When are the First Pictures Expected from Curiosity

Image Caption: This graphic shows the locations of the cameras on NASA’s Curiosity rover. The rover’s mast features seven cameras: the Remote Micro Imager, part of the Chemistry and Camera suite; four black-and-white Navigation Cameras (two on the left and two on the right) and two color Mast Cameras (Mastcams). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

If all goes well with the high stakes descent, the first images from the 1 ton Curiosity rover on the Martian surface could be received in the first few minutes after touchdown inside Gale Crater beside a huge mountain with layered sediments – now less than a day away.

It all depends on whether Curiosity successfully establishes a communications link with NASA’s Mars Odyssey signal relay spacecraft as the resilient orbiter simultaneously flies over the landing site and transmits the vital data indicating “Yes I’m Alive” to tracking stations back on Earth for analysis by anxiously waiting engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif.

“We are expecting Odyssey to relay good news,” said Steve Sell of the JPL engineering team that developed and tested the mission’s complicated and never before used “sky crane” landing system. “That moment has been more than eight years in the making.”

The initial pictures would be reduced-resolution fisheye black-and-white images from the Hazard-Avoidance cameras (Hazcams), attached to the front and rear body of the rover.

“On the first night we expect the first low resolution black-and -white images from the rear hazcam, thumbnails about 50 x 50 pixels” said JPL’s Richard Cook, deputy project manager for Curiosity at today’s (Aug. 4) news briefing for reporters at JPL. “The Mars Odyssey relay will continue for 2 to 5 minutes after landing. Later that first night we hope to get a 512 x 512 pixel image looking out the rear of the rover.”

The hazcam cameras are covered with protective clear dust covers so the initial pictures might be taken through the covers if they haven’t popped off yet, Cook explained.

“The next chance to receive data and pictures comes 2 hours later post-landing during the second Odyssey over flight,” he added. “The next opportunity after that comes about 12 hours later.”

Initial thumbnail images from the rovers Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) camera,located on the belly of the rover, during the descent to the Red Planet’s surface are expected a day later on Aug. 7. These images will help pinpoint Curiosity’s exact location.

The team expects to deploy the rover’s mast with the higher resolution cameras on Aug. 7. Curiosity would then begin acquiring a 360 degree stereo panorama with the Navcam cameras the next day on Aug. 8.

The first color images are expected around Aug 8 from the Mars Hand Lens Imager, or MAHLI, one of five devices on the rover’s Inspector Gadget-like robotic arm. MAHLI will still be in the stowed position when it snaps the initial pictures.

But the whole plan depends on a successful landing and engineering checkout and instrument deployments along with no significant technical problems.

Navigators guiding NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) are threading the needle in these final 24 hours as she accelerates towards a miniscule target box barely 2 miles by 7 miles (2.8 by 11.5 kilometers) wide.

“We’re now right on target to fly through the eye of a needle, that is, our target at the top of the Mars atmosphere,” said MSL mission manager Arthur Amador, JPL, at the briefing. “The target is a box that’s 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) by 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) in dimension. And we’re flying right through it.”

Image Caption: Eye of the Needle – This graphic shows how navigators steering NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory capsule — with the Curosity rover tucked inside — are aiming for a pinpoint location above Mars. They liken it to threading the eye of a needle. Navigators are aiming for a point inside of a target box that is 1.7 by 7.15 miles (2.8 by 11.5 kilometers) wide above the Red Planet. Mars’ gravity well, which has been precisely calculated, will pull the spacecraft into the Martian atmosphere. The plane in which MSL has been traveling toward Mars — labeled trajectory plane — hits what is known as the B-plane at a 90 degree angle. The B plane is the plane perpendicular to the velocity of the spacecraft when it is far away from Mars. It is used for maneuver targeting. The northward direction of Mars’ pole is also indicated. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As of Saturday evening, Aug 4, MSL has cut its distance from Mars in half in the past day. MSL is the same distance from Mars as the Earth is from the Moon, around 250,000 miles (400,000 km) and closing at more than 8000 MPH (about 3,600 meters per second).

