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.

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).

The MSL is Too Expensive? Who Cares! We’re Searching For Life!

$2.2 billion eggs. One basket. The MSL "Skycrane" lowers the 850kg rover to the Martian surface (NASA)
$2.2 billion eggs. One basket. The MSL Skycrane lowers the 850kg rover to the Martian surface (NASA)

Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly excited about any planetary mission, no matter how much it costs. However, there is something about the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) that makes me uneasy. The project may be delayed (the MSL is scheduled for a 2011 launch) and it may be costing more than NASA projected, but it’s not these factors I’m worried about.

The MSL is built on a “bigger and better” mentality; it dwarfs both of the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, plus it is packing a rather impressive suite of 10 complex scientific instruments to carry out an unprecedented campaign in the Martian dirt. Oh, and did I mention it will be powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), a complete departure from the tried and tested solar panelled rovers? Oh hold on, as the MSL weighs nearly a tonne, a brand new method of landing the thing is required (simply parachuting, air bag bouncing or rocket thruster powered landings are now passรฉ). The “Skycrane” that looks like one of those hoverboards from Back to the Future II has been invented to gently lower the MSL (pictured above).

Still, I’m not too concerned, NASA has proven itself countless times at overcoming technological challenges. That’s why NASA is there, to research and develop new technologies and science. But what if the MSL has gone too far? What if the technology is too untried and untested? Unfortunately, it looks like the recent turn of events have taken even the MSL program manager by surprise
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Twitter Journalism: Methane on Mars, The Signature of Life?

The distribution of atmospheric methane originating from three principal regions on the Martian surface (NASA)
The distribution of atmospheric methane originating from three principal regions on the Martian surface (NASA)

Today, NASA held a press conference detailing some significant discoveries from observations made of the Martian atmosphere. Using NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility and Keck Telescope, scientists from the University of Hawaii and NASA were able to deduce the spectroscopic fingerprint of methane. Although scientists have known for a long time that methane exists in the Martian atmosphere, the big news is that there is lots of it, it appears to be constantly replenished and it is a huge indicator of biological processes under the surface.

Fortunately, I was able to watch the NASA TV broadcast of the press conference at 11am (PST), so I thought I’d try, for the first time, to do some live microblogging of the announcements using Twitter. So, rather than going into vast detail about today’s methane news (as the web has exploded with articles on the subject anyway), I thought I’d publish my Twitter feed during the conference
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The Cancer Spreads: Mars Science Laboratory Delayed Until 2011

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project is failing. But it is not suffering from technical failure en-route to the Red Planet, it hasn’t gotten itself stuck in a Martian sand-trap, it hasn’t even fallen foul of the “Galactic Ghoul”; the MSL is suffering from an overlooked space exploration hazard: bad management. According to today’s (not unexpected) NASA announcement, the MSL will not be launched until 2011.

I had a very bad feeling about today’s press conference, and it looks like my fears were justified. Due to technical difficulties, the launch of the MSL is being delayed by two years, as the overrun will ensure the mission misses the next Mars launch window. So I have to ask: why is an over-budget, behind schedule, poorly managed mission being allowed to sap the budgets of other NASA programs when the solution is so obvious?
Continue reading “The Cancer Spreads: Mars Science Laboratory Delayed Until 2011”

Mars Science Laboratory Sky Crane: Cool or Crazy?

The Mars Science Laboratory rover is gently lowered to the Martian surface... we hope (NASA)
The Mars Science Laboratory rover is gently lowered to the Martian surface... we hope (NASA)

The next NASA rover mission to the Red Planet will be the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) set for a 2009 launch. This mission will incorporate the biggest rover ever to be sent to the Martian surface, the MSL is the size of a small car and it will carry out a vast number of experiments in the hope of finding evidence for life (again).* This ambitious mission has a big price tag of $1.9 billion, so NASA will want to avoid any chance of “doing a Beagle” and ripping Mars a new impact crater.**

So, with this unprecedented mission comes an unprecedented way of lowering it to the Martian surface. Sure, you have your obligatory drogue parachute, you even have a few rocket bursts to soften the touch-down (along the lines of this year’s Phoenix powered landing), but the MSL will also have a “sky crane” to help it out (in a not-so-dissimilar way to the lowering of the descending Mars Exploration Rovers in 2004, only more awesome).

To be honest, I’m as enthusiastic about this plan as I was when I found out that Phoenix would use a jetpack after freefalling the height of two Empire State Buildings (i.e. “are you mad??“)… but then again, what would I know? It looks like the powered landing worked out pretty well for Phoenix…
Continue reading “Mars Science Laboratory Sky Crane: Cool or Crazy?”