Roving Curiosity at Work on Mars Searching for Ingredients of Life

by Ken Kremer on September 29, 2012

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. Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

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