Curiosity, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), has been wrapping things up in the “Pahrump Hills” region at the base of “Mount Sharp”, the mountain-sized mound of deposited material occupying the centre of Gale Crater.
For the last several months, the rover has been engaged on what geologists on Earth call a “walkabout”, zigzagging back and forth across the area, looking for targets of interest for follow-up investigations, and allow the science team to better understand the geology and form of the region.
This method of activity is a change from how Curiosity has largely operated to date, which has seen the rover primarily move from point-to-point along its route, only re-visiting sites as a part of its onward movement towards the goal of reaching and climbing “Mount Sharp” (such as when travelling into, and then back out of the “Glenelg” and “Yellowknife Bay” regions Curiosity first explored in 2012 / 2013).
In this respect, and as Aileen Yingst, the Deputy Principal Investigator with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on the rover, describes, Curiosity has been demonstrating just how much of an avatar it is for the science team, allowing them to careful investigate, examine and catalogue “Pahrump Hills” in a rich, practical way using the very human technique of the “walkabout”, which will serve the mission well as the ascent up “Mount Sharp” continues.
Most recently, and since collecting samples from “Mojave 2″, the area of rock displaying interesting crystalline elements within it, Curiosity has been looking at an area geologists dubbed “pink cliffs”, which shows further signs of the crystalline structures, and might be a candidate for further investigation. If so, it will be the last stopping point in “Pahrump Hills” before Curiosity continues its climb up “Mount Sharp”.
Oppy Reaches 11
January 25th, 2015 saw NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, reach it’s eleventh anniversary on Mars. The rover, one of two MER vehicles, arrived on Mars at January 25th, 2004 (Universal Time), ready to start a mission initially planned to last just 90 days.
Since then, and up to its anniversary, “Oppy” has travelled a distance of some 41.7 kilometres (25.9 miles). While this doesn’t sound that much (and in truth, a human science team could have travelled that far in just a few days, including time for any science carried out along the way), remember that “Oppy’s” forward speed is measured in centimetres per hour.
As one of two solar-powered MER rovers (the second, Spirit having finally succumbed to the hostile environment on Mars around March 215th, 2011), Opportunity has carried out an incredible amount of work, and greatly contributed to our understanding of the planet, returning compelling evidence about wet environments on ancient Mars.
The rover marked its anniversary by reaching the summit of “Cape Tribulation”, an uprising close to the rim of 20 kilometre (13.7 mile) wide Endeavour Crater, which the rover has been gradually circumnavigating. This involved a change in elevation for “Oppy” of about 135 metres (440 feet), and afforded it a panoramic view of the crater and the land around it, presenting a unique opportunity for geological observations of the crater and its rim.
A New Mars Mystery
That night, too, there was another jetting out of gas from the distant planet. I saw it … That night another invisible missile started on its way to the earth from Mars, just a second or so under twenty-four hours after the first one.
- The narrator, H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds
Okay, so it’s unlikely to be the sign of an impending invasion of Martians possibly ticked-of at the way we’re cluttering-up their planet with our probes and landers and rovers, but recent events high in the atmosphere of Mars have given rise to some excitement.
The images, originally capture in 2012, show huge plumes rising some 250 kilometres (156 miles) into the most tenuous reaches of Mars’ thin atmosphere.
The plumes occurred on two separate occasions in March and April 2012, and were spotted by amateur astronomers. Each time, they developed with relative rapidity, rising upwards and outwards to cover areas of some 1000 x 500 kilometres (625 x 312.5 miles) in a period of around 10 hours before remaining visible for up to 10 days at a time, their structure and form changing on a daily basis.
Unfortunately, neither event was seen from orbit about Mars, occurring so high on the planet’s limb as to be effectively out-of-sight for the NASA and ESA orbital vehicles, and by the time word had spread sufficiently about the observations, the events were largely over.
However, investigations into images of the planet taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit around the Earth have revealed similar plumes being imaged in the past. However, with the exception of an image captured in 1997, none have been anywhere near as high or dramatic as the 2012 events.
So what might have caused this plumes to occur? The answer to that question is uncertain.