Tag Archives: MSL

Space Sunday: of detours and sailing the solar wind

CuriositySince my last Space Sunday update, NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars has experienced successes to overcome some setbacks, major and minor.

The major success came in the form of what amounts to “corrective eye treatment” for the rover’s famous laser system, which has been zapping rocks and soil hundreds of thousands of times in order to analyse the resultant plasma, and thus understand the chemical and mineral composition of the target material.

Called ChemCam, the Chemistry and Camera instrument, actually comprises a laser system and a telescope / camera connected to a spectrograph. The laser is in fact two systems in one, a primary laser, used to “shoot” targets and generate the plasma, and a smaller rangefinder laser used to accurately focus the telescope camera on the intended target. However, several months ago, this rangefinder laser suffered an unrecoverable failure.

Since that time, the ChemCam team have had to rely on taking multiple images of a target rock at multiple focal lengths in order to determine the best focal length the telescope should use when the main laser is set to fire.

The ChemCam mast element on Curiosity, showing the main telescope aperture

The ChemCam mast element on Curiosity, showing the main telescope aperture, at the centre of which sits the laser “barrel”

The problem here is that the images had to be taken, transmitted to Earth and then assessed by a team of scientists to determine the best focal length setting for the telescope, which then had to be transmitted back to Curiosity, which then had to make the required focal adjustments. Only then could the main laser be successfully fired and accurate images for analysis obtained by the telescope. Obviously, all of this is a very protracted process compared to the rover being able to automatically focus the telescope directly.

However, as a part of a recent software upload to Curiosity, the international team responsible for ChemCam were able to install an update that has resorted Curiosity’s ability to auto-focus the ChemCam telescope. Now, instead of having to send a series of images to Earth for analysis, the rover can simply run the images taken at different focal lengths and then run them through an on-board algorithm which then selects the optimal focal length for the telescope, allowing the laser firing to proceed.

A series of test firings using the new software were carried out on Thursday, May 21st, and the results weren’t only positive – they indicated the new, software-driven auto-focus technique actually yields better quality results than the original method.

The second success for Curiosity actually has its origins provide to my last Space Sunday report. As indicated at that time, Curiosity was attempting to reach a point dubbed “Logan Pass”, an area sitting at the head of a series of shallow valleys and marked by the confluence of two different types of rock.

At the time of my last report, Curiosity had already been diverted from the original route selected for getting to the target. Images of the route revealed it in part comprised what NASA calls “polygonal sand ripples”, which can cause the rover to suffer extreme traction difficulties and wheel slippage. As a result, a decision was taken to attempt the ascent to the desired science location via slightly rougher terrain; it didn’t work out.

“Mars can be very deceptive,” said Chris Roumeliotis, Curiosity’s lead rover driver said of the attempt. “There appeared to be terrain with rockier, more consolidated characteristics directly adjacent to these ripples. So we drove around the sand ripples onto what we expected to be firmer terrain that would give Curiosity better traction. Unfortunately, this terrain turned out to be unconsolidated material too, which definitely surprised us and Curiosity.”

Too dangerous to drive: this Mastcam image, take by Curiosity on Sol 981 (May 10th, 2015 PDT), shows the two areas of rock the rover was attempting to reach in the middle distance (the light-coloured rock and the more grey rock above). The sand in the centre of the image had been judge too loose for a safe traverse, so the rover team had hoped to reach the target over rougher terrain, as seen to the right of this image (click for full size)

Two attempts to climb over this “unconsolidated material” (that’s loose rocks, pebble, sand, and dirt to you and me) came to an end when the rover experienced wheel slippage beyond acceptable limits, forcing the drive to stop. Coupled with indications of some sideways slippage – something the rover certainly doesn’t want to encounter lest it topple over – the decision was taken to reverse course and try an alternative route offering a way to another point at which the two rock formations meet and are both exposed.

On Thursday, May 21st, the rover successfully completed a climb up a 21-degree incline to reach a point overlooking an area where the two different strata of rock sit one atop the other, presenting an environment rich in scientific potential, and where the rover may spend some time engaged in investigations.

Rover’s reward: a Navcam image taken by Curiosity on Sol 991 (May 21st, 2015 PDT), following the large stage of a rough, steep climb. Central to the image can be seen an area of pale rock overlaid by darker material. The marks the meeting point of two different rock formations, which may give further clues as to the nature and history of “Mount Sharp’s” formation (click for full size)

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Space Sunday: sunsets, ring-hunting, airships and to boldly brew

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity is continuing onwards and upwards in its ascent of “Mount Sharp”, en route to a feature mission staff have dubbed “Logan Pass”. At the start of May, however, the rover made a slight detour in order to study a small valley of interest to the science team.

In planning the route up to “Logan Pass”, which sits at the head of a series of shallow valleys cut into the side of “Mount Sharp”, the rover was ordered to carry out a panoramic study of the terrain in its vicinity to help with route planning. In doing so, it imaged a small valley cut into one of the uprisings on the mound’s lower slopes, dubbed “Mount Shields”. The valley was of interest as it appeared to have been carved into the rock – possibly by liquid water action – at some point in the past and has since gradually been filled-in.

