Book Excerpt: “Incredible Stories From Space,” Roving Mars With Curiosity, part 2

book-cover-image-final-incredible-001
Following is Part 2 of an excerpt from my new book, “Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos.” The book is an inside look at several current NASA robotic missions, and this excerpt is part 2 of 3 which will be posted here on Universe Today, of Chapter 2, “Roving Mars with Curiosity.” You can read Part 1 here. The book is available in print or e-book (Kindle or Nook) Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Living on Mars Time

The landing occurred at 10:30 pm in California. The MSL team had little time to celebrate, transitioning immediately to mission operations and planning the rover’s first day of activity. The team’s first planning meeting started at 1 o’clock in the morning, ending about 8 a.m. They had been up all night, putting in a nearly 40-hour day.

This was a rough beginning of the mission for the scientists and engineers who needed to live on ‘Mars Time.’

A day on Mars day is 40 minutes longer than Earth’s day, and for the first 90 Mars days – called sols — of the mission, the entire team worked in shifts around the clock to constantly monitor the newly landed rover. To operate on the same daily schedule as the rover meant a perpetually shifting sleep/wake cycle where the MSL team would alter their schedules 40 minutes every day to stay in sync with the day and night schedules on Mars. If team members came into work at 9:00 a.m., the next day, they’d come in at 9:40 a.m., and the next day at 10:20 a.m., and so on.

Those who have lived through Mars Time say their bodies continually feel jet-lagged. Some people slept at JPL so as not to disrupt their family’s schedule, some wore two watches so they would know what time it was on two planets.

About 350 scientists from around the world were involved with MSL and many of them stayed at JPL for the first 90 sols of the mission, living on Mars Time.

But it took less than 60 Earth days for the team to announce Curiosity’s first big discovery.

Water, Water …

A 16-ft. (5 m) high sand dune on Mars called Namib Dune is part of the dark-sand ‘Bagnold Dunes’ field along the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. Images taken from orbit indicate that dunes in the Bagnold field move as much as about 3 feet (1 m) per Earth year. This image is part of a 360 degree panorama taken by the Curiosity rover on Dec. 18, 2015 or the 1,197th Martian day, or sol, of the rover's work on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.
A 16-ft. (5 m) high sand dune on Mars called Namib Dune is part of the dark-sand ‘Bagnold Dunes’ field along the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. Images taken from orbit indicate that dunes in the Bagnold field move as much as about 3 feet (1 m) per Earth year. This image is part of a 360 degree panorama taken by the Curiosity rover on Dec. 18, 2015 or the 1,197th Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s work on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

Ashwin Vasavada grew up in California and has fond childhood memories of visiting state and national parks in the southwest United States with his family, playing among sand dunes and hiking in the mountains. He’s now able to do both on another planet, vicariously through Curiosity. The day I visited Vasavada at his office at JPL in early 2016, the rover was navigating through a field of giant sand dunes at the base of Mount Sharp, with some dunes towering 30 feet (9 meters) above the rover.

“It’s just fascinating to see dunes close up on another planet,” Vasavada said. “And the closer we get to the mountain, the more fantastic the geology gets. So much has gone on there, and we have so little understanding of it … as of yet.”

At the time we talked, Curiosity was approaching four Earth years on Mars. The rover is now studying those enticing sedimentary layers on Mt. Sharp in closer detail. But first, it needed to navigate through the “Bagnold Dunes” which form a barrier along the northwestern flank of the mountain. Here, Curiosity is doing what Vasavada calls “flyby science,” stopping briefly to sample and study the sand grains of the dunes while moving through the area as quickly as possible.

Now working as the lead Project Scientist for the mission, Vasavada plays an even larger role in coordinating the mission.

“It’s a constant balance of doing things quickly, carefully and efficiently, as well as using the instruments to their fullest,” he said.

Since the successful August 2012 landing, Curiosity has sent back tens of thousands of images from Mars – from expansive panoramas to extreme close-ups of rocks and sand grains, all of which are helping to tell the story of Mars’ past.

‘Selfies’ taken by the Curiosity rover are actually a mosaic created from numerous images taken with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), located on the end of the rover’s robotic arm. However, the arm is not shown in the selfies, because with the wrist motions and turret rotations used in pointing the camera for the component images, the arm was positioned out of the shot in the frames or portions of frames used in this mosaic. However, the shadow of the arm is visible on the ground. This low-angle selfie shows the vehicle at the site from which it reached down to drill into a rock target called "Buckskin" on lower Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.
‘Selfies’ taken by the Curiosity rover are actually a mosaic created from numerous images taken with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), located on the end of the rover’s robotic arm. However, the arm is not shown in the selfies, because with the wrist motions and turret rotations used in pointing the camera for the component images, the arm was positioned out of the shot in the frames or portions of frames used in this mosaic. However, the shadow of the arm is visible on the ground. This low-angle selfie shows the vehicle at the site from which it reached down to drill into a rock target called “Buckskin” on lower Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

The images the public seems to love the most are the ‘selfies,’ the photos the rover takes of itself sitting on Mars. The selfies aren’t just a single image like the ones we take with our cell phones, but a mosaic created from dozens of separate images taken with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera at the end of the rover’s robotic arm. Other fan favorites are the pictures Curiosity takes of the magnificent Martian landscape, like a tourist documenting its journey.

