rover’s wheels, apparently also taken on Sol 2732 but not available until now. One of those images matches the earlier wheel image, and this time I spotted the match. A comparison is posted below, with my analysis.
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Curiosity and other Mars orbiters threatened by budget cuts

The proposed budget for NASA in the Trump administrations 2021 budget request to Congress includes significant budget cuts to both Curiosity and several Mars orbiters needed to act as relay communications satellites.

The White House’s 2021 federal budget request allocates just $40 million to the mission, a decrease of 20% from the rover’s current funding. And that current funding is 13% less than Curiosity got in the previous year, said Curiosity project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

If the 2021 request is passed by Congress as-is, Curiosity’s operations would have to be scaled back considerably. Running the mission with just $40 million in 2021 would leave unused about 40% of the science team’s capability and 40% of the rover’s power output, which comes from a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), Vasavada said.

In addition, the proposed budget will require a 50% reduction in imaging by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the end to the Mars Odyssey orbiter, and a significant but unspecified reduction in the use of the MAVEN orbiter.

I reported these facts back in March but there is no harm in noting them again.

The question is not whether there should be cuts at NASA. Considering the overall federal debt and annual budget deficit, NASA’s budget should be cut. The question is what to cut. The planetary program, probably NASA’s most successful program, is certainly not the program to cut. Instead, the Trump administration should be cutting the waste and badly run programs, like SLS, that spend billions and accomplish nothing.

If Congress and Trump did this, they could cut NASA’s total budget and still have plenty left over for the commercial manned program — including going to the Moon — and also increase the budget to the planetary program. I’ve been saying this since 2011, and nothing has happened in the past decade to change that conclusion.

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Rover update: Curiosity heads downhill

Curiosity's last look across the Greenheugh Pedimont
Click for higher resolution.

[For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater. For the updates in 2018 go here. For a full list of updates before February 8, 2018, go here.]

After finally reaching the top of the Greenheugh Pedimont (see both the March 4 and March 8, 2020 rover updates) and spending more than a month there, drilling one hole, getting samples, and taking a lot of photos, the Curiosity science team in the past week has finally sent the rover retreating back downhill, following the same route it used to climb uphill.

The panorama above was taken on April 10, 2020, and shows the last view looking south across that pedimont towards Mount Sharp, before that descent. As you can see, trying to traverse that terrain would have been very difficult, and probably very damaging to Curiosity’s wheels.
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NASA considering shutting down Curiosity in 2021

Even as the space agency is about to launch a new rover to Mars, it is considering cutting operations for the rover Curiosity as well as considering shutting down its operation as soon as 2021.

Other ongoing missions are threatened by the administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal. “The FY21 budget that the president just recently submitted overall is extremely favorable for the Mars program, but available funding for extended mission longevity is limited,” [said Jim Watzin, director of NASA’s Mars exploration program].

That request would effectively end operations of the Mars Odyssey orbiter, launched in 2001, and reduce the budget for Curiosity from $51.1 million in 2019 to $40 million in 2021, with no funding projected for that rover mission beyond 2021.

The penny-wise-pound-foolish nature of such a decision is breath-taking. Rather than continue, for relatively little cost, running a rover already in place on Mars, the agency will shut it down. And why? So they can initiate other Mars missions costing millions several times more money.

Some of the proposed cuts, such as ending the U.S. funding for Europe’s Mars Express orbiter, make sense. That orbiter has accomplished relatively little, and Europe should be paying for it anyway.

These decisions were announced during a live-stream NASA townhall that was originally to have occurred live at the cancelled Lunar & Planetary Science conference. I suspect its real goal is to garner support for more funding so that the agency will not only get funds for the new missions, it will be able to fund the functioning old ones as well.

Sadly, there would be plenty of money for NASA’s well-run planetary program if our Congress and NASA would stop wasting money on failed projects like Artemis.

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Curiosity reaches highest point yet on Mars

Curiosity looking north across Gale Crater
Click for full resolution version.

Time for some more cool images! The panorama above, cropped and reduced to post here, was assembled from images taken by Curiosity on March 6, 2020 by its left navigation camera, just after it topped the slope and settled on the very rocky plateau of what the scientists have dubbed the Greenheugh Piedmont, the highest point on Mars that Curiosity has so far traveled. It looks north, across Gale Crater to its far rim, about thirty miles away. That rim rises about a mile higher than where Curiosity sits today.

