Curiosity Drills Deep into First High Silica Martian Rock on Third Touchdown Anniversary

Curiosity extends robotic arm and conducts sample drilling at “Buckskin” rock target at bright toned “Lion” outcrop at the base of Mount Sharp on Mars, seen at right, during August 2015. Gale Crater eroded rim seen in the distant background at left, in this composite multisol mosaic of navcam raw images taken to Sol 1059, July 30, 2015. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Inset: MAHLI color camera up close image of full depth drill hole at “Buckskin” rock target on Sol 1060. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
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NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover has successfully drilled into the first high silica rock target on Mars after recently discovering this new type of rock that’s unlike any found before – as she is about to mark the 3rd anniversary since the hair-raising touchdown on the Red Planet.

The SUV-sized rover bored a full depth hole into a Mars outcrop at a target dubbed “Buckskin” as commanded by the mission team over the weekend, after first conducting a mini drill test to assess the safety of the intended drill campaign to sample the alien rock interior beneath the Martian crater floor.

“This morning, the MSL operations team was very happy to see that drilling into Buckskin was successful!” said Ken Herkenhoff, Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and an MSL science team member, in a mission update.

Confirmation of the success of the full depth drilling into “Buckskin” on Sol 1060 at the bright toned “Lion” outcrop came later after receipt of new high resolution images from the rover showing the approximately 1.6 cm (0.63 inch) diameter bore hole next to the initial mini hole test, along with the indicative residue of grey colored tailings from the Martian subsurface seen distributed around the new hole.

“Successful drilling at Buckskin!” added team member Professor John Bridges of the University of Leicester, England, in an update.

“Like the other drill holes this is showing how thin red Mars is,” Bridges elaborated.

Beneath a thin veneer of rusty red colored iron oxide, the Red Planet is remarkably grey as demonstrated by Curiosity’s prior drilling campaigns.

The hole was bored to a full depth of about 2.6 inches (6.5 centimeters) using the percussion drill on the terminus of the 7 foot-long (2.1 meter-long) robotic arm.

Curiosity rover successfully drills into Martian outcrop  at Buckskin rock target at current work site at base of Mount Sharp in August 2015, in this mosaic showing full depth drill hole and initial test hole, with grey colored subsurface tailings and mineral veins on surrounding Red Planet terrain.  This high resolution photo mosaic is a multisol composite of color images taken by the mast mounted Mastcam-100 color camera up to Sol 1060, July 31, 2015.   Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity rover successfully drills into Martian outcrop at Buckskin rock target at current work site at base of Mount Sharp in August 2015, in this mosaic showing full depth drill hole and initial test hole, with grey colored subsurface tailings and mineral veins on surrounding Red Planet terrain. This high resolution photo mosaic is a multisol composite of color images taken by the mast mounted Mastcam-100 color camera up to Sol 1060, July 31, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Buckskin was “chosen because this sedimentary horizon has some very high silica enrichments,” Bridges explains.

The findings of elevated levels of silicon as well as hydrogen were derived from data collected by Curiosity’s laser-firing Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) and Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) instruments on certain local area rocks.

Silica is a rock-forming compound containing silicon and oxygen, commonly found on Earth as quartz.

“High levels of silica could indicate ideal conditions for preserving ancient organic material, if present, so the science team wants to take a closer look,” say mission team officials.

See the rover at work reaching out with her robotic arm and drilling into Buckskin, as illustrated in our new mosaics of mastcam and navcam camera raw images created by the image processing team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo (above and below).

“Buckskin” sits at the base of Mount Sharp, a huge layered mountain that dominates the center of the 96 mile-wide (154 kilometers-wide) Gale Crater landing site.

Exploring the sedimentary 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.

The silica enrichment “may have occurred as the Gale sediments were altered by subsurface fluids after burial. As the basaltic composition was altered (as we saw from the clay and Fe oxide at Yellowknife Bay) ultimately a lot of silica is released which can be precipitated at horizons like this,” explains Bridges.

The Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover safely touched down on the crater floor on August 5, 2012 following the unprecedented and nail-biting sky crane maneuver that delivered her with pinpoint precision to a landing site nearby Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater.

The goal of the drilling is to provide geologic context for Curiosity’s long term climb up the mountains sedimentary layers by collecting samples to assess the habitability of the Red Planet over billions of years of time.