Vasavada has a unique personal favorite.

“For me, the most meaningful picture from Curiosity really isn’t that great of an image,” he said, “but it was one of our first discoveries so it has an emotional tie to it.”

Within the first 50 sols, Curiosity took pictures of what geologists call conglomerates: a rock made of pebbles cemented together. But these were no ordinary pebbles — they were pebbles worn by flowing water. Serendipitously, the rover had found an ancient streambed where water once flowed vigorously. From the size of pebbles, the science team could interpret the water was moving about 3 feet (1 meter) per second, with a depth somewhere between a few inches to several feet.

This geological feature on Mars is exposed bedrock made up of smaller fragments cemented together, or what geologists call a sedimentary conglomerate, and is evidence for an ancient, flowing stream. Some of embedded and loose gravel are round in shape, leading the Curiosity science team to conclude it were transported by a vigorous flow of water. Curiosity's 100-millimeter Mastcam telephoto lens on its 39th sol of the mission (Sept. 14, 2012). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This geological feature on Mars is exposed bedrock made up of smaller fragments cemented together, or what geologists call a sedimentary conglomerate, and is evidence for an ancient, flowing stream. Some of embedded and loose gravel are round in shape, leading the Curiosity science team to conclude it were transported by a vigorous flow of water. Curiosity’s 100-millimeter Mastcam telephoto lens on its 39th sol of the mission (Sept. 14, 2012). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“When you see this picture, and whether you are a gardener or geologist, you know what this means,” Vasasvada said excitedly. “At Home Depot, the rounded rock for landscaping are called river pebbles! It was mind-blowing to me to think that the rover was driving through a streambed. That picture really brought home there was actually water flowing here long ago, probably ankle to hip deep.”

Vasavada looked down. “It still gives me the shivers, just thinking about it,” he said, with his passion for exploration and discovery visibly evident.

From that early discovery, Curiosity continued to find more water-related evidence. The team took a calculated gamble and instead of driving straight towards Mt. Sharp, took a slight detour to the east to an area dubbed ‘Yellowknife Bay.’
“Yellowknife Bay was something we saw with the orbiters,” Vasavada explained, “and there appeared to be a debris fan fed by a river—evidence for flowing water in the ancient past.”

This map shows the route driven by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover from the location where it landed in August 2012 to its location in September 2016 at "Murray Buttes," and the path planned for reaching destinations at "Hematite Unit" and "Clay Unit" on lower Mount Sharp. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
This map shows the route driven by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover from the location where it landed in August 2012 to its location in September 2016 at “Murray Buttes,” and the path planned for reaching destinations at “Hematite Unit” and “Clay Unit” on lower Mount Sharp.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Here, Curiosity fulfilled ones of its main goals: determining whether Gale Crater ever was habitable for simple life forms. The answer was a resounding yes. The rover sampled two stone slabs with the drill, feeding half-baby-aspirin-sized portions to SAM, the onboard lab. SAM identified traces of elements like carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and more —the basic building blocks of life. It also found sulfur compounds in different chemical forms, a possible energy source for microbes.

Data gathered by Curiosity’s other instruments constructed a portrait detailing how this site was once a muddy lakebed with mild – not acidic – water. Add in the essential elemental ingredients for life, and long ago, Yellowknife Bay would have been the perfect spot for living organisms to hang out. While this finding doesn’t necessarily mean there is past or present life on Mars, it shows the raw ingredients existed for life to get started there at one time, in a benign environment.

“Finding the habitable environment in Yellowknife Bay was wonderful because it really showed the capability our mission has to measure so many different things,” Vasavada said. “A wonderful picture came together of streams that flowed into a lake environment. This was exactly what we were sent there to find, but we didn’t think we’d find it that early in the mission.”

Still, this lakebed could have been created by a one-time event over just hundreds of years. The ‘jackpot’ would be to find evidence of long-term water and warmth.

That discovery took a little longer. But personally, it means more to Vasavada.

Mars’ climate was one of Vasavada’s early interests in his career and he spent years creating models, trying to understand Mars’ ancient history.

“I grew up with pictures of Mars from the Viking mission,” he said, “and thinking of it as a barren place with jagged volcanic rock and a bunch of sand. Then I had done all this theoretical work about Mars climate, that rivers and oceans perhaps once existed on Mars, but we had no real evidence.”

That’s why the discovery made by Curiosity in late 2015 is so exciting to Vasavada and his team.

