Tag Archives: opportunity

NASA resets listening plan for Opportunity

NASA has rearranged its listening plans for the rover Opportunity so that it will extend into the dust devil season beginning in November.

The science team is also sending a command three times a week to elicit a beep if the rover happens to be awake, and will soon be expanding the commanding to include “sweep and beeps” to address a possible complexity with certain conditions within the mission clock fault. These will continue through January of 2019.

The dust storm on Mars continues its decay with atmospheric opacity (tau) over the rover site continuing to decrease. Once the tau has fallen below an estimated measurement of 1.5 twice – with one week apart between measurements – a period of 45 days will begin representing the best time for us to hear from the rover.

This also represents the best time to attempt active commanding during a specific mission clock fault condition. Back during the attempted recovery of the Spirit rover, a technical issue required the team to actively command the rover to communicate. Opportunity has no such issue; if we hear from it, it will likely be from listening passively as we have been, and as we will continue to do through January.

We will also actively attempt to command the rover to communicate during the 45-day listening period to cover the clock fault condition. After that, we will report to NASA on our efforts.

In other words, the final 45 day listening period will not officially begin until the Martian atmosphere has cleared more, rather than begin about now and thus end about the middle of November, before the dust devil season begins.

The reasons they want to listen through the dust devil season is that they believe it likely that the rover’s solar panels have been covered with dust, and will need a nearby dust devil to blow this away. This might sound unlikely, but it has happened several times with both Spirit and Opportunity during both of their spectacularly extended missions.

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Some debate at NASA over Opportunity

This story yesterday had the following interesting paragraph:

Members of Opportunity’s engineering team recommended a different plan, the person close to the mission says. Their idea was to actively try to communicate with Opportunity until the end of January 2019 — the end of the seasonal cleaning period. After that, they suggested passive listening until the end of 2019. But these recommendations were ignored by management in order to save money, this person says, meaning the agency could be risking abandoning a still-functioning rover. The Opportunity team reportedly didn’t receive formal notice of the plan until “minutes before JPL published its press release,” according to The Atlantic.

It appears that some on the science team do not feel that the present plan to listen closely for only 45 days, through mid-October, is sufficient, as it will likely require a dust devil to clear Opportunity’s solar panels, and dust devil season will not begin until November.

However, it is very likely wrong to blame the resistance by NASA management to this plan solely to a desire to save money. There are other considerations, such as tying up the Deep Space Network for this one rover when, as I noted yesterday, the October to January time period will be a very very very busy time for that network, with many important new planetary probe events. Seven different spacecraft will either be landing or doing fly-bys on four different solar system targets during that time. Tying the network up to listen for Opportunity will likely not work.

It seems to me that Opportunity should be recovered, if possible, but it also must receive a lower priority during this time period. After New Horizons’ January 1st fly-by of Ultima Thule it might be possible to devote more time then to listening, but I can see the logic, at least in this context, for reducing the listening time from October to January.

Hat tip Kirk Hilliard.

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As Mars dust storm clears, Opportunity remains silent

The Opportunity science team today provided a new update on the rover, noting that it remains silent even as the Martian dust storm is clearing.

With skies clearing, mission managers are hopeful the rover will attempt to call home, but they are also prepared for an extended period of silence. “If we do not hear back after 45 days, the team will be forced to conclude that the Sun-blocking dust and the Martian cold have conspired to cause some type of fault from which the rover will more than likely not recover,” said Callas. “At that point our active phase of reaching out to Opportunity will be at an end. However, in the unlikely chance that there is a large amount of dust sitting on the solar arrays that is blocking the Sun’s energy, we will continue passive listening efforts for several months.”

The additional several months for passive listening are an allowance for the possibility that a Red Planet dust devil could come along and literally dust off Opportunity’s solar arrays. Such “cleaning events” were first discovered by Mars rover teams in 2004 when, on several occasions, battery power levels aboard both Spirit and Opportunity increased by several percent during a single Martian night, when the logical expectation was that they would continue to decrease. These cleaning dust devils have even been imaged by both rovers on the surface and spacecraft in orbit (see https://mars.nasa.gov/resources/5307/the-serpent-dust-devil-of-mars/).

