January 31st, 2019

‘Mars Buggy’ Curiosity Measures a Mountain’s Gravity

Side-by-side images depict NASA’s Curiosity rover (illustration at left) and a moon buggy driven during the Apollo 16 mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Apollo 17 astronauts drove a moon buggy across the lunar surface in 1972, measuring gravity with a special instrument. There are no astronauts on Mars, but a group of clever researchers realized they havejust the tools for similar experiments with the Martian buggy they’re operating.

In a new paper in Science, the researchers detail how they repurposed sensors used to drive the Curiosity rover and turned them into gravimeters, which measure changes in gravitational pull. That enabled them to measure the subtle tug from rock layers on lower Mount Sharp, which rises 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the base of Gale Crater and which Curiosity has been climbing since 2014. The results? It turns out the density of those rock layers is much lower than expected.

Just like a smartphone, Curiosity carries accelerometers and gyroscopes. Moving your smartphone allows these sensors to determine its location and which way it’s facing. Curiosity’s sensors do the same thing but with far more precision, playing a crucial role in navigating the Martian surface on each drive. Knowing the rover’s orientation also lets engineers accurately point its instruments and multidirectional, high-gain antenna.

By happy coincidence, the rover’s accelerometers can be used like Apollo 17’s gravimeter. The accelerometers detect the gravity of the planet whenever the rover stands still. Using engineering data from the first five years of the mission, the paper’s authors measured the gravitational tug of Mars on the rover. As Curiosity ascends Mount Sharp, the mountain adds additional gravity – but not as much as scientists expected.

“The lower levels of Mount Sharp are surprisingly porous,” said lead author Kevin Lewis of Johns Hopkins University. “We know the bottom layers of the mountain were buried over time. That compacts them, making them denser. But this finding suggests they weren’t buried by as much material as we thought.”

December 10th, 2018

NASA’s Lincoln penny on Mars shows how hard the wind blows

Image of the MAHLI calibration target before Image of the MAHLI calibration target after

The global dust storm on Mars earlier this year coated NASA’s rovers in a layer of red planet grime. A new set of images shows how the current windy season is cleaning off the Curiosity rover.

Curiosity team member and planetary scientist Abigail Fraeman posted an update to the mission blog on Wednesday with two images taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on the rover’s arm.

The first image dates to Sept. 4 and shows the coin used to help calibrate Curiosity’s camera and test its performance. The penny is coated with Mars dust, a reminder of the powerful storm that knocked NASA’s Opportunity rover out of contact in June.

The second image is from Dec. 2 and shows a much cleaner penny. “Dust has certainly been blowing around in Gale Crater lately,” writes Fraeman.

November 29th, 2018

Opinion: Mars Beckons

Niv Bavarsky

The science and technology behind NASA’s latest space explorer to land on Mars are so awe-inducing that it’s hardly surprising when scientists commenting on the triumph drop their usual jargon to speak like excited schoolchildren.

“It’s nice and dirty; I like that,” was how Bruce Banerdt, the principal investigator behind the InSight mission, reacted when, shortly after setting down Monday on the flat and featureless Martian plain known as the Elysium Planitia, the lander beamed back an image speckled with red dust. “This image is actually a really good argument for why you put a dust cover on a camera. Good choice, right?”

Unlike the [rovers], InSight — Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — is meant to stay in one spot and deploy instruments to measure marsquakes (yes, on Earth they’re “earthquakes”) in order to learn about what’s going on in the innards of the planet. One gizmo will take Mars’s temperature by hammering itself 16 feet below the surface. Deploying the instruments alone is expected to take two months, and the entire mission is meant to last a Martian year, roughly two Earth years.

What for? A random sampling of comments from the public suggests not everyone is convinced that digging on Mars is money well spent. But the basic answer is that whether it’s practical or not, humans will continue to explore the heavens so long as the moon, Mars and the myriad celestial bodies beyond fire our imagination and curiosity. What happened in the earliest days of the universe? How were Earth and its fellow planets formed? And the question of questions: Is there life out there?

June 19th, 2018

Curiosity Rover Stays Busy as Dust Storm Rages on Mars, Snaps Selfie

NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS / Seán Doran

A Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator means NASA’s Curiosity rover always stays busy, dust or shine. Not even an intense dust storm can keep the rover down. While the Opportunity rover had to shut down, the folks responsible for Curiosity are still doing science.