“We didn’t just see the rounded pebbles and remnants of the muddy lake bottom at Yellowknife Bay, but all along the route,” Vasavada said. “We saw river pebbles first, then tilted sandstones where the river emptied into lakes. Then as we got to Mt. Sharp, we saw huge expanses of rock made of the silt that settled out from the lakes.”

The explanation that best fits the “morphology” in this region — that is, the configuration and evolution of rocks and land forms – is rivers formed deltas as they emptied into a lake. This likely occurred 3.8 to 3.3 billion years ago. And the rivers delivered sediment that slowly built up the lower layers of Mt. Sharp.

Curiosity picture showing the layers and color variations on Mount Sharp, Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL
Curiosity picture showing the layers and color variations on Mount Sharp, Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL

“My gosh, we were seeing this full system now,” Vasavada explained, “showing how the entire lower few hundred meters of Mount Sharp were likely laid down by these river and lake sediments. That means this event didn’t take hundreds or thousands of years; it required millions of years for lakes and rivers to be present to slowly build up, millimeter by millimeter, the bottom of the mountain.”

For that, Mars also needed a thicker atmosphere than it has now, and a greenhouse gas composition that Vasavada said they haven’t quite figured out yet.

But then, somehow dramatic climate change caused the water to disappear and winds in the crater carved the mountain to its current shape.

The rover had landed in exactly the right place, because here in one area was a record of much of Mars’ environmental history, including evidence of a major shift in the planet’s climate, when the water that once covered Gale Crater with sediment dried up.

“This all is a significant driver now for what we need to explain about Mars’ early climate,” Vasavada said. “You don’t get millions of years of climate change from a single event like a meteor hit. This discovery has broad implications for the entire planet, not just Gale Crater.”

Other Discoveries

• Silica: The rover made a completely unanticipated discovery of high-content silica rocks as it approached Mt. Sharp. “This means that the rest of the normal elements that form rocks were stripped away, or that a lot of extra silica was added somehow,” Vasavada said, “both of which are very interesting, and very different from rocks we had seen before. It’s such a multifaceted and curious discovery, we’re going to take a while figuring it out.”

• Methane on Mars: Methane is usually a sign of activity involving organic matter — even, potentially, of life. On Earth, about 90 percent of atmospheric methane is produced from the breakdown of organic matter. On Mars, methane has been detected by other missions and telescopes over the years, but it was tenuous – the readings seemed to come and go, and are hard to verify. In 2014, the Tunable Laser Spectrometer within the SAM instrument observed a ten-fold increase in methane over a two-month period. What caused the brief and sudden increase? Curiosity will continue to monitor readings of methane, and hopefully provide an answer to the decades-long debate.

• Radiation Risks for Human Explorers: Both during her trip to Mars and on the surface, Curiosity measured the high-energy radiation from the Sun and space that poses a risk astronauts. NASA will use data from the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) instrument Curiosity’s data to design future missions to be safe for human explorers.

Tomorrow: The conclusion of this chapter, including ‘How To Drive a Mars Rover, and ‘The Beast.’ Part 1 is available here.

“Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos” is published by Page Street Publishing, a subsidiary of Macmillan.

Book Excerpt: “Incredible Stories From Space,” Roving Mars With Curiosity, part 1

book-cover-image-final-incredible-001
Following is an excerpt from my new book, “Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos,” which will be released tomorrow, Dec. 20, 2016. The book is an inside look at several current NASA robotic missions, and this excerpt is part 1 of 3 which will be posted here on Universe Today, of Chapter 2, “Roving Mars with Curiosity.” The book is available for order on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Seven Minutes of Terror

It takes approximately seven minutes for a moderate-sized spacecraft – such as a rover or a robotic lander — to descend through the atmosphere of Mars and reach the planet’s surface. During those short minutes, the spacecraft has to decelerate from its blazing incoming speed of about 13,000 mph (20,900 kph) to touch down at just 2 mph (3 kph) or less.

This requires a Rube Goldberg-like series of events to take place in perfect sequence, with precise choreography and timing. And it all needs to happen automatically via computer, with no input from anyone on Earth. There is no way to guide the spacecraft remotely from our planet, about 150 million miles (250 million km) away. At that distance, the radio signal delay time from Earth to Mars takes over 13 minutes. Therefore, by the time the seven-minute descent is finished, all those events have happened – or not happened – and no one on Earth knows which. Either your spacecraft sits magnificently on the surface of Mars or lies in a crashed heap.

A depiction of the numerous events required for the Curiosity rover to land successfully on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL.
A depiction of the numerous events required for the Curiosity rover to land successfully on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL.

That’s why scientists and engineers from the missions to Mars call it “Seven Minutes of Terror.”

And with the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, which launched from Earth in November of 2011, the fear and trepidation about what is officially called the ‘Entry, Descent and Landing’ (EDL) increased exponentially. MSL features a 1-ton (900 kg), 6-wheeled rover named Curiosity, and this rover was going to use a brand new, untried landing system.