So the plan was for the robot to process and pulverize the samples for eventual delivery to the onboard pair of miniaturized chemistry labs located inside her belly – SAM and CheMin. Tiny samples are fed to a trio of inlet ports on the rover deck through the sieved filters.

Images are taken to document and assess the entire sample collection and delivery process.

After gathering the Buckskin sample, a portion was transferred to the robots scoop for inspection.

Then the first portion was successfully fed into CheMin for inorganic elemental analysis over the weekend.

“The activities planned for last weekend completed successfully, including sample dropoff to CheMin and analysis of the minerals present,” Herkenhoff confirmed.

The one ton robots next steps involve “dumping the portion of the drill sample that has not been sieved and Mastcam, ChemCam, MAHLI, and APXS observations of the dump pile. ChemCam and Mastcam will also observe nearby targets “Martz” and “Mountain Home.” MAHLI will image the drill hole, tailings and CheMin inlet at night using its LEDs for illumination.”

Curiosity MAHLI camera image taken of Buckskin drill hole on Sol 1060 on July 31, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS
Curiosity MAHLI camera image taken of Buckskin drill hole on Sol 1060 on July 31, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS

After completing these science activities, the six wheeled rover will move on to the next exciting destination.

“It’s been a great couple of weeks at the Lion outcrop, but it’s time to move on,” says Lauren Edgar, Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and an MSL science team member, in the latest mission update from today, August 4, Sol 1065.

“After a successful investigation that included observations by almost every science instrument, we’re getting ready to drive away tomorrow. That means that today (and tomorrow before we drive) is the last call for science observations.”

For about the past two months, the six wheeled robot has been driving around and exploring a geological contact zone named “Marias Pass” – an area on lower Mount Sharp, by examining the rocks and outcrops with her suite of state-of-the-art science instruments.

“Marias Pass” is a geological context zone where two rock types overlap – pale mudstone meets darker sandstone.

The prior hole was drilled at Telegraph Peak on Feb. 24, 2015, on Sol 908.

Curiosity recently celebrated 1000 Sols of exploration on Mars on May 31, 2015 – detailed here with our Sol 1000 mosaic also featured at Astronomy Picture of the Day on June 13, 2015.

NASA’s Martian Curiosity rover looks backs to 1000 Sols of science and exploration on the surface of the Red Planet.  Robot wheel tracks lead back through valley dunes.  Gale Crater rim seen in the distant hazy background.  Sol 997 (May 28, 2015) navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com Featured on APOD on June 13, 2015
NASA’s Martian Curiosity rover looks backs to 1000 Sols of science and exploration on the surface of the Red Planet. Robot wheel tracks lead back through valley dunes. Gale Crater rim seen in the distant hazy background. Sol 997 (May 28, 2015) navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Featured on APOD on June 13, 2015

As of today, Sol 1065, August 4, 2015, she has driven some 11 kilometers and taken over 256,000 amazing images.

Curiosity has already accomplished her primary objective of discovering a habitable zone on the Red Planet – at the Yellowknife Bay area – that contains the minerals necessary to support microbial life in the ancient past when Mars was far wetter and warmer billions of years ago.

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

Ken Kremer

Curiosity extends robotic arm and conducts test drill at “Buckskin” rock target at bright toned “Lion” outcrop on the lower region of Mount Sharp on Mars, seen at right.   Gale Crater eroded rim seen in the distant background at left, in this composite multisol mosaic of navcam raw images taken to Sol 1059, July 30, 2015.  Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity extends robotic arm and conducts test drill at “Buckskin” rock target at bright toned “Lion” outcrop on the lower region of Mount Sharp on Mars, seen at right. Gale Crater eroded rim seen in the distant background at left, in this composite multisol mosaic of navcam raw images taken to Sol 1059, July 30, 2015. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Curiosity Discovers Mars Rock Like None Before, Sets Drill Campaign

On the eve of the 3rd anniversary since her nail biting touchdown inside Gale Crater, NASA’s car sized Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover has discovered a new type of Martian rock that’s surprisingly rich in silica – and unlike any other targets found before.

Excited by this new science finding on Mars, Curiosity’s handlers are now gearing the robot up for her next full drill campaign today, July 31 (Sol 1060) into a rock target called “Buckskin” – which lies at the base of Mount Sharp, the huge layered mountain that is the primary science target of this Mars rover mission.

“The team selected the “Buckskin” target to drill,” says Lauren Edgar, Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and an MSL science team member, in a mission update.

