Roving Curiosity at Work on Mars Searching for Ingredients of Life

by Ken Kremer on September 29, 2012

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Image Caption: Curiosity at work on Mars inside Gale Crater. Panoramic mosaic showing Curiosity in action with her wheel tracks and the surrounding terrain snapped from the location the rover drove to on Sol 29 (Sept 4). The time lapse imagery highlights post drive wheel tracks at left, movement of the robotic arm from the stowed to deployed position with pointing instrument turret at right with Mt Sharp and a self portrait of Curiosity’s instrument packed deck top at center. This colorized mosaic was assembled from navigation camera (Navcam) images taken over multiple Martian days while stationary beginning on Sol 29. Click to Enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA’s Mega Martian Rover Curiosity is swiftly trekking across the Red Planet’s science rich terrain inside Gale Crater as she approaches the two month anniversary since the daring atmospheric plunge and pinpoint touchdown on Aug. 5/6 beside her eventual destination of the richly layered mountainside of Mount Sharp.

In this ultra short span of time, Curiosity has already fulfilled on her stated goal of seeking the signs of life and potentially habitable environments by discovering evidence for an ancient Martian stream bed at three different locations – at the landing site and stops along her traverse route – where hip deep liquid water once vigorously flowed billions of years ago. Liquid water is a prerequisite for the origin of life.

Curiosity discovered a trio of outcrops of stones cemented into a layer of conglomerate rock – initially at “Goulburn” scour as exposed by the landing thrusters and later at the “Link” and “Hottah” outcrops during the first 40 sols of the mission.

If they find another water related outcrop, Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Project Manager John Grotzinger told me that the robotic arm will be deployed to examine it.

“We would do all the arm-based contact science first, and then make the decision on whether to drill. If we’re still uncertain, then we still have time to deliberate,” Grotzinger told me.

Image caption: Remnants of Ancient Streambed on Mars. NASA’s Curiosity rover found evidence for an ancient, flowing stream on Mars at a few sites, including the rock outcrop pictured here, which the science team has named “Hottah” after Hottah Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories. It may look like a broken sidewalk, but this geological feature on Mars is actually exposed bedrock made up of smaller fragments cemented together, or what geologists call a sedimentary conglomerate. Scientists theorize that the bedrock was disrupted in the past, giving it the titled angle, most likely via impacts from meteorites. This image mosaic was taken by the 100-millimeter Mastcam telephoto lens on Sol 39 (Sept. 14, 2012). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“This is the first time we’re actually seeing water-transported gravel on Mars. This is a transition from speculation about the size of streambed material to direct observation of it,” said Curiosity science co-investigator William Dietrich of the University of California, Berkeley.

Image Caption: Curiosity conducts 1st contact science experiment at “Jake” rock on Mars. This 360 degree panoramic mosaic of images from Sols 44 to 47 (Sept 20-23) shows Curiosity arriving near Jake rock on Sol 44. The robot then drove closer. Inset image from Sol 47 shows the robotic arm extended to place the science instruments on the rock and carry out the first detailed contact science examination of a Martian rock with the equipment positioned on the turret at the arms terminus. Jake rock is named in honor of recently deceased team member Jake Matijevic. This mosaic was created in tribute to Jake and his outstanding contributions. Click to Enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

The one-ton robot soon departed from her touchdown vicinity at “Bradbury Landing” and set off on a multi-week eastwards traverse to her first science target which the team has dubbed “Glenelg”.

See our panoramic Curiosity mosaics herein showing the rovers movements on various Sols as created by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo from NASA raw images.

Curiosity is also now closing in on the spot from which she will reach out with the advanced 7 foot long (2.1 meter) robotic arm to scoop up her very first Martian soil material and deliver samples to the on board chemistry labs.

At a Sept. 27 briefing for reporters, Grotzinger, of Caltech in Pasadena, Calif., said the team hopes to find a suitable location to collect loose, gravelly Martian soil within the next few sols that can be easily sifted into the analytical labs. Curiosity will then spend about 2 or 3 weeks investigating the precious material and her surroundings, before continuing on to Glenelg.

The science team chose Glenelg as the first target for detailed investigation because it sits at the intersection of three distinct types of geologic terrain, affording the researchers the opportunity to comprehensively explore the diverse geology inside the Gale Crater landing site long before arriving at the base of Mount Sharp. That’s important because the rover team estimates it will take a year or more before Curiosity reaches Mount Sharp, which lies some 10 kilometers (6 miles) away as the Martian crow flies.

As of today, Sol 53, Curiosity has driven a total distance of 0.28 mile (0.45 kilometer) or more than ¾ of the way towards Glenelg. Yestersol (Sol 52), the six wheeled robot drove about 122 feet (37.3 meters) toward the Glenelg area and is using visual odometry to assess her progress and adjust for any wheel slippage that could hint at sand traps or other dangerous obstacles.

The longest drive to date just occurred on Sol 50 with the robot rolling about 160 feet (48.9 meters).