To date, all Mars landers and rovers have used — in order — a rocket-guided entry, a heat shield to protect and slow the vehicle, then a parachute, followed by thrusters to slow the vehicle even more. Curiosity would use this sequence as well. However, a final, crucial component encompassed one of the most complex landing devices ever flown.

Artists concept of the moment the Curiosity rover touches down on the Martian surface, suspended on a bridle beneath the spacecraft's descent stage. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artists concept of the moment the Curiosity rover touches down on the Martian surface, suspended on a bridle beneath the spacecraft’s descent stage. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dubbed the “Sky Crane,” a hovering rocket stage would lower the rover on 66 ft. (20 meter) cables of Vectran rope like a rappelling mountaineer, with the rover soft-landing directly on its wheels. This all needed to be completed in a matter of seconds, and when the on-board computer sensed touchdown, pyrotechnics would sever the ropes, and the hovering descent stage would zoom away at full throttle to crash-land far from Curiosity.

Complicating matters even further, this rover was going to attempt the most precise off-world landing ever, setting down inside a crater next to a mountain the height of Mount Rainier.

A major part of the uncertainty was that engineers could never test the entire landing system all together, in sequence. And nothing could simulate the brutal atmospheric conditions and lighter gravity present on Mars except being on Mars itself. Since the real landing would be the first time the full-up Sky Crane would be used, there were questions: What if the cables didn’t separate? What if the descent stage kept descending right on top of the rover?

If the Sky Crane didn’t work, it would be game-over for a mission that had already overcome so much: technical problems, delays, cost overruns, and the wrath of critics who said this $2.5 billion Mars rover was bleeding money away from the rest of NASA’s planetary exploration program.

Mosaic of the Valles Marineris hemisphere of Mars, similar to what one would see from orbital distance of 2500 km. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Mosaic of the Valles Marineris hemisphere of Mars, similar to what one would see from orbital distance of 2500 km. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Missions to Mars

With its red glow in the nighttime sky, Mars has beckoned skywatchers for centuries. As the closest planet to Earth that offers any potential for future human missions or colonization, it has been of great interest in the age of space exploration. To date, over 40 robotic missions have been launched to the Red Planet … or more precisely, 40-plus missions have been attempted.

Including all US, European, Soviet/Russian and Japanese efforts, more than half of Mars missions have failed, either because of a launch disaster, a malfunction en route to Mars, a botched attempt to slip into orbit, or a catastrophic landing. While recent missions have had greater success than our first pioneering attempts to explore Mars in situ (on location) space scientists and engineers are only partially kidding when they talk about things like a ‘Great Galactic Ghoul’ or the ‘Mars Curse’ messing up the missions.

View of Mars from Viking 2 lander, September 1976. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
View of Mars from Viking 2 lander, September 1976. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

But there have been wonderful successes, too. Early missions in the 1960’s and 70’s such as Mariner orbiters and Viking landers showed us a strikingly beautiful, although barren and rocky world, thereby dashing any hopes of ‘little green men’ as our planetary neighbors. But later missions revealed a dichotomy: magnificent desolation combined with tantalizing hints of past — or perhaps even present day – water and global activity.

Today, Mars’ surface is cold and dry, and its whisper-thin atmosphere doesn’t shield the planet from bombardment of radiation from the Sun. But indications are the conditions on Mars weren’t always this way. Visible from orbit are channels and intricate valley systems that appear to have been carved by flowing water.

For decades, planetary scientists have debated whether these features formed during brief, wet periods caused by cataclysmic events such as a massive asteroid strike or sudden climate calamity, or if they formed over millions of years when Mars may have been continuously warm and wet. Much of the evidence so far is ambiguous; these features could have formed either way. But billions of years ago, if there were rivers and oceans, just like on Earth, life might have taken hold.

Three Generations of Mars Rovers in the ‘Mars Yard’ at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The Mars Pathfinder Project (front) landed the first Mars rover - Sojourner - in 1997. The Mars Exploration Rover Project (left) landed Spirit and Opportunity on Mars in 2004. The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landed on Mars in August 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
Three Generations of Mars Rovers in the ‘Mars Yard’ at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The Mars Pathfinder Project (front) landed the first Mars rover – Sojourner – in 1997. The Mars Exploration Rover Project (left) landed Spirit and Opportunity on Mars in 2004. The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landed on Mars in August 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The Rovers

The Curiosity rover is the fourth mobile spacecraft NASA has sent to Mars’ surface. The first was a 23-pound (10.6 kg) rover named Sojourner that landed on a rock-covered Martian plain on July 4, 1997. About the size of a microwave oven, the 2-foot- (65 cm) long Sojourner never traversed more than 40 feet away from its lander and base station. The rover and lander together constituted the Pathfinder mission, which was expected to last about a week. Instead, it lasted nearly three months and the duo returned 2.6 gigabits of data, snapping more than 16,500 images from the lander and 550 images from the rover, as well as taking chemical measurements of rocks and soil and studying Mars’ atmosphere and weather. It identified traces of a warmer, wetter past for Mars.

