A hiker’s view from Mount Sharp

A hiker's view of Gale Crater, taken by Curiosity
Click for full image.

A quick cool image! The photo to the right, reduced to post here, was taken yesterday by Curiosity’s left navigation camera. It looks west across the floor of Gale Crater, at the base of a nearby butte.

The crater rim, as seen by the distant mountains, is about 25 miles away. The butte that towers above Curiosity is probably no more than 50 feet high.

Below is a panorama showing the full view to the west, with Navarro Mountain (the nearby 450-foot-high foothill at the base of Mount Sharp) on the left edge. Based on the rover’s planned route, it will travel to the right of the butte rather than climbing up onto the saddle on the left. This will take it to the western side of Navarro Mt, where it will eventually head south into the canyon Gediz Vallis.
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The lacy rocks of Mars

Lacy rocks on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken on July 16, 2021 by the Mars rover Curiosity, using its high resolution mast camera.

There isn’t much to say. These are alien rocks, created in a place with a gravity only about a third that of Earth’s in a climate that is very different. Their delicate nature suggests we are looking at something that was once more substantial and has since been undergoing erosion.

Nor has it been that unusual to find rocks so dainty on Mars. In fact, the more Curiosity has climbed, the more such things have been visible. And similar things were seen by the rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

How such rocks formed initially in the far past, under what climate conditions, remains the number one mystery on Mars. What is now causing it to flake away into such a finespun gossamer of complexity is as much a mystery, tied more to the climate and geology of Mars today.

This rock sits on the bottom flank of Mt Sharp in Gale Crater, at the highest elevation Curiosity has yet climbed. At this point the rover has just entered a new geological unit, what scientists have dubbed the sulfate unit. The evidence gathered from a distance (that so far appears confirmed by recent observations) suggest that this unit was formed under a fluctuating environment that laid down many layers of sediment as conditions ebbed and flowed.

Curiosity looks across at the alien landscape of Gale Crater

Curiosity's view across Gale Crater
Click for full image.

Most of the images from Curiosity that I have posted recently have been of the spectacular mountain scenery looking south at Mount Sharp itself. Today’s cool image, taken on July 6, 2021 by the rover’s right navigation camera and cropped to post here, instead looks north, out across the floor of Gale Crater to its distant rim about twenty miles away.

The rover is likely not to move for a week or so, as it has just completed drilling its first drillhole since it moved up into the next geological layer, dubbed the sulfate unit. Because of this they have been using the rover’s cameras to take a lot of pictures of the surrounding terrain, including several high resolution mosaics.

The two overview maps below show what the cool image above is looking at.
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Scientists solve methane data conflict on Mars

Using the methane detector on the rover Curiosity scientists now think they have solved the mystery why Curiosity has detected methane in the atmosphere near the surface while Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter fails to detect any methane at all.

[Planetary scientist John E. Moores from York University in Toronto], as well as other Curiosity team members studying wind patterns in Gale Crater, hypothesized that the discrepancy between methane measurements comes down to the time of day they’re taken. Because it needs a lot of power, TLS [Curiosity’s methane detector] operates mostly at night when no other Curiosity instruments are working. The Martian atmosphere is calm at night, Moores noted, so the methane seeping from the ground builds up near the surface where Curiosity can detect it.

The Trace Gas Orbiter, on the other hand, requires sunlight to pinpoint methane about 3 miles, or 5 kilometers, above the surface. “Any atmosphere near a planet’s surface goes through a cycle during the day,” Moores said. Heat from the Sun churns the atmosphere as warm air rises and cool air sinks. Thus, the methane that is confined near the surface at night is mixed into the broader atmosphere during the day, which dilutes it to undetectable levels. “So I realized no instrument, especially an orbiting one, would see anything,” Moores said.