To quote Michelle Minitti, the planetary geologist who wrote the update describing this achievement:

Kudos to our rover drivers for making it up the steep, sandy slope below the “Greenheugh pediment” (visible in the [right] side of the above image) and delivering us to a stretch of geology we had our eyes on even before we landed in Gale crater!

The panorama below is also assembled from photos taken by the left navigation camera, but this time it looks south, across the piedmont toward Mt. Sharp. Its view of the the piedmont’s very very rough terrain I think proves that once the scientists have gathered their data from this point, the rover will descend back down and resume its original route, circling the piedmont to skirt its southern edge where orbital data suggests the going will be smoother.
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Mars rover Update: March 4, 2020

Panorama looking south and uphill
Click for full resolution.

Curiosity

[For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

For the updates in 2018 go here. For a full list of updates before February 8, 2018, go here.]

Map of Curiosity's travels

Since my last rover update on January 13, 2020, Curiosity has finally moved on from the base of Western butte, where it spent more than a month drilling a hole and gathering a great deal of geological data. Rather than head downhill and around the plateau and back to its planned route (as indicated by the red line in the map to the right), the Curiosity science team decided to push upward and onto the Greenheugh Piedmont (as indicated by the yellow line).

They had always planned to reach the top of this plateau, but not for several years. First they were going to head east to study a recurring slope lineae (see my October 2019 update), an example of a dark streak that darkens and fades seasonally and could provide evidence of water seepage from below ground.

Instead, they decided the close proximity of the top of the piedmont and its geology was too tempting. The piedmont is apparently made up of a layer that is very structurally weak, and breaks up easily, as you can see by the panorama above. It also appears to sit on softer, more easily eroded material, which thus accentuates this break up. If you look at the left part of the panorama you can see what I mean. The piedmont layer there is the thin unbroken layer sitting on what looks like sand. As that sand erodes away the layer quickly breaks into small pieces, as shown in the rest of panorama.

Traveling on the piedmont will likely be difficult and threaten Curiosity’s wheels. I suspect this reality prompted them to choose to get to the top and obtain data now, rather than wait several more years of rough travel that might have made access to the piedmont difficult if not impossible.

They presently sit just below the top, and are studying their options before making that last push.
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Curiosity climbs a hill

Overview map of Curiosity's journey through sol 2643

[For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

For the updates in 2018 go here. For a full list of updates before February 8, 2018, go here.]

Since my last Curiosity update on November 6, 2019, the science team has sent the rover climbing up what they call Western Butte, the butte directly to the west of Central Butte and part of the slope/escarpment that separates the clay unit from the Greenheugh Piedmont and the sulfate unit above that.

The overview map to the right gives a sense of the journey. The thick yellow line indicates its route since it climbed up from the Murray Formation onto Vera Rubin Ridge in 2017. The thick red line indicates their planned route, which they have only vaguely been following since their arrival in the clay unit.

Below the fold are two panoramas that I created from a sequence of images taken by Curiosity’s left navigation camera from the high point on Western Butte, the first looking north across the crater floor to the Gale Crater rim approximately 30 miles away and indicated by the thin yellow lines on the overview map. The second looks south, up hill towards Mount Sharp, and is indicate by the thin red lines.
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How the Mars2020 rover differs from Curiosity

A JPL press release today outlines some of the main engineering differences between Curiosity, the rover that has been exploring Gale Crater for the past fifteen years, and Mars2020, the unnamed rover that will be launched in July 2020 to explore Jezero Crater

One of the major the engineering improvements, based on what was learned with Curiosity, are the Mars2020 wheels:

Curiosity has prepared Mars 2020’s team for “off-roading” on the Red Planet. When holes began appearing in the veteran rover’s aluminum wheels, engineers realized that sharp rocks cemented on the Martian surface exert more pressure on the wheels than expected. Careful drive planning, along with a software upgrade, will keep them in shape for the rest of Curiosity’s journey up Mount Sharp.

While Mars 2020’s wheels are made from the same materials, they’re slightly bigger and narrower, with skins that are almost a millimeter thicker. Instead of Curiosity’s chevron-pattern treads, or grousers, Mars 2020 has straighter ones and twice as many per wheel (48 versus 24). Extensive testing in JPL’s Mars Yard has shown these treads better withstand the pressure from sharp rocks but work just as well on sand.

