NASA’s Curiosity Rover Enjoys its 2000th Day on Mars

Since it landed on Mars in 2012, the Curiosity rover has made some rather startling scientific discoveries. These include the discovery of methane and organic molecules, evidence of how it lost its ancient atmosphere, and confirming that Mars once had flowing water and lakes on its surface. In addition, the rover has passed a number of impressive milestones along the way.

In fact, back in January of 2018, the rover had spent a total of 2,000 Earth days on Mars. And as of March 22nd, 2018, NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover had reached its two-thousandth Martian day (Sol) on the Red Planet! To mark the occasion, NASA released a mosaic photo that previews what the rover will be investigating next (hint: it could shed further light on whether or not Mars was habitable in the past).

The image (shown at top and below) was assembled from dozens of images taken by Curiosity‘s Mast Camera (Mastcam) on Sol 1931 (back in January). To the right, looming in the background, is Mount Sharp, the central peak in the Gale Crater (where Curiosity landed back in 2012). Since September of 2014, the rover has been climbing this feature and collecting drill samples to get a better understanding of Mars’ geological history.

Image of the mosaic taken by NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover in January of 2018 (Sol 1931). Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

In the center of the image is the rover’s next destination and scientific target. This area, which scientists have been studying from orbit, is rich in clay minerals, which indicates that water once existed there. In the past, the Curiosity rover found evidence of clay minerals on the floor of the Gale Crater. This confirmed that the crater was a lake bed between 3.3 and 3.8 billion years ago.

Mount Sharp, meanwhile, is believed to have formed from sedimentary material that was deposited over a period of about 2 billion years. By examining patches of clay minerals that extend up the mountain’s side, scientists hope to gain insight into the history of Mars since then. These include how long water may have persisted on its surface and how the planet made the transition to the cold and desiccated place it is today.

The Curiosity science team is eager to analyze rock samples pulled from the clay-bearing rocks seen in the center of the image, and not just because of the results they could provide. Recently, the science team developed a new drilling technique to compensate for the failure of a faulty motor (which allows the drill to extend and retract). When the rover begins to drill again, it will be the first time since December 2016.

All told, the rover has spent a total of about 2055 Earth days (5 years and 230 days), which means Curiosity now ranks third behind the Opportunity (5170 days; 5031 sols) and the Spirit rovers (2269 days; 2208 sols) in terms of total time spent on Mars. Since it arrived on Mars in 2012, Curiosity has also traveled a total distance of 18.7 km (11.6 mi) and studied more than 180 meters (600 feet) vertical feet of rock.

But above all, Curiosity‘s greatest achievement has been the discovery that Mars once had all the necessary conditions and chemical ingredients to support microbial life. Based on their findings, Curiosity‘s international science team has concluded that habitable conditions must have lasted for at least millions of years before Mars’ atmosphere was stripped away.

Finding the evidence of this, and how the transition occurred, will not only advance our understanding of the history of Mars, but of the Solar System itself. It also might provide clues as to how Mars could be made into a warmer, wetter environment again someday!

Further Reading: NASA

Engineers Develop a Whole New Way to Use Curiosity’s Drill After a Recent Hardware Failure

Since it landed on Mars in 2012, the Curiosity rover has used its drill to gather samples from a total of 15 sites. These samples are then deposited into two of Curiosity’s laboratory instruments – the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) or the Chemistry and Mineralogy X-ray Diffraction (CheMin) instrument – where they are examined to tell us more about the Red Planet’s history and evolution.

Unfortunately, in December of 2016, a key part of the drill stopped working when a faulty motor prevented the bit from extending and retracting between its two stabilizers. After managing to get the bit to extend after months of work, the Curiosity team has developed a new method for drilling that does not require stabilizers. The new method was recently tested and has been proven to be effective.

The new method involves freehand drilling, where the drill bit remains extended and the entire arm is used to push the drill forward. While this is happening, the rover’s force sensor – which was originally included to stop the rover’s arm if it received a high-force jolt – is used to takes measurements. This prevents the drill bit from drifting sideways and getting stuck in rock, as well as providing the rover with a sense of touch.

NASA’s Curiosity rover raised robotic arm with drill pointed skyward while exploring Vera Rubin Ridge at the base of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater – backdropped by distant crater rim. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

The test drill took place at a site called Lake Orcadie, which is located in the upper Vera Rubin Ridge – where Curiosity is currently located. The resulting hole, which was about 1 cm (half an inch) deep was not enough to produce a scientific sample, but indicated that the new method worked. Compared to the previous method, which was like a drill press, the new method is far more freehand.

As Steven Lee, the deputy project manager of the Mars Science Laboratory at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained:

“We’re now drilling on Mars more like the way you do at home. Humans are pretty good at re-centering the drill, almost without thinking about it. Programming Curiosity to do this by itself was challenging — especially when it wasn’t designed to do that.”

This new method was the result of months of hard work by JPL engineers, who practiced the technique using their testbed – a near-exact replica of Curiosity. But as Doug Klein of JPL, one of Curiosity’s sampling engineers, indicated, “This is a really good sign for the new drilling method. Next, we have to drill a full-depth hole and demonstrate our new techniques for delivering the sample to Curiosity’s two onboard labs.”

This side-by-side comparison shows the X-ray diffraction patterns of two different samples collected from the Martian surface by NASA’s Curiosity rover, as obtained by Curiosity’s Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument (CheMin). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ames

Of course, there are some drawbacks to this new method. For one, leaving the drill in its extended position means that it no longer has access to the device that sieves and portions rock powder before delivering it to the rover’s Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis (CHIMRA) instrumet. To address this, the engineers at JPL had to invent a new way to deposit the powder without this device.

Here too, the engineers at JPL tested the method here on Earth. It consists of the drill shaking out the grains from its bit in order to deposit the sand directly in the CHIMRA instrument. While the tests have been successful here on Earth, it remains to be seen if this will work on Mars. Given that both atmospheric conditions and gravity are very different on the Red Planet, it remains to be seen if this will work there.

This drill test was the first of many that are planned. And while this first test didn’t produce a full sample, Curiosity’s science team is confident that this is a positive step towards the resumption of regular drilling. If the method proves effective, the team hopes to collect multiple samples from Vera Rubin Ridge, especially from the upper side. This area contains both gray and red rocks, the latter of which are rich in minerals that form in the presence of water.

Samples drilled from these rocks are expected to shed light on the origin of the ridge and its interaction with water. In the days ahead, Curiosity’s engineers will evaluate the results and likely attempt another drill test nearby. If enough sample is collected, they will use the rover’s Mastcam to attempt to portion the sample out and determine how much powder can be shaken from the drill bit.