Curiosity even had time to capture a selfie.

The composite image put together by Seán Doran shows what Curiosity and its dusty surroundings looked like on Sol 2082 (the date on Mars since Curiosity landed). Today is Sol 2086.

Despite looking like a single frame, the image is stitched together from many images captured by the Mars Hand Lens Imager, or MAHLI, mounted on the rover’s robotic arm. Each time a picture is captured, the robotic arm is behind the camera’s view.

June 13th, 2018

Enormous Dust Storm On Mars Threatens The Opportunity Rover

A series of images shows simulated views of a darkening Martian sky blotting out the Sun from NASA’s Opportunity rover’s point of view, with the right side simulating Opportunity’s current view in the global dust storm (June 2018).

A massive dust storm on Mars is threatening NASA’s Opportunity rover, which has been conducting research on the Red Planet for well over a decade.

Where the rover sits, the dust storm has completely blotted out the sun, depriving Opportunity of solar power and cutting off communications with Earth.

NASA scientists believe the rover has fallen asleep to wait out the storm, and that when the dust storm dies down and sunlight returns, the rover will resume activity.

“We’re concerned, but we’re hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will begin to communicate with us,” says John Callas, the Opportunity project manager.

The rover has survived dust storms before, but it’s never lost power this thoroughly.

The dust storm on Mars grew from a small, local storm into a massive event over the course of the last two weeks. Opportunity is located near the middle of the storm, while the newer rover Curiosity — which is nuclear-powered, so not threatened by the loss of sunlight — is currently near the storm’s edge.

June 7th, 2018

Curiosity Rover Finds 3.5-Billion-Year-Old Organic Compounds and Strange Methane on Mars

A potential explanation for the seasonal Martian methane.
Illustration: NASA/JPL-Caltech

No, NASA hasn’t discovered life on Mars yet—but a new result makes it seem like maybe, at some point in the planet’s history, the conditions were ripe for some extraterrestrial beings. Maybe.

The scientists behind experiments conducted by the Curiosity rover are today reporting two results that make the Red Planet’s story even more interesting. One group found carbon-containing organic matter in 3.5-billion-year-old rock. Another noticed the methane levels around Curiosity varied by the season. Combined, these results present tantalizing hints of a potentially habitable Martian past.

From everything we can tell of the chemistry and the minerals deposited in the Gale crater where Curiosity is stationed, “we think it was a habitable environment,” Jennifer Eigenbrode from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center told Gizmodo. “It had the ability to support life—but doesn’t mean life were there.”

As for the methane, Curiosity’s Tunable Laser Spectrometer measured the methane levels in its surrounding atmosphere over five years. The levels averaged at 0.41 parts per billion by volume, but ranged from 0.24 to 0.65 depending on the season. Here on Earth, we associate methane with life, but it’s a mystery what could be causing it on Mars. Perhaps it’s some geologic process. “It probably indicates more active water in the subsurface than we understood,” scientist Kirsten Siebach, Martian geologist at Rice University not involved with the studies, told Gizmodo.

June 5th, 2018

After More Than a Year, Mars Curiosity’s Labs Are Back in Action

The drill bit of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover over one of the sample inlets on the rover’s deck. The inlets lead to Curiosity’s onboard laboratories. This image was taken on Sol 2068 by the rover’s Mast Camera (Mastcam).Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA’s Curiosity rover is analyzing drilled samples on Mars in one of its onboard labs for the first time in more than a year.

“This was no small feat. It represents months and months of work by our team to pull this off,” said Jim Erickson, project manager of the Mars Science Laboratory mission, which is led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The Curiosity rover is part of the MSL mission. “JPL’s engineers had to improvise a new way for the rover to drill rocks on Mars after a mechanical problem took the drill offline in December 2016.”

The rover drilled its last scheduled rock sample in October 2016.

On May 20, a technique called “feed extended drilling” allowed Curiosity to drill its first rock sample since October 2016; on May 31, an additional technique called “feed extended sample transfer” successfully trickled rock powder into the rover for processing by its mineralogy laboratory. Delivery to its chemistry laboratory will follow in the week ahead.