It appears however that if nothing is heard from Opportunity by sometime in mid-October, they will be very prepared at that time to begin shutting down ground-based operations here on Earth.

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Opportunity’s uncertain future

Link here. This article from JPL provides a detailed status report on the rover, as well as what will happen if they should regain communications.

After the first time engineers hear from Opportunity, there could be a lag of several weeks before a second time. It’s like a patient coming out of a coma: It takes time to fully recover. It may take several communication sessions before engineers have enough information to take action.

The first thing to do is learn more about the state of the rover. Opportunity’s team will ask for a history of the rover’s battery and solar cells and take its temperature. If the clock lost track of time, it will be reset. The rover would take pictures of itself to see whether dust might be caked on sensitive parts, and test actuators to see if dust slipped inside, affecting its joints.

Once they’ve gathered all this data, the team would take a poll about whether they’re ready to attempt a full recovery.

Even if engineers hear back from Opportunity, there’s a real possibility the rover won’t be the same. The rover’s batteries could have discharged so much power — and stayed inactive so long — that their capacity is reduced. If those batteries can’t hold as much charge, it could affect the rover’s continued operations. It could also mean that energy-draining behavior, like running its heaters during winter, could cause the batteries to brown out.

They remain hopeful, but this article is clearly meant to prepare the public for the possibility that Opportunity’s long journey on Mars might have finally ended.

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Mars dust storm blocks Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter images

In my normal routine to check out the periodic posting of new high resolution images from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the August 1 update brought what at first was a disturbing surprise. If you go to the link you will see that a large majority of the images show nothing by a series of vertical lines, as if the high resolution camera on MRO has failed.

Yet, scattered among the images were perfectly sharp images. I started to look at these images to try to figure out the differences, and quickly found that the sharp images were always of features in high latitudes, while the blurred images were closer to the equator.

The August 1 image release covered the June/July time period, when the on-going Martian dust storm was at its height. The images illustrate also where the storm was most opaque, closer to the equator.

The next few updates, which occur every three weeks or so, should show increasing clarity as the storm subsides. And the storm is subsiding, according to the latest Opportunity update. The scientists have still not re-established contact with the rover, and do not expect to for at least a month or more, but they are finding that the atmospheric opacity at Endeavour Crater seems to be dropping.

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Martian dust storm beginning to clear

The Martian global dust storm that started in mid-June and has left the rover Opportunity with little power appears to be finally clearing.

Don’t expect any word from Opportunity however for at least a month. The storm might be dying off, but it will take time for the dust to settle out of the atmosphere, especially in Mars’s light gravity.

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Mars rover update: July 17, 2018

Summary: Curiosity climbs back up onto Vera Rubin Ridge to attempt its second drillhole since drill recovery, this time at a spot on the ridge with the highest orbital signature for hematite. Opportunity remains silent, shut down due to the global dust storm.

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

Curiosity

Curiosity's travels on and off Vera Rubin Ridge

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

In the almost two months since my May 23, 2018 update, a lot has happened, much of which I covered in daily updates. Curiosity found a good drill spot to once again test the new drilling techniques designed by engineers to bypass its stuck drill feed mechanism, and was successful in getting its first drill sample in about a year and a half. The rover then returned uphill, returning to a spot on Vera Rubin Ridge that, according to satellite data, has the highest signature for hematite on the entire ridge. The light green dotted line in the traverse map to the right shows the route Curiosity has taken back up onto Vera Rubin Ridge. The red dotted line shows the original planned route off the ridge and up Mount Sharp.
» Read more

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Martian dust storm goes global

Data from orbit and from Curiosity at Gale Crater confirms that the dust storm that has shut down Opportunity is now a global storm, encircling Mars.

The Martian dust storm has grown in size and is now officially a “planet-encircling” (or “global”) dust event.

Though Curiosity is on the other side of Mars from Opportunity, dust has steadily increased over it, more than doubling over the weekend. The sunlight-blocking haze, called “tau,” is now above 8.0 at Gale Crater — the highest tau the mission has ever recorded. Tau was last measured near 11 over Opportunity, thick enough that accurate measurements are no longer possible for Mars’ oldest active rover.