Further Reading: NASA

Opportunity Just Saw its 5,000th Sunrise on Mars

It’s been a time of milestones for Mars rovers lately! Last month (on January 26th, 2018), NASA announced that the Curiosity rover had spent a total of 2,000 days on Mars, which works out to 5 years, 5 months and 21 days. This was especially impressive considering that the rover was only intended to function on the Martian surface for 687 days (a little under two years).

But when it comes to longevity, nothing has the Opportunity rover beat! Unlike Curiosity, which relied on a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) for power, the solar-powered Opportunity recently witnessed its five-thousandth sunrise on Mars. This means that the rover has remained in continuous operation for 5000 sols, which works out to 5137.46 Earth days.

This five-thousandth sunrise began on Friday, Feb. 16th, 2018 – roughly 14 Earth years (and 7.48 Martian years) after the rover first landed. From its position on the western rim of the Endeavour Crater, the sunrise appeared over the basin’s eastern rim, about 22 km (14 mi) away. This location, one-third of the way down “Perseverance Valley”, is more than 45 km (28 mi) from Opportunity’s original landing site.

Mosaic view looking down from inside the upper end of “Perseverance Valley” on the inner slope of Endeavour Crater’s western rim. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

This is especially impressive when you consider that the original science mission was only meant to last 90 sols (92.47 Earth days) and NASA did not expect the rover to survive its first Martian winter. And yet, the rover has not only survived all this time, it continues to send back scientific discoveries from the Red Planet. As John Callas, the Opportunity Project Manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained in a NASA press release:

“Five thousand sols after the start of our 90-sol mission, this amazing rover is still showing us surprises on Mars… We’ve reached lots of milestones, and this is one more, but more important than the numbers are the exploration and the scientific discoveries.”

For instance, the rover has provided us with 225,000 images since its arrival, and revealed that ancient Mars was once home to extensive groundwater and surface water. Beginning in 2008, it began working its way across the  Endeavour Crater in order to get a glimpse deeper into Mars’ past. By 2011, it had reached the crater’s edge and confirmed that mineral-rich water once flowed through the area.

At present, researchers are using Opportunity to investigate the processes that shaped Perseverance Valley, an area that descends down the slope of the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Here too, Opportunity has learned some fascinating things about the Red Planet. For instance, the rover has conducted observations of possible “rock stripes” in the valley, which could be indicative of its valley’s origin.

Textured rows on the ground in this portion of “Perseverance Valley” are under investigation by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

These stripes are of interest to scientists because of the way they resemble rock stripes that appear on mountain slopes here on Earth, which are the result of repeated cycles of freezing and thawing on wet soil. On Mauna Kea, for example, soil freezes every night, but is often dry due to the extreme elevation. This causes soils that have high concentrations of silt, sand and gravel to expand, pushing the larger particles up.

These particles then form stripes as they fall downhill, or are moved by wind or rainwater, and cause the ground to expand less in this space. This process repeats itself over and over, creating a pattern that leads to distinct stripes. As Opportunity observed, there are slopes within the Perseverance Valley where soil and gravel particles appear to have formed into rows that run parallel to the slope, alternating between rows that have more and less gravel.

In the case of the Perseverance Valley’s stripes, scientists are not sure how they formed, but think they could be the result of water, wind, downhill transport, other processes, or a combination thereof. Another theory posits that features like these could be the result of changes in Mars tilt (obliquity) which happen over the course of hundreds of thousands of years.

During these periods, Mars’ axial tilt increases to the point where water frozen at the poles will vaporize and become deposited as snow or frost nearer to the equator. As Ray Arvidson, the Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator at Washington University, explahttps://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/long-lived-mars-rover-opportunity-keeps-finding-surprisesined:

“One possible explanation of these stripes is that they are relics from a time of greater obliquity when snow packs on the rim seasonally melted enough to moisten the soil, and then freeze-thaw cycles organized the small rocks into stripes. Gravitational downhill movement may be diffusing them so they don’t look as crisp as when they were fresh.”

Stone stripes on the side of a volcanic cone on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, which are made of small rock fragments that are aligned downhill. These are formed when freeze-thaw cycles lift them out of the finer-grained regolith and move them to the sides, forming stone stripes. Credits: Washington University in St. Louis/NASA

Having the chance to investigate these features is therefore quite the treat for the Opportunity science team. “Perseverance Valley is a special place, like having a new mission again after all these years.” said Arvidson. “We already knew it was unlike any place any Mars rover has seen before, even if we don’t yet know how it formed, and now we’re seeing surfaces that look like stone stripes. It’s mysterious. It’s exciting. I think the set of observations we’ll get will enable us to understand it.”

Given the state of the Martian surface, it is a safe bet that wind is largely responsible for the rock stripes observed in Perseverance Valley. In this respect, they would be caused by sand blown uphill from the crater floor that sorts larger particles into rows parallel to the slope. As Robert Sullivan, an Opportunity science-team member of Cornell University, explained:

“Debris from relatively fresh impact craters is scattered over the surface of the area, complicating assessment of effects of wind. I don’t know what these stripes are, and I don’t think anyone else knows for sure what they are, so we’re entertaining multiple hypotheses and gathering more data to figure it out.”

Despite being in service for a little over 14 years, and suffering its share of setbacks, Opportunity is once again in a position to reveal things about Mars’ past and how it evolved to become what it is today. Never let it be said that an old rover can’t reveal new secrets! If there’s one thing Opportunity has proven during its long history of service on Mars, it is that the underdog can make some of the greatest contributions.

Further Reading: NASA, NASA (2)

Curiosity has Lasted More than 2,000 Days on Mars, Triple its Original Mission Plan

On August 5th, 2012, after spending over 8 months in space, NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars. As part of the NASA Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, and the latest in a series of rovers deployed to the Martian surface, Curiosity had some rather ambitious research goals. In addition to investigating Mars’ climate and geology, the rover was also tasked with revealing more about Mars’ past and determining if it ever supported microbial life.

And recently, the Curiosity rover hit another major milestone in its exploration of the Red Planet. As of January 26th, 2018 the rover has spent a total of 2,000 days on Mars, which works out to 5 years, 5 months and 21 days – or 1947 Martian days (sols). That’s especially impressive when you consider that the mission was only meant to last 687 days (668 sols), or just little under 2 years.

In all that time, the Curiosity rover has accomplished some major feats and has the scars to prove it! Some of it’s wheels have become teared, holed and cracked and its drill has been pushed almost to the point of breaking. And yet, Curiosity is still hard at work pushing itself up a mountain – both literally and figuratively! The rover has also managed to exceed everyone’s expectations.