“Right now, I’m closer to Mars than the moon is to Earth,” Curiosity just tweeted.

After the nail biting entry, descent and landing (EDL) , the 6 wheeled rover Curiosity is scheduled to touchdown inside Gale Crater at about 1:31 a.m. EDT (531 GMT) early on Aug. 6 (10:31 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5).

The 10 feet (3 meters) long mini Cooper sized Curiosity is loaded with 10 state-of-the-art science experiments that will search for organic molecules – the building blocks of life. She is the most sophisticated robot ever sent to the surface of another world. Curiosity will investigate the Red Planet like never before and look for signs of Martian microbial life and habitable zones by analyzing soil and rock samples with high powered analytical chemistry instruments.

Image Caption: This global map of Mars was acquired on Aug. 2, 2012, by the Mars Color Imager instrument on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

And even the weather is cooperating.

“The active dust storm we saw south of Gale crater has now evolved into a harmless dust cloud. Basically, the poofed remnants of what was that dust storm. Mars is cooperating by providing good weather for landing,” said JPL’s Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for Curiosity.

“The team has done everything possible to make it a success. It is scary and risky. I am proud of the team,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters at the JPL briefing. “Risk exists.”

“The human spirit is driven by these kind of challenges. These challenges force us to explore our surroundings and understand what’s out there. And look at “Are we Alone?”

Watch NASA TV online for live coverage of the Curiosity landing on Aug. 5/6 starting at 11:30 pm EDT:

www.mars.jpl.nasa.gov or www.nasa.gov

Ken Kremer

Image Caption: Curiosity Landing site at Gale Crater from ESA Mars Express Orbiter. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

Read continuing features about Curiosity by Ken Kremer starting here:

Curiosity Precisely on Course at T Minus 48 Hours till a ‘Priceless Asset’ Lands on Mars

3 Days to Red Planet Touchdown – Watch the Harrowing Video of Car-Sized Curiosity Careening to Crater Floor

4 Days to Mars: Curiosity activates Entry, Descent and Landing Timeline – EDL Infographic

Curiosity’s Grand Entrance with Star Trek’s William Shatner and Wil Wheaton – Video Duet

Curiosity Completes Crucial Course Correction – 1 Week from Mars !

T Minus 9 Days – Mars Orbiters Now in Place to Relay Critical Curiosity Landing Signals

Curiosity Precisely on Course at T Minus 48 Hours till a ‘Priceless Asset’ Lands on Mars

At this moment the mega rover Curiosity is barely 48 hours from Mars and transformation into a “priceless asset” on the Red Planet’s surface where she’ll initiate the search for evidence for habitats of Martian microbial life – past or present.

NASA JPL engineers have guided the Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) so precisely on her 352-million-mile (567-million-kilometer) interplanetary journey through space that they decided to cancel today’s planned course adjusting thruster firing, known as Trajectory Correction Maneuver 5 (TCM-5). If needed, they have one last chance for a course correction burn (TCM-6) this weekend on Sunday.

“We are now about 1000 yards from the entry target that will bring us to the touchdown point on the North side of Gale Crater,” said Tomas Martin-Mur, MSL Navigation team chief of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., at an Aug. 2 MSL news briefing.

Curiosity is now less than 450,000 miles away from Mars, careening through space at over 8000 MPH (3576 m/s) and accelerating moment by moment due to the ever increasing pull of Mars gravity.

To put that in perspective, that’s less than twice the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

By the time Curiosity hits the Martian atmosphere on Sunday night/Monday early morning (Aug 5/6) she’ll be blazing through space at more than 13,200 MPH (5,900 m/s).

“I’m less than 500,000 miles from Mars & the Red Planet looks about the size as a full moon seen from Earth. 2 days to landing!” Curiosity tweeted a short while ago.

She remains healthy, with all systems operating nominally. And she is brave!