Sojourner - NASA’s 1st Mars Rover. Rover takes an Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) measurement of Yogi rock after Red Planet landing on July 4, 1997 landing.  Credit: NASA
Sojourner – NASA’s 1st Mars Rover. Rover takes an Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) measurement of Yogi rock after Red Planet landing on July 4, 1997 landing. Credit: NASA

The mission took place when the Internet was just gaining popularity, and NASA decided to post pictures from the rover online as soon as they were beamed to Earth. This ended up being one of the biggest events in the young Internet’s history, with NASA’s website (and mirror sites set up for the high demand) receiving over 430 million hits in the first 20 days after landing.

Pathfinder, too, utilized an unusual landing system. Instead of using thrusters to touch down on the surface, engineers concocted a system of giant airbags to surround and protect the spacecraft. After using the conventional system of a rocket-guided entry, heat shield, parachutes and thrusters, the airbags inflated and the cocooned lander was dropped from 100 feet (30 m) above the ground. Bouncing several times across Mars’ surface times like a giant beach ball, Pathfinder eventually came to a stop, the airbags deflated and the lander opened up to allow the rover to emerge.

While that may sound like a crazy landing strategy, it worked so well that NASA decided to use larger versions of the airbags for the next rover mission: two identical rovers named Spirit and Opportunity. The Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) are about the size of a riding lawn mower, at 5.2 feet (1.6 meters) long, weighing about 400 lbs (185 kilograms). Spirit landed successfully near Mars’ equator on January 4, 2004, and three weeks later Opportunity bounced down on the other side of the planet. The goal of MER was to find evidence of past water on Mars, and both rovers hit the jackpot. Among many findings, Opportunity found ancient rock outcrops that were formed in flowing water and Spirit found unusual cauliflower-shaped silica rocks that scientists are still studying, but they may provide clues to potential ancient Martian life.

A self-portrait of the Opportunity rover shortly after dust cleared its solar panels in March 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
A self-portrait of the Opportunity rover shortly after dust cleared its solar panels in March 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
Incredibly, at this writing (2016) the Opportunity rover is still operating, driving more than a marathon (26 miles/42 km) and it continues to explore Mars at a large crater named Endeavour. Spirit, however, succumbed to a loss of power during the cold Martian winter in 2010 after getting stuck in a sandtrap. The two rovers far outlived their projected 90-day lifetime.

Somehow, the rovers each developed a distinct ‘personality’ – or, perhaps a better way to phrase it is that people assigned personalities to the robots. Spirit was a problem child and drama queen but had to struggle for every discovery; Opportunity, a privileged younger sister, and star performer, as new findings seemed to come easy for her. Spirit and Opportunity weren’t designed to be adorable, but the charming rovers captured the imaginations of children and seasoned space veterans alike. MER project manager John Callas once called the twin rovers “the cutest darn things out in the Solar System.” As the long-lived, plucky rovers overcame hazards and perils, they sent postcards from Mars every day. And Earthlings loved them for it.

Curiosity

While it’s long been on our space to-do list, we haven’t quite yet figured out how to send humans to Mars. We need bigger and more advanced rockets and spacecraft, better technology for things like life support and growing our own food, and we really don’t have the ability to land the very large payloads needed to create a human settlement on Mars.

But in the meantime – while we try to figure all that out — we have sent the robotic equivalent of a human geologist to the Red Planet. The car-sized Curiosity rover is armed with an array of seventeen cameras, a drill, a scoop, a hand lens, and even a laser. These tools resemble equipment geologists use to study rocks and minerals on Earth. Additionally, this rover mimics human activity by mountain climbing, eating (figuratively speaking), flexing its (robotic) arm, and taking selfies.

Artist concept of the Curiosity rover, with the various science instruments labeled. Credit: NASA/JPL.
Artist concept of the Curiosity rover, with the various science instruments labeled. Credit: NASA/JPL.

This roving robotic geologist is also a mobile chemistry lab. A total of ten instruments on the rover help search for organic carbon that might indicate the raw material required by life, and “sniff” the Martian air, trying to smell if gasses like methane — which could be a sign of life — are present. Curiosity’s robotic arm carries a Swiss Army knife of gadgets: a magnifying lens-like camera, a spectrometer to measure chemical elements, and a drill to bore inside rocks and feed samples to the laboratories named SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) and) and CheMin (Chemistry and Mineralogy). The ChemCam laser can vaporize rock from up to 23 feet (7 meters) away, and identify the minerals from the spectrum of light emitted from the blasted rock. A weather station and radiation monitor round out the devices on board.

With these cameras and instruments, the rover becomes the eyes and hands for an international team of about 500 earthbound scientists.