“It’s another exciting day on Mars!”

See the rover at work reaching out with her robotic arm and drilling into Buckskin, as illustrated in our new mosaics of navcam camera images created by the image processing team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo (above and below). Also featured at Alive Universe Images – here.

NASA Curiosity rover inspects ‘Buckskin’ rock outcrop on Mars with APXS mineral spectrometer in this hazcam camera raw image taken on July 29, 2015 (Sol 1058), colorized and linearized.  Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA Curiosity rover inspects ‘Buckskin’ rock outcrop on Mars with APXS mineral spectrometer in this hazcam camera raw image taken on July 29, 2015 (Sol 1058), colorized and linearized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

For about the past two months, the six wheeled robot has been driving around and exploring a geological contact zone named “Marias Pass” – an area on lower Mount Sharp, by examining the rocks and outcrops with her suite of state-of-the-art science instruments.

The goal is to provide geologic context for her long term expedition up the mountains sedimentary layers to study the habitability of the Red Planet over eons of time.

Data from Curiosity’s “laser-firing Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) and Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN), show elevated amounts of silicon and hydrogen, respectively,” in certain local area rocks, according to the team.

Silica is a rock-forming compound containing silicon and oxygen, commonly found on Earth as quartz.

“High levels of silica could indicate ideal conditions for preserving ancient organic material, if present, so the science team wants to take a closer look.”

Curiosity conducts test drill at “Buckskin” rock target at bright toned “Lion” outcrop on the lower region of Mount Sharp on Mars.   Gale crater rim seen in the distant background, in this composite mosaic of navcam raw images taken to Sol 1059, July 30, 2015.  Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo  Inset: MAHLI camera up close image of  test drill at “Buckskin” rock target.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Curiosity extends robotic arm and conducts test drill at “Buckskin” rock target at bright toned “Lion” outcrop on the lower region of Mount Sharp on Mars. Gale crater rim seen in the distant background, in this composite mosaic of navcam raw images taken to Sol 1059, July 30, 2015. Inset: MAHLI camera up close image of test drill at “Buckskin” rock target. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Therefore the team scouted targets suitable for in depth analysis and sample drilling and chose “Buckskin”.

“Buckskin” is located among some high-silica and hydrogen enriched targets at a bright outcrop named “Lion.”

An initial test bore operation was conducted first to confirm whether that it was indeed safe to drill into “Buckskin” and cause no harm to the rover before committing to the entire operation.

The bore hole is about 1.6 cm (0.63 inch) in diameter.

“This test will drill a small hole in the rock to help determine whether it is safe to go ahead with the full hole,” elaborated Ryan Anderson, planetary scientist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and an MSL science team member.

So it was only after the team received back new high resolution imagery last night from the arm-mounted MAHLI camera which confirmed the success of the mini-drill operation, that the “GO” was given for a full depth drill campaign. MAHLI is short for Mars Hand Lens Imager.

“We successfully completed a mini drilling test yesterday (shown in the MAHLI image). That means that today we’re going for the FULL drill hole” Edgar confirmed.

“GO for Drilling.”

So it’s a busy day ahead on the Red Planet, including lots of imaging along the way to document and confirm that the drilling operation proceeds safely and as planned.

“First we’ll acquire MAHLI images of the intended drill site, then we’ll drill, and then we’ll acquire more MAHLI images after drilling,” Edgar explains.

“The plan also includes Navcam imaging of the workspace, and Mastcam imaging of the target and drill bit. In addition to drilling, we’re getting CheMin ready to receive sample in an upcoming plan. Fingers crossed!” Surface observations with the arm-mounted Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) instrument are also planned.

If all goes well, the robot will process and pulverize the samples for eventual delivery to the onboard pair of miniaturized chemistry labs located inside her belly – SAM and CheMin. Tiny samples will be fed to the inlet ports on the rover deck through the sieved filters.

A rock outcrop dubbed "Missoula," near Marias Pass on Mars, is seen in this image mosaic taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager on NASA's Curiosity rover. Pale mudstone (bottom of outcrop) meets coarser sandstone (top) in this geological contact zone, which has piqued the interest of Mars scientists.   Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
A rock outcrop dubbed “Missoula,” near Marias Pass on Mars, is seen in this image mosaic taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager on NASA’s Curiosity rover. Pale mudstone (bottom of outcrop) meets coarser sandstone (top) in this geological contact zone, which has piqued the interest of Mars scientists. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Meanwhile the team is studying a nearby rock outcrop called “Ch-paa-qn” which means “shining peak” in the native Salish language of northern Montana.”