Curiosity will not flinch knowing she must endure the “7 Minutes of Terror” and the fiery entry,descent and landing to touchdown inside the 96 mile wide Gale Crater just 2 days from now.

Watch the harrowing landing animation – here.

Image Caption: Gale Crater Landing site for Curiosity. Credit: NASA

Absolutely staggering photos and science discoveries are expected from Curiosity – the boldest, most daring and by far the most scientifically complex and capable robotic emissary ever dispatched by humans to another world.

But after landing, the team needs to first test the rover’s components and unfurl the robots camera mast and instruments.

“We must recognize that on Sunday night at 10:32 PM PST(1:32 AM EST, 532 GMT) we will have a ‘priceless asset’ that we placed on the surface of another planet that could last for a long time IF we operate it correctly,” said Pete Theisinger, MSL project manager, JPL, at the Aug. 2 news briefing.

“So we will be cautious as hell about what we do with it !”

“This is a very complicated beast, so we all need to exercise caution. It’s much, much more complicated than Spirit and Opportunity in terms of the interactions amongst the various pieces and the things we need to keep track of in order to operate it successfully.”

A few hours after touchdown, Curiosity will send back the first images from the Gale crater landing site beside a towering 3 mile (5 km) high layered Martian mountain, named Mount Sharp.

“We will start doing science right away. Very roughly, the contact science will begin in 2 to 4 weeks. Sampling science will begin 1 to 2 months after we land,” explained Theisinger.

The car-sized Curiosity is 10 feet (3 meters) long and packed with 10 state-of-the-art science experiments that will search for organic molecules – the building blocks of life – and clay minerals, potential markers for signs of Martian microbial life and habitable zones.

Image Caption:Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory Rover – inside the Cleanroom at KSC, with robotic arm extended prior to encapsulation and Nov. 26, 2011 liftoff. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch NASA TV online for live coverage of the Curiosity landing on Aug 5/6 starting at 11:30 pm EDT:

www.mars.jpl.nasa.gov or www.nasa.gov

Ken Kremer

Image Caption: MSL entry track to Gale Crater. Credit: NASA

Read continuing recent features about Curiosity by Ken Kremer starting here:

3 Days to Red Planet Touchdown – Watch the Harrowing Video of Car-Sized Curiosity Careening to Crater Floor

4 Days to Mars: Curiosity activates Entry, Descent and Landing Timeline – EDL Infographic

Curiosity’s Grand Entrance with Star Trek’s William Shatner and Wil Wheaton – Video Duet

Curiosity Completes Crucial Course Correction – 1 Week from Mars !

T Minus 9 Days – Mars Orbiters Now in Place to Relay Critical Curiosity Landing Signals

3 Days to Red Planet Touchdown – Watch the Harrowing Video of Car-Sized Curiosity Careening to Crater Floor

Video Caption: This 11-minute animation depicts key events of how NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission will land the huge rover Curiosity on Mars on August 5/6, 2012. Credit: NASA

Well, here we are 3 days from the thrilling ‘touchdown’ of Curiosity on Mars on the boldest mission yet by humans to the Red Planet – Seeking Signs of Life beyond Earth!

The Curiosity Mars Science Lab rover is by far the hardest and most complex robotic mission that NASA has ever attempted. She marks a quantum leap beyond anything tried before in terms of the technology required to land this 2000 pound beast and the science she’ll carry out for a minimum 2 year prime mission.

So watch this harrowing video (above) – Outlining how Curiosity slams into the Martian atmosphere at 13200 MPH and comes to rest at 0 MPH after surviving the “7 Minutes of Terror” with an unprecedented guided entry, rocket powered descent, neck snapping supersonic parachute deployment and never before used Sky Crane maneuver – and be sure you’re safely seated !

The car-sized Curiosity has entered the final 72 hours of careening towards a crater floor on Mars.

After the nail biting entry, descent and landing (EDL), the 6 wheeled rover Curiosity is scheduled to touchdown inside Gale Crater at about 1:31 a.m. EDT (531 GMT) early on Aug. 6 (10:31 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5).