Immediately, the Curiosity team decided to test Moores’ prediction by collecting the first high-precision daytime measurements. TLS measured methane consecutively over the course of one Martian day, bracketing one nighttime measurement with two daytime ones. With each experiment, SAM sucked in Martian air for two hours, continuously removing the carbon dioxide, which makes up 95% of the planet’s atmosphere. This left a concentrated sample of methane that TLS could easily measure by passing an infrared laser beam through it many times, one that’s tuned to use a precise wavelength of light that is absorbed by methane.

“John predicted that methane should effectively go down to zero during the day, and our two daytime measurements confirmed that,” said Paul Mahaffy, the principal investigator of SAM, who’s based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. TLS’ nighttime measurement fit neatly within the average the team had already established. “So that’s one way of putting to bed this big discrepancy,” Mahaffy said.

While this explains the data conflict, it does not yet explain where the methane is coming from. It is suspected it is coming from underground, but why and from what is still unclear. Nor do scientists yet understand why it doesn’t accumulate enough in the atmosphere for Trace Gas Orbiter to detect it. Something is causing the methane to break up sooner than expected.

Curiosity’s mountainous view

Curiosity's view uphill on June 23, 2021
Click for full resolution panorama. Note: Navarro Mt is about 450 feet high.

The travels of Curiosity at the base of Mount Sharp continue. In the past week, since my last update on June 16th, the rover has moved west past the entrance to Gediz Vallis to now sit at the base of Raphael Navarro Mountain, as shown by the panorama above. To get a sense of how far the rover has traveled in the past week, compare this panorama with the one posted then. It is also clear now that they are slowly returning to their planned route, and will not push up into Gediz Vallis as I speculated in that post.

The panorama is created from three photos taken by Curiosity’s navigation camera, found here, here, and here.

The map below the fold gives the context.
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The Mountains of Mars

The mountains of Mars
Click for full resolution. The highest mountain on the right is about 450 feet high.

Even as the rover Perseverance is beginning its first science campaign on the floor of Jezero Crater, the rover Curiosity about 3,000 miles to the east has begun its climb into the mountains of Mars that surround the central peak of Gale Crater, Mount Sharp.

The mosaic above, made from two images taken by the rover’s right navigation camera (here and here), shows what Curiosity sees ahead. Since my last update on June 4th describing Curiosity’s future travels, the rover’s science team has pushed forward directly uphill towards the entrance to the canyon Gediz Vallis, visible as the gap between the mountains to the right and left in the above mosaic.

The overview map below shows the rover’s approximate present position, with the yellow lines indicating what the above photo is looking at.
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Curiosity’s dramatic path forward

Curiosity's future travels
Click for full image.

Cool image time! In the coming weeks and months the view from Curiosity is going to give us the most spectacular views of another world since the Apollo astronauts walked on the Moon.

In today’s download of new images from the Mars rover Curiosity was the photo above, reduced to post here. Taken by rover’s right navigation camera, it looks west directly in line with Curiosity’s future travels, and shows that it is now finally entering mountain country.

The overview map below provides the context.
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The big cliffs of Gediz Vallis on Mars

The Big Cliffs of Mt Sharp
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken on May 21, 2021 by Curiosity’s chemistry camera (ChemCam), normally designed to look at high resolution close-up imagery of nearby objects.

However, it can also be used as what the science team call “a long distance spyglass.” The image to the right is an example, looking at what I think are the distant but steadily approaching big cliffs on the western wall of the canyon Gediz Vallis. Make sure you look close at the shadowed cliff-face, probably several hundred feet high. It is filled with huge rock faces reminiscent of the most stark rock cliffs on the mountains of Earth.

The two images below provide the context, which makes the image even more quite breath-taking.
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Curiosity climbing Mount Sharp

Curiosity as seen by MRO from orbit
Click for full image.

Today’s cool image, to the right and cropped to post here, was taken on April 18, 2021 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Released today by MRO’s science team, it shows the rover Curiosity sitting on top of the 20-foot high rock outcrop the scientists have dubbed Mt. Mercou. The 16,400 foot high Mt. Sharp is to the south, with the rim of Gale Crater about 30 miles to the north.