This will be first global storm to occur on Mars since Curiosity landed in 2012, thus giving scientists the best opportunity to study such an event.

Meanwhile, Opportunity remains silent. This does not mean it is dead, but that it doesn’t have enough sunlight to charge its batteries. It might die during this storm if the storm lasts long enough, but we won’t know one way or the other until the storm finally eases.

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Contact with Opportunity lost

The Opportunity science team has lost contact with Opportunity as it automatically shuts down operations to survive low battery power due to the dust storm.

This does not necessarily mean the rover is dead. Depending on how long this period of low power lasts, the rover could return to life once the dust storm passes. Or not. We can only wait and see.

A press conference today on the dust storm and Opportunity’s status begins at 1:30 Eastern time today.

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Growing Martian dust storm forces Opportunity to suspend operations

A growing Martian dust storm has forced the Opportunity science team to suspend science operations and to reconfigure the rover’s operations to increase its chances of surviving the storm.

In a matter of days, the storm had ballooned. It now spans more than 7 million square miles (18 million square kilometers) — an area greater than North America — and includes Opportunity’s current location at Perseverance Valley. More importantly, the swirling dust has raised the atmospheric opacity, or “tau,” in the valley in the past few days. This is comparable to an extremely smoggy day that blots out sunlight. The rover uses solar panels to provide power and to recharge its batteries.

Opportunity’s power levels had dropped significantly by Wednesday, June 6, requiring the rover to shift to minimal operations.

This isn’t Opportunity’s first time hunkering down in bad weather: in 2007, a much larger storm covered the planet. That led to two weeks of minimal operations, including several days with no contact from the rover to save power. The project’s management prepared for the possibility that Opportunity couldn’t balance low levels of power with its energy-intensive survival heaters, which protect its batteries from Mars’ extreme cold. It’s not unlike running a car in the winter so that the cold doesn’t sap its battery charge.There is a risk to the rover if the storm persists for too long and Opportunity gets too cold while waiting for the skies to clear.

In other words, there is a possibility that the rover might not make it through this period of low sunlight. Nonetheless, the rover did send four images down yesterday, though the four images are essentially dust filled, and are likely aimed at the far distance to help gauge the extent of the storm.

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Mars rover update: May 23, 2018

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

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

Curiosity

Curiosity's travels on and off Vera Rubin Ridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Alien world

Meridiani Planum
So what is it we are looking at in the image above? I have reduced the resolution slightly to fit it here, but you can see the full resolution image by clicking on the picture.

Is it a marble or granite kitchen counter? Nah, the surface is too rough.

Maybe it’s a modern abstract painting that we can find hanging in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Nah, it has too much style and depth. Abstract art is much more shallow and empty of content.

Could it be a close-up of a just-opened container of berry-vanilla ice cream, the different flavors swirling and intertwined to enhance the eating experience? No, somehow it looks too gritty for ice cream.
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Mars rover update: April 27, 2018

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

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

Curiosity

Curiosity's traverse map, Sol 2030

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

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

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

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

Curiosity

Curiosity's traverse map, Sol 1993

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

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

The panorama below is looking to the west and south, as indicated by the yellow lines in the image above.
» Read more

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Aligned erosion lines of Perseverance Valley

The uncertainty of science: Last week, while I was flying to Israel, the Opportunity science team announced the discovery of strange aligned erosion lines, what they are calling stone stripes, in Perseverance Valley.

The ground texture seen in recent images from the rover resembles a smudged version of very distinctive stone stripes on some mountain slopes on Earth that result from repeated cycles of freezing and thawing of wet soil. But it might also be due to wind, downhill transport, other processes or a combination.

…On some slopes within the valley, the soil and gravel particles appear to have become organized into narrow rows or corrugations, parallel to the slope, alternating between rows with more gravel and rows with less.

The origin of the whole valley is uncertain. Rover-team scientists are analyzing various clues that suggest actions of water, wind or ice. They are also considering a range of possible explanations for the stripes, and remain uncertain about whether this texture results from processes of relatively modern Mars or a much older Mars.

