Sunday, August 12, 2012

Curiosity on Mars


 Mars Rover Curiosity

A week ago on August 5, NASA successfully landed its most advanced rover Curiosity on Mars. This landing marks another giant step in space exploration.

The one-ton rover, hanging by ropes from a rocket backpack, touched down onto Mars surface last Sunday to end a 36-week long flight and begin its two-year surface investigation.

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft that carried Curiosity succeeded in every step of the most complex landing ever attempted on Mars, including the final severing of the bridle cords and flyaway maneuver of the rocket backpack.

"Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars. Curiosity, the most sophisticated rover ever built, is now on the surface of the Red Planet, where it will seek to answer age-old questions about whether life ever existed on Mars - or if the planet can sustain life in the future," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "This is an amazing achievement, made possible by a team of scientists and engineers from around the world and led by the extraordinary men and women of NASA and our Jet Propulsion Laboratory. President Obama has laid out a bold vision for sending humans to Mars in the mid-2030's, and today's landing marks a significant step toward achieving this goal."

Curiosity landed near the foot of a mountain three miles tall and 96 miles in diameter inside Gale Crater. During a nearly two-year prime mission, the rover will investigate whether the region ever offered conditions favorable for microbial life.

Successful landing

"The Seven Minutes of Terror has turned into the Seven Minutes of Triumph," said NASA Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld. "My immense joy in the success of this mission is matched only by overwhelming pride I feel for the women and men of the mission's team."

Curiosity returned its first view of Mars, a wide-angle scene of rocky ground near the front of the rover. More images are anticipated in the next several days as the mission blends observations of the landing site with activities to configure the rover for work and check the performance of its instruments and mechanisms.

Curiosity carries 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science payloads on the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Some of the tools are the first of their kind on Mars, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking elemental composition of rocks from a distance. The rover will use a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover.

To handle this science toolkit, Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as the other Mars rovers - the Spirit and the Opportunity. 

The Gale Crater landing site places the rover within driving distance of layers of the crater's interior mountain. Observations from orbit have identified clay and sulfate minerals in the lower layers, indicating a wet history. 

High resolution image from Mars

To satisfy our and NASA's curiosity, the rover began sending images from Mars. The images from Curiosity's just-activated navigation cameras, or Navcams, include the rover's first self-portrait, looking down at its deck from above. Another Navcam image set, in lower-resolution thumbnails, is the first 360-degree view of Curiosity's new home in Gale Crater. We also had a chance to admire a higher-resolution images providing the most detailed depiction to date of the surface adjacent to the rover.

Meanwhile, a healthy Curiosity spent Sol 4, its fifth day on Mars, preparing for this weekend's planned "brain transplant" - a transitioning to a new version of flight software on both of its redundant main computers. The new software is better suited for Mars surface operations, such as driving and using Curiosity's robotic arm. 


Image from Mars - Mount Sharp

The "brain transplant" will take place during a series of steps beginning this evening and continuing through Aug. 13. The new software was uploaded to the rover's memory during the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft's flight from Earth. Key capabilities in the new software enable full use of Curiosity's powerful robotic arm and drill, and advanced image processing to check for obstacles while driving. This will ultimately allow Curiosity to make longer drives by giving the rover more autonomy to identify and avoid potential hazards and to drive along a safe path that the rover identifies for itself.

Most of us will probably forget about this mission by the end of the Summer, but for countless scientists Curiosity opens new horizons. The data coming from Mars will help them in their next endeavor - a manned Mission to Mars.




Information source NASA 
Images source NASA