I have annotated the image to show the rover’s route both before and after the moment when this picture was taken. As the caption at the link notes, the rover is currently working its way up Mt. Mercou, a route that was not initially in their plans, as shown by the wider MRO view below.
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Curiosity’s mesa-top view of Gale Crater

The view of Gale Crater from on top of Mont Mercou
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo above, reduced slightly to post here, was taken on April 14, 2021 by one of the navigation cameras on Curiosity. The rover was then and is still sitting on top of the twenty foot high outcrop dubbed Mont Mercou.

Last week I had posted a panorama made from images at this viewpoint looking south towards Mount Sharp. Today’s image is from the same place, but now looks north across the floor of Gale Crater at the areas that Curiosity had previously traveled. I think the smallest mesas on the left of this image are the Murray Buttes which Curiosity was traveling through back in 2016, but am not certain.

The mountains in the far distance are the rim of the crater, about 30 miles away.

Gale Crater’s small mesas were formed by wind, not liquid water

Route through Murray Buttes
The Murray Buttes. Click to see August 11, 2016 post.

The uncertainty of science: Though Curiosity has found apparent evidence of past liquid water during its early travels on the floor of Gale Crater, scientists have now concluded that the first small mesas and buttes it traveled past back in 2016, dubbed the Murray Buttes, were not formed by the flow of liquid water but by wind reshaping ancient sand dunes. From the press release:
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The rovers’ view of Mars

The view from the top of Mont Mercou
Click for higher resolution. For original images, go here and here.

Some cool images to savor from Mars! Above is a panorama from Curiosity, created by me from two images taken by the rover’s left navigation camera today, April 18, 2021. The view is southwest towards the canyon regions where Curiosity will be heading in the coming months. Note the roughness of the ground. Travel is going to be tricky from here on out.

The photo was taken from the top of Mont Mercou, the 20-foot high outcrop that the rover spent several weeks studying at the cliff’s base. The Curiosity science team is presently preparing to drill into the bedrock at the top.

Ingenuity on the floor of Jezero Crater
Click for full image.

The photo to the right, reduced to post here, was taken by Perseverance on April 13, 2021, and looks west across the floor of Jezero crater. The high mountains in the distance are the crater’s rim. The low and much closer hill is the delta that is the rover’s primary geological target.

In the center of the picture is the helicopter Ingenuity. You can also see the tracks of Perseverance’s wheels just below it.

This will be the rover’s vantage point when Ingenuity attempts its first test flight in the early morning hours of April 19, 2021. The helicopter will head to the right once it lifts off.

Clouds over Gale Crater

Clouds over Gale Crater
Click for full image.

Cool image time! In today’s download of new images from Curiosity was a large number looking at the sky. by one of the rover’s navigation cameras. As noted in the science team’s most recent update, their aim was to “watch for clouds in the sky at twilight.”

They were apparently very successful. The picture to the right, reduced to post here, is one example. The other pictures show these clouds and other clouds as they change over time.

I don’t have much more to add, other than to say it is quite breath-taking to be able to sit here on Earth and routinely gaze at the weather on Mars.

UPDATE: I do have one more thing to say. If you have any skills at programming and want to figure out how to process the raw images from Curiosity and Perseverance to bring out their color, you might find the video at this link of interest: How Can You Color Process Mars Rover’s Images In DaVinci Resolve?

I am not a computer programming geek, so some of its details went over my head. Nonetheless, it opened a window into the photo-engineering used to turn the rovers’ black-and-white digital data into color.

Hat tip to Patrick Inhofer, who calls himself the photon wrangler at MixingLight.com.

Curiosity faces the mountains

A cropped section from Perseverance's 1st panorama
A cropped section from Perserverance’s 1st panorama.
Click for full image.

Though the present excitement over the spectacular images and sounds coming down from Perseverance is certainly warranted, what must be understood is that this rover is presently only at the beginning of its journey, and is thus sitting on relatively boring terrain, from a merely visual perspective. The scientists might be excited, but to the general public, all we really are seeing is a flat dusty desert with some scattered rocks on the floor. In the far distance can be seen some hills and mountains (Jezero Crater’s rim), but they are very far away.

