Sol 3: Beautiful, Beautiful Mars Dirt. In Color.

Rocks and regolith strewn over the ground near Mars rover Curiosity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Rocks and regolith strewn over the ground near Mars rover Curiosity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It looks like rocks and dust, right? Actually, it resembles the dusty parking lot near a beach where my family used to holiday when I was young — a sandy, ruddy, dusty patch devoid of grass where cars had worn down the top layer of dirt, exposing smoothed rock underneath. However, this isn’t a parking lot. Actually, scrub that, it IS a parking lot — Mars rover Curiosity’s parking lot in Aeolis Palus, a remarkably smooth plain inside Gale Crater on Mars.

I don’t have an awful lot to say about these new high-resolution images that have just been uploaded to the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission site except that I really wish I were a geologist! I get the feeling that these images from a never before seen region of Mars will keep geologists busy for some time to come.

As Curiosity undergoes a software upgrade preparing it for surface operations, we’ve been patiently waiting for the mission site to upload new images (beyond the color thumbnail teasers) of the surrounding area. And it seems that on Saturday night that happened. Here are some of my favorite views from Curiosity’s Mastcam:

Curiosity's sundial on its deck reads: "Mars 2012 -- To Mars To Explore"

Curiosity’s sundial on its deck reads: “Mars 2012 — To Mars To Explore”

Discoloration in the top soil in the location of a crater formed by Curiosity's Sky Crane rockets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Discoloration in the top soil in the location of a crater formed by Curiosity’s Sky Crane rockets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The deployed high-gain antenna. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The deployed high-gain antenna. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The crater rim and detail of undulating terrain -- possibly dunes. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The crater rim and detail of undulating terrain — possibly dunes. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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Sol 2: Rocky Debris on Curiosity’s Deck Hints of Thunderous Landing (Update)

The view through Curiosity's left (A) and right (A) Navcams, looking down on the deck of the rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The view through Curiosity’s left (A) and right (A) Navcams, looking down on the deck of the rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (levels adjusted)

UPDATE (Aug. 9, 2012): During Thursday’s NASA press briefing, I asked MSL mission manager Mike Watkins about the likely impact the debris atop the rover may have on the mission. Although the debris was unexpected, it’s not thought to affect any of the rover’s instrumentation. Read more on Discovery News: “Unexpected Debris atop Curiosity Not a Problem.

On Sol 2 of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, we’re certainly not short of new things to look at. Early on Wednesday, the JPL team released images from the rover’s raised mast. Atop the mast is the blocky ChemCam laser, two Mastcams and four Navcams — a collection of equipment that is colloquially referred to as the rover’s “head.” As soon as the mast was deployed, mission controllers switched on the Navcams and commanded Curiosity to look around its new home.

First up was the striking image of the shadow of Curiosity’s “head,” then came the wonderful “Mojave Desert” view across Gale Crater to its rim. Now, in a new flood of hi-res imagery tonight, images of Curiosity’s deck have been released. Interestingly, there’s some debris strewn over the horizontal surface, indicating the one-ton rover’s landing kicked up a lot more than just dust.

During Curiosity’s descent and landing on Sunday night, the famous Sky Crane maneuver was used to lower the rover to the surface. In doing so, the rockets attached to the platform blew away the surface layers of regolith and small rocks, exposing what appears to be bedrock. The craters generated by the rocket thrust is clearly seen in a couple of Navcam images. Although dust was bound to be thrown into the air, inevitably settling on the rover, small rocks also appear to have been blasted onto the rover’s deck. The largest rock pieces appear to be no bigger than the size of a dime — when comparing them with the dimensions of the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) instrument (in the top left of both frames in the image above). The RAD’s circular “window” is roughly the size of a coaster.

Could the small rocks cause issues with the operation of instrumentation mounted on the rover’s deck? Were they expected to be blown from the ground onto the deck? It will be interesting to hear what will be discussed by the MSL team during Thursday’s 10 a.m. PDT press briefing.

All raw images were grabbed from the NASA JPL mission site.

More cool raw Navcam pics:

The high-gain antenna that will be used for direct communication with Earth is operational. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The high-gain antenna that will be used for direct communication with Earth is operational. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (levels adjusted)

Curiosity's wheels as imaged by Navcam Left A. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity’s wheels as imaged by Navcam Left A. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (levels adjusted)

Sol 2: Welcome to Gale Crater… A Martian “Mojave Desert”

The view from Curiosity's Navcam -- panorama mosaic of Gale Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The view from Curiosity’s Navcam — panorama mosaic of Gale Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory is only just beginning its mission and it is already showing us a completely different Martian landscape. However, the rover’s mast has just been raised and returned an eye-level view through the mission’s Navcam to reveal a landscape that looks like the… Mojave Desert. During Wednesday’s NASA press briefing, Curiosity’s Chief Scientist John Grotzinger remarked on the striking familiarity of the “Earth-like” plain with the crater rim in the distance. There is even a little haze in the air that Grotzinger likened to “LA smog.”

