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NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover Lands In Perfect Spot, Produces Stunning Images

August 9, 2012
Self-portrait of Curiosity rover taken from robotic arm, Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

NASA scientists are continuing to celebrate the successful landing of its Curiosity rover and after poring over data to determine the precise point of impact, space officials are even more excited to find that it actually made touchdown in the best spot possible from a scientific point-of-view. And better yet, the rover is sending back visually stunning images from the Martian landscape, images that NASA scientists are likening to the Mojave Desert in California.

The intended landing zone was a 48-square-mile target area on the floor of the ancient Gale Crater. Scientists announced Monday that it landed in the most scientifically exciting part of that targeted zone. Image sets from Curiosity and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) are continuing to come in, giving NASA a clear view of the Curiosity´s surroundings.

Caltech geologist John Grotzinger, Curiosity mission lead scientist, gave his analysis of the landing.

He said the rover landed in a geological feature called an alluvial fan, a plain of rocks and dirt likely deposited by an ancient Martian river. When it comes to Curiosity´s primary mission, the search for evidence that Mars had once, or still does, support life, the alluvial fan could be “a jackpot,” Grotzinger said.

“This place is awesome,” Grotzinger told Scott Gold of the Los Angeles Times during an interview at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in La Canada Flintridge, California. “We really don’t want to blow out of there.”

Curiosity is the most sophisticated rover ever sent to a distant world. It landed on the Martian surface Sunday evening. Talk about Curiosity was mainly focused on the landing procedure on Sunday, a landing that had never be attempted before, one that could not be tested on Earth because of atmospheric differences. Yet, the landing, dubbed “7 minutes of terror,” went off without a hitch, much to the delight of everyone involved.

But this was not to be just a one-night show, said mission systems manager Michael Watkins. He and mission members expect Curiosity to “drive over Mars and execute a beautiful science mission.”

He said Curiosity will undergo a few weeks worth of testing to ensure the rover´s instruments are working before NASA decides where to drive first — perhaps Mt. Sharp. Curiosity´s landing pad, Gale Crater, is home to Mt. Sharp, which stands taller than any mountain in the lower 48 states. Scientists believe its walls were eroded over millions of years by wind or water, and could contain a preserved record of the history and evolution of Mars.

The alluvial fan in the Gale Crater, while being considered the Holy Grail of landing areas, almost would never have been if scientists went with another choice. Mission members had been taking a close look at a site that appeared to be the petrified remnants of a vast river delta, similar to where the Mississippi River spills into the Gulf of Mexico, and nearly chose that area, which had its own alluvial fan.

Grotzinger said in the end, the area they ultimately chose to land provided its very own alluvial fan. “The place we landed looks pretty darn interesting. We want to check it out.”

Curiosity will explore the alluvial fan and then “head for the hills,” Watkins added.

STUNNING IMAGES

In some of the latest images, Curiosity peered out toward the northern horizon. In some of the images there was evidence of dust kicked up from the thrusters, initially concerning team members that the rover got dirty. However, after initial checks, scientists gave a thumbs up.

“We do see a thin coating of dust, but nothing too bad,” said Justin Maki, imaging scientist at JPL, which is managing the $2.5 billion mission.

Since landing, the rover has streamed home a series of low-res images taken by tiny cameras under the chassis and a camera on the end of its robotic arm. It also sent back a low-quality video of the last 150 seconds of its descent.

After landing, it successfully raised its mast packed with high-res and navigational cameras (Navcams). Once the mast was up, Curiosity began taking photos, including a self-portrait, looking down at its deck from above. Another Navcam took a 360-degree shot of its surroundings in Gale Crater. Color images should start pouring in today, with the first 360-degree color view of its surroundings.

“These Navcam images indicate that our powered descent stage did more than give us a great ride, it gave our science team an amazing freebie,” said Grotzinger. “The thrust from the rockets actually dug a one-and-a-half-foot-long trench in the surface. It appears we can see Martian bedrock on the bottom. Its depth below the surface is valuable data we can use going forward.”

Other images streamed back to NASA from the Context Camera (CTX), aboard NASA´s MRO. It pinpointed the final resting spots of the six, 55-lb entry ballast masses, which impacted the surface about 7.5 miles from the rover´s landing area.

INSTRUMENTS

Besides deploying the 3.6-foot-tall camera mast, team members also activated and gathered surface radiation data from Curiosity´s Radiation Assessment Detector and concluded testing of the rover’s high-gain antenna.

Curiosity carries 10 instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science payloads found on NASA´s rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which are also on Mars. Spirit is now defunct, but Opportunity is on a marathon mission, nearly completing 26.2 miles (an actual marathon distance).

Tools aboard Curiosity include a laser-firing instrument for checking rocks´ elemental composition from a distance; a drill and scoop located at the end of the robotic arm to gather soil and other samples of rock interiors; and laboratory instruments to analyze the samples. If everything goes according to plan, the ChemCam team could fire Curiosity´s first laser pulses at a Martian rock on Sol 10 or 11 (August 18 or 19).

Members of the ChemCam team, got word that their instrument was ready just hours after the rover landed on the Red Planet late Sunday night.

Los Alamos National Laboratory planetary scientist Roger Wiens, Principal Investigator of the ChemCam Team, confirmed that the instrument sent word to its handlers on Earth that it was alive and healthy.

“Following the fantastic landing of Curiosity on Mars, ChemCam proceeded with an aliveness test within an hour of landing,” Wiens announced. “This was essentially the same routine as performed five months earlier in the middle of its cruise (to Mars). We are giving the all-clear from our perspective to raise the (rover) mast on Sol 2. All systems are go!”

Throughout the Curiosity rover´s mission, ChemCam has the ability to sample thousands of locations on Mars. The instrument is a collaboration between research organizations within the United States and France. More than 45 LANL scientists, students and other personnel comprise the entire ChemCam team.

PRIMARY MISSION

The primary mission for Curiosity is expected to last for at least one Martian year (687 Earth days). However, officials said the nuclear-powered rover could actually operate twice that long — four Earth years — officials said on Monday.

With the presence of solid science within arm´s reach, mission leaders might face pressure to “blaze out across the plains,” said Grotzinger.

But that will not be the case, explains Pete Theisinger, Curiosity’s project manager.

“We’re in no hurry,” he remarked. “We have a priceless national asset here. And we are not going to – pardon the French – screw it up,” he told the LA Times.


Source: Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online