Curiosity, which the press and the public has largely forgotten about, is actually just beginning what will likely be the most breath-taking part of its journey. As I noted in my last rover update last week, Curiosity is now at the very base of Mount Sharp, and is about to enter the mountain’s canyons and initial slopes. For its past eight-plus years of roving it has been on the flat floor of Gale Crater, followed by some weaving among the smallest foothills of Mount Sharp. The views have been intriguing and exciting from a research perspective, but hardly breath-taking from a picture-taking point of view.

That is now changing. The picture below, taken by Curiosity just this week, gives us a taste of what is to come.
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Rover update: Panorama from Curiosity; Perseverance unwinds

Summary: Curiosity has crept to the foot of Mt Sharp at last, while Perseverance checks out its equipment.

Curiosity

Curiosity panorama Sol 3049
Click for full resolution.

Overview map

This rover update will be short but very sweet. While the press and public has been oo’ing and ah’ing over the first panorama from Perseverance, Curiosity yesterday produced its own panorama above showing the looming cliffs of Mt. Sharp, now only a short distance away. The original images can be found here, here, here, and here.

The overview map to the right, from the “Where is Curiosity?” webpage, shows the rover’s location, with the yellow lines roughly indicating the view afforded by the panorama above. If you compare this panorama with the one I posted in my previous rover update on February 12, 2021, you can get a sense of how far the rover has traveled in just the past two weeks. It now sits near the end of the red dotted line pointing at the mountain, right next to what had been a distant cliff and now is only a short distance to the rover’s right.

Somewhere on the mountain slopes ahead scientists have spotted in orbiter images recurring slope lineae, seasonal streaks on slopes that appear in the spring and fade as they year passes. As Curiosity arrives at the next geological layer a short distance ahead at the base of these cliffs (dubbed the sulfate unit), it will spend probably several months studying both that sulfate unit as well as those lineae. Expect the rover to drill a few holes for samples as it watches to see any changes that might occur on that lineae.

Now, on to Perseverance!
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Rover update: The rovers are coming! The rovers are coming!

With the imminent landing on Mars of both the American rover Perseverance only days away on February 18th followed by China’s rover in April, I think it time for a new rover update, not only providing my readers a review of the new landing sites but a look at the most recent travels of Curiosity on Mars and Yutu-2 on the Moon.

Curiosity

Curiosity's view of the base of Mount Sharp, February 12, 2021
Click for full resolution image.

Overview map of Curiosity's most recent and future travels

The panorama above, made from four images taken by Curiosity’s right navigation camera on February 12, 2021 (found here, here, here, and here), looks south to the base of Mount Sharp, now only a short distance away. The yellow lines on the overview map to the right show the area this panorama covers. The white line indicates Curiosity’s previous travels. The dotted red line in both images shows Curiosity’s planned route.

The two white dots on the overview map are the locations of the two recurring slope lineae along Curiosity’s route, with the plan to get reasonable close to the first and spend some time there studying it. These lineae are one of Mars’ most intriguing phenomenon, seasonal dark streaks that appear on slopes in the spring and fade by the fall. There are several theories attempting to explain their formation, most proposing the seepage of a brine from below ground, but none has been accepted yet with any enthusiasm.
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Curiosity checks out its wheels

One wheel on Curiosity, as seen in July 2020 and January 2021
For full resolution images, go here and here for the
top image, and here and here for the bottom image.

Having finished a two week look at a sea of sand, Curiosity’ science team has resumed its journey east towards the higher slopes of Mount Sharp.

Before they started out however, they decided to aim the rover’s high resolution mast camera at Curiosity’s wheels to see how they are faring and whether any of the damage that occurred in the early days of the mission has worsened. The photo on the right compares what was seen this week with the damage on the same wheel as seen in July 2020. This is also the same wheel I have posted images of since September 2017.

