On Mars, There’s No Asphalt

Curiosity's right-middle and rear wheels, bearing the scars of 488 sols of rough roving. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity’s right-middle and rear wheels, bearing the scars of 488 sols of rough roving. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

If you’re like me, you hang off every news release and new photo from our tenacious Mars rover Curiosity. The awesome one-ton, six-wheeled robot is, after all, exploring a very alien landscape. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the mission, Mars is far from being a truly alien place. Sure, we can’t breath the thin frigid air, but we can certainly recognize similar geological processes that we have on Earth, and, most intriguingly, regions that would have once been habitable for life as we know it. This doesn’t mean there was life, just that once upon a time parts of Gale Crater would have been pretty cozy for terrestrial microbes. Personally, I find that notion fascinating.

But, way back in May, I noticed something awry with our beloved rover’s wheels. Curiosity’s beautiful aircraft-grade aluminum wheels were looking rather beaten up. Punctures had appeared. Fearing the worst I reached out to NASA to find out what was going on. After a friendly email exchange with lead rover driver Matt Heverly, I felt a lot more at ease: The damage was predicted; dings, scratches, even holes were expected to appear in the thinnest (0.75 mm thick) aluminum between the treads. On Mars, after all, there is no asphalt. Also, erosion is a slower-paced affair in the thin winds and dry environment — sharp, fractured rocks protrude, embedding themselves into the wheels at every slow turn.

Then, on Friday, in a news update on Curiosity’s progress, JPL scientists mentioned that they would be commanding the rover to drive over a comparatively smooth patch to evaluate the condition of the wheels as their condition is getting worse. But isn’t that to be expected? Apparently not to this degree. “Dents and holes were anticipated, but the amount of wear appears to have accelerated in the past month or so,” said Jim Erickson, project manager for the NASA Mars Science Laboratory at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

So what are we looking at here?

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All of the wheels are exhibiting wear and tear, but this particular ‘rip’ in aluminum is by far the most dramatic. But what does that mean for Curiosity? We’ll have to wait and see once JPL engineers have assessed their condition. Although this kind of damage has inevitably been worked into the the structural equations for the wheels’ load-bearing capabilities, whichever way you look at it, damage like this is not good — especially as Curiosity hasn’t even roved three miles yet.

But in the spirit of Mars exploration, Curiosity will soldier on regardless of how rough the red planet treats her.

Read more in my coverage on Discovery News, a location you’ll find me during most daylight (and many nighttime) hours:

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A Martian Storm Is Brewing

This nearly global mosaic of observations made by the Mars Color Imager on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Nov. 18, 2012, shows a dust storm in Mars' southern hemisphere. Credit: NASA

This nearly global mosaic of observations made by the Mars Color Imager on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Nov. 18, 2012, shows a dust storm in Mars’ southern hemisphere. Credit: NASA

As the sols march on, NASA’s brand new nuclear-powered rover Curiosity has detected a dramatic change in its surrounding atmosphere. A once-clear vista of the distant rim of Gale Crater now looks smoggy — almost like the gray-brown-yellow stuff that hangs above Los Angeles on a hot summer’s day. So what’s causing this change in opacity?

As can be seen in the above global view of Mars, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took a near-continuous observation of the planet on Nov. 18 with its Mars Color Imager. The mosaic has picked out an assortment of geographical features, but there’s one rather ominous atmospheric feature (white arrows) that grabbed the attention of Malin Space Science Systems’ Bruce Cantor.

A regional dust storm is brewing and Cantor first observed the storm on Nov. 10. He reported the detection to NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover team who manage Opportunity. Although the storm is over 800 miles from the tenacious rover, dust storms are of a concern for any solar powered surface mission, especially for a rover that has outlived its expected mission lifetime by several years. Opportunity’s solar panels are already covered in dust, so should there be an additional dip in sunlight due to a dusty atmosphere there could be an impact on its mission. Additional dust layers on the panels wouldn’t help either.

Opportunity does not have a weather station, but its cameras have detected a slight drop in atmospheric clarity. Curiosity, on the other hand, does have a weather station — called the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) — and has been closely monitoring the atmospheric variability over the last few days, detecting a decreased air pressure and a slight rise in overnight low temperature. This is in addition to the dramatic loss in visibility. In short, it sounds like Curiosity can sense a storm in the air.