MRO image of Gale Crater illustrating the landing location and trek of the Rover Curiosity. Credits: NASA/JPL, illustration, T.Reyes

As Ashwin Vasavada, the MSL Project Scientist, told Universe Today via email:

“In terms of challenges, the first 2000 days of Curiosity’s mission went better than I could have hoped. For much of the time, the rover remained as capable as the day it landed. We had a scare in the first year when a memory fault triggered additional problems and nearly resulted in the loss of the mission. We famously wore down our wheels pretty early, as well, but since then we’ve kept that under control. In the last year, we’ve had a major problem with our drill. That’s the only major issue currently, but we believe we’ll be back to drilling in a month or so. If that works out, we’ll amazingly be back to having all systems ready for science!”

As of the penning of this article, the rover is climbing Mount Sharp in order to collect further samples from Mars’ past. Also known as Aeolis Mons, this mountain resides in the center of the Gale Crater where Curiosity landed in 2012 and has been central to Curiosity’s mission. Standing 5,500 meters (18,000 ft) above the valley floor, Mount Sharp is believed to have formed from sediment that was slowly deposited by flowing water over billions of years.

This is all in keeping with current theories about how Mars once had a denser atmosphere and was able to sustain liquid water on its surface. But between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago, this atmosphere was slowly stripped away by solar wind, thus turning Mars into the cold and desiccated place that we know today. As a result, the study of Mount Sharp was always expected to reveal a great deal about Mars’ geological evolution.

Image of Mount Sharp taken by the Curiosity rover on Aug. 23rd, 2012. The layers at the base of Mt. Sharp show the geological history of Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

In it’s first year, Curiosity achieved a major milestone when the rover obtained drill samples from low-lying areas that indicated that lakes and streams existed in the Gale Crater between 3.3 to 3.8 billion years ago. In addition, the rover has also obtained ample evidence that the crater once had all the chemical elements and even a chemical source of energy needed for microbial life to exist.

“NASA’s charge to our mission was to determine whether Mars ever had conditions suitable for life,” said Vasavada. “Success was not a foregone conclusion. Would we arrive safely? Would the scientific instruments work? Would the area we chose for the landing site hold the clues we were looking for? For me, meeting each of these objectives are the highlights of the mission. I’ll never forget witnessing the launch, or nervously waiting for a safe touchdown. Discovering an ancient, freshwater lake environment at Gale crater was profound scientifically, but also was the moment that I knew that our team had delivered what we promised to NASA.”

Basically, by scaling Mount Sharp and examining the layers that were deposited over the course of billions of years, Curiosity is able to examine a living geological record of how the planet has evolved since then. Essentially, the lower layers of the mountain are believed to have been deposited 3.5 billion years ago when the Gale Crater was still a lakebed, as evidenced by the fact that they are rich in clay minerals.

The upper layers, meanwhile, are believed to have been deposited over the ensuing millions of years, during which time the lake in the Gale Crater appears to have grown, shrunk, disappeared and then reappeared. Basically, by scaling the mountain and obtaining samples, Curiosity will be able to illustrate how Mars underwent the transition from being a warmer, wetter place to a frozen and dry one.

Image taken of drill sample obtained at the ‘Lubango’ outcrop target on Sol 1320, Apr. 23, 2016. Lubango is located in the Stimson unit on the lower slopes of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

As Vasavada explained, this exploration is also key to answering a number of foundational questions about the search for life beyond Earth:

“Curiosity established that Mars was once a suitable home for life; it had liquid water, key chemical building blocks, and energy sources required by life in the lake and groundwater environment within Gale crater. Curiosity also has detected organic molecules in ancient rocks, in spite of all the degradation that could have occurred in three billion years. While Curiosity cannot detect life itself, knowing that Mars can preserve organic molecules bodes well for missions that will explore ancient rocks, looking for signs of past life.”

At this juncture, its not clear how much longer Curiosity will last. Considering that it has already lasted over twice as long as originally intended, it is possible the rover will remain in operation for years to come. However, unlike the Opportunity rover – who’s mission was intended to last for 90 days, but has remained in operation for 5121 days (4984 sols) – Curiosity has a shelf life.

Whereas Opportunity is powered by solar cells, Curiosity is dependent on its Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG). Eventually, this slow-fission reactor will exhaust its supply of nuclear fuel and the rover will be forced to come to a halt. And considering how the rover has been put through its paces in the past 5 years, there’s also the chance that it will suffer a mechanical failure.

But in the meantime, there’s plenty of work to be done and lots of opportunities for vital research. As Vasavada put it:

“Curiosity won’t last forever, but in the years we have left, I hope we can complete our traverse through the lowermost strata on Mount Sharp. We’re well over halfway through. There are changes in the composition of the rocks ahead that might tell us how the climate of Mars changed over time, perhaps ending the era of habitability. Every day on Mars still counts, perhaps even more than before. Now every new discovery adds a piece to a puzzle that’s more than halfway done; it reveals more given all the other pieces already around it.”

And be sure to check out this retrospective of the Curiosity rover’s mission, courtesy of NASA:

Further Reading: Forbes, NASA

The Next Mars Rover’s Wheels Won’t Get Torn Apart by the Red Planet

The Curiosity Rover has made some incredible discoveries during the five years it has been operating on the surface of Mars. And in the course of conducting its research, the rover has also accrued some serious mileage. However, it certainly came as a surprise when during a routine examinations in 2013, members of the Curiosity science team noted that its wheels had suffered rips in their treads (followed by breaks reported in 2017).

Looking to the future, researchers at NASA’s Glenn Research Center hope to equip next-generation rovers with a new wheel. It is based on the “Spring Tire“, which NASA developed with Goodyear back in the mid-2000s. However, rather than using coiled steel wires woven into a mesh pattern (which was part of the original design) a team of NASA scientists has created a more durable and flexible version which could revolution space exploration.

When it comes right down to it, the Moon, Mars, and other bodies in the Solar System have harsh, punishing terrain. In the case of the Moon, the main issue is the regolith (aka. Moon dust) which covers the majority of its surface. This fine dust is essentially jagged bits of lunar rock which play havoc with engines and machine components. On Mars, the situation is slightly different, with regolith and sharp rocks covering most of the terrain.

Image taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera showing the condition of Curiosity’s left-middle and left-rear wheels. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

In 2013, after just a year on the surface, the Curiosity rover’s wheels began to show signs of wear and tear due it traversing unexpectedly harsh terrain. This led many to worry that the rover might not be able to complete its mission. It also led many at NASA’s Glenn Research Center to reconsider a design they had been working on almost a decade prior, which was intended for renewed missions to the Moon.

For NASA Glenn, tire development has been a focus of research for about a decade now. In this respect, they are returning to a time-honored tradition of NASA engineers and scientists, which began back in the Apollo era. At the time, both the American and Russian space programs were evaluating multiple tires designs for use on the lunar surface. Overall, three major designs were proposed.