Not only does there appear to be no appreciable new damage to this wheel in the six months since July, remarkably, a comparison between today’s image and the photo from September 2017, shows little change as well.

In the more than three years since that 2017 photo, Curiosity has crossed Vera Rubin Ridge, crossed the clay unit, climbed up the next ridge to take a look at the incredibly rough terrain of the Greenheugh Pedimont, and then continued across the clay unit on its way to higher and possibly more challenging terrain.

In all those travels it appears this particular wheel has fared rather nicely, accumulating in at least this part little new damage. This bodes well for the rover’s future, as the wheels have been a concern since Curiosity’s first two years on Mars, when engineers found they were experiencing more damage than expected. The travel techniques they have adopted since to protect the wheels appear to be working.

Rover update: Curiosity on the shore of a sand sea

Curiosity stops on the shore of a sand sea, while Yutu-2 continues its journey west away from Chang’e-2. On the way: Perseverance and China’s first Mars rover on Tianwen-1.

A sand sea on Mars
Click for full image.

Curiosity

The photo on the right, taken in late December, shows the large sand lake the science team has labeled “the Sands of Forvie” that the rover has been working its way uphill to reach since it left the Mary Anning drill site back in November.

Since they arrived there, they have used the rover to roll across the sand, cutting into a ripple to expose its interior, followed by high resolution close-up images. They have also used the rover to analyze the chemical composition of the sand’s grains, from that interior section, from the top of several ripples, and from the troughs in between.

Once finished here, the rover will be turned east again to continue its journey around this sand sea to the very base of Mount Sharp. The overview map below shows the planned route.
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Published results from Curiosity as it traversed Vera Rubin Ridge

The science results from American Mars rover Curiosity during its traverse of Vera Rubin Ridge at the base of Mount Sharp in Gale Crater have now been released to the public.

This link takes you to the overview paper, available online for free. The abstract notes the key finding, which confirms previously released research:

We conclude Vera Rubin ridge formed because groundwater recrystallized and hardened the rocks that now make up the ridge. Wind subsequently sculpted and eroded Mount Sharp, leaving the harder ridge rocks standing because they resisted erosion compared with surrounding rocks. The implication of these results is that liquid water was present at Mount Sharp for a very long time, not only when the crater held a lake but also much later, likely as groundwater.

The fundamental geological mystery of Mars remains. The evidence strongly says that liquid water must have existed for long periods on the surface of Mars. At the same time, other evidence strongly says that the climate and atmosphere of Mars has never been warm enough or thick enough to allow for liquid water on the planet’s surface.

So far, no global model proposed by any theorist that allows liquid water in the past on Mars has been accepted with any enthusiasm by the planetary community. While possible, the models carry too many assumptions and are based on what is presently far too limited data. We simply do not yet know enough about Mars and its past history to explain this conundrum.

The paper also outlines a number of models for allowing liquid water in the localized area of Gale Crater alone. As with the global models, none fits all the facts, or is entirely satisfactory for explaining the data.

Regardless, the results from Vera Rubin Ridge confirm once again that enough liquid water once did exist on Mars to have allowed it to be habitable for life, even if we have so far found no evidence of any past life.

A Mars mosaic from Curiosity using its close-up camera

During the three-plus months in the summer when Curiosity stayed at one location for its most recent drilling campaign, the science team used its ChemCam Remote Micro-Imager camera (RMI), originally designed to take very close-up photos, to create a 216 photo mosaic of the long distance horizon. They have now released that mosaic, which you can see as a video at the link. The mosaic itself is a very long strip, which is best viewed up close and scrolling across it, as the video does. As the scientists note,

During Curiosity’s first year on Mars, it was recognized that, thanks to its powerful optics, RMI could also go from a microscope to a telescope and play a significant role as a long-distance reconnaissance tool. It gives a typical circular “spyglass” black and white picture of a small region. So RMI complements other cameras quite nicely, thanks to its very long focal length. When stitched together, RMI mosaics reveal details of the landscape several kilometers from the rover, and provides pictures that are very complementary to orbital observations, giving a more human-like, ground-based perspective.

