Tag Archives: rover

Perseverance’s planned journey in Jezero Crater

Jezero Crater delta
Jezero Crater delta

If all goes right, on February 18, 2021 the rover Perseverance will gently settle down onto the floor of Jezero Crater on Mars. The image to the right is probably the most reproduced of this site, as it shows the spectacular delta that some scientists believe might be hardened mud that had once flowed like liquid or lava from the break in the rim to the west.

They hope to put Perseverance down to the southeast of that delta, as shown in the overview map below.
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Live stream of Perseverance launch tomorrow

I have embedded below the fold NASA’s live stream channel for tomorrow’s 7:50 am (Eastern) launch of the Perseverance rover to Mars on a ULA Atlas-5 rocket.

At present the channel is carrying NASA’s programming leading up to the launch. The actual live stream for the launch begins at 7 am (Eastern).

The weather looks good, and there appear to be no issues, as of 11 pm (Eastern).

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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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China completes remote communications test of Mars rover

The new colonial movement: Though the report today in China’s state-run press is remarkably vague and lacking in details, it appears that they have successfully completed a remote communications test between their planned Mars rover and their ground control center.

The report also said that this will be the “only” such test before the summer launch of their orbiter/lander/rover to Mars.

China has been exceedingly closed-mouthed about this Mars project. Except for one landing test (which I found far from impressive), they have provided very little information about their progress.
While this does not mean they are having problems, it also does not engender confidence, especially because the launch window is only about four months away.

NASA dubs next Mars rover “Perseverance”

NASA today announced that they have named their next Mars rover, due to launch in July, “Perseverance.”

The name was announced Thursday by Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate, during a celebration at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia. Zurbuchen was at the school to congratulate seventh grader Alexander Mather, who submitted the winning entry to the agency’s “Name the Rover” essay contest, which received 28,000 entries fromK-12 students from every U.S. state and territory.

“Alex’s entry captured the spirit of exploration,” said Zurbuchen. “Like every exploration mission before, our rover is going to face challenges, and it’s going to make amazing discoveries. It’s already surmounted many obstacles to get us to the point where we are today – processing for launch. Alex and his classmates are the Artemis Generation, and they’re going to be taking the next steps into space that lead to Mars. That inspiring work will always require perseverance. We can’t wait to see that nameplate on Mars.”

I truly hope that the rover is well-named, and lives a very long life on Mars, long enough that it is still in use the day an human arrives to touch it again.

Mars 2020 rover takes first and last test drive

Engineers on December 17 gave the Mars 2020 rover its first and last test drive before it is launched in July 2020.

In a 10-plus-hour marathon on Tuesday that demonstrated all the systems working in concert, the rover steered, turned and drove in 3-foot (1-meter) increments over small ramps covered with special static-control mats. Since these systems performed well under Earth’s gravity, engineers expect them to perform well under Mars’ gravity, which is only three-eighths as strong. The rover was also able to gather data with the Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX).

I have embedded a short video showing a tiny part of that driving test below the fold. This is the last and only time we will ever be able to see the rover move. Once it is on Mars in Jezero Crater there will be no third party cameras to record its travels.
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China unveils Mars lander during landing simulation test

The new colonial movement: China today unveiled to the international press its first prototype Mars lander, showing it attempting a simulated controlled descent on a gigantic test stand.

The demonstration of hovering, obstacle avoidance and deceleration capabilities was conducted at a site outside Beijing simulating conditions on the Red Planet, where the pull of gravity is about one-third that of Earth.

China plans to launch a lander and rover to Mars next year to explore parts of the planet in detail.

This is the first time I have heard anything about China sending a lander/rover to Mars in 2020. Previously the reports had discussed only sending an orbiter.

I have embedded video of the test below the fold. It shows the prototype hanging by many wires from the test stand, then dropping quickly, with its engine firing, before stopping suddenly, followed by an engine burst. While impressive, it did not strike me that China is even close to sending this spacecraft to Mars. The test only proved the spacecraft’s ability to do some maneuvering during descent. It did not show that it could land.

That the project’s designer said that landing would take “about seven minutes” also suggests that they are copying the techniques used by JPL to land Curiosity. Considering that JPL’s computers have been repeatedly hacked, including some hacks identified as coming from China, it would not surprise me if China has simply stolen those techniques.