Anderson says the target is a bright patch on a nearby outcrop. Via active and passive observations with the mast-mounted ChemCam laser and Mastcam multispectral imager, the purpose is to determine if “Ch-paa-qn” is comprised of calcium sulfate like other white veins visible nearby, or perhaps it’s something else entirely.

A rock fragment dubbed "Lamoose" is shown in this picture taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on NASA's Curiosity rover. Like other nearby rocks in a portion of the "Marias Pass" area of Mt. Sharp, Mars, it has unusually high concentrations of silica. The high silica was first detected in the area by the Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) laser spectrometer. This rock was targeted for follow-up study by the MAHLI and the arm-mounted Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS).  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
A rock fragment dubbed “Lamoose” is shown in this picture taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on NASA’s Curiosity rover. Like other nearby rocks in a portion of the “Marias Pass” area of Mt. Sharp, Mars, it has unusually high concentrations of silica. The high silica was first detected in the area by the Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) laser spectrometer. This rock was targeted for follow-up study by the MAHLI and the arm-mounted Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Before arriving by the “Lion” outcrop last week, Curiosity was investigating another outcrop area nearby, the high-silica target dubbed “Elk” with the ChemCam instrument, while scouting around the “Marias Pass” area in search of tasty science targets for in-depth analysis.

Sometimes the data subsequently returned and analyzed is so extraordinary, that the team decides on a return trip to a spot previously departed. Such was the case with “Elk” and the rover was commanded to do a U-turn to acquire more precious data.

“One never knows what to expect on Mars, but the Elk target was interesting enough to go back and investigate,” said Roger Wiens, the principal investigator of the ChemCam instrument from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Soon, ChemCam will have fired on its 1,000th target. Overall the laser blaster has been fired more than 260,000 times since Curiosity landed inside the nearly 100 mile wide Gale Crater on Mars on Aug. 6, 2012, alongside Mount Sharp.

“ChemCam acts like eyes and ears of the rover for nearby objects,” said Wiens.

“Marias Pass” is a geological context zone where two rock types overlap – pale mudstone meets darker sandstone.

The rover spotted a very curious outcrop named “Missoula.”

“We found an outcrop named Missoula where the two rock types came together, but it was quite small and close to the ground. We used the robotic arm to capture a dog’s-eye view with the MAHLI camera, getting our nose right in there,” said Ashwin Vasavada, the mission’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

White mineral veins, possibly comprised of calcium sulfate, filled the fractures by depositing the mineral from running groundwater.

“Such clues help scientists understand the possible timing of geological events,” says the team.

Read more about Curiosity in an Italian language version of this story at Alive Universe Images – here.

NASA’s Martian Curiosity rover looks backs to 1000 Sols of science and exploration on the surface of the Red Planet.  Robot wheel tracks lead back through valley dunes.  Gale Crater rim seen in the distant hazy background.  Sol 997 (May 28, 2015) navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s Martian Curiosity rover looks backs to 1000 Sols of science and exploration on the surface of the Red Planet. Robot wheel tracks lead back through valley dunes. Gale Crater rim seen in the distant hazy background. Sol 997 (May 28, 2015) navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Featured on APOD on June 13, 2015

As of today, Sol 1060, July 31, 2015, she has taken over 255,000 amazing images.

Curiosity recently celebrated 1000 Sols of exploration on Mars on May 31, 2015 – detailed here with our Sol 1000 mosaic also featured at Astronomy Picture of the Day on June 13, 2015.

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

Ken Kremer

Red Mars, Gray Mars: "Mini-start hole" drill maneuver was successful.  Image of mini start drill hole taken by Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) aboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on July 30, 2015, Sol 1059. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Red Mars, Gray Mars: “Mini-start hole” drill maneuver was successful. Image of mini start drill hole taken by Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) aboard NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity on July 30, 2015, Sol 1059. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Curiosity conducts test drill at “Buckskin” rock target at bright toned “Lion” outcrop on the lower region of Mount Sharp on Mars, seen at right.   Gale crater rim seen in the distant background at left, in this composite mosaic of navcam raw images taken to Sol 1059, July 30, 2015.  Navcam camera raw images stitched. Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity extends robotic arm and conducts test drill at “Buckskin” rock target at bright toned “Lion” outcrop on the lower region of Mount Sharp on Mars, seen at right. Gale crater rim seen in the distant background at left, in this composite mosaic of navcam raw images taken to Sol 1059, July 30, 2015. Navcam camera raw images stitched. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