The computer and software has also been upgraded to speed daily operations. In addition, the new rover will have 23 cameras, six more than Curiosity, all of which will be capable of producing color images. And most important, the drill will be larger and will drill cores for obtaining samples that will be stored for possible return by a later mission.

The landing is set for February 18, 2021. If all goes well this rover will be exploring the Martian surface well in to the 2030s.

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Both methane and oxygen fluctuate in unison seasonally in Gale Crater

The uncertainty of science: According to a new science paper, data from Curiosity on Mars has now found that both methane and oxygen fluctuate in unison seasonally in Gale Crater.

From the paper’s abstract:

[T]he annual average composition in Gale Crater was measured as 95.1% carbon dioxide, 2.59% nitrogen, 1.94% argon, 0.161% oxygen, and 0.058% carbon monoxide. However, the abundances of some of these gases were observed to vary up to 40% throughout the year due to the seasonal cycle. Nitrogen and argon follow the pressure changes, but with a delay, indicating that transport of the atmosphere from pole to pole occurs on faster timescales than mixing of the components. Oxygen has been observed to show significant seasonal and year‐to‐year variability, suggesting an unknown atmospheric or surface process at work. These data can be used to better understand how the surface and atmosphere interact as we search for signs of habitability.

The data shows that the unexpected and so far unexplained seasonal oxygen fluctuation appears to track the same seasonal methane fluctuations. While biology could cause this signature, so could geological processes, though neither can produce these fluctuations easily.

Meanwhile, adding to the uncertainty were results from the two European orbiters, Mars Express and Trace Gas Orbiter. Both have failed to detect a June 19, 2019 dramatic spike in methane that had been measured by Curiosity.

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Sightseeing Central Butte on Mars

Central Butte in foothills of Mt Sharp

Overview showing perspective of panorama

Curiosity has now roved to the very foot of Central Butte, where it has been taking close-up and panorama images of the butte and its geological layers. The panorama above was created from three Curiosity navigation images taken on Sol 2577 (November 6, 2019), here, here, and here.

The overview on the right, based on Curiosity’s position about ten sols ago slightly farther from the butte, still indicates roughly with the yellow lines the area photographed in this panorama. The dotted red line indicates Curiosity’s initial planned route.

Following that route Curiosity will eventually climb up onto the plateau beyond this butte, approaching that higher terrain farther to the west. Once they do, however, they will no longer have access to the geological layers below the surface. Central Butte gives them a window into those layers, which is why they are going to spend some time at this location, first by taking a few sols looking at the butte at this point, then circling around to study its back side.

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Rover update: October 28, 2019

Summary: Curiosity finally on the move after several months drilling two adjacent holes in the clay unit. Yutu-2 continues roving west, has it now operates during its eleventh lunar day on the far side of the Moon.

For the updates in 2018 go here. For a full list of updates before February 8, 2018, go here.

Curiosity's present location in Gale Crater
Click for original full image.

Curiosity

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

I have not done any of my regular rover updates since May 30, 2019 because it was simpler to do individual updates for both Curiosity and Yutu-2, the only working rovers presently on other worlds. (If things had gone well, which they did not, we would have had two other lunar rovers in the past six months, one from Israel and one from India, but both crashed during landing.)

However, since Curiosity is finally on the move after spending several months at one location, where it drilled two holes in the clay unit (the material from one used in a wet cup experiment to look for organic life) it is time to update my readers on where Curiosity is and where it is heading.

The first image above and to the right is an annotated overview of Curiosity’s present position, moving south to a line of buttes which scientists have determined delineates the transition from the clay unit to a new geological layer they have dubbed the Greenheugh Pedimont. The yellow lines indicate the area seen in the panorama below, created from two photographs (here and here) taken by the rover’s navigation camera.
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Curiosity takes selfie next to two of its most important drill holes

Curiosity and its most recent drill holes
Click for full image.

The Curiosity science team today released a beautiful mosaic of the rover, stitched from 57 different images. The photo at the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is the annotated version of that image. It shows the rover’s two most recent drill holes to the left. As the view looks away from Mount Sharp, you can see in the distance Vera Rubin Ridge, the floor of the crater, and its rim on the far horizon.