Gotcha! A view from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on April 8th, 2015 (Sol 949 for the rover), reveals Curiosity passing through the valley dubbed “Artist’s Drive” on the lower slope of “Mount Sharp”. The image was captured using MRO’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera, and the rover, complete with right-pointing shadow, can be seen in the inscribed rectangle. The view in this image covers an area 500 metres (550 yards) across (click for full size)

This kind of geological feature is called an “incised valley fill”, and it is of interest because the material filling the valley cut is different to the material comprising the bedrock of the mound itself, being mostly sand. Thus the science team wanted to understand more about the possible mechanisms that might have deposited it there. Was it carried by wind or water or a mixture of both? Is there a variation in age between the rock of the mound and the material deposited in the incision? Answering these questions help in better understanding many of the environmental (geological and climatic) changes which have occurred on Mars.

Planning for the rover’s progress up the side of “Mount Sharp” is a complex process, involving multiple teams and consultations, particularly as a balance had to be achieved between reaching potential science targets and avoiding undue wear on the rover’s components and systems. To explain how the rover’s route is planned,NASA JPL recently issues a Curiosity Update video discussing the process.

Following its diversion to examine the incised valley, Curiosity resumed its upward path towards “Logan Pass”. As noted in the video, this is also of particular interest to the science team as it marks the intersection of two geological layers – the “Murray Formation”, which forms the transitional region between the slope of “Mount Sharp” proper and the floor of the Gale Crater basin, and the “washboard” region above it. It’s likely that the rover will spend some time in the “Logan Pass” are, before resuming its climb towards a further site of scientific interest, dubbed “Hematite Ridge”.

Sunset on another world: on April 15th, 2015 (Sol 956 for the rover), Curiosity captured a series of images of a setting sun as to stopped to survey the route towards “Logan Pass”. The images were captured after a dust storm had left a significant amount of particulate matter suspended in the atmosphere. Thus, the individual pictures making up this animated image allow the science team to understand the vertical distribution of dust in the Martian atmosphere and how it might influence regional climatic conditions. The blue tinting to the sky evident around the sun is due to the suspended dust particles being just the right size to allow blue wavelengths to penetrate the atmosphere with a slightly greater efficiency than other wavelengths (click for full size)

 New Horizons turns  Moon Hunter

New Horizons is the name of NASA’s mission to perform a high-speed flyby of the dwarf planetary system of Pluto and Charon. The craft, which achieved the fastest launch of any space vehicle to date, with an initial velocity 16.26 km/s when it lifted off the pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on January 19th, 2006, is currently approaching Pluto and Charon at a relative velocity of 13.8 km/s.

Currently, the mission is closing on the period the mission team have dubbed the “seven weeks of suspense” – a reference to Curiosity’s “seven minutes of terror” during the entry, descent an landing phase of that mission – as New Horizons makes its closest flyby of Pluto and Charon, coming to within 10,000 kilometres of the former on July 14th, 2015 and 27,000 kilometres of the latter.

The nuclear-powered (RTG) New Horizons - one of the fastest man-made craft ever made to date, now closing on the Pluto-Charon system

The nuclear-powered (RTG) New Horizons – one of the fastest man-made craft ever made to date, now closing on the Pluto-Charon system

On May 15th, 2015, New Horizons’ ability to image Pluto and Charon exceeded those of the Hubble Space Telescope. While the images are still blurry – but will massively improve – they are enough to start to show surface features on Pluto, including what might be a polar ice cap.

May also saw New Horizons enter a new phase of its mission: the discovery of further moons within the system. While Charon has traditionally been regarded as Pluto’s moon since its discovery in 1978, the relative size of Charon compared to Pluto, and the fact that the barycenter of the Pluto–Charon system lies outside Pluto, technically makes them a binary dwarf planet system, with a number of tiny moons orbiting them both – and there is a chance there may be more such little moons waiting to be discovered.

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Space Sunday: hill climbing, the impact of salt, and landing a rocket (take 2)

CuriosityApril 16th, 2015 saw NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity clock-up 10 kilometres (6.25 miles) on its odometer since it arrived on Mars 30 months ago, as it continues its trek up the slopes of “Mount Sharp”, the mountain-size mound at the centre of Gale Crater.

The rover is currently making its way through a series of connected shallow “valleys” on the slops of the mound – which is more correct names Aeolis Mons – as it continues upwards and away from the “Pahrump Hills” area it spent 6 months investigating, and towards its next major science target, an area the science team have dubbed “Logan Pass”, which is still some 200 metres away from the rover at the time of writing.

While only a distance of around 550 metres separates “Logan Pass” from the upper limits of “Pahrump Hills”, the rover’s gentle progress has been the result of several stops along the way in order to further characterise the different rock types Curiosity has been encountering, and to make important observations of its surroundings as the science team try to understand the processes by which the region’s ancient environment evolved from lakes and rivers into much drier conditions.

