News From Space: Curiosity’s Latest Photos

curiosity_sol-177-1April was a busy month for the very photo-talented (and photogenic) Curiosity Rover. In addition to another panoramic shot of the Martian landscape – which included Curiosity looking back at itself, making it a “selfie” – the rover also managed to capture a night-sky image that captured two minor planets and the Martian moon of Deimos in the same picture. At a time when Curiosity and Opportunity are both busy on long-haul missions to find evidence of life, these latest pictures remind us that day-to-day operations on Mars are still relevant.

The first shot took place on April 20th (Sol 606), when rover scientists used the Mast Camera to capture the minor planets of Ceres and Vesta, as well as the moon of Deimos, in the same frame. Ceres is a minor planet with a diameter of about 950 km, and is the largest object in the main asteroid belt. With a diameter of about 563 km, Vesta is the third-largest object in the asteroid belt. Deimos, meanwhile, is the smaller of Mars’ two moons, with a mean radius of 6 km.

curiosity_nightskyIn the main portion of the new image (seen above), Vesta, Ceres and three stars appear as short streaks due to the duration of a 12-second exposure. In other camera pointings the same night, the Curiosity’s camera also imaged Phobos and the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which are shown as insets on the left.  Dr Mark Lemmon from Texas A&M University, a Curiosity team member, explained:

this imaging was part of an experiment checking the opacity of the atmosphere at night in Curiosity’s location on Mars, where water-ice clouds and hazes develop during this season… The two Martian moons were the main targets that night, but we chose a time when one of the moons was near Ceres and Vesta in the sky.

Deimos was much brighter than the visible stars, Vesta and Ceres in the same part of the sky, in the main image. The circular inset covers a patch of sky the size that Earth’s full moon appears to observers on Earth. At the center of that circular inset, Deimos appears at its correct location in the sky, in a 0.25 second exposure.

Curiosity_selfieAs for the latest in Curiosity’s long-line of panoramic self-portraits, this one comes to us courtesy of Jason Major. As a graphic designer and amateur space explorer, Major assembled the picture from about the dozen or so images acquired with the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) instrument on April 27-28, 2014 (Sol 613). In the background, one can see the 5.5-km-high (3.4 miles) Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons) that sits in the center of the Gale Crater.

One thing that Major noted about the picture he assembled is the way the cylindrical RUHF antenna and the bit of the RTG that is visible in the lower center seem to form a “toothy (if slightly dusty) grin”. But, as he stated:

…with almost 21 Earth-months on Mars and lots of discoveries already under her robot belt, Curiosity (and her team) certainly have plenty to smile about!

And the best is likely to still be coming. As we speak, Curiosity is making its way towards Mount Sharp and is expected to arrive there sometime in August. As the primary goal in its mission, Curiosity set off for this destination back in June after spending months studying Glenelg area. She is expected to arrive at the foot of the mountain in August, where she will begin drilling in an effort to study the mountain’s vast caches of minerals – which could potentially support a habitable environment.

mountsharp_galecraterIf Curiosity does find evidence of organic molecules in this cache, it will be one of the greatest scientific finds ever made, comparable only to the discovery of hominid remains in the Olduvai Gorge, or the first recorded discovery of dinosaur remains. For not only will we have definitive proof that life once existed on Mars, we will know with some certainly that it may again someday…

Stay tuned for more news from the Red Planet. And in the meantime, keep on trucking Curiosity!


News From Mars: Jelly Donut Rock Mystery Solved

mars_donut1In the course of investigating the surface of Mars, NASA has uncovered some rather interesting and curious rock formations. And if once in awhile those rocks should resemble something odd and Earth-like then one should expect the media maelstrom that follows. And the sudden appearance of what people referred to as the “jelly doughnut” rock in January was no exception to this rule.

Much the Martian “rat” discovered last summer, the appearance of the doughnut rock was met with all kinds of speculation. The rock – now dubbed “Pinnacle Island” – first appeared on January 8th in a series of pictures taken by the Opportunity Rover. Measuring only about 4 centimeters (1.5 inches) in diameter with a noticeable white rim and red center, the rock quickly picked up the nickname “jelly doughnut”.

mars_donutAccording to pictures taken just four days earlier by Opportunity, during which time it had not moved an inch, that area had been free of debris. In response, wild theories began to emerge, with some thinking it was an indication that rocks were falling from the sky. Others, looking to explain how something so odd in appearance could suddenly have appeared, claimed it was a heretofore undetected Martian surface beings.

Luckily, the ongoing work of mission scientists solved the by determining that the rock was actually created by an “alien invader” – the Opportunity Rover! Apparently, the mysterious rock was created when Opportunity unknowingly drove over a larger rock formation on Solander Point, where she is currently located. It then crushed the rock, sending fragments across the summit.

Opportunity-Route-map_Sol-3560_Ken-KremerOne piece, the ‘Pinnacle Island’ fragment, unwittingly rolled downhill where Opportunity caught it on camera a few days later. This explanation became apparent when the Opportunity was moved a tiny stretch and took some look-back photographs. Another fragment of the rock that was eerily similar in appearance to the ‘Pinnacle Island’ doughnut appeared, indicating that it had left a trail of such debris in its wake.

Ray Arvidson, Opportunity’s Deputy Principal Investigator, explained in a recent NASA statement:

Once we moved Opportunity a short distance, after inspecting Pinnacle Island, we could see directly uphill an overturned rock that has the same unusual appearance. We drove over it. We can see the track. That’s where Pinnacle Island came from.

Opportunity-and-Pinnacle-Island_Sol-3540_1_Ken-KremerTo gather some up-close clues before driving away, the rover deployed its robotic arm to investigate ‘Pinnacle Island’ with her microscopic imager and APXS mineral mapping spectrometer. According to Arvidson, the results revealed high levels of the elements manganese and sulfur which suggest that:

[these] water-soluble ingredients were concentrated in the rock by the action of water. This may have happened just beneath the surface relatively recently, or it may have happened deeper below ground longer ago and then, by serendipity, erosion stripped away material above it and made it accessible to our wheels.

The Solander Point mountaintop is riven with outcrops of minerals, including clay minerals, that likely formed in flowing liquid neutral water conducive to life – a potential scientific goldmine. Thus, the presence of such water-soluble minerals in this particular rock indicates quite strongly that the Opportunity brought it with her while rolling through the area.


Meanwhile, on the opposite side of Mars, Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity is trekking towards gigantic Mount Sharp and just crested over the Dingo Gap sand dune. She celebrated 500 days (Sols) on Mars on New Years Day, 2014. And a pair of new orbiters are streaking to the Red Planet to fortify Earth’s invasion fleet- NASA’s MAVEN and India’s MOM.

So expect more surprises from the Red Planet soon enough, which will include more information on surface conditions and the history of Mars’ atmosphere and how it disappeared. And maybe, just maybe, one of the rovers will uncover the existence of the long-sought after organic molecules – thus demonstrating unequivocally that life still exists on Mars.

Stay tuned!




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!

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