Mars Orbiters Will Attempt to Take Pictures of the Curiosity Rover as It Lands

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Remember this amazing image from 2008? The HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured the Phoenix lander descending on a parachute to land on Mars’ north polar region. MRO will attempt a repeat performance in August of 2012 when the Mars Science Laboratory rover “Curiosity” will be landing in Gale Crater on Mars. Capturing this event would be epic, especially with MSL’s unique “skycrane” landing system.

“Yes, MRO is planning to image the descent of MSL with both HiRISE and CTX (Context Camera),” Alfred McEwen, HiRISE principal investigator told Universe Today. “For Phoenix we got a bit lucky with HiRISE in terms of the geometry, giving us a high probability of success. It may not work out so well for MSL. What I’d really like is to capture the rover hanging from the skycrane, but the timing may be difficult.”

Again, the word here is epic.

So, how challenging is it for a spacecraft orbiting Mars to try and track another spacecraft coming in?

“If we were not to do anything, the Mars’ orbiting spacecraft may be on the other side of the planet,” said MSL navigation team chief Tomas Martin-Mur, during an interview with UT. “So as soon as we launch, we tell the other spacecraft where we are going to be by the time of entry so they can change their orbits over time, so they will be flying overhead as MSL approaches the planet.”

The orbiters – which also includes NASA’s Mars Odyssey and ESA’s Mars Express – will have to do special maneuvers to be aligned in just the right place – nearby to MSL’s point of entry into Mars’ atmosphere — and they may even have to change the plane of their orbit.

This artist's concept shows the sky crane maneuver during the descent of NASA's Curiosity rover to the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

“The other thing that we’ll need them to do is to point their UHF antennas towards MSL,” Martin-Mur said. “Normally their antennas will be pointed to take pictures, but they will have to go to a special attitude to point to MSL. This will enable them to try — like they did with Phoenix — to take a picture of the spacecraft as it is coming down to the planet. We are hoping to see the parachute deployed and maybe more.”

“That was a great picture for Phoenix, and we will attempt to repeat that,” Martin-Mur added.

While Odyssey and Mars Express’ cameras may not have the resolving power to capture such an image, MRO’s powerful HiRISE camera does. However it has a narrower field of view, so as much skill and planning as this requires, the team will need a little luck, too. But there’s also the CTX.

“CTX has a much larger field of view and will likely capture it,” McEwen said, “but at 20X lower resolution than HiRISE, which should still be good enough to detect the parachute.”

Here’s a preview of what MSL will be going through during the perilous entry descent and landing:

Learn more about the navigation for MSL, currently traveling on its way to Mars, in our previous interview with Tomas Martin-Mur.

Martian Clay A Vessel For Water?

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Although it might seem like a fictitious nomenclature, smectite is a real substance and it’s been found on Mars. It’s a clay mineral that, like a sponge, expands and contracts as it takes on liquid water. With magnesium, iron, aluminum and silica in their content, smectites are morphed into being when silicates are exposed to non-acid water. Now Mars has yielded up two such deposits that further indicate the presence of a once wetter world.

“We discovered locations at Noctis Labyrinthus that show many kinds of minerals that formed by water activity,” said Catherine Weitz, lead author and senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. “The clays we found, called iron/magnesium (Fe/Mg)-smectites, are much younger at Noctis Labyrinthus relative to those found in the ancient rocks on Mars, which indicates a different water environment in these depressions relative to what was happening elsewhere on Mars.”

Thanks to high-resolution images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera and hyperspectral data from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft, combined with Digital Terrain Models (DTMs), Weitz and her team observed about 300 meters of escarpment restricted to two 30 to 40 kilometer troughs located at the western edge of the Vallis Marineris canyon. By studying the “geological layers” the team was able to map hydrated minerals and better understand how the water chemistry evolved.

“These clays formed from persistent water in neutral to basic conditions around 2 to 3 billion years ago, indicating these two troughs are unique and could have been a more habitable region on Mars at a time when drier conditions dominated the surface,” said co-author and CRISM team member Janice Bishop from the SETI Institute and NASA AMES Research Center.

The huge troughs reveal a rich geological chronicle of events. Like reading a book, each layer is a chapter in Martian water history. As they would fill, they would take on a chemical signature of that era. Then the troughs would erode and nearby volcanism added its own particular brands. Again, they would fill and chemicals would mix. Even the pH levels of the water adds its own fingerprint to the smectite equation. While it isn’t a unique find, what sets this area apart is that things appear to have happened in a reverse order as opposed to what happened globally across Mars. As exciting as these new finds are, for now studies will have to remain photographic.

“These troughs would be fantastic places to send a rover, but unfortunately the rugged terrain makes it unsafe both for landing and for driving,” Weitz said.

Original Story Source: Planetary Science Institute Press Release.