The two drill holes are significant because of the chemical experiment that Curiosity is subjecting the material from those holes.

The special chemistry experiment occurred on Sept. 24, 2019, after the rover placed the powderized sample from Glen Etive 2 into SAM. The portable lab contains 74 small cups used for testing samples. Most of the cups function as miniature ovens that heat the samples; SAM then “sniffs” the gases that bake off, looking for chemicals that hold clues about the Martian environment billions of years ago, when the planet was friendlier to microbial life.

But nine of SAM’s 74 cups are filled with solvents the rover can use for special “wet chemistry” experiments. These chemicals make it easier for SAM to detect certain carbon-based molecules important to the formation of life, called organic compounds.

Because there’s a limited number of wet-chemistry cups, the science team has been saving them for just the right conditions. In fact, the experiment at Glen Etive is only the second time Curiosity has performed wet chemistry since touching down on Mars in August 2012.

This time however was the first time they had used a wet chemistry cup on material from a drill hole. That they were able to do this at all is a testament to the brilliant innovative skills of the rover’s engineers. They had been holding off doing a wet chemistry analysis from drill hole material until they got to this point, but on the way the rover’s drill feed mechanism failed. It took more than a year of tests and experimentation before they figured out a way to bypass the feed mechanism by using the arm itself to push the drill bit into the ground. That rescue made possible the wet chemistry experiment that they initiated on September 24.

The results, which are eagerly awaited, won’t be available until next year, as it will take time for the scientists to analyze and publish their results.

Curiosity meanwhile has moved on, leaving this location where it had remained for several months to march in the past week southward back towards its long planned route up Mount Sharp.

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The drying out of Mars

Edge of wash
The Murray formation as seen in 2017

A new paper based on data gathered by the rover Curiosity in 2017 when it was lower on the slopes of Mount Sharp, as well as data obtained more recently at higher elevations, has confirmed that the past Martian environment of Gale Crater was wetter, and that deeper lakes formed lower down, as one would expect.

In 2017 Curiosity was traveling through a geological layer dubbed the Murray formation. It has since climbed upward through the hematite formation forming a ridge the scientists dubbed Vera Rubin Ridge to reach the clay formation, where the rover presently sits. Above it lies the sulfate-bearing unit, where the terrain begins to be get steeper with many very dramatic geological formations.

Looking across the entirety of Curiosity’s journey, which began in 2012, the science team sees a cycle of wet to dry across long timescales on Mars. “As we climb Mount Sharp, we see an overall trend from a wet landscape to a drier one,” said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. JPL leads the Mars Science Laboratory mission that Curiosity is a part of. “But that trend didn’t necessarily occur in a linear fashion. More likely, it was messy, including drier periods, like what we’re seeing at Sutton Island, followed by wetter periods, like what we’re seeing in the ‘clay-bearing unit’ that Curiosity is exploring today.”

Up until now, the rover has encountered lots of flat sediment layers that had been gently deposited at the bottom of a lake [the Murray Formation]. Team member Chris Fedo, who specializes in the study of sedimentary layers at the University of Tennessee, noted that Curiosity is currently running across large rock structures [Vera Rubin Ridge and the clay formation] that could have formed only in a higher-energy environment such as a windswept area or flowing streams.

Wind or flowing water piles sediment into layers that gradually incline. When they harden into rock, they become large structures similar to “Teal Ridge,” which Curiosity investigated this past summer [in the clay formation]. “Finding inclined layers represents a major change, where the landscape isn’t completely underwater anymore,” said Fedo. “We may have left the era of deep lakes behind.”

Curiosity has already spied more inclined layers in the distant sulfate-bearing unit. The science team plans to drive there in the next couple years and investigate its many rock structures. If they formed in drier conditions that persisted for a long period, that might mean that the clay-bearing unit represents an in-between stage – a gateway to a different era in Gale Crater’s watery history.

None of these results are really surprising. You would expect lakes in the flatter lower elevations and high-energy streams and flows in the steeper higher elevations. Confirming this geology however is a big deal, especially because they are beginning to map out in detail the nature of these geological processes on Mars, an alien world with a different make-up and gravity from Earth.

Below the fold is the Curiosity science teams overall map, released in May 2019, showing the rover’s future route up to that sulfate unit, with additional annotations by me and reduced to post here.
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Curiosity to use first of nine “wet chemistry cups”

two drill holes in clay layer
Click for full image.