“It looks a little crazy !” said Adam Steltzner, MSL Entry, Descent and Landing Lead engineer JPL , at today’s (Aug. 2) pre-landing briefing for reporters at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “But it’s the least crazy compared to other methods we evaluated.”

“Everything looks good for Sunday night. Over 300 Years of human individual contributions went into the MSL EDL system. We pull 10 Earth G’s or more of acceleration during first contact with the Martian atmosphere.”

See the detailed EDL graphic below –
Image caption: Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) Timeline – click to enlarge for full image. Credit: NASA

Curiosity is the first mobile soil and rock sampling and chemistry lab dispatched to Mars. It’s also the first astrobiology mission to Mars since the twin Viking missions of the 1970’s.

“We are about to land a small compact car on Mars with a trunk load of instruments. It’s an amazing feat, exciting and daring. It’s fantastic,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters at the JPL briefing.

“It’s an extreme pleasure to be here. MSL has a huge reach, to the past, the future and around the world. Since the heatshield is nearly the size of the Orion heat shield, we’ll also learn an enormous amount about how we’ll land humans on Mars.”

“MSL is a workhorse for the future,” McCuistion emphasized.

Curiosity will search for the ingredients of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based molecules which are the building blocks of life as we know it. The one-ton behemoth is packed to the gills with 10 state-of-the-art science instruments including a 7 foot long robotic arm, scoop, drill and laser rock zapper.

Watch NASA TV online for live coverage of the Curiosity landing on Aug 5/6:
mars.jpl.nasa.gov or www.nasa.gov

Ken Kremer

HiRISE Camera to Attempt Imaging Curiosity’s Descent to Mars


Note: This article was updated on Aug. 3 with additional information.

The HiRISE camera crew on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will attempt an audacious repeat performance of the image above, where the team was able to capture an amazing shot of the Phoenix lander descending on a parachute to land on Mars’ north polar region. Only this time it will try to focus on the Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity rover descending to touch down in Gale Crater. It will be all or nothing for the HiRISE team, as they get only one shot at taking what would likely be one of the most memorable images of the entire mission for MRO.

“We’re only making one attempt on MSL here,” Christian Schaller of the HiRISE team told Universe Today. “The EDL (Entry, Descent and Landing) image is set up so that as MSL is descending, MRO will be slewing the HiRISE field of view across the expected descent path. The plan is to capture MSL during the parachute phase of descent.”

Schaller is the software developer responsible for the primary planning tools the MRO and HiRISE targeting specialists and science team members use to plan their images.

Last December, when Universe Today learned of this probable imaging attempt, HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen confirmed for us that, indeed, the team was working to make it happen. The preferred shot would be to “capture the rover hanging from the skycrane, but the timing may be difficult,” McEwen said.

It would take an impeccable – and fortuitous – sense of timing to get that shot, but since MSL’s EDL won’t happen on a precisely exact timetable, the HiRISE team will take their one shot and see what happens.

“We’ve been gradually updating the exact timing of the sequence over the past couple of weeks as the MSL navigation team, the MRO navigation team and the MRO flight engineering team refines that descent path and MRO slew,” Schaller said via email, “and we think we’ve pretty much got it nailed down at this point. I think it’s a real testament to NASA and its partners that we can even think about doing this.”

HiRISE will actually be taking two images, but the first is a “throwaway” warmup image taken about 50 minutes prior to MSL’s descent, designed to heat the camera’s electronics up to the preferred temperature for getting good image data.

“The warmup image we’re taking is a long-exposure throwaway that we’re taking on the night side of Mars,” Schaller explained. “It’s a 5,000 microsecond per line exposure, compared to a more typical 100 microsecond per line exposure during normal surface imaging. These warmup data will be useless, and we don’t even bother sending them back to Earth; we just dump them from the MRO filesystem once the exposure is complete.”

