Happy Anniversary Curiosity!

curiosity_sol-177-1Two days ago, the Mars Rover known as Curiosity celebrated a full year of being on the Red Planet. And what better way for it to celebrate than to revel in the scientific discoveries the rover has made? In addition to providing NASA scientists with years worth of valuable data, these groundbreaking finds have also demonstrated that Mars could once have supported past life – thereby accomplishing her primary science goal.

And it appears that the best is yet come, with the rover speeding off towards Mount Sharp – the 5.5 km (3.4 mile) high mountain dominating the center of the Gale Crater – which is the rover’s primary destination of the mission. This mountain is believed to contain vast caches of minerals that could potentially support a habitable environment, thus making it a veritable gold mine of scientific data!

curiosity-anniversary-1To take stock of everything Curiosity has accomplished, some numbers need to be tallied. In the course of the past year, Curiosity has transmitted over 190 gigabits of data, captured more than 71,000 images, fired over 75,000 laser shots to investigate the composition of rocks and soil, and drilled into two rocks for sample analysis by the SAM & CheMin labs housed in her belly.

On top of all that, the rover passed the 1 mile (1.6 km) driving mark on August 1st. Granted, Mount Sharp (aka. Aeolis Mons) is still 8 km (5 miles) away and the trip is expected to take a full year. But the rover has had little problems negotiated the terrain at this point, and the potential for finding microbial life on the mountain is likely to make the extended trip worthwhile.

curiosity-anniversary-20But even that doesn’t do the rover’s year of accomplishments and firsts justice. To really take stock of them all, one must consult the long-form list of milestones Curiosity gave us. Here they are, in order of occurrence from landing to the the long trek to Mount Sharp that began last month:

1. The Landing: Curiosity’s entrance to Mars was something truly new and revolutionary. For starters, the distance between Earth and Mars at the time of her arrival was so great that the spacecraft had to make an entirely autonomous landing with mission control acting as a bystander on a 13-minute delay. This led to quite a bit a tension at Mission Control! In addition, Curiosity was protected by a revolutionary heat shield that also acted as a lifting body that allowed the craft to steer itself as it slowed down in the atmosphere. After the aeroshell and heat shield were jettisoned, the rover was lowered by a skycrane, which is a rocket-propelled frame with a winch that dropped Curiosity to the surface.

2. First Laser Test: Though Curiosity underwent many tests during the first three weeks after its landing, by far the most dramatic was the one involving its laser. This single megawatt laser, which was designed to vaporize solid rock and study the resultant plasma with its ChemCab system, is the first of its kind to be used on another planet. The first shot was just a test, but once Curiosity was on the move, it would be used for serious geological studies.Curiosity-Laser-Beam3. First Drive: Granted, Curiosity’s first drive test was more of a parking maneuver, where the rover moved a mere 4.57 m (15 ft), turned 120 degrees and then reversed about 2.4 m (8 feet). This brought it a total of about 6  m (20 ft) from its landing site – now named Bradbury Landing after the late author Ray Bradbury. Still, it was the first test of the rover’s drive system, which is essentially a scaled-up version of the one used by the Sojourn and Opportunity rovers. This consists of six 50 cm (20-in) titanium-spoked aluminum wheels, each with its own electric motor and traction cleats to deal with rough terrain.

4. Streams Human Voice: On August 28, 2012, Curiosity accomplished another historical first when it streamed a human voice from the planet Mars back to Earth across 267 million km (168 million miles). It was a 500 kilobyte audio file containing a prerecorded message of congratulations for the engineers behind Curiosity from NASA administrator Charles Bolden, and demonstrated the challenges of sending radio beams from Earth to distant machines using satellite relays.

curiosity-anniversary-45. Writes a Message: Demonstrating that it can send messages back to Earth through other means than its radio transmitter, the Curiosity’s treads leave indentations in the ground that spell out JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) in Morse Code for all to see. Apparently, this is not so much a gimmick as a means of keeping track how many times the wheels make a full revolution, thus acting as an odometer rather than a message system.