The Curiosity science team has decided to use the first of its nine “wet chemistry cups” to test a recently obtained Martian drill sample for organic material.

Searching for organic molecules in rocks on Mars is no easy task. Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument is designed to analyze the chemical composition of gases, which it creates by slowly heating rock samples in an oven. The volatile gases that are driven off the heated rock sample get sent to SAM’s gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer (GCMS), which can identify the different gaseous compounds. However, organic molecules are tough to detect with this technique, because instead of transforming straight into gases when heated, they can decompose into simpler molecules.

But if organic molecules are “derivatized” before they’re heated – meaning that they react with other chemicals first in order to become more volatile – then the compounds are more likely to enter the GCMS without breaking down, and SAM has a better chance of detecting them. This derivatization process uses solvents of chemicals, so we call it a “wet chemistry” experiment. Curiosity only has nine cups containing these solvents, so we are careful to save our wet chemistry experiments for only the most interesting rock samples.

The “Glen Etive” site, which we have been studying for the past month, is enticing enough for this special experiment!

They are performing this operation today. This is a big deal, because they only have nine of these cups. They have been saving them for the right time, and when the drill had problems two years ago and looked for awhile like it would never work again, they were horrified at the possibility they would never get to use them at all. While I would not be surprised if NASA issues a press release today touting this decision, do not expect any announcement of results for quite awhile, as I suspect the scientists in charge will want to publish their paper on the subject first.

This location, in the clay unit in the foothills of Mount Sharp, is a spot where they have drilled twice, as shown by the two drill holes visible near the center of the the picture above.

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Communications restored with Curiosity

The most recent Curiosity drill hole
Click for full resolution image.

With Mars moving out from behind the Sun yesterday, the Curiosity science team has successfully reestablished communications with the rover.

The focus of Curiosity’s activities since returning to operations after conjunction, now that Mars has safely moved out from behind the sun, is to finish up the analyses associated with the drilling campaign at “Glen Etive 1.”

The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was among the first images downloaded from the rover once communications were reestablished. It was taken by a camera at the end of the robot arm that the scientists had positioned above the hole in order to get a close-up.

Before continuing up the mountain they now plan a second drill hole close-by, to better constrain the data at this location obtained from this first hole.

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Curiosity’s future travels

Curiosity's planned route up Mt Sharp
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The Curiosity science team has released a new map showing an update of their planned route for Curiosity in the coming year or so, showing how they plan on leaving Gediz Vallis Channel after spending some time exploring the numerous geological layers exposed on its eroded surface.

The new information in this map is the route near the bottom of the image, showing more precisely the route up the canyon and then their retreat through the gap in the canyon’s western wall.

To get a better idea of what this means, I have updated my annotations on this Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image of Gediz Vallis Channel, posted previously in my May 30, 2019 rover update.
» Read more

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Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image of Curiosity

Curiosity as seen from orbit

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) science team today released an image taken on May 31, 2019 by the orbiter’s HiRISE high resolution camera of Curiosity when it was nestled against the cliff at the bottom of Vera Rubin Ridge.

The image above is that enhanced color image, reduced and annotated to post here. I have added the track of Curiosity’s route down from Vera Rubin Ridge leading up to the point where this picture was snapped.

In the image, Curiosity appears as a bluish speck. Vera Rubin Ridge cuts across the scene north of the rover, while a dark patch of sand lies to the northeast.

Look carefully at the inset image, and you can make out what it is likely Curiosity’s “head,” technically known as the remote sensing mast. A bright spot appears in the upper-left corner of the rover. At the time this image was acquired, the rover was facing 65 degrees counterclockwise from north, which would put the mast in about the right location to produce this bright spot.

Mirror-like reflections off smooth surfaces show up as especially bright spots in HiRISE images. For the camera to see these reflections on the rover, the Sun and MRO need to be in just the right locations. This enhanced-color image of Curiosity shows three or four distinct bright spots that are likely such reflections.

From this location Curiosity first continued along the cliff’s base to study that dark patch of sand to the northeast, then it turned almost due south in order to get back to its nominal route into Gediz Valles canyon, as shown in my May 30, 2019 rover update.