The Martian Curiosity Looks Back on 1000 Sols of Exploration on the Red Planet

Looking back 1000 Sols on the Red Planet
NASA’s Martian Curiosity rover looks backs to 1000 Sols of science and exploration on the surface of the Red Planet. Robot wheel tracks lead back through valley dunes. Gale Crater rim seen in the distant hazy background. Sol 997 (May 28, 2015) navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Featured on APOD on June 13, 2015
Story updated[/caption]

The Martian Curiosity celebrates 1000 Sols on Mars!

Marking the occasion with utter glee, the car sized robot snapped a cool mosaic view (above) looking back to 1000 Sols of high impact exploration and discovery on the Red Planet, showing her wheel tracks leading back through valley dunes from the foothills of humongous Mount Sharp and across the alien surface floor and out to the distant rim of the Gale Crater landing site she descended to nearly three years ago in August 2012.

“A thousand thanks to the best team a rover could have. Celebrating 1,000 sols. Here’s to the Martian days ahead!” the robot tweeted.

But at 1K sols she’s not content to just bask in the Martian sunshine during the history making event. Rather, she is as always hard at work, reaching out with the high tech robotic arm and inspecting intriguing rock outcrops spread out all around her.

Check out Curiosity’s current workspace, looking back and hard at work in our new photo mosaics herein created by the imaging team of Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer. They are also featured at NBC News – here – and Alive Space Images (in Italian) – here and here.

Curiosity rover at work for 1000 Sols on Mars.  This composite multi sol photo mosaic shows outstretched robotic arm inspecting intriguing rock outcrops.   The APXS spectrometer is investigating a target called ‘Ronan’ on the Stimson overlying outcrop.   Navcam camera raw images taken from sols 997 to 1000 are stitched and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity rover at work for 1000 Sols on Mars
This composite multi sol photo mosaic shows outstretched robotic arm inspecting intriguing rock outcrops. The APXS spectrometer is investigating a target called ‘Ronan’ on the Stimson overlying outcrop. Navcam camera raw images taken from sols 997 to 1000 are stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

The raw images for the look back mosaic were taken after she arrived at her current location on Martian Sol 997, or Earth’s Day May 28, 2015.

The Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover officially celebrated 1000 Martian Sols on May 31, 2015 since she safely touched down on the crater floor on August 5, 2012 following the nail-biting and unprecedented sky crane maneuver that delivered her with pinpoint precision to a landing site nearby Mount Sharp.

“An MSL landmark day. We have reached 1000 sols on Mars. Looking back the remarkable thing is how few serious problems there have been,” says team member Professor John Bridges of the University of Leicester, England, in an update.

Exploring the sedimentary layers of Mount Sharp, which towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky, form the primary destination and goal of her scientific expedition.

The six wheeled robot and her team of handlers back on Earth, are eeking out every last drop of science before she and all of Earth’s entire Martian invasion fleet enter solar conjunction, when Mars is behind the sun and little or no communications will be possible for most of the month of June. Activities will be limited per safety protocols.

“However, there is one issue even Curiosity can’t avoid – Conjunction. For much of June, Mars will be obscured from Earth by the Sun. Few science operations,” explains Bridges.

Curiosity rover rolls across Mars at the foothills of Mount Sharp, seen in the background, in this mosaic of images taken on April 11, 2015 (Sol 952).  Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Curiosity rover rolls across Mars at the foothills of Mount Sharp, seen in the background, in this mosaic of images taken on April 11, 2015 (Sol 952). Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA’s long-lived Opportunity rover labors on the opposite side of Mars.

After a short drive Curiosity arrived at her current location at “Marias Pass” on Sol 997, where she will stay stationary during the conjunction period out of an abundance of caution.

“A short bump on Sol 997 put Curiosity in a great position to investigate a few different rock units in Marias Pass, using the instruments on the rover’s arm,” wrote MSL and USGS mission scientist Ken Herkenhoff in an update.

She also reached within an eyelash of 10.6 kilometers (6.6 mi) of total driving.

“The 2.5 m drive brings our total odometry to 10,599 m,” noted Herkenoff.