For those who are regular readers of Behind the Black, you already knew about a variation of this discovery back in November 2017, from my regular rover updates. Then, they discovered aligned groves in the gravel that looked to me like slickensides, erosion patterns produced by glacial activity. The science team told me, however, that they were favoring wind, not ice, as a primary cause, though that conclusion was far from certain.

In the press release last week, they focused more on the aligned erosion patterns in the fine gravel that appear to align perpendicular to the slope. Though they think they have found a comparable Earth-based phenomenon that might explain these patterns, it appears that the science team remains just as unsure of their cause as they are for the rocks.

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Mars rover update: February 8, 2018

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

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

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

Now to talk about the most recent news from both rovers!
» Read more

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Mars rover update: January 16, 2018

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

Curiosity

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

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

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

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

The last few updates on the Curiosity mission update page indicate the excitement the geologists have for this site:
» Read more

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Mars rover update: December 18, 2017

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

Curiosity

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

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

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

Opportunity

For the context of Opportunity’s recent travels along the rim of Endeavour Crater, see my May 15, 2017 rover update.
» Read more

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Faults on Mars

Faults on Mars

Cool image time! The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) image on the right, reduced in resolution to post here, captures a distinctive fault line that cuts across some layered deposits. As noted by the MRO science team,

Some of the faults produced a clean break along the layers, displacing and offsetting individual beds (yellow arrow).

Interestingly, the layers continue across the fault and appear stretched out (green arrow). These observations suggest that some of the faulting occurred while the layered deposits were still soft and could undergo deformation, whereas other faults formed later when the layers must have been solidified and produced a clean break.

Meridiani Planum

These layers are located in Meridiani Planum, a relatively flat area on the Martian equator. Opportunity landed on this plain to the southwest of this region, as shown on the geology map to the left. The white cross in the southwest corner indicates Opportunity’s landing site, with Endeavour Crater just to the southeast. The white box in the northwest shows where the faulted layered deposits are located. Based on the scale of the map, this places Opportunity approximately 400 miles away.

What exactly caused these distinct faults remains unknown. The likely cause would be a earthquake, but since Mars does not have plate tectonics like the Earth, earthquakes would have to be caused by other geological processes not yet studied.

To my eye, they look like cracks in a mirror, though this provides no real explanation other than it illustrates how cool the image is.

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Mars rover update: November 16, 2017

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

Curiosity

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

Curiosity looks up Vera Rubin Ridge, Sol 1850

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

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

Curiosity on the Hematite Unit, Sol 1866

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

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

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

Opportunity

For the context of Opportunity’s recent travels along the rim of Endeavour Crater, see my May 15, 2017 rover update.
» Read more

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Mars rover update: September 6, 2017

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

Curiosity

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

Curiosity panorama, Sol 1807

Curiosity's location, Sol 1802

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

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

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

That report I think is somewhat optimistic.
» Read more

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Mars rover update: August 11, 2017

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

Curiosity

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

Curiosity panorama, Sol 1782

Vera Rubin Ridge close-up

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

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

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

Below is a cropped and reduced resolution image of the most recent orbital traverse image, dated sol 1754. The dotted line shows where I think the rover’s has traveled in the last 28 sols. I have also annotated what I think is the point of view of the panorama above.
» Read more

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New images downloaded from Curiosity for the first time in two weeks

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

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

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

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Opportunity enters Perseverance Valley

Opportunity in Perseverance Valley

Just prior to the drop in communications this week because of the Sun’s position between the Earth and Mars, Opportunity was ordered down into Perseverance Valley, where it will sit until the return of full communications.

Opportunity entered Perseverance Valley on the west rim of Endeavour crater. The rover is positioned within the valley where she will spend the solar conjunction period.

Solar conjunction is when the Sun comes between Earth and Mars, which occurs about once every 26 months. During this time, there will be diminished communications to Opportunity. More on solar conjunction here: https://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/allaboutmars/nightsky/solar-conjunction/

Two weeks of commanding have been uploaded to the rover to keep her active during solar conjunction with short communications with the Mars orbiters during the period.