While we wait for more incredible views of Mars seen through the eyes of our robotic emissary, it’s easy to get lost in this raw image and imagine how familiar this scene will look when we see it in color.

Warren Olney Show: Mars Curiosity Landing — Featuring JPL’s Allen Chen and… Me!

JPL's Allen Chen, the Flight Dynamics and Operations Lead for the Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent, and Landing team. Credit: NASA/JPL

JPL’s Allen Chen, the Flight Dynamics and Operations Lead for the Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent, and Landing team. Credit: NASA/JPL

As the Mars dust settles — figuratively and literally — after a hugely successful Mars Science Laboratory landing, I was asked to appear on KCRW’s “To the Point” radio show with Warren Olney. I’ve chatted with Warren a few times and it’s always fun — he’s is a knowledgeable and inquisitive host with a passion for all things space. But Monday’s show was a little bit special. The “voice” of NASA JPL’s mission control was also invited.

Throughout Sunday night’s excitement, JPL’s Allen Chen calmly announced each stage of Curiosity’s entry, descent and landing from mission control. As Flight Dynamics and Operations Lead for the Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent, and Landing team, it was Allen’s job to remain cool, calm and collected throughout. Listen to hear what he had to say to Warren and myself:

Here’s Allen in action:

Sol 0: Curiosity Bathes in First Martian Sunset (Photos)

This is the view from the front Hazcam of the Mars Science Laboratory "Curiosity." Mount Sharp is in shot. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is the view from the front Hazcam of the Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity.” Mount Sharp is in shot. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is the first high-resolution photograph to come from NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity that landed in the guts of Gale Crater last night. In the shot from the front “hazcam” is an amazing view of the now-famous Mount Sharp. In the photo below, the rear hazcam has captured the Sun low in the sky — the first of, hopefully, thousands of sunsets Curiosity will experience.*

Read more on Discovery News…

The view from the rover's rear hazcam, featuring the rim of Gale Crater and the light of a setting Martian Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The view from the rover’s rear hazcam, featuring the rim of Gale Crater and the light of a setting Martian Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

*CORRECTED: This post originally misinterpreted the time of the photograph to be in the Martian morning. The images were actually taken shortly after Curiosity’ landing during the Martian evening.

Mars Rover Curiosity Begins its Martian Domination

Now THAT’s how you land a rover!

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity” has landed inside Gale Crater in a damn-near perfect entry, descent and landing (EDL). What’s more, the first photos from the Martian surface were also received only minutes after confirmation of touchdown, depicting a wonderfully smooth plain littered with small rocks.

The first low resolution photo from Curiosity’s hazcam showed a horizon plus one of the rover’s wheels. And then a higher-resolution hazcam view streamed in. Then another — this time showing the shadow of the one-ton rover — an image that will likely become iconic for tonight’s entire EDL. The concerns about the ability of NASA’s orbiting satellite Mars Odyssey to relay signals from Curiosity rapidly evaporated.

Curiosity had landed and it was already taking my breath away.

After a long night in the “Media Overflow” trailer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I felt overwhelmed with emotion. On the one hand, I was blown away by ingenuity of mankind — the fact we can launch such ambitious missions to other worlds is a testament to exploration and science in its purest form. But I was also overwhelmed by the spirit of JPL’s scientists and engineers who made this happen. I was humbled to be a member of the media covering the event from mission control. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

Tonight is a night to forget politics, this is a night to celebrate NASA and the incredible things they do.

I’ll post more soon, including photos from the event, but for now I need sleep.

What a night.

Welcome to Gale Crater. Credit: NASA

Welcome to Gale Crater. Credit: NASA

Epic Mars Rover Curiosity Video of the “7 Minutes of Terror”

This video has been doing the rounds, so I posted it on Discovery News on Tuesday. My favorite comment from a reader was: “I need a clean pair of shorts.” That means only one thing; it’s time for some epic NASA-created CGI of the entry, descent and landing (a.k.a. “EDL”) of the Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity” set for landing on the Red Planet on August 5 at 9:30 p.m. (PST). To be honest, the video speaks for itself, so I’ll hand over to EDL Engineer Adam Stelzner (who really needs his own TV show — love his monolog).

Mars Flips Us The Bird

A curiously shaped Mars dune (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

A curiously shaped Mars dune (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Is that a bird? Yes, I can see a bird! A bird on Mars! Aliens must have created it to send us a message! Actually, no, it’s a curiously shaped dune on the Martian surface. My subconscious brain has just processed a familiar shape and my conscious brain did the rest.

Captured by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), this dune is located in the north polar sand sea (commonly referred to as the “north polar erg”) and it is undergoing the process of defrosting. As the Red Planet’s northern hemisphere is entering springtime, the increased intensity of sunlight is causing carbon dioxide ice (and some water ice) to sublimate into the atmosphere. The ice can be seen as frosty white patches, whereas the dark patches are likely freshly deposited particles from carbon dioxide geysers erupting from the surface.