While the previous Mars rovers used solar arrays to gather sunlight for power, Curiosity uses an RTG like New Horizons. The electricity generated from the RTG repeatedly powers rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, and the RTG’s heat is also piped into the rover chassis to keep the interior electronics warm.

With Curiosity’s size and weight, the airbag landing system used by the previous rovers was out of the question. As NASA engineer Rob Manning explained, “You can’t bounce something that big.” The Sky Crane is an audacious solution.

Curiosity’s mission: figure out how Mars evolved over billions of years and determine if it once was — or even now is — capable of supporting microbial life.

Curiosity’s target for exploration: a 3.4 mile (5.5 km) -high Mars mountain scientists call Mt. Sharp (formally known as Aeolis Mons) that sits in the middle of Gale Crater, a 96-mile (155-km) diameter impact basin.

Gale was chosen from 60 candidate sites. Data from orbiting spacecraft determined the mountain has dozens of layers of sedimentary rock, perhaps built over millions of years. These layers could tell the story of Mars’ geologic and climate history. Additionally, both the mountain and the crater appear to have channels and other features that look like they were carved by flowing water.

The plan: MSL would land in a lower, flatter part of the crater and carefully work its way upward towards the mountain, studying each layer, essentially taking a tour of the epochs of Mars’ geologic history.

The hardest part would be getting there. And the MSL team only had one chance to get it right.

Landing Night

Curiosity’s landing on August 5, 2012 was one of the most anticipated space exploration events in recent history. Millions of people watched events unfold online and on TV, with social media feeds buzzing with updates. NASA TV’s feed from JPL’s mission control was broadcast live on the screens in New York’s Time Square and at venues around the world hosting ‘landing parties.’

But the epicenter of action was at JPL, where hundreds of engineers, scientists and NASA officials gathered at JPL’s Space Flight Operations Facility. The EDL team – all wearing matching light blue polo shirts — monitored computer consoles at mission control.

Two members of the team stood out: EDL team lead Adam Steltzner — who wears his hair in an Elvis-like pompadour — paced back and forth between the rows of consoles. Flight Director Bobak Ferdowski sported and an elaborate stars and stripes Mohawk. Obviously, in the twenty-first century, exotic hairdos have replaced the 1960’s black glasses and pocket protectors for NASA engineers.

MSL project scientist Ashwin Vasavada with a full scale model of the Curiosity rover. Credit: NASA/JPL.
MSL project scientist Ashwin Vasavada with a full scale model of the Curiosity rover. Credit: NASA/JPL.

At the time of the landing, Ashwin Vasavada was one of the longest serving scientists on the mission team, having joined MSL as the Deputy Project Scientist in 2004 when the rover was under construction. Back then, a big part of Vasavada’s job was working with the instrument teams to finalize the objectives of their instruments, and supervise technical teams to help develop the instruments and integrate them with the rover.

Each of the ten selected instruments brought a team of scientists, so with engineers, additional staff and students, there were hundreds of people getting the rover ready for launch. Vasavada helped coordinate every decision and modification that might affect the eventual science done on Mars. During the landing, however, all he could do was watch.

“I was in the room next door to the control room that was being shown on TV,” Vasavada said. “For the landing there was nothing I could do except realize the past eight years of my life and my entire future was all riding on that seven minutes of EDL.”

Plus, the fact that no would know the real fate of the rover until 13 minutes after the fact due to the radio delay time led to a feeling of helplessness for everyone at JPL.

“Although I was sitting in a chair,” Vasavada added, “I think I was mentally curled up in the fetal position.”

As Curiosity sped closer to Mars, three other veteran spacecraft already orbiting the planet moved into position to be able to keep an eye on the newcomer MSL as it transmitted information on its status. At first, MSL communicated directly to the Deep Space Network (DSN) antennas on Earth.

To make telemetry from the spacecraft as streamlined as possible during EDL, Curiosity sent out 128 simple but distinct tones indicating when steps in the landing process were activated. Allen Chen, an engineer in the control room announced each as they came: one sound indicated the spacecraft entered Mars’ atmosphere; another signaled the thrusters fired, guiding the spacecraft towards Gale Crater. Tentative clapping and smiles came from the team at Mission Control at the early tones, with emotions increasing as the spacecraft moved closer and closer to the surface.

Partway through the descent, MSL went below the Martian horizon, putting it out of communication with Earth. But the three orbiters — Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Express — were ready to capture, record and relay data to the DSN.

Scenes from landing night for the Curiosity rover at JPL's Space Flight Operations Facility. Credit: NASA/JPL.
Scenes from landing night for the Curiosity rover at JPL’s Space Flight Operations Facility. Credit: NASA/JPL.

Seamlessly, the tones kept coming to Earth as each step of the landing continued flawlessly. The parachute deployed. The heat shield dropped away. A tone signaled the descent stage carrying the rover let go of the parachute, another indicated powered flight and descent toward the surface. Another tone meant the Sky Crane began lowering the rover to the surface.