I still expect them to launch an orbiter to Mars in 2020. Whether they also send a lander and rover remains to be seen.
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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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Europe inaugurates ExoMars control center

The Europe Space Agency yesterday inaugurated the control center where it will control and download data from the ExoMars rover, Rosalind Franklin, scheduled to launch to Mars in the summer of 2020.

The control center also includes a dirt filled enclosure where they can simulate Martian conditions with a rover model.

The article outlined the project’s upcoming schedule:

Over the summer the rover will move to Toulouse, France, where it will be tested in Mars-like conditions. At the end of the year Rosalind Franklin will travel to Cannes to meet the landing and carrier modules for final assembly.

As I noted yesterday in my most recent rover update, this assembly, only six months before launch, gives them very little margin. If there are any problems during assembly, they will likely miss the 2020 launch window.

I also wonder if this will allow them any time to do acoustical and environmental testing, as was just completed on NASA’s 2020 rover, to make sure ExoMars can survive launch, landing, and the journey to Mars. If they forego those tests, they might discover after launch that they were launching a paperweight, not an expensive planetary probe.

Trace Gas Orbiter shifts orbit to prepare for ExoMars rover arrival

Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter, in orbit around Mars, is about to make the final shifts to its orbit to place it in the right position to relay communications from the ExoMars 2020 rover, Rosalind Franklin, when it land on Mars in 2020.

Chinese lunar rover and lander enter their third lunar night

The Chinese lunar rover Yutu-2 and its lander Chang’e-4 have gone into hibernation as they enter their third lunar night on the far side of the Moon.

According to Chinese news reports, both spacecraft have now exceeded their nominal lifespan.

With all systems and payloads operating well, the Yutu-2 team will continue roving and science data collection on lunar day 4 of the Chang’e-4 mission, according to a [Chinese] announcement.

Yutu-2 added 43 meters to its overall drive distance in its third day of activities, continuing a path to the northwest of the landing site, which was recently named ‘Statio Tianhe’ by the International Astronomical Union. The rover just covered seven meters between waking for lunar day 3 on Feb. 28 and Mar. 3, during which time it navigated carefully toward a 20 centimeter diameter rock in order to analyze the specimen with an infrared and visible light spectrometer to determine its origin.

I am struck by how tentative the Chinese and their rover appear. The first Russian lunar rover, Luna 17, traveled 6.5 miles in eleven months. The second, Luna 21, traveled 23 miles in four months. At the pace Yutu-2 is setting, it will not come close to these mileages. Moreover, my impression of Chinese space technology in the past decade has been that it is quite robust. This tentativeness thus surprises me. Maybe because this is a government project they are simply covering their butts should something go wrong, and thus making believe the rover is more delicate than it really is.

As Scotty on Star Trek once said, “Always under predict, then over perform.” We might be seeing that pattern here.

NASA officially declares Opportunity dead

NASA today officially announced that the rover Opportunity — built to last 90 days — is dead, only three weeks after celebrating its fifteenth anniversary operating on the Martian surface.

This is what project scientist Steve Squyres had to say about the rover’s finish:

“When I saw that the storm had gone global, I thought this could be it,” said Squyres, explaining that Opportunity was a solar-powered vehicle and needed the sun for energy. “To have Opportunity – designed for 90 days – taken out after fourteen and a half years by one of the most ferocious dust storms to hit the planet in decades, you have got to feel pretty good about it.”

He said: “It was an honorable end, and it came a whole lot later than any of us expected.”

The article gives some nice background into the personal stories of many of the scientists who worked on Opportunity for all those years. For some overall scientific context, see this article. Or you can read the many rover updates I have written in the past two and a half years, which will give you a detailed sense of Opportunity’s travels along the rim of Endeavour Crater.

NASA about to pull plug on Opportunity

Rumors today say that during a press conference tomorrow NASA will announce that it is closing the books on the incredibly successful rover Opportunity.

From the first link:

NASA said Tuesday it will issue a final series of recovery commands, on top of more than 1,000 already sent. If there’s no response by Wednesday — which NASA suspects will be the case — Opportunity will be declared dead, 15 years after arriving at the red planet.

Opportunity was supposed to last 90 days. Instead, it lasted just under fifteen years, drove 28 miles, and saw far more of the Martian surface than anyone ever expected.