First, you had the wheels specially designed for Lunokhod rover, a Russian vehicle whose name literally translates to “Moon Walker”. The wheel design for this rover consisted of eight rigid-rim, wire-mesh tires that were connected to their axles by bicycle-type spokes. Metal cleats were also mounted on the outside of the tire to ensure better traction in the lunar dust.

Then there was NASA’s concept for a Modularized Equipment Transporter (MET), which was developed with the support of Goodyear. This unpowered cart came with two nitrogen-filled, smooth rubber tires to make it easier to pull the cart through lunar soil and over rocks. And then there was the design for the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), which was the last NASA vehicle to visit the Moon.

This crewed vehicle, which Apollo astronauts used to drive around on the challenging lunar surface, relied on four large, flexible wire-mesh wheels with stiff inner frames. During the mid-2000s, when NASA began planning on mounting new missions to the Moon (and future missions to Mars), they began reevaluating the LRV tire and incorporating new materials and technologies into the design.

The fruit of this renewed research was the Spring Tire, which was the work of mechanical research engineer Vivake Asnani, who worked closely with Goodyear to develop it. The design called for an airless, compliant tire made up of hundreds of coiled steel wires, which were then woven into a flexible mesh. This not only ensured light weight, but also gave the tires the ability to support high loads while conforming to the terrain.

To see how the Spring Tire would fare on Mars, engineers at NASA’s Glenn Research Center began testing them in the Slope lab, where they ran them through an obstacle course that simulated the Martian environment. While the tires performed generally well in simulated sand, they experienced problems when the wire mesh deformed after passing over jagged rocks.

To address this, Colin Creager and Santo Padua (a NASA engineer and materials scientist, respectively) discussed possible alternatives. In time, they agreed the steel wires should be replaced with nickel titanium, a shape memory alloy that is capable of retaining its shape under tough conditions. As Padua explained in a NASA Glenn video segment, the inspiration to use this alloy was very serendipitous:

“I just happened to be over in the building here, where the Slope lab is. And I was over here for a different meeting for the work that I do in shape memory alloys, and I happen to run into Colin in the hall. And I was like ‘what are you doing back and why aren’t you over in the impact lab?’ – because I knew him as a student. He said, ‘well, I’ve graduated, and I’ve been working out here full-time for awhile… I work in Slope.”

Despite working at JPL for ten years, Padua had not seen the Slope lab before and accepted an invitation to see what they were working on. After entering the lab and looking at the Spring Tires they were testing, Padua asked if they were experiencing problems with deformation. When Creager admitted that they were, Padua proposed a solution which just happened to be his field of expertise.

“I had never even heard of the term shape memory alloys before, but I knew [Padua] was a materials science engineer,” said Creager. “And so, since then we’ve been collaborating on these tires using his materials expertise, especially in shape memory alloys, to come up with this new tire that we think is really going to revolutionize planetary rover tires and potentially even tires for Earth too.”

The key to shape memory alloys is their atomic structure, which is assembled in such a way that the material “remember” its original shape and is able to return to it after being subjected to deformation and strain. After building the shape memory alloy tire, the Glenn engineers sent it to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where it was tested in the Mars Life Test Facility.

Overall, the tires not only performed well in simulated Martian sand, but were able to withstand going over punishing rocky outcroppings without difficulty. Even after the tires were deformed all the way down to their axles, they were able to retain their original shape. They also managed to do this while carrying a significant payload, which is another prerequisite when developing tires for exploration vehicles and rovers.

The priorities for the Mars Spring Tire (MST) are to offer greater durability, better traction in soft sand, and lighter weight. As NASA indicates on the MST website (part of the Glenn Research Center’s website), there are three major benefits to developing high performing compliant tires like the Spring Wheel:

“First, they would allow rovers to explore greater regions of the surface than currently possible. Secondly, because they conform to the terrain and do not sink as much as rigid wheels, they can carry heavier payloads for the same given mass and volume. Lastly, because the compliant tires can absorb energy from impacts at moderate to high speeds, they can be used on crewed exploration vehicles which are expected to move at speeds significantly higher than the current Mars rovers.”

The first available opportunity to test these tires out is just a few years away, when NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover will be sent to the surface of the Red Planet. Once there, the rover will pick up where Curiosity and other rovers have left off, searching for signs of life in Mars’ harsh environment. The rover is also tasked with preparing samples that will eventually be returned to Earth by a crewed mission, which is expected to take place sometime in the 2030s.

Further Reading: NASA, CNET

Sky Pointing Curiosity Captures Breathtaking Vista of Mount Sharp and Crater Rim, Climbs Vera Rubin Seeking Hydrated Martian Minerals

NASA’s Curiosity rover raised robotic arm with drill pointed skyward while exploring Vera Rubin Ridge at the base of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater – backdropped by distant crater rim. This navcam camera mosaic was stitched from raw images taken on Sol 1833, Oct. 2, 2017 and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

5 years after a heart throbbing Martian touchdown, Curiosity is climbing Vera Rubin Ridge in search of “aqueous minerals” and “clays” for clues to possible past life while capturing “truly breathtaking” vistas of humongous Mount Sharp – her primary destination – and the stark eroded rim of the Gale Crater landing zone from ever higher elevations, NASA scientists tell Universe Today in a new mission update.

“Curiosity is doing well, over five years into the mission,” Michael Meyer, NASA Lead Scientist, Mars Exploration Program, NASA Headquarters told Universe Today in an interview.

“A key finding is the discovery of an extended period of habitability on ancient Mars.”

The car-sized rover soft landed on Mars inside Gale Crater on August 6, 2012 using the ingenious and never before tried “sky crane” system.

A rare glimpse of Curiosity’s arm and turret mounted skyward pointing drill is illustrated with our lead mosaic from Sol 1833 of the robot’s life on Mars – showing a panoramic view around the alien terrain from her current location in October 2017 while actively at work analyzing soil samples.

“Your mosaic is absolutely gorgeous!’ Jim Green, NASA Director Planetary Science Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington D.C., told Universe Today

“We are at such a height on Mt Sharp to see the rim of Gale Crater and the top of the mountain. Truly breathtaking.”

The rover has ascended more than 300 meters in elevation over the past 5 years of exploration and discovery from the crater floor to the mountain ridge. She is driving to the top of Vera Rubin Ridge at this moment and always on the lookout for research worthy targets of opportunity.

Additionally, the Sol 1833 Vera Rubin Ridge mosaic, stitched by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo, shows portions of the trek ahead to the priceless scientific bounty of aqueous mineral signatures detected by spectrometers years earlier from orbit by NASA’s fleet of Red Planet orbiters.