Schaller said the warmup image starts executing at 04:17 UTC/9:17 PM PDT. The real image starts executing at 05:09 UTC/10:09 PM PDT, centered on 10:16 PM as the time MSL and MRO navigation teams have determined MSL will pass through HiRISE’s field of view.

This image will be an approximately 500 microseconds per line exposure, to match the MRO’s slew rate.

Caption: Artist impression of MRO orbiting Mars. Credit: NASA

UPDATE (Aug. 3): In checking with McEwen, he said that Mars Express and Odyssey are NOT planning to image the descent, but they are supporting EDL via UHF relay, and the plans to use CTX has been dropped.

“HiRISE plans are to definitely attempt the image, unless there is a late upset to the MRO spacecraft,” McEwen said via email on August 3. “The engineers estimate we have a 60% chance of capturing MSL in our image.”

MRO’s Context Camera (CTX) will also be attempting to image Curiosity’s descent, as will NASA’s Mars Odyssey and ESA’s Mars Express and all the spacecraft have been performing special maneuvers to be aligned in just the right place – nearby to MSL’s point of entry into Mars’ atmosphere.

While Odyssey and Mars Express’ cameras may not have the resolving power to capture MSL itself, the 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.”

For those concerned about the fuel required for all these orbiters to reposition themselves just to take a few pictures, the expenditure is nothing that isn’t required anyway. All the spacecraft need to be in position to support MSL during the critical EDL event, and the images are pure extra-benefit, if not an incredible exercise for the imaging teams.

So while we’ll all be crossing our fingers for a successful landing for Curiosity, I’m on my way to find a rabbit’s foot or 4-leaf clover for HiRISE.

4 Days to Mars: Curiosity activates Entry, Descent and Landing Timeline – EDL Infographic

It’s 4 Days to Mars – and NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) spacecraft is now flying under the control of the crafts autonomous entry, descent and landing timeline and picking up speed as she plunges ever faster to the Red Planet and her Rendezvous with Destiny.

“Timeline activated. Bleep-bop. I’m running entry, descent & landing flight software all on my own. Countdown to Mars: 5 days,” Curiosity tweeted Tuesday night.

See below an EDL explanatory infographic timeline outlining the critical sequence of events which must unfold perfectly for Curiosity to safely survive the “7 Minutes of Terror” set to begin on the evening of August 5/6.

Aug. 1 TV Viewing Alert – 11:30 PM EDT – see NASA Science Chief John Grunsfeld tonight (Wed, Aug. 1) on the Colbert Report

Image Caption: Curiosity EDL infographic – – click to enlarge

And the excitement is building rapidly for NASA’s biggest, boldest mission ever to the Red Planet as the flight team continues to monitor Curiosity’s onboard systems and flight trajectory. Yesterday, the flight team successfully carried out a memory test on the software for the mechanical assembly that controls MSL’s descent motor, configured the spacecraft for its transition to entry, descent and landing approach mode, and they enabled the spacecraft’s hardware pyrotechnic devices.

Curiosity remains healthy and on course. If fine tuning for the targeted landing ellipse is needed, the next chance to fire on board thrusters to adjust the trajectory is Friday, Aug. 3.

The 4th of 6 possible Trajectory Correction Maneuver (TCM) firings was just accomplished on Sunday, July 29 – details here.

The car sized Curiosity rover is scheduled to touchdown on Mars at about 1:31 a.m. EDT (531 GMT) early on Aug. 6 (10:31 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5) inside Gale Crater and next to a 3 mile (5 km) mountain taller that the tallest in the US.

Gale Crater is 154 km (96 mi) in diameter and dominated by a layered mountain rising some 5 km (3 mi) above the crater floor which exhibits exposures of minerals that may have preserved evidence of past or present Martian life.

Curiosity is packed with 10 state-of-the-art science experiments that will search for organic molecules and clay minerals, potential markers for signs of Martian microbial life and habitable zones.