Curiosity recently conducted her first detailed rock contact science investigation with the robotic arm at a rock named “Jake”, in honor of Jake Matijevic, a recently deceased MSL team member who played a key and leading role on all 3 generations of NASA’s Mars rovers. See our 360 degree panoramic “Jake rock” mosaic created in tribute to Jake Matijevic.

Curiosity is searching for hydrated minerals, organic molecules and signs of habitats favorable for past or present microbial life on Mars.

Ken Kremer

Image Caption: “Hottah” water related outcrop. Context mosaic shows location of Hottah” outcrop (bottom right) sticking out from the floor of Gale Crater as imaged by Curiosity Navcam on Sol 38 with Mount Sharp in the background. The Glenelg science target lies in the terrain towards Mt Sharp. This is what an astronaut geologist would see on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

Alluvial Fan Where Water Flowed Downslope. This image shows the topography, with shading added, around the area where NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Aug. 5 PDT (Aug. 6 EDT). The black oval indicates the targeted landing area for the rover known as the “landing ellipse,” and the cross shows where the rover actually landed.An alluvial fan, or fan-shaped deposit where debris spreads out downslope, has been highlighted in lighter colors for better viewing. On Earth, alluvial fans often are formed by water flowing downslope. New observations from Curiosity of rounded pebbles embedded with rocky outcrops provide concrete evidence that water did flow in this region on Mars, creating the alluvial fan. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UofA

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

Quadrillian September 30, 2012 at 12:04 AM

Fantastic achievement to land such instrumentation on Mars, but:
Spoiled
somewhat by this unhealthy obsession with water and life. The obsession
is leading to premature conclusions based on scant data and the poor
analysis that is becoming a trademark of NASA these days.

Some
rounded rocks stuck together is not very convincing. Conglomerate? I see
a breccia with exposed clasts rounded by wind erosion over millions of
years. Probably of volcanic origin. Even if fluids are involved, liquid
carbon dioxide would have served just as well. Then if due to water, the
flow could easily have been a brief episode following a previous
extensive carbon dioxide dominated era.

Only more data and sober honest analysis will tell.

Cheers!

Torbjörn Larsson September 30, 2012 at 11:28 AM

The astrobiology context is not an obsession or unhealthy, but currently a fruitful research area. (Say, exoplanets galore.)

Whether or not planetary research is riding on undue promotion of astrobiology is another question, but it is outside the context and you didn’t raise it.

Remains if the research strategy of looking at past or present habitability is skewing the initial results. (In the end it will right itself, of course.) I don’t see how that is, the data that test a martian water cycle has accumulated over the years, this is another test, and is the main theory of alluvial fans.

This is the first rounded clasts found. So wind erosion seems unlikely and, returning to the water cycle theory, the find is associated with, and below, the alluvial fan.

There is, in these circumstances, a surprisingly fast consensus here:

“Asked if it was hard to come to consensus on this long-term, quickly flowing water statement, given the large number of scientists involved with the mission, Grotziner said, “Given the evidence we have from orbit that has been analyzed, when we arrive with a robot we can test the hypothesis pretty quickly. If the geological signal for this process is large enough, it is easy to achieve a consensus pretty quickly.””

So this was very convincing for the scientists involved.

We can see that alternate theories will have a long way to predict the same set of observations and more, especially since we expect a water cycle concurrent with any carbon dioxide cycle. This being water cycle results don’t detract from the carbon dioxide cycle that could be mostly gaseous and solid at the poles, but the reverse would be a problem. How did water transport when the conditions are benign for liquid water if not as liquid?

I believe it is the many stream channels in the fan and the transport rounding that have allowed one of the researchers to go out early and tentatively claim thousands of years of stream transport [same link]:

“Too many things that point away from a single burst event,” said Curiosity science co-investigator William Dietrich of the University of California, Berkeley. “I’m comfortable to argue that it is beyond the 1,000 year timescales, even though this is very early on in our findings.”

So not yet geological time scales, but long enough that any extant life at the time could take advantage. Mark one up for habitability.

zetetic elench September 30, 2012 at 1:47 PM

unhealthy obsession? with what? learning?
it’s just an article reporting on current discussions.

Quadrillian October 3, 2012 at 9:16 AM

The media is clearly obsessed with the fantasy of life on Mars. How often do you witness reporting on any facet of the Curiosity (or other) missions that does not purport to support the notion of “life in space”. Almost every article, somewhere, claims that whatever they are reporting supports the claim of life somewhere or another. This is seriously distracting the public from an appreciation for science as a pursuit of knowledge. Instead science becomes a vehicle to prop-up sci-fi. There is far more to science than a desperate attempt to find evidence of life anywhere. Mars is a stark and beautiful place, life or no life. This obsessin is surely not healthy for science, the public, or humanity on general.

meekGee September 30, 2012 at 8:05 AM

Quadrillian – you’re sort of doing the same thing you’re accusing NASA of – you’re judging the depth of their analysis based on very partial data (a summary pop-tech story based on a public press release).

