Updates from NASA’s Curiosity Rover [Mars Science Laboratory]

Geological evolution of the Earth and Mars have started from very similar origins but yet the two planets have followed quite different trajectories. Geology of our planet has shaped the evolution of life (and vice versa). Understanding Mars will also help understand our own planet. For this reason, Nature Documentaries will be paying attention to this ambitious Mars rover project. Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been holding regular detailed update sessions. You can follow some of these updates below starting from the most recent in a reverse chronological order until since the successful landing of the rover on August 6th 2012. August 6th 2014 marked the completion of the second year (Earth year) of exploration for the Mars rover Curiosity. The video above is a compilation of mission updates covering four Earth years (two Mars years) of rover exploration. You can also review 28-Earth-months-long rover activity (until Sol 830) and later activities until sol 1065 from NY Times.


Mars Panorama – Curiosity rover: Martian solar day 1451

Tectonic activity on Mars ended very early in its history and many of the exaggerated geological features have been retained. These include enormous volcanoes such as Olympus Mons the largest volcano in our solar system (twice high as Mount Everest and size of state of Colorado), deep canyons such as Valles Marineris system (three times as deep as and hundred times as wide as the Grand Canyon) forming a massive fracture on the crust of the planet and craters formed by mega impacts.

The video above gives a summary of events that took place during the entire Earth year of the project since the successful touchdown. Before driving Curiosity to Mount Sharp -the main destination of the project- the mission team first wanted to visit a piece of ground some 400m to the east of the landing site, a location the researchers have given the palindromic name “Glenelg”. Satellite pictures have shown this place to be a confluence of three distinct types of geological features. While the rover was on its way to Glenelg, it made additional performance check of its hand lens and X-ray spectrophotometer by analyzing another rock “Jake Matejevic” named after a rover engineer.

During its advance towards Glenelg the rover detected a tilted 10-15 cm thick slab of rocks named “Hottah” that showed direct evidence of water in the past. The name refers to a lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories. These kinds of rocks were seen at the landing site when the rockets of sky crane cleared the soil on the surface. Geology of Hottah tells us that it is located at the bottom of an ancient streambed. The JPL update of September 27 provides a rich summary of their geology backed with examples of similar rock formations from Earth:

On Monday Aug. 27, Jet Propulsion Laboratory held another news conference about its rover mission on Mars. High-resolution images taken by 100mm telephoto lens show details of geological layers in Mt. Sharp. Nasa engineers already detected a feature that is called an unconformity in the rover’s first images of Mount Sharp. It means one layer of sediment does not geologically neatly line up with that above it. Images from satellites around Mars had indicated that the lower foothills of Mount Sharp consisted of flat-lying sediments rich in “hydrated” minerals, formed in the presence of water. Layers above the foothills seemed to lack the minerals. The rover’s Mastcam – which provided the new colour panorama image – has taken a picture of the divide, showing sediments apparently deposited at a clearly different angle than those below them. Similar deposits on Earth can arise due to tectonic or volcanic activity. Certain layers in Grand Canyon shows a similar unconformity as well.

Video above is from NASA’s televised news conference at on Wednesday Aug. 22, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., to update on the progress of its rover mission on Mars. Synopsis: Curiosity drove 4.5 meters forward, turned 120º, and then drove back 2.5 meters from its landing site named “Bradbury Landing”. Using its ChemCam rover also analyzed one of the four scour marks (“Goulburn scar”) in the ground made by the sky crane rocket engines during the descent of the rover. The “scour marks” have been dubbed Burnside, Goulburn, Hepburn and Sleepy Dragon – names taken from ancient rock formations in Canadian North America.

The entire project is like a prequel to the famous Mars Trilogy novel series by Kim Stanley Robinson. The Mars Science Laboratory [MSL] “Curiosity” has landed sucessfully and began sending high resolution images of its surroundings. It is the most advanced robot ever landed on another planet.

Please scroll forward about 10 minutes if you want to see the beginning of the next mission update about the testing of the rover:

It is in the tradition of NASA to make the next project bigger and more detailed. Curiosity has 10 times more instruments than any other rover sent to Mars. It will be searching for signatures of life by analyzing the geology of the red planet. It will not look for Martians. However if Martians ever existed their traces will be detectable within geological features of the Gale Crater.

On August 17th, Curiosity sent a detailed panorama of its surroundings. As a test of its ChemCam laser it analyzed a small 7 cm size rock lying next to it. The rock dubbed as “coronation” was an ordinary basalt rock with no unexpected chemical composition.

Here’s a detailed mission update and near future plans broadcasted on August 17th:

A Martian day (SOL) is approximately 40 minutes longer than an Earth day, meaning operators of the rover start their shift 40 minutes later each day.

 

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