The briefing started with a message “from Mars”, in the form of a recording of a greeting by NASA Administrator and former astronaut, Charles Bowden. Carried by Curiosity to Mars and then transmitted back to Earth, the message, lasting just over a minute, represents the first broadcast of a human voice from another planet. While primarily of PR value, the broadcast demonstrated the capabilities available with the rover working with (in particular) the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) when transferring large amounts of data to Earth; the speech represented some 4 megabits of voice data, which was transmitted alongside other information. As it is, in just three weeks, Curiosity has returned more data to Earth than the entire Pathfinder and MER rover missions combined.
SAM takes a Sniff
SAM, the Sample Analysis at Mars, is a suite of instruments designed to analyse organics and gases from both atmospheric and solid samples. On Saturday August 25th SAM was allowed to take its first sample of the Martian air, albeit as an engineering calibration exercise rather than a science experiment. After a slight “blip” in the proceedings when traces of calibration gas which should have been evacuated from the system beforehand were measured rather than Martian air, the tests successfully confirmed SAM’s atmospheric sampling capabilities are ready for action. In the future SAM will not only be able to sniff the air (and “taste” samples of Martian rock and soil delivered to it by the robot arm), it should even be able to tell us what Mars smells like (which, given it is thought Gale Crater has levels of sulphur dioxide present, is liable to be, “Ewww! Rotten eggs!”).
Mastcam Demonstrates its Power
The two Mastcam cameras (M100 (telephoto) and M34 (wide-angle)) have almost completed their characterisation check-outs and the Malin Space Science Systems team is getting ready to turn them over to the MSL science team for the start of science operations. Key to this work has been ensuring the cameras are properly focused, a process that has required using the both camera lenses to take high-resolution images across a range of distances. This has resulted in some amazing mosaics of Gale Crater being produced.
In the above image, Mastcam reveals Gale Crater: the grit-like surface on which the rover sits extends outwards to the South-west for about 125m (406ft), and is followed by a slight dip in the land that extends a further 105m (341ft) from the rover to the lip of a small crater about 20m (65ft) across. Beyond the rim of the crater can be seen what is described as a low-lying “moat” surrounding the flanks of “Mount Sharp”, the middle of which is about 3.7km (2.3 miles) from the rover. Beyond this is a field of sand dunes some 5.5km (3.4 miles) distant, with the base slopes of the mound just beyond them. The regions the science team are particularly interested in extend from about 6.6km (4 miles) from the rover out to about 10.7km (6.7 miles).
The image above shows a zoomed-in view of the region of interest, with the dune field in the immediate foreground. The inset image is of a rock roughly the size of Curiosity (the black dot in the inset image), pictured to hep give a sense of scale to the mesas, and show what the rover might look like if it could be pictured from Bradbury Landing once it starts exploring “Mount Sharp”.
While the area of interest is only 10km (6 miles) from Bradbury Landing, it would take Curiosity 100 days to reach it, were it to drive at full speed – which is obviously not what is going to happen, as there is much to study along the way.
On August 27th, NASA released a panoramic movie of Gale Crater and “Mount Sharp” put together using images from the Mastcam captured on the 8th and 18th August (prior to the focus calibrations being completed). The images have been white-balanced to match sunlight levels on earth, with 640×360 and 1280×720 Quick Time version of the movie available on the JPL website (note the 1280 movie is over 242Mb in size and may take time to download and stream).
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