A panoramic mosaic taken by Curiosity’s Navigation Camera (Navcam) on Sol 951 of the rover’s mission (April 10th, 2015, PDT). The view shows the terrain ahead of the rover within “Artist’s Drive”, the first of the shallow “valleys” the rover is traversing en route to the next point of scientific interest, “Logan Pass”

The rover’s progress up “Mount Sharp” has so far been through the lower reaches of the transitional layers which mark the separation points between the materials deposited over the aeons to create the gigantic mound and the material considered to be common to the crater floor. These transitional layers have been dubbed the “Murray Formation”, in honour of the late co-founder of The Planetary Society, Bruce Murray, and comprise a number of different land formations, “Pahrump Hills” being one of the lowermost. Logan Pass marks the start of another, dubbed the “Washboard unit”, and which comprises a series of high-standing buttes.

The lower slopes of “Mount Sharp” and the transitional nature of the “Murray Formation” between the create floor (left) and the “proper” slopes of the mound, marked by the “Hematite Ridge” (right). currently, the rover is now approach the lower extreme of a range of buttes within the “Murray Formation” which include “Murray Buttes” shown in the image. and which have been marked as a future science destination for Curiosity

As several of the MSL reports in these pages have shown, Curiosity has already found considerable evidence that Gale Crater may once have been home to environments sufficiently benign to allow for the existence of microbial life. Whether or not those microbes survived down the millennia such that they are still present in the planet’s soil today, is not something the rover is equipped to determine; however, a recent report from one of Curiosity’s science teams  suggests that subsurface conditions are unfavourable to the support of microbial life.

The evidence for this comes in the form of perchlorate salts, and the effect they can have on their environment. Perchlorate was first detected in soil samples gathered by NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander mission in 2008, while Curiosity found trace evidence for perchlorate in samples gathered early in its own mission.

What makes perchlorate interesting is that in cold temperatures, it is able to “pull” water vapour from the atmosphere and bind with it, lowering its temperature, potentially allowing it to form sub-surface brines which would be very destructive to microbial life.

It had been thought that the environmental conditions by which this might occur were limited to the near-polar regions of the planet. However, data gathered by Curiosity’s on-board weather station, called REMS (for Rover Environmental Monitoring Station) over the course of its mission suggests the night-time conditions in Gale Crater, are right for the formation of sub-surface brines throughout the year.

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Space Sunday: ice-cream sandwiches, sniffing the air and targets of Opportunity

CuriosityCuriosity is continuing its exploration and ascent of “Mount Sharp”, the huge mountain-like mound of deposited material occupying the centre of Gale Crater, which has been the rover’s home since it arrived on Mars in August 2012. And it is continuing to find curious and enigmatic hints about the past conditions in the crater, and about Mars as a whole.

The rover’s most recent discoveries come from an area of rock dubbed “Garden City”, which contains areas of two-tone mineral veins quite unlike anything so far encountered in the rover’s travels.

The veins appear as a network of ridges left standing above the now eroded-away bedrock in which they formed. Individual ridges range up to about  6 centimetres (2.5 inches) high and half that in width, and they bear both bright and dark material. They are strongly suggestive of multiple episodes of fluid movement which occurred much later than the wet environmental conditions that formed lake-bed deposits which gave rise to “Mount Sharp’s” formation.

“Some of [the veins] look like ice-cream sandwiches: dark on both edges and white in the middle,” said Linda Kah, a Curiosity science-team member at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “These materials tell us about secondary fluids that were transported through the region after the host rock formed.”

This view from Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) is a mosaic of 28 images showing a network of two-tone mineral veins standing up to a height of 6 centimetres (2.5 inches) from the surface of a rock dubbed “Garden City” – click for full size

On Earth, veins of this kind form as a result of fluids moving through move through cracked rock, depositing minerals in the fractures which often affect the chemistry of the surrounding rock. Curiosity has found bright veins composed of calcium sulfate visible on the surface of rocks at several other locations, which appears to be the same with the lighter material found as “Garden City”,   but the dark material suggest something else.

“At least two secondary fluids have left evidence here,” Kah said. “We want to understand the chemistry of the different fluids that were here and the sequence of events. How have later fluids affected the host rock?”

While there are no plans to gather any samples form “Garden City”, analysis of the three sets of samples gathered from within “Pahrump Hills” reveal that mineral deposits within the area vary according to elevation, revealing a complex process may have been responsible for the formation of the area. Samples taken from the lowest elevation of the area revealed themselves to be rich in clays and hematite, both of which commonly form under wet conditions.

However, at just a 5 metre higher elevation, jarosite, an oxidized mineral containing iron and sulfur that forms in acidic conditions, was the dominant mineral, while towards the top of the area, at an elevation of 10 metres, clay minerals and hematite were almost non-existent, and traces of jarosite were greatly reduced, while the samples – from “Telegraph Peak” – were rich in cristobalite and quartz, both of which are mineral forms of silica.

Quite what the process may have been that gave rise to this spread of deposits is unclear – the science team have several options to choose from, and are continuing their investigation.

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