NASA’s Curiosity rover as seen simultaneously on Mars surface and from orbit on Sol 1717, June 5, 2017. The robot snapped this self portrait mosaic view while approaching Vera Rubin Ridge at the base of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater – backdropped by distant crater rim. This navcam camera mosaic was stitched from raw images and colorized. Inset shows overhead orbital view of Curiosity (blue feature) amid rocky mountainside terrain taken the same day by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

“Curiosity is on Vera Rubin Ridge (aka Hematite Ridge) – it is the first aqueous mineral signature that we have seen from space, a driver for selecting Gale Crater,” NASA HQ Mars Lead Scientist Meyer elaborated.

“And now we have access to it.”

The Sol 1833 photomosaic illustrates Curiosity maneuvering her 7 foot long (2 meter) robotic arm during a period when she was processing and delivering a sample of the “Ogunquit Beach” for drop off to the inlet of the CheMin instrument earlier in October. The “Ogunquit Beach” sample is dune material that was collected at Bagnold Dune II this past spring.

The sample drop is significant because the drill has not been operational for some time.

“Ogunquit Beach” sediment materials were successfully delivered to the CheMin and SAM instruments over the following sols and multiple analyses are in progress.

To date three CheMin integrations of “Ogunquit Beach” have been completed. Each one brings the mineralogy into sharper focus.

Researchers used the Mastcam on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover to gain this detailed view of layers in “Vera Rubin Ridge” from just below the ridge. The scene combines 70 images taken with the Mastcam’s right-eye, telephoto-lens camera, on Aug. 13, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

What’s the status of the rover health at 5 years, the wheels and the drill?

“All the instruments are doing great and the wheels are holding up,” Meyer explained.

“When 3 grousers break, 60% life has been used – this has not happened yet and they are being periodically monitored. The one exception is the drill feed (see detailed update below).”

NASA’s Curiosity rover explores sand dunes inside Gale Crater with Mount Sharp in view on Mars on Sol 1611, Feb. 16, 2017, in this navcam camera mosaic, stitched from raw images and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA’s 1 ton Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover is now closer than ever to the mineral signatures that were the key reason why Mount Sharp was chosen as the robots landing site years ago by the scientists leading the unprecedented mission.

Along the way from the ‘Bradbury Landing’ zone to Mount Sharp, six wheeled Curiosity has often been climbing. To date she has gained over 313 meters (1027 feet) in elevation – from minus 4490 meters to minus 4177 meters today, Oct. 19, 2017, said Meyer.

The low point was inside Yellowknife Bay at approx. minus 4521 meters.

VRR alone stands about 20 stories tall and gains Curiosity approx. 65 meters (213 feet) of elevation to the top of the ridge. Overall the VRR traverse is estimated by NASA to take drives totaling more than a third of a mile (570 m).

Curiosity images Vera Rubin Ridge during approach backdropped by Mount Sharp. This navcam camera mosaic was stitched from raw images taken on Sol 1726, June 14, 2017 and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“Vera Rubin Ridge” or VRR is also called “Hematite Ridge.” It’s a narrow and winding ridge located on the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. It was informally named earlier this year in honor of pioneering astrophysicist Vera Rubin.

The intrepid robot reached the base of the ridge in early September.

The ridge possesses steep cliffs exposing stratifications of large vertical sedimentary rock layers and fracture filling mineral deposits, including the iron-oxide mineral hematite, with extensive bright veins.

VRR resists erosion better than the less-steep portions of the mountain below and above it, say mission scientists.

Curiosity rover raises robotic arm high while scouting the Bagnold Dune Field and observing dust devils inside Gale Crater on Mars on Sol 1625, Mar. 2, 2017, in this navcam camera mosaic stitched from raw images and colorized. Note: Wheel tracks at right, distant crater rim in background. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

What’s ahead for Curiosity in the coming weeks and months exploring VRR before moving onward and upwards to higher elevation?

“Over the next several months, Curiosity will explore Vera Rubin Ridge,” Meyer replied.

“This will be a big opportunity to ground-truth orbital observations. Of interest, so far, the hematite of VRR does not look that different from what we have been seeing all along the Murray formation. So, big question is why?”

“The view from VRR also provides better access to what’s ahead in exploring the next aqueous mineral feature – the clay, or phyllosilicates, which can be indicators of specific environments, putting constraints on variables such as pH and temperature,” Meyer explained.

The clay minerals or phyllosilicates form in more neutral water, and are thus extremely scientifically interesting since pH neutral water is more conducive to the origin and evolution of Martian microbial life forms, if they ever existed.

How far away are the clays ahead and when might Curiosity reach them?

“As the crow flies, the clays are about 0.5 km,” Meyer replied. “However, the actual odometer distance and whether the clays are where we think they are – area vs. a particular location – can add a fair degree of variability.”

The clay rich area is located beyond the ridge.

Over the past few months Curiosity make rapid progress towards the hematite-bearing location of Vera Rubin Ridge after conducting in-depth exploration of the Bagnold Dunes earlier this year.

“Vera Rubin Ridge is a high-standing unit that runs parallel to and along the eastern side of the Bagnold Dunes,” said Mark Salvatore, an MSL Participating Scientist and a faculty member at Northern Arizona University, in a mission update.

“From orbit, Vera Rubin Ridge has been shown to exhibit signatures of hematite, an oxidized iron phase whose presence can help us to better understand the environmental conditions present when this mineral assemblage formed.”

Curiosity is using the science instruments on the mast, deck and robotic arm turret to gather detailed research measurements with the cameras and spectrometers. The pair of miniaturized chemistry lab instruments inside the belly – CheMin and SAM – are used to analyze the chemical and elemental composition of pulverized rock and soil gathered by drilling and scooping selected targets during the traverse.

A key instrument is the drill which has not been operational. I asked Meyer for a drill update.

“The drill feed developed problems retracting (two stabilizer prongs on either side of the drill retract, controlling the rate of drill penetration),” Meyer replied.

“Because the root cause has not been found (think FOD) and the concern about the situation getting worse, the drill feed has been retracted and the engineers are working on drilling without the stabilizing prongs.”

“Note, a consequence is that you can still drill and collect sample but a) there is added concern about getting the drill stuck and b) a new method of delivering sample needs to be developed and tested (the drill feed normally needs to be moved to move the sample into the chimera). One option that looks viable is reversing the drill – it does work and they are working on the scripts and how to control sample size.”

Ascending and diligently exploring the sedimentary lower layers of Mount Sharp, which towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky, is the primary destination and goal of the rover’s long term scientific expedition on the Red Planet.

“Lower Mount Sharp was chosen as a destination for the Curiosity mission because the layers of the mountain offer exposures of rocks that record environmental conditions from different times in the early history of the Red Planet. Curiosity has found evidence for ancient wet environments that offered conditions favorable for microbial life, if Mars has ever hosted life,” says NASA.

Stay tuned. In part 2 we’ll discuss the key findings from Curiosity’s first 5 years exploring the Red Planet.