It now sits inside the rim of fourteen-mile Endeavour Crater, waiting for those first explorers to come and get it. I wonder when that will be.

UK names rover for 2020 ExMars mission

The United Kingdom has named its rover for 2020 ExMars mission in honor of Rosalind Franklin, one of the scientists who contributed to the discovery of the helix structure of DNA.

Franklin is best known for her work on the X-ray diffraction images of DNA. Her data was a part of the data used to formulate Crick and Watson’s 1953 hypothesis regarding the structure of DNA. Unpublished drafts of her papers show that she had determined the overall B-form of the DNA helix. Her work supported the hypothesis of Watson and Crick and was published third in the series of three DNA Nature articles. After finishing her portion of the DNA work, Franklin led pioneering work on the tobacco mosaic and polio viruses. Franklin died from ovarian cancer at the age of 37, four years before Crick, Watson and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their work on DNA.

Though this isn’t entire clear from the press release, it appears that they will refer to the rover as either “Rosalind Franklin” or “Rosalind.”

More successful image downloads for Curiosity

It increasingly looks like the computer download issues on the Mars rover Curiosity are being solved. For the first time in more than five weeks engineers were able to download numerous images from both of the rovers hazard avoidance cameras as well as both of its navigation cameras. More importantly, for the first time in five weeks they were able to do this two days in a row.

The Curiosity science team has as yet released no press update, but it appears that they are carefully testing the computer to make sure it is functioning properly. This computer was the rover’s original primary computer, but when it had problems several months after landing they had switched to the back-up computer. When that back-up computer had problems sending data back to Earth in September they decided to switch back to the original computer, which had been thought fixed.

Because of the original issues with the primary computer I suspect they are simply proceeding very slowly, so as not to have something fail in a manner that will not be recoverable. First they used it two weeks ago to upload a handful of small images from the hazard avoidance and navigation cameras. Then, after a week of analysis they uploaded a few more images from these cameras.

Then, after another week of analysis, they uploaded a full complement of images from all four cameras, and they did it two days in a row, suggesting that they are increasingly confident that the computer is operating correctly.

I expect a press release updating us on the specifics any time now.

Active signaling to Opportunity to end

While NASA will continue to listen for activity from Opportunity for many more months, its active effort to signal the Mars rover is about to end.

After more than a month, Opportunity has not responded to those commands, and that active listening effort will soon end. “We intend to keep pinging Opportunity on a daily basis for at least another week or two,” said Lori Glaze, acting director of NASA’s planetary science division, during a presentation Oct. 22 at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences here.

Glaze said that a factor in ending the active listening campaign is to prepare for the landing of the InSight spacecraft on Mars Nov. 26. “We want to wind that down before InSight gets to Mars and make sure all our orbital assets are focused on a successful landing of InSight,” she said.

That schedule is consistent with previous plans for attempting to restore contact with Opportunity. NASA said Aug. 30 that, once skies cleared sufficiently, it would attempt active listening for 45 days. “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,” John Callas, Opportunity project manager, said in a statement outlining those plans.

I would not be surprised if they do try to signal the rover a few more times, in January after the busy fall period when there are a lot of planetary probes needing access to the Deep Space Network. Even so, it appears the rover’s life is finally at an end, fourteen years past its originally planned lifespan of only 90 days.

Curiosity sends down images for the first time in weeks

Good news! For the first time since September 15 Curiosity has sent back images.

The last raw images were received on Sol 2171, equivalent to September 15. Today’s images (Sol 2199) from the front and rear hazard cameras and the two navigation cameras suggest that the engineers have solved the computer issues that prevented the rover from sending its science data to Earth.

No press release has yet been released, but I suspect we shall see something shortly.

Curiosity has problem sending back its stored data

The science team running Curiosity found this week that the rover is suddenly unable to send back its stored data.

Over the past few days, engineers here at JPL have been working to address an issue on Curiosity that is preventing it from sending much of the science and engineering data stored in its memory. The rover remains in its normal mode and is otherwise healthy and responsive.