This is all well and good — how amazing it is to be witnessing the onset of Martian spring at such high resolution! — but it’s the bird head (possibly some kind of falcon?) that drew me into reading about this fascinating HiRISE update in the first place.

This is a fantastic example of pareidolia, a psychological phenomenon that makes us see familiar images in apparently random assortments of shapes. It’s the same phenomenon that makes us see the shapes of bunnies in clouds and the face of Jesus in burnt toast. Interestingly, the HiRISE folks didn’t point out the bird head in this particular photo, but considering they recently brought us the “Elephant On Mars,” I’m thinking this is no coincidence. Those sneaky scientists. During the fun elephant escapade earlier this month, HiRISE scientist Alfred McEwen decided to use the “elephantolia” as an opportunity to teach some really cool Martian geology and make us aware of Martian pareidolia. (Apparently an elephant couldn’t outrun an ancient flood of Mars lava, who knew!)

Right around the same time, images were released of the shape of a parrot in a Martian mesa. Unfortunately, the parrot researchers weren’t joking — they seem to wholeheartedly believe some form of alien intelligence is involved. But as demonstrated by the new HiRISE image, the parrot research is totally based on pareidolia (or “parrotolia”). They saw a parrot, and they have spent years proving it’s a parrot. The logical misstep is astonishing.

In fact, I found this whole thing so astonishing that I plucked this particular parrot to death in my most recent Al Jazeera English op-ed. And yes, I used Monty Python to emphasize my point.

Many thanks to Jason Major for pointing out the HiRISE pareidolia!

Mystery Mars Cloud: An Auroral Umbrella?

The strange cloud-like protursion above Mars' limb (around the 1 o'clock point). Credit: Wayne Jaeschke.

The strange cloud-like protursion above Mars' limb (around the 1 o'clock point). Credit: Wayne Jaeschke.

Last week, amateur astronomer Wayne Jaeschke noticed something peculiar in his observations of Mars — there appeared to be a cloud-like structure hanging above the limb of the planet.

Many theories have been put forward as to what the phenomenon could be — high altitude cloud? Dust storm? An asteroid impact plume?! — but it’s all conjecture until we can get follow-up observations. It is hoped that NASA’s Mars Odyssey satellite might be able to slew around and get a close-up view. However, it appears to be a transient event that is decreasing in size, so follow-up observations may not be possible.

For the moment, it’s looking very likely that it is some kind of short-lived atmospheric feature, and if I had to put money on it, I’d probably edge more toward the mundane — like a high-altitude cloud formation.

But there is one other possibility that immediately came to mind when I saw Jaeschke’s photograph: Could it be the effect of a magnetic umbrella?

Despite the lack of a global magnetic field like Earth’s magnetosphere, Mars does have small pockets of magnetism over its surface. When solar wind particles collide with the Earth’s magnetosphere, highly energetic particles are channeled to the poles and impact the high altitude atmosphere — aurorae are the result. On Mars, however, it’s different. Though the planet may not experience the intense “auroral oval” like its terrestrial counterpart, when the conditions are right, solar particles my hit these small pockets of magnetism. The result? Auroral umbrellas.

The physics is fairly straight forward — the discreet magnetic pockets act as bubbles, directing the charged solar particles around them in an umbrella fashion. There is limited observational evidence for these space weather features, but they should be possible.

As the sun is going through a period of unrest, amplifying the ferocity of solar storms, popping off coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and solar flares, could the cloud-like feature seen in Jaeschke’s photograph be a bright auroral umbrella? I’m additionally curious as a magnetic feature like this would be rooted in the planet’s crust and would move with the rotation of the planet. It would also be a transient event — much like an atmospheric phenomenon.

The physics may sound plausible, but it would be interesting to see what amateur astronomers think. Could such a feature appear in Mars observations?

For more information, see Jaeschke’s ExoSky website.

The Funky Craters of Mars

A menagerie of strange divots (NASA/HiRISE/Univ. of Arizona)

A menagerie of strange divots (NASA/HiRISE/Univ. of Arizona)

As 2011 draws to a close, it’s time to reflect on my absenteeism from Astroengine. But it’s not my fault, I’ve been typing like a madman for these guys.

But that’s enough excuses, 2012 promises to be a huge year for space, and if I get my time management skills back up to scratch, there will be a whole lot more of the blogging thing going on over here too. So to kick things off I thought I’d share a cool slide show I’ve been working on for Discovery News with Ari Espinoza of the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) — the awesome camera currently orbiting Mars aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

With the help of Ari, we managed to collect some weird-looking Mars craters (for the hell of it) and create a slide show with some of the strangest. Below are a few of my favorites, but be sure to check out the full slide show for more oddities!