As of today, Sol 1850, Oct. 19, 2017, Curiosity has driven over 10.89 miles (17.53 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater from the landing site to the ridge, and taken over 445,000 amazing images.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Map shows route driven by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity through Sol 1827 of the rover’s mission on Mars (September 27, 2017). Numbering of the dots along the line indicate the sol number of each drive. North is up. Since touching down in Bradbury Landing in August 2012, Curiosity has driven 10.84 miles (17.45 kilometers). The base image from the map is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera (HiRISE) in NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/UA
Curiosity’s Traverse Map Through Sol 1717. This map shows the route driven by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity through the 1717 Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission on Mars (June 05, 2017). The base image from the map is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera (HiRISE) in NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Detection of Mineral on Mars Bolsters Argument that Mars was Once Habitable

It has become a well-known scientific fact that billions of years ago, Mars once had a thicker atmosphere and liquid water on its surface. Scientists have also discovered that it was the gradual loss of this atmosphere, between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago, that caused Mars to go from being a warmer, wetter environment to the dry, freezing environment it is today.

Despite the existence of both a thicker atmosphere and water, questions remain as to whether or not Mars was truly habitable in the past. According to a new study from a team of researchers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), the discovery of a specific mineral (boron) has added weight to the argument that Mars was once a potentially life-bearing world.

The study, titled “In situ detection of boron by ChemCam on Mars“, was recently published in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters. For the sake of this study, the LANL research team consulted data collected by the  Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument aboard the Curiosity rover, which showed evidence of boron on the surface of Mars.

Mars, as it may have looked 4.2 billion years ago (left) and today (right). Credit: Kevin Gill

Boron, an element which is created by cosmic rays and is relatively rare in the Solar System, is necessary for the creation of ribonucleic acid – which is present in all forms of modern life. Essentially, RNA requires a key ingredient to form, which is a sugar called ribose. Like all sugars, ribose is highly unstable and decomposes quickly in water. As such, it needs another element to stabilize it, which is where boron comes into play.

As Patrick Gasda, a postdoctoral researcher at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and lead author on the paper, explained in a LANL press statement:

“Because borates may play an important role in making RNA – one of the building blocks of life – finding boron on Mars further opens the possibility that life could have once arisen on the planet. Borates are one possible bridge from simple organic molecules to RNA. Without RNA, you have no life. The presence of boron tells us that, if organics were present on Mars, these chemical reactions could have occurred.”

When boron is dissolved in water (which, as noted, Mars once had in abundance) it becomes borate. This compound (when combined with ribose) would act as a stabilizing agent, keeping the sugar together long enough so that RNA can form. As Gasda explained, “We detected borates in a crater on Mars that’s 3.8 billion years old, younger than the likely formation of life on Earth.”

Artist rendition of how the “lake” at Gale Crater on Mars may have looked millions of years ago. Credit and copyright: Kevin Gill.

The boron was detected by Curiosity’s laser-shooting ChemCam instrument, which was developed by the LANL in conjunction with France’s space agency, the National Center of Space Studies (CNES). It detected the element in veins of calcium sulfate minerals located in the Gale Crater, which means that boron was present in Mars’ groundwater and was preserved with other minerals when the water dissolved, leaving behind rich mineral veins.

This provides further evidence that the lake that is now known to have once filled the Gale Crater could have had life in it. During the time period in question, this lake would have experienced temperatures ranging from from 0 to 60 ° C (32 to 140 °F) and had a pH level that would have been neutral-to-alkaline. It also means that on ancient Mars, the conditions necessary for life would have existed, and independent of Earth to boot.

This is just one of many findings Curiosity has made related to the composition of Martian rocks. Since it touched down in the Gale Crater in 2012, the rover has been gathering chemical evidence of the ancient lake that once existed there, as well as geological evidence that has been preserved by sedimentary deposits. As the rover began to scale the slope of Mount Sharp, the composition of the surface began to change.

Whereas samples taken from the crater floor tended to contain more in the way of clays, samples collected higher up Mount Sharp contained more boron. These and other chemical traces are indications of how conditions under which sediments were deposited changed over time. Analysis conducted of the mountain’s layers has also showed how the movement of groundwater through these layers of sediment altered and transported elements (like boron).

MRO image of Gale Crater illustrating the landing location and trek of the Rover Curiosity. Credits: NASA/JPL, illustration, T.Reyes

All of this is providing a picture of how Mars’ environment changed over the course of billions of years and affected the planet’s potential favorability for microbial life. And while scientists have a general picture of how Mars underwent a very significant transition billions of years ago, whether or not Martian life ever existed remains unknown.

The main goal of the Curiosity mission was to determine whether the area ever offered a habitable environment. Thanks to evidence of past water and the discovery of minerals like boron, this has been confirmed. In the coming years, the deployment of the Mars 2020 rover is expected to follow-up on these findings and shed more light on Mars’ case for past habitability.

Once it reaches the surface, the Mars 2020 rover – which relies on much of the same technology as Curiosity – will use an instrument called the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC). Also developed by the LANL, this “SuperCam” instrument will use spectrometers, a laser and a camera to search for organics and minerals that could indicate the existence of past microbial life.

If there is still preserved evidence of life to be found on Mars or – fingers crossed! – microbial life still exists there today, we can expect to find it before long. If that should be the case, human beings will finally know with certainty that life evolved on a planet other than Earth, and perhaps independent of it!

Further Reading: LANL, Geophysical Research Letters

See NASA’s Curiosity Rover Simultaneously from Orbit and Red Planet’s Surface Climbing Mount Sharp

NASA’s Curiosity rover as seen simultaneously on Mars surface and from orbit on Sol 1717, June 5, 2017. The robot snapped this self portrait mosaic view while approaching Vera Rubin Ridge at the base of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater – backdropped by distant crater rim. This navcam camera mosaic was stitched from raw images and colorized. Inset shows overhead orbital view of Curiosity (blue feature) amid rocky mountainside terrain taken the same day by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

You can catch a glimpse of what its like to see NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover simultaneously high overhead from orbit and trundling down low across the Red Planet’s rocky surface as she climbs the breathtaking terrain of Mount Sharp – as seen in new images from NASA we have stitched together into a mosaic view showing the perspective views; see above.

Earlier this month on June 5, researchers commanded NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to image the car sized Curiosity rover from Mars orbit using the spacecrafts onboard High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) telescopic camera during Sol 1717 of her Martian expedition – see below.

HiRISE is the most powerful telescope ever sent to Mars.

And as she does nearly every Sol, or Martian day, Curiosity snapped a batch of new images captured from Mars surface using her navigation camera called navcam – likewise on Sol 1717.

Since NASA just released the high resolution MRO images of Curiosity from orbit, we assembled together the navcam camera raw images taken simultaneously on June 5 (Sol 1717), in order to show the actual vista seen by the six wheeled robot from a surface perspective on the same day.