The image on the right, reduced to show here, was taken by the rover’s navigation camera looking back uphill at the crater’s crest and the rover’s tracks in the valley. For the scientists the tracks are important because they reveal what the surface of the valley is like, which will help them determine whether it was formed from flowing water, flowing ice, or wind.

Even more significant, this initial drive into the valley means the science team has decided that either the wheel issues in June were not serious enough to prevent them from making this downhill trip, or the science is important enough that they are willing to risk the rover to get that science.

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Opportunity takes panorama at top of Perseverance Valley

On top of Perseverance Valley

During Opportunity’s two week pause in its travels in June as engineers tried to diagnose a problem with its left-front wheel, it took a wide panorama of the surrounding terrain, including the top of Perseverance Valley, released today.

The full panorama, shown above in reduced resolution, is a bit confusing. The head of Perseverance Valley to the northeast is on the right. The view straight ahead looks west, away from the crater. The hill and raising terrain on the left is the crater rim to the south of Perseverance Valley. The panorama is not a complete 360 degree view, as it does not include a direct view to the east and into Endeavour Crater itself.

Be sure and click on the link and look at the full image. The top of the valley is really interesting to view. Was it formed by wind or water or water ice? They hope to find out.

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Mars rover update: June 23, 2017

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

Curiosity

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

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

Reader Phil Veerkamp sent me a beautiful panorama he stitched together from recent Curiosity images of Vera Rubin Ridge, directly to the south of the rover and higher up hill. Below is a reduced resolution version. Be sure you click on it to explore the full resolution image. This is a new type of terrain, significantly different than anything Curiosity has seen up to now. It also appears that the rover will see far less dust, and might be traveling mostly over solid boulders. Below I have cropped out a very small section of the ridge line near the center of the full image, just to illustrate this.
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Mars rover update: May 15, 2017

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

Curiosity

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

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

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

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

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

You can get an overall view of the geology Curiosity is traversing from this October 3, 2016 press release. Below is a version of the traverse map shown at that site that I posted as part of my October 6, 2016 rover update, updated to show Curiosity’s present location. It is apparent that Curiosity is finally moving out of the foothills below Mount Sharp and beginning its climb up the mountain’s actual slopes.
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Mars rover update: April 21, 2017

Curiosity

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

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

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

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

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At the crest

Looking north at the crest

Cool images time! The image above, cropped and reduced to show here, is a panorama that I have created from the most recent images sent down from Opportunity yesterday. The rover sits on the crest of the rim of Endeavour Crater, and this panorama looks north at that crest, back in the direction where the rover has come. The rovers tracks can be seen fading away into the distance slightly to the left of the crestline..If you click on the picture you can see the full resolution image.

The crater floor is to the right, the plains that surround the crater are to the left.

Below is another panorama, created by me from the same images sent down today, this time looking south at the crest in the direction Opportunity is heading. Once again, if you click on the picture you can see the full resolution version.

The full set of today’s images from Opportunity suggest that the science team took them to assemble a full 360 degree panorama before they begin the journey south to the gully that is just now becoming visible at the southernmost edge of the most recent overhead traverse image. To get to that gully they will now have to descend off the crest and down outside the rim of Endeavour Crater, moving to the right in the panorama below. This is therefore their last opportunity for awhile to get a good view from a high overlook.

Looking south at the crest

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Mars rover update: February 14, 2017

Curiosity

Ireson Hill, Sol 1604

Dune fields

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

Taking a close look at rock

Since my last update in January, Curiosity done more or less what I predicted. It headed southwest through the dune area and then made a side trip to the small mesa there, dubbed Ireson Hill by the Curiosity science team and shown on the right. They then made an additional side trip past the hill to get a close look a the large sandy dune field beyond, also shown on the right. After getting some nice closeups as well as scooping up some sand for observation, they have now gone back to Ireson Hill to get another close look at the dark rocks that have rolled off the top of the hill and are now in reach at its base. The image on the left shows the arm positioned above one of those rocks.

The drill remains out of commission, with no word when they will try using it again. In addition, there had been a problem with the ChemCam laser that does spectroscopic analysis, but as of this week it is back in action, and is being used to analysis the small rock above.

Below is an overview of their route so far as well as my annotations on where I think they will be heading in the future.
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