6. Flexing the Arm: Curiosity’s robotic arm and the tools it wield are part of what make it so popular. But before it could be put to work, it had to tested extensively, which began on August 30th. The tools sported by this 1.88 m (6.2-ft) 33.11kg (73 lb) arm include a drill for boring into rocks and collecting powdered samples, an Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS), a scooping hand called the Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis (CHIMRA), the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), and the Dust Removal Tool (DRT).

curiosity-alluvialplain7. Discovery of Ancient Stream Bed: Curiosity’s main mission is to seek out areas where life may have once or could still exist. Therefore, the discovery in September of rocky outcroppings that are the remains of an ancient stream bed consisting of water-worn gravel that was washed down from the rim of Gale Crater, was a major achievement. It meant that there was a time when Mars was once a much wetter place, and increases the chances that it once harbored life, and perhaps still does.

8. First Drilling: In February, Curiosity conducted the first robot drill on another planet. Whereas previous rovers have had to settle for samples obtained by scooping and scraping, Curiosity’s drill is capable of rotational and percussive drilling to get beneath the surface. This is good, considering that the intense UV radiation and highly reactive chemicals on the surface of Mars means that finding signs of life requires digging beneath the surface to the protected interior of rock formations.Curiosity_drillings9. Panoramic Self Portrait: If Curiosity has demonstrated one skill over and over, it is the ability to take pictures. This is due to the 17 cameras it has on board, ranging from the black and white navigation cameras to the high-resolution color imagers in the mast. In the first week of February, Curiosity used its Mars Hand Lens Imager to take 130 high-resolution images, which were assembled into a 360⁰ panorama that included a portrait of itself. This was just one of several panoramic shots that Curiosity sent back to Earth, which were not only breathtakingly beautiful, but also provided scientists with a degree of clarity and context that it often lacking from images from unmanned probes. In addition, these self-portraits allow engineers to keep an eye on Curiosity’s physical condition.

10. Long Trek: And last, but not least, on July 4th, Curiosity began a long journey that took it out of the sedimentary outcrop called “Shaler” at Glenelg and began the journey to Mount Sharp which will take up to a year. On July 17, Curiosity passed the one-kilometer mark from Bradbury Landing in its travels, and has now gone more than a mile. Granted, this is still a long way from the breaking the long-distance record, currently held by Opportunity, but it’s a very good start.

curiosity_roadmapSuch was Curiosity’s first 365 days on Mars, in a nutshell. As it enters into its second year, it is expected to make many more finds, ones which are potentially “Earthshaking”, no doubt! What’s more, the findings of the last year have had an emboldening effect on NASA, which recently announced that it would be going ahead with additional missions to Mars.

These include the InSight lander, a robotic craft which will conduct interior studies of the planet that is expected to launch by 2016, and a 2020 rover mission that has yet to be named. In addition, the MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) orbiter as just arrived intact at the Kennedy Space Center and will be blasting off to the Red Planet on Nov. 18 from the Florida Space Coast atop an Atlas V rocket.

maven_orbitThese missions constitute a major addition to NASA’s ongoing study of Mars and assessing its past, present and future habitability. Between rovers on the ground, interior studies of the surface, and atmospheric surveys conducted by MAVEN and other orbiters, scientists are likely to have a very clear picture as to what happened to Mars atmosphere and climate by the time manned missions begin in 2030.


Stay tuned for more discoveries as Curiosity begins its second year of deployment. Chances are, this year’s milestones and finds will make this past years look like an appetizer or a warm-up act. That’s my hope, at any rate. But considering what lies ahead of it, Curiosity is sure to deliver!

In the meantime, enjoy some of these videos provided by NASA. The first shows Curiosity’s SAM instrument singing “happy birthday” to the rover (though perhaps humming would be a more accurate word):

And check out this NASA video that sums up the rover’s first year in just two minutes:

News From Mars: Curiosity and Opportunity On the Move

marsMars 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.

curiosity_hirise_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).

curiosity_roadmapWhich 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.

Curiosity-departs-Glenelg-Sol-324_2a_Ken-Kremer--580x291Paolo Bellutta, a rover planner at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif, explained what made the feat possible in a statement:

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.

mountsharp_galecraterFollowing 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!

Opportunity-nears-Solander-Point-Sol-3374-N1-crop_Ken-Kremer-580x309And 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.

opportunity_roadmapAs 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.

opportunity_bdayBut 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.

opportunity_missionmapBut 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!

Sources: universetoday.com, (2) , (3), nasa.gov, space.com