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Wheel update on Curiosity

Periodically, the Curiosity science team stops from its research to reassess the condition of the rover’s wheels. To do this they use the rover’s color camera, dubbed the Mast Camera (Mastcam), taking close-up pictures of the wheels to compare those with earlier photographs see if there has been any additional damage and deterioration over time.

Yesterday Mastcam took a new series of images of the rover’s wheels. Below are two pictures, the left taken on August 27, 2017, the right taken on July 7, 2019. I have annotated the images to help indicate where they match.
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Spike in methane detection in Gale Crater

The uncertainty of science: In the past week Curiosity has suddenly discovered a spike, the largest ever, in the amount of methane in the local atmosphere.

The amount detected was still quite tiny, 21 parts per billion by volume.

Curiosity doesn’t have instruments that can definitively say what the source of the methane is, or even if it’s coming from a local source within Gale Crater or elsewhere on the planet.

“With our current measurements, we have no way of telling if the methane source is biology or geology, or even ancient or modern,” said SAM Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

While there is going to be a lot of speculation in the press and among scientists who should know better, this detection remains a major mystery. We as yet have no idea what caused it. Nor is it likely to have been caused by biology, though that does remain a possibility.

What is most puzzling is that the terrain that Curiosity is presently traveling across, the clay unit at the foot of Mount Sharp, shows no likely source.

This past weekend the scientists focused the rover’s instruments on this topic, in the hope this could help narrow the problem.

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Rover update: May 30, 2019

Summary: Curiosity confirms clay in the clay unit. Yutu-2 begins its sixth day on the far side of the Moon. Three other rovers move towards completion and launch.

For the updates in 2018 go here. For a full list of updates before February 8, 2018, go here.

Clouds over Gale Crater
Clouds over Gale Crater

Curiosity

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Curiosity’s journey up the slopes of Mount Sharp in Gale Crater goes on! On the right is one of a number taken by the rover in the past week, showing water clouds drifting over Gale Crater.

These are likely water-ice clouds about 19 miles (31 kilometers) above the surface. They are also “noctilucent” clouds, meaning they are so high that they are still illuminated by the Sun, even when it’s night at Mars’ surface. Scientists can watch when light leaves the clouds and use this information to infer their altitude.

While these clouds teach us something about Martian weather, the big rover news this week was that the data obtained from the two drill holes taken in April show that the clay formation that Curiosity is presently traversing is definitely made of clay, and in fact the clay there has the highest concentration yet found by the rover.

This clay-enriched region, located on the side of lower Mount Sharp, stood out to NASA orbiters before Curiosity landed in 2012. Clay often forms in water, which is essential for life; Curiosity is exploring Mount Sharp to see if it had the conditions to support life billions of years ago. The rover’s mineralogy instrument, called CheMin (Chemistry and Mineralogy), provided the first analyses of rock samples drilled in the clay-bearing unit. CheMin also found very little hematite, an iron oxide mineral that was abundant just to the north, on Vera Rubin Ridge. [emphasis mine]

That two geological units adjacent to each other are so different is significant for geologists, because the difference points to two very different geological histories. The formation process for both the clay unit and Vera Rubin Ridge must have occurred at different times under very different conditions. Figuring out how that happened will be difficult, but once done it will tell us much about both Gale Crater and Mars itself.

With the success of their clay unit drilling campaign, the Curiosity science team has had the rover begin its trek back from the base of the cliff below Vera Rubin Ridge to its planned travel route up the mountain.

An updated description of that route was released by the Curiosity science team last week, while I was in Wales. Below is their image showing that route, with additional annotations by me and reduced to post here.
» Read more

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Curiosity second drill hole in clay formation a success

two drill holes in clay formation
Click for full image.

The Curiosity science team has confirmed that their second drill hole in the clay formation that the rover is presently exploring was a success.

They have confirmed that enough material from the drill hole has been deposited in their chemical analysis hopper.

The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows both drill holes on the two different flat sections of bedrock near the top.

It seems that the science team wants to spend a lot of time in this location, as described in my last rover update. It is therefore unclear when they will move south to follow their long term travel plans.

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Rover update: April 11, 2019

Summary: Curiosity successfully drills into the clay unit. Yutu-2 continues its exploration on the far side of the Moon.

For the updates in 2018 go here. For a full list of updates before February 8, 2018, go here.