Watch NASA TV online for live coverage of the Curiosity landing on Aug 5/6:
mars.jpl.nasa.gov or www.nasa.gov

Ken Kremer

Quick and Curious Facts About the Mars Science Laboratory Mission

Since launching in November 2011, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) has been on a 560 million-kilometer (350 million-mile) journey to the Red Planet, with landing scheduled for late Sunday August 5 or early Monday August 6, depending on where you live on Earth. The Curiosity rover has been tucked away cozily into a spacecraft for safekeeping during flight, but when it reaches Mars’ surface it will encounter tough and frigid conditions, all in the name of science. This is NASA’s fourth rover mission to Mars, and its goal is to determine the planet’s past — and present — potential for habitability. Want to know more? Here are some facts about Curiosity and the mission:

When will it land on Mars?
For us Earthlings, the Curiosity rover will land on Mars at 05:31 UTC on Aug. 6 (10:31 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5, 1:31 a.m. EDT Aug. 6) plus or minus a minute. This is Earth-received time, which includes one-way light time (13.8 minutes) for radio signal to reach Earth from Mars. The landing will be at about 3 p.m. local time at the Mars landing site.

How long does it take for the rover to get to Mars’ surface after it reaches the outer atmosphere?
About 7 minutes. Dubbed the “seven minutes of terror” by NASA, MSL will employ a parachute, landing rockets, a hovering sky crane, and other complicated mechanisms to help lower the rover to the surface of Mars.

Watch this video to learn more about the seven minutes of terror:

How big is the parachute?
The diameter of the parachute is 15 meters (51 feet). It is a supersonic parachute, the largest ever deployed on another world. The parachute can withstand 65,000 lbs of pressure, which is critical, as in the Martian atmosphere, once the parachute deploys, it will still be forced to cope with 9Gs of pressure. It is orange and white (the school colors of Caltech, home of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

How big are the spacecraft and the rover?
Cruise vehicle dimensions (cruise stage and aeroshell with rover and descent stage inside): Diameter: 4.5 meters (14 feet, 9 inches); height: 3 meters (9 feet, 8 inches)

Curiosity Rover dimensions: Length: 3 meters (9 feet, 10 inches) — (not counting arm); width: 2.8 meters (9 feet, 1 inch).

Height at top of mast: 2.1 meters (7 feet)

Arm length: 2.1 meters (7 feet). The arm is capable of collecting powdered samples from rocks, scooping soil, preparing and delivering samples for analytic instruments, and brushing surfaces on the planet.

Wheel diameter: 0.5 meter (20 inches)

Mass: 3,893 kilograms (8,463 pounds) total at launch, consisting of 899-kilogram (1,982-pound) rover; 2,401-kilogram (5,293-pound) entry, descent and landing system (aeroshell plus fueled descent stage); and 539-kilogram (1,188-pound) fueled cruise stage.

How does the rover get its power for roving?
Multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator and lithium-ion batteries

What are the science instruments on board Curiosity?
10 instruments weighing a total of 75 kilograms (165 pounds), to do many of the tasks scientists do in a lab. Instead of sending samples back to Earth for humans to analyze, the Curiosity rover will thus be able to do laboratory tests right from the Martian surface. The instruments are:
Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer, Chemistry and Camera, Chemistry and Mineralogy, Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons, Mars Descent Imager, Mars Hand Lens Imager, Mast Camera, Radiation Assessment Detector, Rover Environmental Monitoring Station, and Sample Analysis at Mars

How many cameras are on Curiosity?
17 (some of which are part of the 10 science instruments)

When did Curiosity launch?
Nov. 26, 2011, 10:02 a.m. EST, from Launch Complex 41, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.
Launch Vehicle: Atlas V 541 provided by United Launch Alliance

How far is Mars away from Earth?
Earth–Mars distance at launch: 204 million kilometers (127 million miles)
Earth–Mars distance on landing day: 248 million kilometers (154 million miles)
Total distance of travel, from Earth to Mars: About 567 kilometers (352 million miles)

How fast can Curiosity rove?
On average, the rover is expected to travel across the surface of Mars at about 30 meters (98 feet) per hour, based on power levels, slippage, steepness of the terrain, visibility, and other variables.