I would be surprised if these conclusions were based only on the single picture that’s at the top of this news story.

Quadrillian October 3, 2012 at 10:44 AM

I’m sure that NASA employs some extremely talented scientists, who are devoting themselves to this work. Unfortunately the public facing side of NASA is characterised by an overarching determination to paint every mission and every discovery as a quest with a predetermined goal being the discovery of bugs in space.
We shouldn’t forget that at one time, the world’s top astronomers were convinced that there were canals on Mars. If we are not careful, history may repeat, as they convince themselves based on marginal data that Mars was once awash with water.

Prism2Spectrum September 30, 2012 at 11:41 AM

“In this ultra short span of time, Curiosity has already fulfilled on her stated goal of seeking the signs of life and potentially habitable environments by discovering evidence for an ancient Martian stream bed at three different locations…” __________________________________________________________________

Possible evidence of water-streams on Mars, as exciting–and unsurprising to me–as that is, is hardly a sign of life (if I am not misreading). Sure, IF life ever existed on Earth’s outside neighbor, then a step in the direction of a more life-conducive, supportive environment may have been achieved. ONE STEP towards a possibility far removed from a mere flowing stream, and the attendant atmosphere which made it possible.

Of course, it all depends on one’s World-view. The origins question, which science seeks to address too self-confidently.

The Red Planet, like others in the Solar System, may have indeed been favorable for life creation, at one distant time. But that does not mean life actually existed on any other world than the one “Miracle Planet”.

So far, the evidence for life anywhere else but our Life-imbued world, is 0.

Torbjörn Larsson October 1, 2012 at 8:29 AM

You are misreading: _”and potentially habitable environments”_ is what is fulfilled.

Everything else alike, the short time for life to evolve (not “create”) on Earth means that it is verly likely an easy process. This means two things:

- It is very unlikely Earth is unique. (And to claim “miracle” rarity you need to have something to compare with. But as you can see, not to claim non-rarity.)

- It may be enough to look for habitability, most such environments may have been inhabited at one time or other.

So far the evidence for life anywhere else is looking very good, and the “0″ option iffy at best. It has certainly “0″ data and hypotheses going for it. (I think most people can agree that “Rare Earth” was daft already when proposed, and by now all factors have been found rejected or irrelevant.)

Prism2Spectrum October 1, 2012 at 1:17 PM

It genuinely floors me that you, an intelligent, highly informed individual, can claim “…[life evolution?] is very likely an easy process.” But, then again, from that world-view perspective, I can understand a well educated person saying this. (After all, Earth’s violent life-history, according to mainline-accounts, survived multiple mass extinctions, geological upheavals, with at least one major asteroid impact thrown in.)

- “It is very unlikely Earth is unique.” Certainly in one origin frame (yet, do all those of THAT frame agree?). Whatever the case (for sake of argument), until a world is discovered with even one, humble little microbe (as on Mars),–regardless of how habitable it may have been in the past, or is found to be in the far future,–our Life-Planet remains unique (granted, as far as we know).

In the encyclopedia World-book of our Solar System, the uniqueness of Earth should be obvious–and undisputed.

- By the way, “Miracle Planet” was the title of “a six-part documentary series, co-produced by Japan’s NHK and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB)”, which looked at Earth-history of change through the lens of Evolution. “It aired on Discovery Channel in Canada on April 22, 2005 as an Earth Day special.” I enjoyed it very much. (No, I was not quite using the title in the same vein of meaning.) The producers, though, recognized something extremely special about Earth, if that heading is anything to go by. — Wikipedia

- An emphatic statement is made, another seemingly drawn from an assumption. (No stranger am I to such opinions.) But, enough said.

Well, whether “most people can agree” that the “rare Earth” concept is “daft” and “irrelevant”, I do not know. It is certainly rejected in the mainline community of science (which does not automatically mean by all scientists, by the way).

With respect, JRC

Aqua4U September 30, 2012 at 1:48 PM

Still not entirely convinced we are seeing evidence of simple flowing water. Flowing ‘fluffy’/steamy salty mud maybe?

jjbreen September 30, 2012 at 5:52 PM

The thing is – All scientists want to be the “First” to say, “See! I told you.” without coming right out and saying, “LIFE!” The hint, leaves open the door for saying, “See!” It is kind of sad, that some are in way to much of a hurry to try and be the first. Just take your time, let the data come and look at it without the hurry to be “first”. (Because you just might over look something in your haste.)

Torbjörn Larsson October 1, 2012 at 8:19 AM

Looking for habitability, as is done here, is widely different from looking for life.

For one thing, it is easier to look for habitability as we know it than life as we know it because the environment is simpler than its populations.

Quadrillian October 3, 2012 at 10:09 AM

I agree,
It is early days for this mission. We can look forward to a veritable flood of data as the mission unfolds. The media can’t seem to see past the supposed hunt for Martian boogiemen. This is a shame, as Mars has far more to offer than a one-dimensional, blinkered obsession with microbes. This is a fascinating new planet. Lets see it for what it is, not what we want it to be.

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