A tone arrived, indicating Curiosity’s wheels touched the surface, but even that didn’t mean success. The team had to make sure the Sky Crane flyaway maneuver worked.

Then, came the tone they were waiting for: “Touchdown confirmed,” cheered Chen. “We’re safe on Mars!”
Pandemonium and joy erupted in JPL’s mission control, at the landing party sites, and on social media. It seemed the world celebrated together at that moment. Cost overruns, delays, all the negative things ever said about the MSL mission seemed to vanish with the triumph of landing.

“Welcome to Mars!” the Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Charles Elachi said at a press conference following the dramatic touchdown, “Tonight we landed, tomorrow we start exploring Mars. Our Curiosity has no limits.”

Curiosity’s Twitter feed announced its arrival on Mars on August 5, 2012. Credit: Twitter.
Curiosity’s Twitter feed announced its arrival on Mars on August 5, 2012. Credit: Twitter.

“The seven minutes actually went really fast,” said Vasavada. “It was over before we knew it. Then everybody was jumping up and down, even though most of us were still processing that it went so successfully.”

That the landing went so well — indeed perfectly — may have actually shocked some of the team at JPL. While they had rehearsed Curiosity’s landing several times, remarkably, they were never able to land the vehicle in their simulations.

“We tried to rehearse it very accurately,” Vasavada said, “so that everything was in synch — both the telemetry that we had simulated that would be coming from the spacecraft, along with real-time animations that had been created. It was a pretty complex thing, but it never actually worked. So the real, actual landing was the first time everything worked right.”

Curiosity was programmed to immediately take pictures of its surroundings. Within two minutes of the landing, the first images were beamed to Earth and popped up on the viewing screens at JPL.
“We had timed the orbiters to fly over during the landing, but didn’t know for sure if their relay link would last long enough to get the initial pictures down,” Vasavada said. “Those first pictures were fairly ratty because the protective covers were still on the cameras and the thrusters had kicked up a lot of dust on the covers. We couldn’t really see it very well but we still jumped up and down nevertheless because these were pictures from Mars.”

Amazingly, one of the first pictures showed exactly what the rover had been sent to study.
“We had landed with the cameras basically facing directly at Mt. Sharp,” Vasavada said, shaking his head. “In the HazCam (hazard camera) image, right between the wheels, we had this gorgeous shot. There was the mountain. It was like a preview of the whole mission, right in front of us.”

An image captured by the Curiosity rover shortly after it landed on the Red Planet on August 5, 2015, showing the rover's main science target, Mount Sharp. The rover's shadow can be seen in the foreground and the dark band beyond are dunes. Credit; NASA/JPL-Caltech.
An image captured by the Curiosity rover shortly after it landed on the Red Planet on August 5, 2015, showing the rover’s main science target, Mount Sharp. The rover’s shadow can be seen in the foreground and the dark band beyond are dunes. Credit; NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Tomorrow: Part 2 of “Roving Mars With Curiosity,” with ‘Living on Mars Time’ and ‘Discoveries’

“Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos” is published by Page Street Publishing, a subsidiary of Macmillan.

Astronomy Cast Ep. 396: Family Astronomy for the Holidays

Every year, it’s the same dilemma: what gift should you get for the super space nerd in the family? And if someone has a budding interest in space and astronomy, what can you do to feed their hunger for knowledge? Today we’ll talk telescopes, books and planispheres. Everything you need to avoid a holiday gift disaster.

Continue reading “Astronomy Cast Ep. 396: Family Astronomy for the Holidays”

Giveaway: Win a Copy of “How to Build a Universe”

The story of our Universe has twists and turns, and from The Big Bang to the discovery of the atom to the eventual death of the universe, author Ben Gilliland uses his skill as an illustrator to explain it all with wit and detail in his new book “How to Build a Universe.”

You can read our full review of the book here.

Universe Today is proud to announce that thanks to Sterling Publishing, we have three copies of this engaging book to give away. The publisher has specified that for this contest, winners need to be from the US.

In order to be entered into the giveaway drawing, just put your email address into the box at the bottom of this post (where it says “Enter the Giveaway”) before Sunday, February 15, 2015. We’ll send you a confirmation email, so you’ll need to click that to be entered into the drawing. If you’ve entered our giveaways before you should also receive an email with a link on how to enter.

We’re only going to use these email addresses for Universe Today giveaways/contests and announcements. We won’t be using them for any other purpose, and we definitely won’t be selling the addresses to anyone else. Once you’re on the giveaway notification list, you’ll be able to unsubscribe any time you like.

Giveaway: “New Frontiers of Space: From Mars to the Edge of the Universe” by Jeffrey Kluger and Michael D. Lemonick

You know that friend who’s hopelessly confused about science news, the one who asks classics like “didn’t we just send an SUV or something to Mars?” Are you that friend? Regardless of who it is, you’ve just found their next birthday present.