Where is Curiosity’s landing site?
Landing site: 4.6 degrees south latitude, 137.4 degrees east longitude, near base of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater, a layered mountain that rises 4.8 kilometers (3 miles). The mountain was named after planetary geologist Bob Sharp.

What will the weather be like at Gale Crater?
Expected near-surface atmospheric temperatures at landing site during primary mission: minus 90 C to zero C (minus 130 F to 32 F ). Basically, cold and windy with wind gusts of up to 144 km/h (90 mph) —as strong as some hurricane winds on Earth. Mars is home to dust storms and quickly moving whirlwinds known as dust devils.

How many possible landing sites did scientists considered before deciding on Gale Crater?
60. Gale Crater was chosen because it is thought to contain elements that are important to the search for the ingredients of life.

How long is the primary mission?
One Martian year. Because a day on Mars is longer than one on Earth—39 minutes and 35.244 seconds longer, to be exact—a Martian year is equal to 98 weeks, or 687 days, on Earth.

How much does this mission cost?
$2.5 billion, including $1.8 billion for spacecraft development and science investigations and addition amounts for launch and operations.

Lead image caption: Curiosity completes Biggest Interplanetary Rocket Firing to Mars. Illustrations show (left) the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft during its voyage from Earth to Mars and (right) the mission’s rover, Curiosity, working on Mars after landing. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

Second image caption: This computer-generated view based on multiple orbital observations shows Mars’ Gale crater as if seen from an aircraft northwest of the crater. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/UA

sources: NASA, Caltech

Curious About Curiosity’s Chemistry Mission?

The Mars Science Laboratory will be seeking clues to the planetary puzzle about life on Mars, the Curiosity rover is one of the best-outfitted chemistry missions ever. Scientists say Curiosity is the next best thing to launching a team of trained chemists to Mars’ surface.

“The Mars Science Laboratory mission has the goal of understanding whether its landing site on Mars was ever a habitable environment, a place that could have supported microbial life,” says MSL Deputy Project Scientist, Ashwin Vasavada, who provides a look “under the hood” in this informative video from the American Chemical Society.

“Curiosity is really a geochemical experiment, and a whole laboratory of chemical equipment is on the rover,” says Vasavada. “It will drill into rocks, and analyze material from those rocks with sophisticated instruments.”

Curiosity will drive around the landing site at Gale Crater and sample the soil, layer by layer, to piece together the history of Mars, trying to determine if and when the planet went from a wetter, warmer world to its current cold and dry conditions.

The payload includes mast-mounted instruments to survey the surroundings and assess potential sampling targets from a distance, and there are also instruments on Curiosity’s robotic arm for close-up inspections. Laboratory instruments inside the rover will analyze samples from rocks, soils and the atmosphere.

The two instruments on the mast are a high-definition imaging system, and a laser-equipped, spectrum-reading camera called ChemCam that can hit a rock with a special laser beam, and using Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy, can observe the light emitted from the laser’s spark and analyze it with the spectrometer to understand the chemical composition of the soil and rock on Mars.

The tools on the turret at the end of Curiosity’s 2.1-meter-long (7-foot-long) robotic arm include a radiation-emitting instrument that reads X-ray clues to targets’ composition and a magnifying-lens camera. The arm can deliver soil and powdered-rock samples to an instrument that uses X-ray analysis to identify minerals in the sample and to an instrument that uses three laboratory methods for assessing carbon compounds and other chemicals important to life and indicative of past and present processes.

The three methods are an evolved gas experiment, which uses a mass spectrometer to look for potential long chain organic molecules on Mars; CheMin, an X-ray diffraction experiment to determine mineralogy; and an Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) on Curiosity’s robotic arm, like its predecessors on the arms of all previous Mars rovers, will identify chemical elements in rocks and soils.

