News From Mars: Curiosity Celebrates 2 Years!

curiosity_peakEarlier this month, Curiosity marked its second year on the Red Planet, and this anniversary comes amidst plenty of exciting news and developments. Ever since the rover touched down at the Bradbury Landing site inside the Gale Crater on August 5, 2012 at 10:31 pm PDT (August 6, 05:31 GMT), it has been busily searching for signs that life once existed on Earth’s neighbor. And as it enters into its third year of exploration, it is getting closer to accomplishing this lofty goal.

The nuclear-powered explorer is the largest, most advanced rover ever built. And since nothing like it had ever flown before and the maintenance facility was over 160 million kilometers (1oo million miles) away, the first months that Curiosity spent on Mars involved an array of system tests before it took it first tentative rolls across the Martian sands on its roundabout path to Mount Sharp.

curiosity_roadmap1Curiosity’s main mission was to find out if there are any places on Mars where life could have once existed – specifically, areas displaying minerals and geology that could have been produced by water. The Bradbury Landing site, where it touched down, turned out to be very close to an ancient dried lake bed in an area named Yellowknife Bay. According to NASA, this lake bed may have been able to sustain microbial life billions of years ago.

And then, barely six months after landing, the scientists struck gold when they drilled into a rock outcrop named “John Klein” at Yellowknife Bay and unexpectedly discovered the clay bearing minerals on the crater floor. This was the first instance of Curiosity finding clay-bearing minerals. or phyllosilicates, which are a key sign that organic molecules could exist on the planet.

Curiosity_drillingsAs Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the Caltech said in a statement to mark the anniversary:

Before landing, we expected that we would need to drive much farther before answering that habitability question. We were able to take advantage of landing very close to an ancient streambed and lake. Now we want to learn more about how environmental conditions on Mars evolved, and we know where to go to do that.

Compared to its first year, which was marked by many firsts – such as the first drilling operation on Mars, the first laser firing, and first UV night scans – Curiosity’s second year on the Red Planet has been more routine. However, it hasn’t been without its share of excitement. In February, the rover cleared a dune that blocked its progress and in July it negotiated a detour around rocky terrain at Zabriskie Plateau.

curiosity-2nd-year-2However, by far, the majority of the rovers second Earth year on the Red Planet has been spent driving as fast as possible towards a safe entry point to the slopes of Mount Sharp. To date, Curiosity’s odometer totals over 9.0 kilometers (5.5 miles) since landing inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012, and her on board camera has snapped over 174,000 images – many of which have been transformed into panoramic shots of the surface.

The desired destination for the rover is now about 3 kms (2 miles) southwest of its current location. This consists of a bedrock unit that for the first time is actually part of the humongous mountain known as Mount Sharp. As the primary destination on her ongoing mission, this layered mountain in the Gale Crater towers 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles) into the Martian sky, and is believed to hold the most compelling evidence of life yet.

mountsharp_galecraterThe sedimentary layers in the lower slopes of Mount Sharp are the principal reason why the science team specifically chose Gale Crater as the primary landing site. Using high resolution spectral observations collected by NASA’s powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), they were able to determine the presence of deposits of clay-bearing minerals. or phyllosilicates, a key sign that organic molecules could exist on the planet.

In late July of this year, the rover arrived in an area of sandy terrain called “Hidden Valley” which is on the planned route ahead leading to “Pahrump Hills”. Scientists anticipated that the outcrops here would offer a preview of a geological unit that is part of the base of Mount Sharp for the first time since landing. However, the sharp edged rocks caused significant damage to the rovers six aluminum wheels, forcing it to make a detour.

Mars_rovermapThis detour will take Curiosity to a similar site called “Bonanza King” to carry out its fourth drilling mission. According to NASA, this is no great loss because the two areas are geologically connected and the space agency is keen to look at a formation that is different from the crater floor formations encountered so far. Engineers are studying Bonanza King to see if its is suitable for drilling by assessing whether or not the plates seen on the surface are loose.