In TIMEnewest book, New Frontiers of Space: From Mars to the Edge of the Universe by Jeffrey Kluger and Michael D. Lemonick, readers learn just what’s been going on in our universe lately. The book seeks to “explore the latest scientific discoveries within our solar system and beyond,” and it does so with an approach that is unique and interesting for a number of ways – this is not your typical science read.

Continue reading the complete review here.

Enter to win one of two free copies of New Frontiers of Space: From Mars to the Edge of the Universe. How?
This Giveaway is now closed. Thank you for your interest!

In order to be entered into the giveaway drawing, just put your email address into the box at the bottom of this post (where it says “Enter the Giveaway”) before Friday, August 2, 2013. We’ll send you a confirmation email, so you’ll need to click that to be entered into the drawing.

 

Win a Copy of ‘Moon Hoax’

What if — somehow — historical records were changed to show the Apollo 11 mission never happened? In Moon Hoax, a new and entertaining historical fiction novel, author Paul Gillebaard re-writes history with a tale of high tech subterfuge and deceit played out on the world’s stage. You can read our full review of this book here, or find out more about the book at the author’s website.

This giveaway is now closed. Thanks for your interest!

But how would you like to win a copy of this exciting novel? Universe Today has three copies to give away!


In order to be entered into the giveaway drawing, just put your email address into the box at the bottom of this post (where it says “Enter the Giveaway”) before Monday, April 14, 2013. We’ll send you a confirmation email, so you’ll need to click that to be entered into the drawing.

We’re only going to use these email addresses for Universe Today giveaways/contests and announcements. We won’t be using them for any other purpose, and we definitely won’t be selling the addresses to anyone else. Once you’re on the giveaway notification list, you’ll be able to unsubscribe any time you like.

Win a Copy of “Your Ticket to the Universe”

A beautiful new book, “Your Ticket to the Universe: A Guide to Exploring the Cosmos” highlights some of the most fascinating and important sites in the universe, from those closest to us in our Solar System all the way to the Milky Way galaxy and beyond. All of these celestial landmarks are illustrated with beautiful, vivid photographs that bring them to life. You can read Jason Major’s full review of this book here.

This is an awesome compilation of images and information, and the book was written by by Kimberly K. Arcand and Megan Watzke, media coordinator and press officer and for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Thanks to Smithsonian Books, Universe Today has five copies of this book to giveaway!

In order to be entered into the giveaway drawing, just put your email address into the box at the bottom of this post (where it says “Enter the Giveaway”) before Monday, April 1, 2013. We’ll send you a confirmation email, so you’ll need to click that to be entered into the drawing.

We’re only going to use these email addresses for Universe Today giveaways/contests and announcements. We won’t be using them for any other purpose, and we definitely won’t be selling the addresses to anyone else. Once you’re on the giveaway notification list, you’ll be able to unsubscribe any time you like.

Enter the Universe Today “Wonders of the Universe” Contest!

If you’ve seen the excellent BBC/Science Channel series “Wonders of the Universe,” you know that host Brian Cox’s natural enthusiasm for astronomy is nothing short of infectious. His explanations of far-out concepts bring the mysteries of our Universe down to Earth for everyone to understand… and now he and HarperCollins UK have brought them even closer — right to your iPad.

Now, here on Universe Today you can win a free copy of the app as well as a signed copy of his Wonders of the Universe or Wonders of the Solar System hardcover book!

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Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe is designed for people with any level of understanding of astronomy, from casual explorers interested in the aesthetics to those looking for a deeper educational experience. Users can travel with Professor Brian Cox on his personal tours through the Universe, or jet off on a solo voyage of discovery through the planets of the Solar System to local stars and onwards through the galaxy.

Additionally, the app takes full advantage of the extensive capabilities of the new iPad, using a powerful 3D engine capable of handling high-resolution textures and complex animations created exclusively for iOS5.

Watch a personal tour of the app given by Prof. Brian Cox above.

Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe is available on the iTunes store now for an introductory price of $6.99 USD… or you can enter for a chance to win a free download along with a signed copy of a Wonders of the Universe or Wonders of the Solar System hardcover book (four of each are available!) by emailing [email protected] with subject line “Wonders App”.

Be sure to put your mailing address in the body of the email, and we will randomly select 8 winners to receive a signed book (our discretion) and a download code for the app.

The contest is open to all U.S. residents. One winner per mailing address. Please allow 2-3 weeks for delivery of the books. Winners will be chosen by June 10, 2012.

These are beautiful books that are chock full of information about our Universe as well as signed by Brian Cox himself… don’t miss out on a chance to get one!

Wonders of the Universe and Wonders of the Solar System books (HarperCollins UK)

Also, be sure to check out the latest app from HarperCollins UK, Fragile Earth. It uses amazing satellite imagery from all across the planet to put a century of climate change at your fingertips. It’s currently available from the iTunes store for $2.99 USD.

(App downloads and books provided courtesy of HarperCollins UK and Walker Sands Communications.)