Curiosity drill hole in clay unit on slopes of Mount Sharp

Curiosity

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

The news this week from Curiosity is that the rover has successfully drilled into the ground in the clay unit valley the rover is presently exploring betweent Vera Rubin Ridge and Mount Sharp’s higher slopes.

The image to the right shows is a close-up of that drill hole.

The rover’s drill chewed easily through the rock, unlike some of the tougher targets it faced nearby on Vera Rubin Ridge. It was so soft, in fact, that the drill didn’t need to use its percussive technique, which is helpful for snagging samples from harder rock. This was the mission’s first sample obtained using only rotation of the drill bit.

Since my last rover update on February 20, 2019, they have been traveling for several weeks to get to a spot where they can do this drilling. The clay unit seems very soft, and almost mudlike, which made finding a good surface to drill somewhat challenging. Most of the terrain seemed too soft to drill into. It almost would be better to have a scoop, as the Viking landers had. Curiosity doesn’t really have this however. It needs to use its drill, which really is a more efficient way to get down deeper into the ground anyway.

The map below shows their recent travels.
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Curiosity films partial solar eclipses by both Phobos and Deimos

Phobos partial eclipse of Sun

Last week Curiosity successfully captured partial solar eclipses by both Phobos and Deimos as the Martian moons crossed the face of the Sun.

The movie on the right shows Phobos eclipsing the Sun. The speed is ten times faster than real time.

The press release can be seen here. It notes how these observations, of which 8 in total have been made since Curiosity arrived on Mars, have helped pin down the orbits of both moons.

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Mars Express confirms Curiosity 2013 methane detection

The uncertainty of science: The Mars Express science team today announced that a reanalysis of the orbiter’s data showed the same spike spike of methane detection as seen by Curiosity on June 15, 2013.

The study exploited a new observation technique, allowing the collection of several hundred measurements in one area over a short period of time. The teams also developed a refined analysis technique to get the best out of their data.

“In general we did not detect any methane, aside from one definite detection of about 15 parts per billion by volume of methane in the atmosphere, which turned out to be a day after Curiosity reported a spike of about six parts per billion,” says Marco Giuranna from the Institute for Space Astrophysics and Planetology in Rome, Italy, the principal investigator for the PFS experiment, and lead author of the paper reporting the results in Nature Geoscience today.

“Although parts per billion in general means a relatively small amount, it is quite remarkable for Mars – our measurement corresponds to an average of about 46 tonnes of methane that was present in the area of 49 000 square kilometres observed from our orbit.”

Ten other observations in the Mars Express study period that reported no detections at the limit of the spectrometer’s sensitivity corresponded to a period of low measurements reported by Curiosity.

The data, along with their estimate about the source location for the methane, suggests that this was a geological event, not the result of biological life. They think the methane was trapped in ice-filled fissures, and released when that ice either broke or melted. Whether the methane itself was formed by past microbial life sometime in the past remains completely unknown.

To put it mildly, there are a lot of uncertainties in this result.

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Curiosity has another computer crash

Since March 6 all activity from Curiosity seemed to stop, with no images and no science team updates. The reason? The rover had experienced another computer crash and reboot:

Curiosity experienced a computer reset on its Side-A computer on Wednesday, March 6, 2019 (Sol 2,339), that triggered the rover’s safe mode. This was the second computer reset in three weeks; both resets were related to the computer’s memory.

The mission team decided to switch from the Side-A computer back to the rover’s Side-B computer, which it operated on for most of the mission until November of 2018. Side-B recently experienced its own memory issue; the team has since further diagnosed the matter, reformatting the Side-B computer to isolate areas of “bad” memory. As of today, Curiosity is out of safe mode, and the team is configuring the rover for new science operations in the clay unit. Curiosity is expected to return to science operations as early as Wednesday.

This news is worrisome. The track record for spacecraft with increasing computer problems is that they never get better. Instead, the problem steadily worsens until operations become limited or even impossible. In the meantime engineers work wonders to extend the mission, but in the end this is a battle they appear to always lose.

We are beginning to see this pattern with Curiosity. Both of its computers have now experienced problems. It appears they have a better handle on the problems with the back-up computer (Side-B), so that is why they have switched back to it. Should its own memory issues continue to deteriorate however the rover will be in serious trouble, as the Side-A computer has proven to be very unreliable.

