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Curiosity Gets Set for Epic Drive after Laser Blasting Mars Watery Secrets

Curiosity’s hi tech ‘hand’ and percussion drill hovers above 2nd bore hole at Cumberland mudstone rock after penetrating laser blasting to unlock secrets of ancient flow of Martian water.  Photo mosaic assembled from high resolution  Mastcam images on May 21, 2013, Sol 281.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)/Marco Di Lorenzo

Curiosity’s hi tech ‘hand’ and percussion drill hovers above 2nd bore hole at Cumberland mudstone rock after penetrating laser blasting to expose chemical composition and unlock secrets of ancient flow of Martian water. Note the row of small pits next to the 0.6 inch (16 mm) diameter hole. Photo mosaic assembled from high resolution Mastcam images on May 21, 2013, Sol 281. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)/Marco Di Lorenzo

Ten months after her breathtaking touchdown on the Red Planet, NASA’s Curiosity rover is nearly set to embark on an epic drive like no other in space history to the slopes of mysterious Mount Sharp – looming supreme inside Gale Crater and the primary mission objective.

But not before the robot completes a few last critical science tasks to more fully illuminate the potential for the origin of Martian microbes in the habitable zone discovered at the work-site of her first penetrations into Mars water altered surface.

The rover science team has chosen a trio of final targets to investigate around the shallow basin of Yellowknife Bay, that resembles a dried out lakebed, where Curiosity has toiled for the past six months, drilled twice into the mudstone outcrops at ‘John Klein’ and ‘Cumberland’ and repeatedly fired her powerful science laser.

Curiosity will revisit a pair of intriguing outcrops named ‘Point Lake’ and ‘Shaler’ that the rover briefly investigated before arriving at ‘John Klein’, said Joy Crisp of JPL, Curiosity’s deputy project scientist, at a media briefing.

“Shaler might be a river deposit. Point Lake might be volcanic or sedimentary. A closer look at them could give us better understanding of how the rocks we sampled with the drill fit into the history of how the environment changed.”

Curiosity will employ nearly all her science instruments to study the outcrops – except the drill.

“It’s highly unlikely to drill at ‘Point Lake’ and ‘Shaler’ because we want to get driving,” Crisp told Universe Today.

“We might drill somewhere along the way to Mount Sharp depending on whether we find something compelling.”

'Point Lake' Outcrop in Gale Crater.  A priority target for a closer look byCuriosity before the rover departs the "Glenelg" area east of its landing site. The pitted outcrop called "Point Lake" is about 7 feet (2 meters) wide and 20 inches (50 centimeters) high.  A closer inspection may yield information about whether it is a volcanic or sedimentary deposit. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

‘Point Lake’ Outcrop in Gale Crater. A priority target for a closer look byCuriosity before the rover departs the “Glenelg” area east of its landing site. The pitted outcrop called “Point Lake” is about 7 feet (2 meters) wide and 20 inches (50 centimeters) high. A closer inspection may yield information about whether it is a volcanic or sedimentary deposit. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Researchers will also use the DAN (Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons) instrument to look for traces of mineral bound water – in the form of hydrogen – at the boundary between bedrock areas of mudstone and sandstone.

Thereafter, Curiosity’s handlers will command the 1 ton behemoth to begin the drive to the lower reaches of Mount Sharp which lies about 6 miles (10 kilometers) distant – as the Martian crow flies.

Mount Sharp rises about 3.4 miles (5.5 km) from the center of Gale Crater. It’s taller than Mount Ranier in Washington State.

Billions of years of Mars geologic history are preserved in the sedimentary layers of Mount Sharp – along with potential signatures of the chemical ingredients of life.

Curiosity Route Map From 'Glenelg' to Mount Sharp. This map shows where NASA's Mars rover Curiosity landed in August 2012 at "Bradbury Landing"; the area where the rover worked from November 2012 through May 2013 at and near the "John Klein" target rock in the "Glenelg" area; and the mission's next major destination, the entry point to the base of Mount Sharp.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Curiosity Route Map From ‘Glenelg’ to Mount Sharp.
This map shows where NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity landed in August 2012 at “Bradbury Landing”; the area where the rover worked from November 2012 through May 2013 at and near the “John Klein” target rock in the “Glenelg” area; and the mission’s next major destination, the entry point to the base of Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

“The drive will start in a few weeks,” said Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. at the briefing.

But the team will be on the lookout for targets of opportunity along the way.

“We are on a mission of exploration. If we come across scientifically interesting areas, we are going to stop and examine them before continuing the journey,” Erikson added.