In total Curiosity has 10 different instruments on board the roving laboratory, and test results from these instruments will pave the way for future Mars missions, and may provide insight in the search for life on other planets.

Image caption: Artist depiction of the Curiosity rover on Mars. Credit: NASA

Sources: NASA, ACS

Landing Sites for Mars Science Lab Narrowed to Six


Where should the next spacecraft land on Mars? The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover is scheduled to launch in the fall of 2009. MSL is a long-range rover that will explore a region on Mars with the goal of determining if Mars has or ever had conditions capable of supporting microbial life. Over fifty landing sites have been proposed by various planetary scientists, and recently, the selection committee narrowed the field down to six possible sites. The final site and a backup will be selected in September of 2008. Here’s a look at the six final candidates:

Mawrth Vallis: Location:Northern Plains, east of Pathfinder rover site (24.65°N, 340.10°E)
Mars Global Surveyor MOLA Instrument
This is an ancient channel carved by catastrophic floods. Spectrometers on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have detected clay minerals which contain water, and may also preserve organic materials, so there is great interest in studying these deposits to understand past environments that could have supported life. Images from the MRO HiRise camera show hills with several layers and intriguing boulders.

Nili Fossae Trough: Location: Near Isidis Planitia, and near the Beagle 2 intended landing site. (21°N, 74.2°E)
Nilli Fossae Trough.  Image Credit:  Mars Global Surveyor MOLA Instrument
This region has one of the largest and most diverse exposures of clays minerals that have been detected from orbit. Again, clay minerals contain water, and possibly organic materials. The area is a linear depression about 25 km wide that was created from tectonic activity.

Holden Crater: Location: South of Vallis Marineris (26.4°S, 325.3°E)
Holden Crater.  Image Credit:  Mars Global Surveyor MOLA Instrument
This crater contains deep gullies carved by running water as well as examples of what are assumed to be lake beds and sediments deposited by streams. These deposits are more than three billion years old, which dates back to a wetter period on Mars. Scientists believe Holden Crater once was a lake, and when the water disappeared, wind eroded the surface and formed the ripples and dunes that have been imaged by the HiRise instrument.

Eberswalde Crater: Location: South of Vallis Marineris (23.20°S, 326.75°E)
Eberswalde Delta.  Image Credit:  Mars Global Surveyor MOLA Instrument
The Eberswalde delta is the most convincing evidence on Mars for the persistent flow of a river into a standing body of water. HiRise images show many channels within the delta that have become inverted, which occurs as sediments deposited by flowing water solidify over time and become resistant to erosion. High resolution HiRise images show individual boulders breaking off from the channel deposits.

Miyamoto Crater: Location: Merdiani Planum, near Opportunity Rover site. (1.7°S, 352.4°E)
Miyamato Crater.  Image Credit:  Mars Global Surveyor MOLA Instrument
Located along the western boundary of Meridiani Planum, this 150-km crater has hematite and sulfate-bearing minerals, possibly created from lakes or groundwater. The southwestern part of the crater floor has been stripped by erosion, revealing clay minerals.

Northern Meridiani: Location: Meridiani Planum,2.34°N, 6.69°E
Meridiani.  Image Credit:  Mars Global Surveyor MOLA Instrument
This is the same area that the Opportunity rover has studied. By landing here, the MSL rover could increase our knowledge of the Meridiani region, which Opportunity has revealed to have a complex geologic history that involves flowing water, groundwater, lakes and wind. If chosen as a landing site, the MSL rover would study the smooth plains before driving to the ridged plains to the north.

MSL will arrive on Mars in 2010. Once on the surface, the rover will be able to roll over obstacles up to 75 centimeters (29 inches) high and travel up to 90 meters (295 feet) per hour. On average, the rover is expected to travel about 30 meters (98 feet) per hour, based on power levels, slippage, steepness of the terrain, visibility, and other variables. The science instruments on board include cameras, spectrometers, radiation detectors and environmental sensors.

Original News Source: HiRise Blog