The lead navcam photo mosaic shows a partial rover selfie backdropped by the distant rim of Gale Crater – and was stitched together by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

The feature that appears bright blue at the center of this scene is NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover amid tan rocks and dark sand on Mount Sharp, as viewed by the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on June 5, 2017. The rover is about 10 feet long and not really as blue as it looks here. The image was taken as Curiosity was partway between its investigation of active sand dunes lower on Mount Sharp, and “Vera Rubin Ridge,” a destination uphill where the rover team intends to examine outcrops where hematite has been identified from Mars orbit. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Right now NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover is approaching her next science destination named “Vera Rubin Ridge” while climbing up the lower reaches of Mount Sharp, the humongous mountain that dominates the rover’s landing site inside Gale Crater.

“When the MRO image was taken, Curiosity was partway between its investigation of active sand dunes lower on Mount Sharp, and “Vera Rubin Ridge,” a destination uphill where the rover team intends to examine outcrops where hematite has been identified from Mars orbit,” says NASA.

“HiRISE has been imaging Curiosity about every three months, to monitor the surrounding features for changes such as dune migration or erosion.”

The MRO image has been color enhanced and shows Curiosity as a bright blue feature. It is currently traveling on the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. Curiosity is approximately 10 feet long and 9 feet wide (3.0 meters by 2.8 meters).

“The exaggerated color, showing differences in Mars surface materials, makes Curiosity appear bluer than it really looks. This helps make differences in Mars surface materials apparent, but does not show natural color as seen by the human eye.”

See our mosaic of “Vera Rubin Ridge” and Mount Sharp below.

Curiosity images Vera Rubin Ridge during approach backdropped by Mount Sharp. This navcam camera mosaic was stitched from raw images taken on Sol 1726, June 14, 2017 and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Curiosity is making rapid progress towards the hematite-bearing location of Vera Rubin Ridge after conducting in-depth exploration of the Bagnold Dunes earlier this year.

“Vera Rubin Ridge is a high-standing unit that runs parallel to and along the eastern side of the Bagnold Dunes,” says Mark Salvatore, an MSL Participating Scientist and a faculty member at Northern Arizona University, in a new mission update.

“From orbit, Vera Rubin Ridge has been shown to exhibit signatures of hematite, an oxidized iron phase whose presence can help us to better understand the environmental conditions present when this mineral assemblage formed.”

Curiosity will use her cameras and spectrometers to elucidate the origin and nature of Vera Rubin Ridge and potential implications or role in past habitable environments.

“The rover will turn its cameras to Vera Rubin Ridge for another suite of high resolution color images, which will help to characterize any observed layers, fractures, or geologic contacts. These observations will help the science team to determine how Vera Rubin Ridge formed and its relationship to the other geologic units found within Gale Crater.”

To reach Vera Rubin Ridge, Curiosity is driving east-northeast around two small patches of dunes just to the north. She will then turn “southeast and towards the location identified as the safest place for Curiosity to ascend the ridge. Currently, this ridge ascent point is approximately 370 meters away.”

Curiosity rover raises robotic arm high while scouting the Bagnold Dune Field and observing dust devils inside Gale Crater on Mars on Sol 1625, Mar. 2, 2017, in this navcam camera mosaic stitched from raw images and colorized. Note: Wheel tracks at right, distant crater rim in background. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Ascending and diligently exploring the sedimentary lower layers of Mount Sharp, which towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky, is the primary destination and goal of the rovers long term scientific expedition on the Red Planet.

“Lower Mount Sharp was chosen as a destination for the Curiosity mission because the layers of the mountain offer exposures of rocks that record environmental conditions from different times in the early history of the Red Planet. Curiosity has found evidence for ancient wet environments that offered conditions favorable for microbial life, if Mars has ever hosted life,” says NASA.

NASA’s Curiosity rover explores sand dunes inside Gale Crater with Mount Sharp in view on Mars on Sol 1611, Feb. 16, 2017, in this navcam camera mosaic, stitched from raw images and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

As of today, Sol 1733, June 21, 2017, Curiosity has driven over 10.29 miles (16.57 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater, and taken over 420,000 amazing images.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about the upcoming SpaceX launch of BulgariaSat 1, recent SpaceX Dragon CRS-11 resupply launch to ISS, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

June 22-24: “SpaceX BulgariaSat 1 launch, SpaceX CRS-11 and CRS-10 resupply launches to the ISS, Inmarsat 5 and NRO Spysat, EchoStar 23, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity and Opportunity explore Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Curiosity’s Traverse Map Through Sol 1717. This map shows the route driven by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity through the 1717 Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission on Mars (June 05, 2017). The base image from the map is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera (HiRISE) in NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Mars Missions Need To Be Neat Freaks At Key Sites

One of the most common features of space exploration has been the use of disposable components to get missions to where they are going. Whether we are talking about multistage rockets (which fall away as soon as they are spent) or the hardware used to achieve Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) onto a planet, the idea has been the same. Once the delivery mechanism is used up, it is cast away.

However, in so doing, we could be creating a hazardous situation for future missions. Such is the conclusion reached by a new study from the Finnish Meteorological Institute in Helsinki, Finland. With regard to the use of Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) systems, the study’s author – Dr. Mark Paton – concludes that jettisoned hardware from missions to Mars could create a terrible mess near future landing sites.

Dr. Mark Paton is a planetary research scientist who specializes in the interaction between the Martian atmosphere and its surface. As such, he is well-versed in the subject of EDL systems that are designed to land missions on Solar System bodies that have atmospheres. This is certainly a going concern for Mars, where landers and rovers have relied on various means to get to the surface safely.

Consider the Curiosity rover, which used a separate EDL system – known as the Sky Crane – to land on Mars in 2012. As the first EDL system of its kind, the Sky Crane was a essentially a rocket-powered backpack mounted on top of the rover. This system kicked in after Curiosity separated from its Descent module (which was slowed by a parachute) and used rockets to slow the rover’s decent even further.

Once it was sufficiently close to the surface, the Sky Crane lowed the rover to the ground with tethers measuring 6.4 meters (21 ft) long. It then detached and landed a safe distance away, not far from the Descent module’s heat shield, backshell, and parachute landed. These jettisoned bits were all photographed from orbit by the MSL’s HiRISE instrument a day after the landing.

This system is also being planned for use by the Mars 2020 rover. And beyond rockets and parachutes, there are also advanced concepts like the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerators (HIADs). As part of NASA’s Fundamental Aerodynamics Hypersonics Project, the HIAD is an attempt to develop what are known as Inflatable Reentry Vehicle (IRV) systems which do away with heat shields.

Unfortunately, this kind of technology does not address another major concern – which is the accumulation of spent hardware components on the surface of a planet. In time, these could pose risks for future missions, mainly because they have the potential of being blown around and cluttering up other (and future) landing sites that are located not far away.

