Mars has been quite the source of news in recent weeks. And perhaps its the fact that I got to witness some truly interesting astronomical phenomena yesterday – i.e. Sunspots through a telescope – but all of them seem to have caught my attention at once. And given their importance to the ongoing exploration of Mars and our Solar System, I would be remiss if I didn’t pass them on.
The first bit of news began late last month, when the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped this image of the Curiosity rover as it made its way through the “Glenelg” area of Gale Crater. The rover appeared as a little more than a blueish dot in the picture, but much more visible was the rover’s tracks.
This unique photo was made possible thanks to a little maneuvering and a some serious alignment. Basically, the folks working at the Mars Science Laboratory were able to bring the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) into position between the Sun and curiosity, bringing the Sun, MRO, and the rover on the surface were in a near-perfect alignment.
HiRISE principal investigator Alfred McEwen addressed the photos on the HiRISE website and explained how it was all made possible:
The rover tracks stand out clearly in this view, extending west to the landing site where two bright, relatively blue spots indicate where MSL’s landing jets cleared off the redder surface dust. When HiRISE captured this view, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was rolled for an eastward-looking angle rather than straight downward. The afternoon sun illuminated the scene from the western sky, so the lighting was nearly behind the camera. Specifically, the angle from sun to orbiter to rover was just 5.47 degrees.
Curiosity has since moved on and is now heading towards the large mound in Gale Crater officially named Aeolis Mons (aka. Mount Sharp).
Which brings us to the second news item in this week’s Mars bulletin. It seems that since July 4th, after finishing up a seven months survey in Yellowknife Bay, Curiosity has achieved a long-distance driving record as it made its way to Mount Sharp. This took place on Saturday July 21st (Sol 340), when Curiosity drove a distance of 100.3 meters (109.7 yards) in a single day.
To give you some perspective, that’s the length of a football field (at least in the US), a distance that is without equal since she first landed inside the Gale Crater nearly a year ago. The previous record for a one-day drive was about half a football field – 49 meters (54 yards) – and was achieved on Sept. 26, 2012 (Sol 50), roughly seven weeks after Curiosity made its tense, nail-biting landing.
What enabled us to drive so far on Sol 340 was starting at a high point and also having Mastcam images giving us the size of rocks so we could be sure they were not hazards. We could see for quite a distance, but there was an area straight ahead that was not clearly visible, so we had to find a path around that area.
A combination of increased experience by the rover’s engineers and a series of intermediate software upgrades have also played a key role in getting Curiosity on its way to the 5.5 kilometer (3.4 mile) high Mount Sharp. This is expected to improve even more as soon as new driving software called autonomous navigation (or autonav) finishes development and is incorporated.
Following another lengthy drive of 62.4 meters (68.2 yards) on Wednesday, July 23 (Sol 342), the mission’s total driving distance stands at 1.23 kilometers (0.81 mile) so far. But Mount Sharp still lies about another 8 km (5 miles) away at this point, so we can be expect to be hearing plenty from the rover between now and when it arrives.
For the record, it has already been discovered that the mountain contains vast caches of minerals that could potentially support a habitable environment. So when Curiosity arrives, we can expect another string of exciting finds!
And it is this subject of mountain goals which brings me to the last, but by no means least, of the Martian updates. While Curiosity has been making its way towards Mt. Sharp to conduct research on potentially habitable environments, Opportunity is just days away from reaching Solander Point, another Martian mountain which NASA seeks to learn more about.
This comes on the heels of the rover’s ten year, ongoing mission that was only ever expected to last ninety days. According to an update from Ray Arvidson earlier today, the mission’s deputy principal scientific investigator from Washington University in St. Louis, the rover is now just 180 meters away from the new mountain.
As NASA had previously stated, Solander Point represents ‘something completely different’ for the rover, being the first mountain it will ever climb. What’s more, the mountains mineral wealth may possess the key chemical ingredients necessary to sustain Martian life forms, and the area exhibits signatures related to water flow.
In many ways, you could say Solander Point represents a chance for the Mars Science Laboratory to find the elusive “organic molecules” they’ve been searching for since Curiosity first landed. And if it’s the veteran rover that finds the first hard evidence of their existence, it would be quite the feather in the Opportunity team’s cap.
But before moving onto the first leg of ascent, Arvidson explained that the rover will be making a brief pause in its current location to conduce some exciting experiments. Thanks to observations made of the area by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter with its CRISM instrument (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometers for Mars), the rover will be conducting some on-the-spot analysis to see if there is indeed evidence of water.
This past spring, Opportunity made the historic discovery of clay minerals and a habitable environment on a low hill called Cape York, the rover’s prior stop along the rim of Endeavour Crater. Solander was selected as the robot’s next destination because it also offers a goldmine of scientific data. Another reason was because its north facing slopes will be a boon to Opportunity’s solar wings, ensuring it more power before Martian winter sets in.
But since Opportunity is currently sitting on a healthy supply of power and has some time before the onset of her 6th Martian winter, the team decided to take a small detour to the southeast and spend several days exploring the area for more evidence of water-bearing minerals.
If successful, this will be yet another accomplishment for the rover during its long tenure of service to NASA. Today marks the 3380th day of continuous service for the rover – aka. Sol 3380 – a mission which has resulted in numerous scientific finds, over 182,000 images, and a driving distance of roughly 38 kilometers (23.6 miles). This, as already mentioned, puts Opportunity in the top spot for the longest distance traveled on another planet.
Yes, it seems that the Red Planet is certainly doing all it can to keep explorers and scientists intrigued. No telling what we might learn between now and the point when manned missions take place, and human astronauts are able to see the surface and study its mysteries close up. Personally, I’m hoping for signs of existing supplies of water, not to mention those tricky organic molecules. If settlement and terraforming are ever to take place, we need to know we’ve got something to work with!