“If we pass something amazing and compelling we might turn around and drive back,” Crisp added.

It could take nearly a year to arrive at Mount Sharp. And Curiosity must pass through a potentially treacherous dune field to get there – see NASA JPL route map above.

“We are looking for the best path though,” said Erickson.

NASA chose Gale as the landing site specifically to dispatch Curiosity to investigate the sedimentary layers of Mount Sharp because it exhibited signatures of clay minerals that form in neutral water and that could possibly support the origin and evolution of simple Martian life forms, past or present.

“We have a real desire to get to Mount Sharp because there we see variations in the mineralogy as we go up from the base to higher levels and a change in the record of the environment,” said Crisp.

Analysis of the initial gray colored, powdery ‘John Klein’ sample by Curiosity’s pair of onboard chemistry labs – SAM & Chemin – revealed that this location on Mars was habitable in the past and possesses the key chemical ingredients – such as clay minerals – required to support microbial life forms- thereby successfully accomplishing the key science objective of the mission and making a historic discovery long before even arriving at destination Mount Sharp.

Besides the science measurements, researchers also learned lot about how to operate the complex drilling and sample delivery mechanisms much more efficiently for the second drilled rock sample.

The sieved and pulverized Cumberland sample was delivered in about a quarter of the time compared to the John Klein sample – accomplished at a deliberately measured and cautious pace.

Context view of Curiosity’s 2nd drill site at Cumberland rock on the floor of Yellowknife Bay basin of ancient water altered rocks where the rover found environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. Mastcam images on May 23, 2013, Sol 283.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)/Marco Di Lorenzo

Context view of Curiosity’s 2nd drill site at Cumberland rock on the floor of Yellowknife Bay basin showing ancient water altered rocks where the rover found environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. Mastcam images on May 23, 2013, Sol 283. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)/Marco Di Lorenzo

Analysis of the “Cumberland” powder is currently in progress. The goal is to determine how it compares chemically and to confirm the results found at ‘John Klein.’

“No results from Cumberland are available yet,” said Crisp.

The robot used the powerful million watt ChemCam laser to blast into the Cumberland drill hole and gray tailings scattered on the surface to glean as much insight and measurements of the chemical composition and transformation by water as possible before departing.

Curiosity has just arrived at “Point Lake’. Stay tuned for my next Curiosity story.

Meanwhile, Curiosity’s older sister rover Opportunity has likewise discovered clay minerals and a habitable zone on the opposite side of the Red Planetdetails here.

And don’t forget to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about Mars, Curiosity, Opportunity, MAVEN, LADEE and NASA missions at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations

June 23: “Send your Name to Mars on MAVEN” and “CIBER Astro Sat, LADEE Lunar & Antares Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, 8 PM

This time lapse mosaic shows Curiosity moving her robotic arm to drill into her 2nd rockt target named “Cumberland” to collect powdery material on May 19, 2013 (Sol 279) for analysis by her onboard chemistry labs; SAM & Chemin. The photomosaic was stitched from raw images captured by the navcam cameras on May 14 & May 19 (Sols 274 & 279).  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

This time lapse mosaic shows Curiosity moving her robotic arm to drill into her 2nd rockt target named “Cumberland” to collect powdery material on May 19, 2013 (Sol 279) for analysis by her onboard chemistry labs; SAM & Chemin. The photomosaic was stitched from raw images captured by the navcam cameras on May 14 & May 19 (Sols 274 & 279). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

About 

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, scientist, freelance science journalist (Princeton, NJ) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calanders including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, BBC, SPACE.com, Spaceflight Now and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral and NASA Wallops on over 40 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - www.kenkremer.com. Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Aqua4U June 14, 2013, 3:29 PM

    Sheesh.. I guess ‘patience’ is the key word here? But since anything worth doing, is worth doing ‘right’… que sara!

    • Ken Kremer June 15, 2013, 1:46 PM

      great science takes time ! be patient

  • Sue Bolser June 14, 2013, 7:00 PM

    Why does the background in pictures from the Curiosity mission so often look hazy? I’ve never heard anyone mention it or offer an explanation. I don’t remember seeing this from other Mars mission.

    • Ken Kremer June 15, 2013, 1:48 PM

      distant shots can be hazy on Mars just like Earth

      • Sue Bolser June 15, 2013, 2:31 PM

        I never noticed haze in the distance in previous mission photos. It is because of different topography, maybe blowing dust storms around Mt. Sharp?

        • Ken Kremer June 15, 2013, 2:53 PM

          look at rim shots of Gale crater that are 20+ km away- often but not always hazy

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