With the help of Emily Lakdawalla over at the Planetary Society, a nifty animation by Egorov Vitaly that highlights the change in visibility has been showcased:

Six Navcam images pointed toward the horizon taken over the course of Curiosity's time near Rocknest document changes in the transparency of the atmosphere.  NASA / JPL / Egorov Vitaly ("Zelenyikot")

Six Navcam images pointed toward the horizon taken over the course of Curiosity’s time near Rocknest document changes in the transparency of the atmosphere. NASA/JPL/ Egorov Vitaly (“Zelenyikot”)

“This is now a regional dust storm. It has covered a fairly extensive region with its dust haze, and it is in a part of the planet where some regional storms in the past have grown into global dust hazes,” said Rich Zurek, chief Mars scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “For the first time since the Viking missions of the 1970s, we are studying a regional dust storm both from orbit and with a weather station on the surface.”

Now this is the cool bit. We currently have an armada of Mars orbiters, plus two generations of Mars rovers doing groundbreaking work on opposite sides of the red planet. We are in an unprecedented age of planetary exploration where a network of robots all work in concert to aid our understanding of how the planet works. In this case, local weather changes are being observed around two surface missions while corroborating data is being gathered hundreds of miles overhead.

From the NASA JPL press release:

Starting on Nov. 16, the Mars Climate Sounder instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter detected a warming of the atmosphere at about 16 miles (25 kilometers) above the storm. Since then, the atmosphere in the region has warmed by about 45 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius). This is due to the dust absorbing sunlight at that height, so it indicates the dust is being lofted well above the surface and the winds are starting to create a dust haze over a broad region.

Warmer temperatures are seen not only in the dustier atmosphere in the south, but also in a hot spot near northern polar latitudes due to changes in the atmospheric circulation. Similar changes affect the pressure measured by Curiosity even though the dust haze is still far away.

We’re monitoring weather on another planet people! If that’s not mind-blowing, I don’t know what is.

Note: Apologies for the Astroengine.com hiatus, I’ve been somewhat distracted with writing duties at Discovery News and Al Jazeera English. If you’re ever wondering where I’ve disappeared to, check in on my Twitter feed, I tweet a lot!

Mars Rover Curiosity is a Steampunk Creation

The left eye of the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity took this image of the camera on the rover's arm, the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), during the 30th sol of the rover's mission on Mars (Sept. 5, 2012).

The left eye of the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity took this image of the camera on the rover’s arm, the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), during the 30th sol of the rover’s mission on Mars (Sept. 5, 2012).

During the Sept. 6 press conference from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission scientists discussed updates from Curiosity’s progress in Gale Crater. It’s hard to keep up with the incredible deluge of images and scientific data as the six-wheeled rover roves toward its first target — a geologically interesting location called “Glenelg.” Mission managers hope to use Curiosity’s drill for the first time when the rover arrives. Expect mission updates and some pretty cool photos to appear on Discovery News throughout the day.

There was one photograph, however, imaged by the rover’s Mastcam that was showcased in today’s briefing that fascinated me. Shown above, the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) can be seen on the rover’s robotic arm (with dust cap still in place). All the instrumentation and wiring has a very cool Steampunk-esque quality to it.

When I “met” Curiosity at the JPL clean room last year, I was also fascinated by its ugly functionality. By “ugly,” I don’t mean repulsive, I actually fell in love with the robot that day. But with any space mission, function succeeds form and Curiosity is no different. Instruments jut out from a central box; cables snake over all surfaces; gold and silver components are scattered across the deck like opulent jewels; and the whole thing is supported by some seriously heavy duty wheels that wouldn’t look out of place attached to a Bentley cruising through Los Angeles.

Back then, I stared at the Mars exploration machine, whose one purpose is to do science in an alien land, and thought how alien the thing looked. But in all the ugliness of an apparently random assortment of instrumentation, Curiosity has an undeniably beautiful character. Also, it has a WALL-E-like “head” in the form of the blocky ChemCam atop its mast. And now I know what its character is after seeing this latest robotic arm photo; it’s a creation that wouldn’t look out of place in a Steampunk museum or imagined in a H. G. Wells novel. However, this isn’t sci-fi, this is real. We have a nuclear-powered rover on Mars. Sometimes it’s too hard to put such awesomeness into words.

Mars Shot First: Curiosity’s Wind Sensor Damaged

Hi-res self-portrait of Curiosity -- taken with the mast-mounted Navcams. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Hi-res self-portrait of Curiosity — taken with the mast-mounted Navcams. Debris can be seen scattered across the deck. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

During Mars rover Curiosity’s dramatic landing on Aug. 5, the rocket-powered sky crane blasted debris onto the rover’s deck. The first question that came to mind concerned the safety of exposed and potentially vulnerable instrumentation. I was in the very fortunate position to raise my concerns during the Aug. 9 NASA news briefing. The response from MSL mission manager Mike Watkins was cautious optimism that little to no damage was caused by the unexpected ejection of material from the ground.