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Curiosity sends its first images in two weeks

The computer problems that caused Curiosity to cease science operations two weeks ago appears to have ended with the arrival of the first new images today.

The second link above goes to the images arriving today from Curiosity’s ChemCam camera, designed to take macro images of small features on the surface. The rover also sent down a small set of thumbnail images taken by one of its navigation cameras.

It appears they have figured out why the computer did an unexpected reboot in mid-February, and are now willing to let the rover resume science operations. There is no word on what they have learned, or whether it poses a future threat to the mission, but the fact that they are downloading new data is a good sign.

I must note again that this is news you will not see anywhere else. Most news sources today will wait for the NASA press release to report on Curiosity’s recovery, while I like to do some real journalism, reporting events as they happen. Consider this another reason to donate to Behind the Black during this month’s fund-raising drive.

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Curiosity recovering from safe mode

Last week Curiosity suddenly went into safe mode, halting science operations for four days while engineers analyzed the issue.

Curiosity encountered a hurdle last Friday, when a hiccup during boot-up interrupted its planned activities and triggered a protective safe mode. The rover was brought out of this mode on Tuesday, Feb. 19, and is otherwise operating normally, having successfully booted up over 30 times without further issues.

Throughout the weekend, Curiosity was sending and receiving technical data, communicating with the team in order to help them pinpoint the cause of the issue. “We’re still not sure of its exact cause and are gathering the relevant data for analysis,” said Steven Lee, Curiosity’s deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. JPL leads the Curiosity mission. “The rover experienced a one-time computer reset but has operated normally ever since, which is a good sign,” he added. “We’re currently working to take a snapshot of its memory to better understand what might have happened.”

…”In the short term, we are limiting commands to the vehicle to minimize changes to its memory,” Lee said. “We don’t want to destroy any evidence of what might have caused the computer reset. As a result, we expect science operations will be suspended for a short period of time.”

As far as I could tell, images were being uploaded to their public image page through February 20, when I did my last rover update. Since then however no new images have appeared. I fear this might be related to the computer issues Curiosity experienced in September that shut down operations for about six weeks and was never quite resolved. Of Curiosity’s two main computers both have now experienced serious problems.

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Rover update: February 20, 2019

Summary: Curiosity in the clay unit valley. Opportunity’s long journey is over. Yutu-2 creeps to the northwest on the Moon’s far side.

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

For the updates in the past year go here. For a full list of updates before February 8, 2018, go here.

Curiosity

Curiosity's view to the east on Sol 2316
Click image for full resolution version

Overview of Curiosity's future travels
Click image for original image

Since my January 22, 2019 update, Curiosity finally drove down off of Vera Rubin Ridge into a valley between the ridge and the lower slopes of Mt Sharp. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) overview on the right has been annotated by me to show the rover’s travels (shown by the yellow dotted line), with its proposed route indicated by the red dotted line. The yellow lines indicate approximately the terrain seen in the panorama above. The panorama was created from images taken on Sol 2016.

The valley that Curiosity is presently traversing is dubbed “the clay unit” or “the clay-bearing unit” by the geologists, based on its make-up determined from orbital data. So far they have found this terrain to be “some of the best driving terrain we’ve encountered in Gale Crater, with just some occasional sandy patches in the lee of small ridges.” Initially they had problems finding any rocks or pebbles large enough for the instruments to use for gathering geological data. For the past week or so, however, they have stopped at “bright exposure of rock” where some bedrock was visible, giving them much better material to work with.
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The InSight Martian weather station

InSight’s weather station is now providing daily weather updates to the public.

Starting today, the public can get a daily weather report from NASA’s InSight lander.

This public tool includes stats on temperature, wind and air pressure recorded by InSight. Sunday’s weather was typical for the lander’s location during late northern winter: a high of 2 degrees Fahrenheit (-17 degrees Celsius) and low of -138 degrees Fahrenheit (-95 degrees Celsius), with a top wind speed of 37.8 mph (16.9 m/s) in a southwest direction.

This daily weather data can be found here. For the weather from Curiosity, go here. Weekly global weather reports from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are found here.

Comparing the weather at the two landers, you will notice that it is generally warmer at InSight. This is not surprising, as Curiosity is climbing a mountain, and is now at a much higher elevation.

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