The issue first appeared Saturday night while Curiosity was running through the weekend plan. Besides transmitting data recorded in its memory, the rover can transmit “real-time” data when it links to a relay orbiter or Deep Space Network antenna. These real-time data are transmitting normally, and include various details about the rover’s status. Engineers are expanding the details the rover transmits in these real-time data to better diagnose the issue. Because the amount of data coming down is limited, it might take some time for the engineering team to diagnose the problem.

On Monday and Tuesday, engineers discussed which real-time details would be the most useful to have. They also commanded the rover to turn off science instruments that were still on, since their data are not being stored. They’re also preparing to use the rover’s backup computer in case they need to use it to diagnose the primary computer. That backup computer was the rover’s primary one until Sol 200, when it experienced both a hardware failure and software issue that have since been addressed.

In other words, the rover is functioning, they can communicate with it in real time, but any data stored on board for some reason is not being transmitted.

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.

How to build a scaled-down version of Curiosity, all by yourself!

JPL has released open-source plans for building a scaled down version of the rover Curiosity at a total cost of only $2,500.

This project is a successor to an earlier educational rover model called “ROV-E,” which received positive responses in schools and museums, NASA said. The Open Source Rover offers a more affordable, less complicated model, and according to agency officials, people can assemble the new model with off-the-shelf parts for about $2,500.

“While the OSR [Open Source Rover] instructions are quite detailed, they still allow the builder the option of making their own design choices,” JPL officials said. “For example, builders can decide what controllers to use, weigh the trade-offs of adding USB cameras or solar panels and even attach science payloads. The baseline design of OSR … will allow users to choose how they want to customize and add to their rover, touching on multiple hardware and software principles along the way.”

I wonder how heavy a home-built rover would be, and whether it could be launched on a Falcon Heavy to Mars.

Another failed drilling attempt by Curiosity

The second attempt by Curiosity to drill into Vera Rubin Ridge was a failure, the rock once again being too hard using the rover’s new improvised drilling technique.

They are now in search of “softer rock.” The scientists very much want to get at least one drill hole in the hematite unit on Vera Rubin Ridge. However, it does appear that the new drill technique, that uses the robot arm to push the drill bit down as its drills, does not provide enough force for some hard geological features.

The failure to drill is in itself not a complete scientific washout. Knowing the hardness of a rock can tell a geologist a great deal about it. Nonetheless, the Curiosity science team seems determined to find something they can drill into on Vera Rubin Ridge.

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.

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's travels on and off Vera Rubin Ridge

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

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

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

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

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

I suspect that they are proceeding carefully with this because this new technique places stress the operation of the robot arm, something they absolutely do not want to lose. By leaving Vera Rubin Ridge they return to the more delicate and softer materials already explored in the Murray Formation. This is very clear in the photo below, cropped from the original to post here, showing the boulder they have chosen to drill into, dubbed “Duluth,” with the successful drill hole to the right.
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NASA will fly a test drone on 2020 Mars rover mission

NASA today announced that a test drone, dubbed Mars Helicopter, will be flown on the 2020 Mars rover mission.

Once the rover is on the planet’s surface, a suitable location will be found to deploy the helicopter down from the vehicle and place it onto the ground. The rover then will be driven away from the helicopter to a safe distance from which it will relay commands. After its batteries are charged and a myriad of tests are performed, controllers on Earth will command the Mars Helicopter to take its first autonomous flight into history.

“We don’t have a pilot and Earth will be several light minutes away, so there is no way to joystick this mission in real time,” said Aung. “Instead, we have an autonomous capability that will be able to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own.”

The full 30-day flight test campaign will include up to five flights of incrementally farther flight distances, up to a few hundred meters, and longer durations as long as 90 seconds, over a period. On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet (3 meters), where it will hover for about 30 seconds.

As a technology demonstration, the Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward project. If it does not work, the Mars 2020 mission will not be impacted. If it does work, helicopters may have a real future as low-flying scouts and aerial vehicles to access locations not reachable by ground travel.

The only word I can think of to express my thoughts on this is “Cool!”

Heat shield for 2020 Mars rover cracks during testing

The heat shield to be used during landing by the U.S.’s 2020 Mars rover cracked during recent testing.

The heat shield’s structural damage, located near the shield’s outer edge, happened during a weeklong test at the Denver facility of contractor Lockheed Martin Space, according to a NASA statement released Thursday (April 26). The test was intended to subject the heat shield to forces about 20 percent greater than those it will experience when it hits the Martian atmosphere for entry, descent and landing operations.