Artist’s impression of the Mars 2020 with its sky crane landing system deployed. Credit: NASA/JPL

As Dr. Paton indicated in an interview with Seeker columnist (and Universe Today alumnist) Elizabeth Howell:

“Currently available landing systems, using heat shield and parachutes, might be problematic because jettisoned hardware from these landers normally land within a few hundred meters of the lander. I would imagine a sample return mission would not jettison its parachute in close vicinity of the target sample or the cached sample. The parachute might cover the sample, making its retrieval a problem. Landers using large parachutes or other large devices probably pose the greatest risk as these could be easily blown onto equipment on the surface, damaging or covering it.”

For the sake of his study, Dr. Paton relied on 3D computer modelling (using the space flight simulator Orbiter) to examine different types of ELD systems. He then conducted meteorological measurements to determine wind speeds and direction within the Martian Planetary Boundary Layer (PBL), in order to determine their influence on the distribution of jettisoned components across the surface of Mars.

What he found was that winds speeds within the Martian PBL were sufficient enough to blow around certain types of EDL systems. This included parachutes – a mainstay of space missions – as well as next-generations concepts like the HIAC. Basically, these components could be blown onto prelanded assets, even when the lander itself has touched down several kilometers away.

This could play havoc with robotic missions that have sensitive equipment or are attempting to collect samples for return to Earth. And as for crewed missions – such as NASA’s proposed “Journey to Mars”, which is expected to take place in the 2030s – the results could be even worse. Crew habitats, which will be part of all future crewed missions, will rely on solar panels and other devices that need to be free of clutter in order to function.

Artist’s concept of the Deceleration module of Mars Science Laboratory in entering the Martian Atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As such, Dr. Paton advises that future missions be designed so that the amount of hardware they leave behind is minimized. In addition, he advises that any future missions will need to take into account meteorological measurement to make sure that jettisoned components are not likely to blow back and interfere with missions in progress.

“For new landing systems, a detailed trade-off analysis would be required to determine the best way to mitigate this problem,” he said. “To be sure that the wind is blowing away from any landed assets, the winds in the lower few kilometers of the atmosphere would ideally need to be measured close to the time of the lander’s expected arrival.”

As if planning missions to Mars wasn’t already challenging enough! In addition to all the things we need to worry about in getting there, now we need to worry about keeping our landing sites in pristine order. But of course, such considerations are understandable since our presence on Mars is expanding, and many key missions are planned for the coming years.

These include more robotic rovers in the next decade – i.e NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, the ESA’s Exomars rover, and the ISRO’s Mangalyaan 2 rover – an even NASA’s proposed “Journey to Mars” by the 2030s. If we’re going to make Mars a regular destination, we need to learn to pick up after ourselves!

Further Reading: Acta Astronautica,

Honorable Mention: Elizabeth Howell – Seeker

Curiosity’s Battered Wheels Show First Breaks

Since it landed on August 6th, 2012, the Curiosity rover has spent a total of 1644 Sols (or 1689 Earth days) on Mars. And as of March 2017, it has traveled almost 16 km (~10 mi) across the planet and climbed almost a fifth of a kilometer (0.124 mi) uphill. Spending that kind of time on another planet, and traveling that kind of distance, can certainly lead to its share of wear of tear on a vehicle.

That was the conclusion when the Curiosity science team conducted a routine check of the rover’s wheels on Sunday, March 19th, 2017. After examining images taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), they noticed two small breaks in the raised treads on the rover’s left middle wheel. These breaks appeared to have happened since late January, when the last routine check of the wheels took place.

To get around, the Curiosity rover relies on six solid aluminum wheels that are 40 cm (16 in) wide. The skin of the wheels is thinner than a US dime, but each contains 19 zigzag-shaped treads that are about 0.75 cm (three-quarters of an inch) thick. These “grousers”, as they are called, bear most of the rover’s weight and provide most of the wheel’s traction.

Close-up image of the broken grousers on Curiosity’s left-middle wheel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Ever since the rover was forced to cross a stretch of terrain that was studded with sharp rocks in 2013, the Curiosity team has made regular checks on the rover’s wheels using the MAHLI camera. At the time, the rover was moving from the Bradbury Landing site (where it landed in 2012) to the base of Mount Sharp, and traversing this terrain caused holes and dents in the wheels to grow significantly.

However, members of Curiosity’s science team emphasized that this is nothing to be worried about, as it will not affect the rover’s performance or lifespan. As Jim Erickson, the Curiosity Project Manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a recent NASA press statement:

“All six wheels have more than enough working lifespan remaining to get the vehicle to all destinations planned for the mission. While not unexpected, this damage is the first sign that the left middle wheel is nearing a wheel-wear milestone.”

In addition to regular monitoring, a wheel-longevity testing program was started on Earth in 2013 using identical aluminum wheels. These tests showed that once a wheel got to the point where three of its grousers were broken, it had passed about 60% of its lifespan. However, Curiosity has already driven more than 60% of the total distance needed for it to make it to all of its scientific destinations.

Graphic depicting aspects of the driving distance, elevation, geological units and time intervals of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover mission, as of late 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity’s Project Scientist – Ashwin Vasavada, also at JPL – was similarly stoic in his appraisal of this latest wheel check:

“This is an expected part of the life cycle of the wheels and at this point does not change our current science plans or diminish our chances of studying key transitions in mineralogy higher on Mount Sharp.”

At present, Curiosity is examining sand dunes in the geographical region known as the Murray Buttes formation, which is located on the slope of Mount Sharp. Once finished, it will proceed up higher to a feature known as “Vera Rubin Ridge”, inspecting a layer that is rich in the mineral hematite. From there, it will proceeded to even higher elevations to inspect layers that contain clays and sulfates.

Getting to the farthest destination (the sulfate unit) will require another 6 km (3.7 mi) of uphill driving. However, this is a short distance compared to the kind of driving the rover has already performed. Moreover, the science team has spent the past four years implementing various methods designed to avoid embedded rocks and other potentially hazardous terrain features.

MRO image of Gale Crater illustrating the landing location and trek of the Rover Curiosity. Credits: NASA/JPL, illustration, T.Reyes

It is expected that this drive up Mount Sharp will yield some impressive scientific finds. During its first year on Mars, Curiosity succeeded in gathering evidence in the Gale Crater that showed how Mars once had conditions favorable to life. This included ample evidence of liquid water, all the chemical elements needed for life, and even a chemical source of energy.

By scaling Mount Sharp and examining the layers that were deposited over the course of billions of years, Curiosity is able to examine a living geological record of how the planet has evolved since then. Luckily, the rover’s wheels seem to have more than enough life to make these and (most likely) other scientific finds.

Further Reading: NASA – Mars Exploration