When drilling operations resume, NASA will study alternative routes to Mount Sharp and determine how well the rover’s wheels can handle sand ripples. However, as Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences, said during an interview during the rover’s second anniversary in Washington, DC : “Getting to Mount Sharp is the next big step for Curiosity and we expect that in the Fall of this year.”

Godspeed, little rover! And I do hope that it finds the long-sought-after organic particles it has been looking for since the mission began. This discovery will not only show that life once existed on Mars (and still does in some capacity) it will also be one of the greatest scientific finds of all time, and maybe even serve as the starting point for ensuring that it can exist again.


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Interactive Panorama of Curiosity!

Curiosity_selfportraitThe credit goes to photographer Andrew Bodrov for creating this new and stunning  interactive self-portrait of the Curiosity Rover. Relying on several recent images taken at the “John Klein” drilling sight, he was able to create a full 360-degree panorama. What’s more, the picture is interactive, giving viewers the option of clicking, zooming, and surveying the entire “John Klein” drilling sight.

The mosaic stretches about 30,000 pixels width and includes the self-portrait, which consists of 66 different images (seen above) taken by the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) during the 177th Martian sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars (Feb. 3, 2013 here on Earth), along with 113 images taken on Sol 170 and an additional 17 images taken on Sol 176.

curiosity_sol-177-1The full and non-interactive photo appears above. If you look closely, you can see the drill holes directly beneath the rover. In addition, the shiny protuberance which was noticed earlier this month. And if you pan around the sky, you get a look at what a typical Martian day looks like, at least in Yellowknife Bay.

Click here to see the panorama and tinker with it some! And stay tuned for more news from the Red Planet!


Curiosity Drills!

curiosity_drillsIn what is a first amongst cosmic first, the Curiosity Rover drilled into Martian rock and collected fresh samples from the resulting dust. The precision drilling took place this past Friday, Feb. 8, 2013 – during the 182nd day of the mission – after numerous tests and procedures were conducted. The images were beamed back to Earth on the following day (Saturday, Feb 9) amidst a great deal of fanfare and celebration.

Given the fact that it took them nearly a decade of painstaking work and effort to design, assemble, launch and land the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover, it’s obvious while the rover team is overjoyed with this latest development. What’s more, this was more than just a first in the history of space exploration, it also marked Curiosity’s 6 month anniversary on the Red Planet since touching down on Aug. 6, 2012 inside Gale Crater.

John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate, had this to say about the drilling:

“The most advanced planetary robot ever designed now is a fully operating analytical laboratory on Mars. This is the biggest milestone accomplishment for the Curiosity team since the sky-crane landing last August, another proud day for America.”

curiosity_drilling_sightCuriosity drilled a circular hole about  16 mm (0.63 inch) wide and 64mm (2.5 inches) deep into the red slab at the “John Klein” rock site. The  fine-grained sedimentary rock, which is rich with hydrated mineral veins of calcium sulfate, parted to produce a slurry of grey trailings surrounding the hole. These dust samples were then collected for examination using the rover’s on board laboratory.

The team believes the area known as Yellowknife Bay, where the drilling took place, repeatedly experienced percolation of flowing liquid water eons ago when Mars was warmer and wetter, and potentially more hospitable to the possible evolution of life. These latest samples, they hope, will offer additional compelling evidence to this effect, and also some traces of organic molecules.

curiosity_drillbitWhile this may sound like an ordinary day around NASA, it represents a quantum leap in terms of what remote landed craft are capable of doing. At no time in the past have astronauts been able to place mobile research platforms on a distant planet, collect samples of said planet, and conduct research on them, all the while beaming the results and images back to labs at Earth for analysis.

What’s next for the rover? Well, once the analysis is complete, the 1 ton robot will continue to investigate Yellowknife Bay and the Glenelg area. After that, it will set off on a nearly year long trek to her main destination – the sedimentary layers of the lower reaches of the  5 km (3 mile) high mountain named Mount Sharp – some 10 km (6 miles) away from its current position.