The Mars 2020 team found the fracture on April 12. Mission management at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, will work with Lockheed Martin to lead an examination of the cause of the crack and to decide if any design changes should be made, NASA officials said in the statement.

They do not expect this issue to cause them to miss the 2020 launch window. However, it is astonishing that the heat shield should fail in this manner. First, to save development costs this rover was essentially a rebuild of Curiosity. The new heat shield should have been the same design, and thus should have already been proven capable of surviving this test. Second, Lockheed Martin has been making heat shields of all kinds for decades. This is not cutting edge technology.

Third, note that Lockheed Martin is building Orion, and it also experienced cracks in the capsule’s structure (not its heat shield) during manufacture and testing.

Overall, these facts suggest that some fundamental manufacturing error has occurred, and that there might also be a quality control problem at Lockheed Martin.

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.

Curiosity takes a panorama that shows its entire journey so far

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

Rather than post the image here, I have posted below the fold a video produced by the science team that pans across the entire panorama, and then shows where Curiosity has traveled in that panorama. Look close, and you will realize how truly little of Mars we have so far explored.
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U.S. 2020 Mars rover faces delays

A new inspector general report has pinpointed a number of issues that could cause a delay in the 2020 launch of the next American Mars rover mission.

The biggest risk to the mission, according to NASA OIG, is the sampling system that will be used to collect and store samples of Martian rock and soil that a future mission will gather for return to Earth. That system, an essential part of the mission, has several key technologies that are less mature than planned at this phase of the mission’s development. “The immaturity of the critical technologies related to the Sampling System is concerning because, according to Mars 2020 Project managers, the Sampling System is the rover’s most complex new development component with delays likely to eat into the Project’s schedule reserve and, in the worst case scenario, could delay launch,” OIG stated.

I find it puzzling that the sampling system is an issue. This rover is essentially based on Curiosity, which has very sophisticated equipment for grabbing and even storing samples for periods of time. I don’t understand why such systems could not be quickly revised for future retrieval.

Nonetheless, there are other problems however.

Two instruments on the Mars 2020 mission have also suffered problems. One, called MOXIE, is designed to test the ability to generate oxygen on Mars, saw its estimated increase by more than 50 percent during its development. NASA has taken steps to reduce some of that cost growth by eliminating development of an engineering model and skipping further design improvements in one element of MOXIE.

Another instrument designed to study atmospheric conditions on Mars, MEDA, has suffered delays because of a “financial reorganization” by its developer, Spain’s National Institute for Aerospace Technology. OIG concluded in its report that MEDA is unlikely to be ready for delivery to NASA in April 2018, as currently scheduled. That could require adding MEDA to the rover later in the overall assembly process, or flying the mission without the instrument.

One of the reasons the Obama administration decided to make this 2020 rover mission a reboot of Curiosity was to save cost and development time. Thus, it does not speak well for NASA’s planetary program that they are having these problems.

Curiosity spots cracks formed from drying mud

mud cracks on Mars?

As Curiosity moves across the dust-shrewn dune-filled flats at the base of Mt. Sharp it has recently taken images of surface rocks that have cracks resembling those found from drying mud.

Scientists used NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover in recent weeks to examine slabs of rock cross-hatched with shallow ridges that likely originated as cracks in drying mud. “Mud cracks are the most likely scenario here,” said Curiosity science team member Nathan Stein. He is a graduate student at Caltech in Pasadena, California, who led the investigation of a site called “Old Soaker,” on lower Mount Sharp, Mars.

If this interpretation holds up, these would be the first mud cracks — technically called desiccation cracks — confirmed by the Curiosity mission. They would be evidence that the ancient era when these sediments were deposited included some drying after wetter conditions. Curiosity has found evidence of ancient lakes in older, lower-lying rock layers and also in younger mudstone that is above Old Soaker.

The rover is no longer on the floor the crater, but in the foothills at the base of Mt. Sharp. Thus, what we are likely looking at is evidence of the slow disappearance of the giant lake that scientists think once filled Gale Crater. These mud cracks suggest that the rover is now moving up out of the lake and through its margins.

I plan to do a rover update for both Curiosity and Opportunity tomorrow, so stay tuned.

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