From July to October of 2020, Curiosity stayed parked at the same place to perform various rock sampling analyses. This rare opportunity of staying at the same location for a long time was used by the team to target very distant areas of interest, building an ever-growing RMI mosaic between September 9 and October 23 (sols 2878 and 2921) that eventually became 216 overlapping images. When stitched into a 46947×7260 pixel panorama, it covers over 50 degrees of azimuth along the horizon, from the bottom layers of “Mount Sharp” on the right to the edge of “Vera Rubin Ridge” on the left.

The camera’s resolution is so good that it was able in the mosaic to resolve large boulders on the crater wall of Gale Crater almost 37 miles away.

Curiosity data suggests the occurrence of mega floods in Gale Crater

The uncertainty of science: Using Curiosity data a team of scientists are now suggesting that some of the features the rover has seen were created during mega flood within Gale Crater, and this data also requires a rethinking of the present theories of the crater’s geological history.

This case includes the occurrence of giant wave-shaped features in sedimentary layers of Gale crater, often called “megaripples” or antidunes that are about 30-feet high and spaced about 450 feet apart, according to lead author Ezat Heydari, a professor of physics at Jackson State University.

The antidunes are indicative of flowing megafloods at the bottom of Mars’ Gale Crater about 4 billion years ago, which are identical to the features formed by melting ice on Earth about 2 million years ago, Heydari said.

The most likely cause of the Mars flooding was the melting of ice from heat generated by a large impact, which released carbon dioxide and methane from the planet’s frozen reservoirs. The water vapor and release of gases combined to produce a short period of warm and wet conditions on the red planet.

The press release above focuses on the catastrophic floods, but the research paper itself is really much more focused on the need to rethink present hypotheses for explaining the observed geology in Gale Crater. This report notes that they are finding patches of material that could not have been laid down as seen, based on those past theories, and proposes the catastrophic flood event as a possible solution.

In reading the paper however it is evident that even this new hypothesis is based on a limited amount of data, and thus can have holes punched in it as well. This is not to say that the paper is invalid, only that it must be taken with some skepticism. The data being obtained at Gale Crater simply incomplete. Curiosity is following only one path, and has not even left the foothills of Mount Sharp. In order to gain a wider and fuller understanding geologists need to study the entire crater floor, as well as the geology on the mountain.

Rover update: Curiosity on the move again

After spending more than three months at a single site, drilling three different holes in the same rock, Curiosity is finally on the move again, heading east and uphill toward Mt. Sharp. Yutu-2 meanwhile continues its very slow journey on the far side of the Moon. And the new rovers are halfway to Mars.

Drill holes at Mary Anning site in Gale Crater
Click for full image.

Curiosity

The image to the right, cropped and annotated to post here, shows the three drill holes that scientists had Curiosity drill in this one pavement rock, dubbed Mary Anning and located in the clay unit within Gale Crater on Mars. As I noted in my last update on July 22, 2020, the rover’s science team had made a specific detour in their planned route up Mt. Sharp in order to find this one last place to drill in this geological unit.

Though they have been very quiet about their results, apparently what they found in this one pavement rock was important enough that it required three drill holes. In addition, samples from the second hole were subjected to two of Curiosity’s limited supply of wet chemistry experiments. From the science team’s August 28, 2020 update:
» Read more

Curiosity captures a dust devil

During its recent and last several-week-long drilling effort in the clay unit in Gale Crater, the rover Curiosity was also able to luckily capture the passing of a nearby dust devil.

It’s almost summer in Gale crater, which puts us in a period of strong surface heating that lasts from early spring through mid-summer. Stronger surface heating tends to produce stronger convection and convective vortices, which consist of fast winds whipping around low pressure cores. If those vortices are strong enough, they can raise dust from the surface and become visible as “dust devils” that we can image with our cameras. The animated GIF shows a dust devil movie we took with Navcam on Sol 2847, covering a period of about five minutes. We often have to process these images, by enhancing what’s changed between them, before dust devils clearly show up. But this dust devil was so impressive that – if you look closely! – you can just see it moving to the right, at the border between the darker and lighter slopes, even in the raw images.