The Latest From Mars: Water, Drilling, and Night Photos

curiosity_drilling2And we’re back from Mars with another slew of updates and breaking news! It seems that ever since the Curiosity Rover landed back in early August, the revelations and interesting facts have been pouring in non-stop. With each bit of news, we learn a little more about the Red Planet’s composition, its history, and how both are so similar to our own.

And in recent weeks, ever since Curiosity moved into Yellowknife Bay, there have been a number of interesting developments. One came back in January when the Rover found a series of calcium-rich deposits, similar to the kind observed here on Earth. These types of deposits are observed wherever and whenever water circulates through cracks and rock fractures. This is just the latest in a long string of discoveries which support the conclusion that Mars was once home to vast rivers.

curiosity_calciumThe images above show the similarity between the sulfate-rich veins seen by Curiosity rover to sulfate-rich veins seen on Earth. The view on the left is a mosaic of two shots from the remote micro-imager on Curiosity’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument which were taken on Dec. 14, 2012, or the 126th sol (Martian day) of operations. The image on the right is from the Egyptian desert here on Earth, which a pocket knife included for scale.

curiosity_night1The next bit of news came on January 25th when Curiosity’s high resolution robotic arm camera – also known as the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) – snapped its first set of nighttime images. The images were illuminated by both an ultraviolet and white light emitting LED’s (shown above and below). The rock outcropping – named “Sayunei”, located at the site of the “John Klein” outcrop – was just one of many to be found in Yellowknife Bay where Curiosity has been conducting ongoing surveys.

curiosity_nightIn this case, it was breaking the rock apart in an effort to try and expose fresh material, free of obscuring dust. Once exposed, the pictures were meant to determine the internal makeup of the rock. “The purpose of acquiring observations under ultraviolet illumination was to look for fluorescent minerals,” said MAHLI Principal Investigator Ken Edgett of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. “If something looked green, yellow, orange or red under the ultraviolet illumination, that’d be a more clear-cut indicator of fluorescence.”

In addition, certain classes of organic compounds are also fluorescent. Yes, that search continues!

Curiosity_drillAnd last, but not least, came the news at the end of January that indicated that Curiosity’s long-awaited test of its high-powered drill will finally be taking place. This first drilling operation entailed hammering a test hole into a flat rock at the John Klien formation for the purposes of making sure everything works as needed. If things pan out, then the team would conduct many more tests and collect the drillings for analysis by the Rover’s CheMin and SAM analytical labs in the coming days.

In anticipation of the planned drilling operation, the rover carried out a series of four ‘pre-load’ tests on Monday (Jan. 27), whereby the rover placed the drill bit onto Martian surface targets at the John Klein outcrop and pressed down on the drill with the robotic arm. Engineers then checked the data to see whether the force applied matched predictions. The next step was an overnight pre-load test, to gain assurance that the large temperature change from day to night at the rover’s location would not add excessively to stress on the arm while it is pressing on the drill.

curiosity_drilling1The photo above shows the before and after shots of the rock where the drill conducted its hammering. And as you can see, the rock powered and is of a different color inside – slate gray as opposed to rust red. If the MSL lab deems the slab suitable, a number of test holes are likely to be drilled – using the rotation as well the percussive action – before a powdered sample is picked up and delivered to Curiosity’s onboard laboratories.

And so far, according to Curiosity project scientist John Grotzinger, things are looking good:

“The drilling is going very well so far and we’re making great progress with the early steps. The rock is behaving well and it looks pretty soft, so that’s encouraging,” he told BBC News.”

Ultimately, the purpose of the rover’s mission is to try to determine whether Gale has ever had the environments in the past that were capable of supporting bacterial life. Detailing the composition of rocks is critical to this investigation as the deposits in the crater will retain a geochemical record of the conditions under which they formed. Drilling a few centimetres inside a rock provides a fresh sample that is free from weathering or radiation damage, both of which are common to the Martian surface.

There is more to follow, for sure. And in the meantime, check out this video of the Mars Science Labs providing the latest Curiosity Rover Report explaining their finds for the month of January and plans for February.

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