Alas, it would seem that some damage was sustained.

“It does appear that some small rocks became lofted in the winds that were generated by the plumes during landing and probably just fell upon the rover deck,” said Curiosity deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., during a conference call on Tuesday (Aug. 21).

“Some of these rocks may have fallen on these exposed circuit boards and damaged the wires. That’s just one potential cause. We don’t know for sure and we don’t really have a way of assessing that at this point any further,” he added.

It appears that one of the booms on the Mars Science Laboratory’s Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) — located on the rover’s mast — may have been the hardware that got sandblasted or smashed by Mars rocks. REMS now only has one (of two) booms operational. The booms’ purpose is to take measurements of wind speed on the Martian surface. Although this is a setback (and, so far, the ONLY setback), mission scientists are confident they’ll find a workaround.

“We’ll have to work a little harder to understand when the wind may be coming from a direction that would be masked by (Curiosity’s) mast … but we think we can work around that,” Vasavada said.

So, it would appear that Mars shot firstbut Curiosity shot back. (Thanks @absolutspacegrl and @ArchLundy!)

Just in case you have no idea what we’re referring to:

Shock and Awe: Curiosity Laser-Blasts First Mars Rock

The laser-zapped rock "Coronation" -- inset image was taken by the ChemCam instrument, featuring the small laser burn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The laser-zapped rock “Coronation” — inset image was taken by the ChemCam instrument, featuring the small laser burn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

After Mars rover Curiosity’s thunderous landing on Aug. 5/6, any hypothetical Martian on the surface would have been forgiven for being a little confused.

Setting down on the flat plain called Aeolis Palus inside Gale Crater, the six-wheeled, one-ton, nuclear-powered rover would have looked more like an alien battle tank being dropped off by a rather ominous-looking “Flying Saucer” than a scientific mission. But after the famous “sky crane” maneuver that lowered the rover with the precision of a Harrier Jump Jet, the “alien” robot didn’t start rolling over the Martian landscape zapping Mars rocks with its laser. Instead, it just sat there. For days. Occasionally there’d be a bit of action — such as Curiosity’s cameras swiveling, mast raising and high-gain antenna tracking the sky — but apart from that, our hypothetical Martians would probably not have thought much of this lack-luster invasion by an airdropped tank.

But that all changed today. Curiosity blasted a rock with its laser, marking the beginning of Curiosity’s Mars domination! Shock and awe, Mars rover style.

Alas, this isn’t a military exercise, but it is significant. Today marks the first day that one of our interplanetary robotic emissaries have used a laser on another planet in the name of science. NASA mission operators gave the go-ahead to carry out a test-run of the Chemistry and Camera instrument, or ChemCam, targeting a small rock (called “Coronation”) with 30 pulses of its laser over a 10-second period. According to the JPL press release, each pulse delivered more than a million watts of power for about five one-billionths of a second.

The fist-sized Mars rock -- called "Coronation", previously designated "N165" -- has become the first casualty scientific target of Curiosity's ChemCam intrument. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The fist-sized Mars rock — called “Coronation”, previously designated “N165″ — has become the first casualty of war scientific target of Curiosity’s ChemCam instrument. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“We got a great spectrum of Coronation — lots of signal,” said ChemCam Principal Investigator Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory, N.M. “Our team is both thrilled and working hard, looking at the results. After eight years building the instrument, it’s payoff time!”

The laser works by vaporizing the surface layers of exposed rock. Under the intense heating by such focused energy, a tiny sample of material rapidly turns into plasma. The the flash of light generated by the small, rapidly dissipating cloud of plasma can then by analyzed from afar by the ChemCam’s spectrometer. The light reveals what kinds of elements are contained in the sample, aiding Curiosity’s studies of the Red Planet. And the best thing is that ChemCam appears to be working better than expected.

“It’s surprising that the data are even better than we ever had during tests on Earth, in signal-to-noise ratio,” said ChemCam Deputy Project Scientist Sylvestre Maurice of the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planetologie (IRAP) in Toulouse, France. “It’s so rich, we can expect great science from investigating what might be thousands of targets with ChemCam in the next two years.”

To find out more about this landmark day for Curiosity and Mars exploration, read the JPL press release: “Rover’s Laser Instrument Zaps First Martian Rock

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

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