I have embedded the movie below the fold. The dust devil looks like a ghostly white tower moving from the left to the right just above the darkest band of landscape cutting across the middle of the image.
» Read more

Rover update: Curiosity pauses to drill

Curiosity's entire journey so far in Gale Crater

Overview map of Curiosity's recent travels

The artist’s oblique drawing above, as well as the map to the right, provide some context as to Curiosity’s present location and its entire journey in Gale Crater. For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater. For all rover updates since then through May 2020, go here.

Since my last update on July 7, 2020, Curiosity has quickly moved a considerable distance to the east, as planned, skirting the large sand field to the south in its journey to the best path upward onto Mt. Sharp. The science team however has detoured away from their planned route, shown in red on the map, heading downhill a bit in order to find one last good location in the clay unit to drill. They are at that location now and are presently scouting for the best drilling spot.

About a week ago, before heading downhill, they had stopped to take a set of new images of Curiosity’s wheels. » Read more

Midnight repost: Mars!

The tenth anniversary retrospective of Behind the Black continues: Despite my many essays on culture and politics, Behind the Black remains mostly a site reporting on space and science. Since the modern exploration of Mars is probably the most significant on-going event now in space, it seemed unsatisfactory to only repost one or two of my past articles on this subject, when I have probably have posted hundreds. Instead, this midnight repost will provide links to a bunch, divided into several topics.

Martian geology, shown in cool images

First, we have the many cool images I have posted on Mars, often tied to detailed descriptions of what scientists are now beginning to learn about the red planet’s mysterious geological history. The following are the most important, and will help readers better understand future cool images.

Future colonization

Next, two posts, both focused on the future exploration and colonization of Mars.
» Read more

Rover update: Curiosity’s future journey

Mount Sharp, with Curiosity's future travels
Click for full image.

[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.]

Today the science team of Curiosity issued a press release outlining their travel plans for the rover over the next year. In conjunction, they also released a mosaic of 116 images taken by the rover showing that route, a reduced in resolution version shown above.

The rover’s next stop is a part of the mountain called the “sulfate-bearing unit.” Sulfates, like gypsum and Epsom salts, usually form around water as it evaporates, and they are yet another clue to how the climate and prospects for life changed nearly 3 billion years ago.

But between the rover and those sulfates lies a vast patch of sand that Curiosity must drive around to avoid getting stuck. Hence the mile-long road trip: Rover planners, who are commanding Curiosity from home rather than their offices at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, expect to reach the area in early fall, although the science team could decide to stop along the way to drill a sample or study any surprises they come across.

Overview map sol 2804 of Curiosity's route

This journey actually began in late May, at about the time of my last rover update. The overview map to the right shows in red their approximate planned route to avoid that large dune field to the south. The meandering yellow line indicates Curiosity’s actual route. The straight yellow lines indicates I think the area covered by the mosaic above. As you can see, since the end of May they have quickly returned to their planned route. Note also that the dune field extends about twice the distance beyond the eastern edge of this overview map.

The next big goal when they reach that sulfate-bearing unit will be to not only study it but to also study a recurring slope lineae on the slopes of that unit, a streak that darkens and lightens seasonally that might be caused by seeping brine from below. Because the sulfate unit and the linneae are both major geological goals, they are going to be moving fast to get there. I am sure they will periodically stop to do geology, but I think the travel will be, as it has been for the past month, quick-paced.

Once the rover gets to the sulfate unit, Curiosity will at last have actually reached the base of Mount Sharp. Up until now it has been traveling first in the surrounding plains, then in the mountain’s foothills. The terrain will get much rougher and be far more spectacular, as Curiosity will be entering canyons as it begins to climb the mountain itself.

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.

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.

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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