March 27th, 2018

NASA’s Curiosity Rover Enjoys Its 2000th Day On Mars

This mosaic taken by NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover looks uphill at Mount Sharp, which Curiosity has been climbing since 2014. Highlighted in white is an area with clay-bearing rocks that scientists are eager to explore; it could shed additional light on the role of water in creating Mount Sharp. The mosaic was assembled from dozens of images taken by Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam). It was taken on Sol 1931 back in January. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Since it landed on Mars in 2012, the Curiosity rover has made some rather startling scientific discoveries. These include the discovery of methane and organic molecules, evidence of how it lost its ancient atmosphere, and confirming that Mars once had flowing water and lakes on its surface. In addition, the rover has passed a number of impressive milestones along the way.

In fact, back in January of 2018, the rover had spent a total of 2,000 Earth days on Mars. And as of March 22nd, 2018, NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover had reached its two-thousandth Martian day (Sol) on the Red Planet! To mark the occasion, NASA released a mosaic photo that previews what the rover will be investigating next (hint: it could shed further light on whether or not Mars was habitable in the past).

The image (shown at top and below) was assembled from dozens of images taken by Curiosity‘s Mast Camera (Mastcam) on Sol 1931 (back in January). To the right, looming in the background, is Mount Sharp, the central peak in the Gale Crater (where Curiosity landed back in 2012). Since September of 2014, the rover has been climbing this feature and collecting drill samples to get a better understanding of Mars’ geological history.

April 5th, 2017

Mars rover spots clouds shaped by gravity waves

Panoramic image showing cirrus clouds in the Martian atmosphere, taken by the Opportunity rover in 2006. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/M. Howard, T. Öner, D, Bouic & M. Di Lorenzo

Panoramic image showing cirrus clouds in the Martian atmosphere, taken by the Opportunity rover in 2006. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/M. Howard, T. Öner, D, Bouic & M. Di Lorenzo

NASA’s Curiosity rover usually keeps its instruments firmly focused on Mars’s ground, zapping grit with its laser or drilling cores in bedrock. But every few days, the SUV-sized robot, like any good dreamer, shifts its sights upward to the clouds.

Well into its fifth year, the rover has now shot more than 500 movies of the clouds above it, including the first ground-based view of martian clouds shaped by gravity waves, researchers reported here this week at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. (Gravity waves, common atmospheric ripples on Earth that result from air trying to regain its vertical balance, should not be confused with gravitational waves, cosmological ripples in spacetime.) The shots are the best record made so far of a mysterious recurring belt of equatorial clouds known to influence the martian climate.

Understanding these clouds will help inform estimates of ground ice depth and perhaps recurring slope lineae, potential flows of salty water on the surface, says John Moores, a planetary scientist at York University in Toronto, Canada, who led the study with his graduate student, Jake Kloos. “If we wish to understand the water story of Mars’s past,” Moores says, “we first need to [separate out] contributions from the present-day water cycle.”

November 3rd, 2016

Egg Rock: Lessons from the iron meteorite Curiosity found on Mars

The dark, smooth-surfaced rock at the center of this Oct. 30, 2016, image from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover was examined with laser pulses and confirmed to be an iron-nickel meteorite. It is about the size of a golf ball. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The dark, smooth-surfaced rock at the center of this Oct. 30, 2016, image from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover was examined with laser pulses and confirmed to be an iron-nickel meteorite. It is about the size of a golf ball. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

It’s been more than four years since NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars, enabling researchers to study the shape and composition of the planet’s landscape in a mission that had originally been planned to last less than two years. Even as the rover’s instruments begin to show signs of wear and tear, however, scientists are still making discoveries.

For the first time on Mars, researchers used a spectrometer to zap an object the size of a golfball with a laser this week to confirm that it is an iron-nickel meteorite that fell to the planet’s surface, according to NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Although such objects are common on Earth and to be expected on the Red Planet as well, studying them in tandem with what we already know about the planet’s atmosphere could reveal a wealth of new information about the history of the solar system.

Horton Newsom, a researcher from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, said the object, known as Egg Rock, could carry within its core information that differs from asteroids currently being studied.