Along the way she discovered the chemical ingredient minerals necessary to support life, as well as low levels of some organic molecules and some traces of methane, and and ample evidence for lakes and streams of liquid water.

“Curiosity is now parked for the next few weeks. But we are parked in front of a beautiful outcrop that shows the contact between the underlying Pahrump unit and the overlying Stimson unit.”

Our arm photo mosaic herein shows the seven foot (2 m) long robotic arm and its APXS spectrometer deployed at the target called “Ronan”, which is part of the overlying Stimson outcrop unit.

The rover is also using the ChemCam, MastCam and MAHLI cameras and spectrometers and other instruments to characterize the outcrop and its texture and composition in detail.

The robotic arm will be stowed during the June conjunction period.

Curiosity arrived at the Pahrump Hills at the base of Mount Sharp back in September 2014. Since then she has conducted an intensive investigation of the rocks and a trio of drilling operations to elucidate how this area fits in context with Mount Sharp and the habitable region discovered on the crater floor at Yellowknife Bay back in the spring of 2013.

In recent weeks, Curiosity has been driving up hills with slopes of as much as 21 degrees, higher than ever before, on an exciting journey endeavoring to slowly ascend up to the lower layers of Mount Sharp.

The current Martian outcrop area under investigation is a place where two distinctive geologic types of bedrock meet and where pale rock meets darker overlying rock.

“Such contacts can reveal clues about how the environmental conditions that produced one type of rock were related to the conditions that produced the other,” says NASA.

“The rover science team wants to examine an outcrop that contains the contact between the pale rock unit the mission analyzed lower on Mount Sharp and a darker, bedded rock unit that the mission has not yet examined up close.”

The team is also scouting around for the presence of mineral veins, like those recently discovered at the “Garden City” outcrop, that formed in the past during periods of flowing liquid water that could be favorable for microbial life forms if they ever existed.

Curiosity investigates a beautiful outcrop of scientifically enticing dark and light mineral veins at ”Garden City” outcrop at the base of Mount Sharp at current location on Mars.   This  photo mosaic was stitched  from Mastcam color camera raw images. Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity investigates a beautiful outcrop of scientifically enticing dark and light mineral veins at ”Garden City” outcrop at the base of Mount Sharp at current location on Mars. This photo mosaic was stitched from Mastcam color camera raw images. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Because there’s a plethora of treacherous dunes, the team has had to monitor operations carefully and alter the route on occasion to maintain safe operations.

Curiosity has already accomplished her primary objective of discovering a habitable zone on the Red Planet that contains the minerals necessary to support microbial life in the ancient past when Mars was far wetter and warmer billions of years ago.

This March 6, 2015 (Sol 917), mosaic of images from the Navcam camera on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the position in which the rover held its arm for several days after a transient short circuit triggered onboard fault-protection programming to halt arm activities on Feb. 27, 2015, Sol 911.  The rover team chose to hold the arm in the same position for several days of tests to diagnose the underlying cause of the Sol 911 event.  Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
This March 6, 2015 (Sol 917), mosaic of images from the Navcam camera on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the position in which the rover held its arm for several days after a transient short circuit triggered onboard fault-protection programming to halt arm activities on Feb. 27, 2015, Sol 911. The rover team chose to hold the arm in the same position for several days of tests to diagnose the underlying cause of the Sol 911 event. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

To date, Curiosity’s odometer totals over 5.1 miles (8.4 kilometers) since landing inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012.

As of today, Sol 1001, June 1, 2015, she has taken over 246,000 amazing images.

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

Ken Kremer

Among the Martian Hills: Curiosity Rover Peers At Rocks Of Mount Sharp

After a couple of years of racing towards Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons), now it’s time for the Curiosity rover to get a better look at its Martian surroundings. The rover has reached its stated science destination and mission planners say now is the time to stop the driving and get deep into the science.

NASA is on the hunt for signs of habitability on the Red Planet, and officials hope that the layers of this big mountain will yield a wealth of information on Martian history.

“This first look at rocks we believe to underlie Mount Sharp is exciting because it will begin to form a picture of the environment at the time the mountain formed, and what led to its growth,” stated Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s deputy project scientist in a press release from late September.

As Curiosity drills and analyzes rocks at its feet, it continues to send back stunning pictures of its surroundings. Check out a sample from this week below.

Mars Curiosity peers over a craggy ridge on Oct. 7, 2014 (Sol 771). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Mars Curiosity peers over a craggy ridge on Oct. 7, 2014 (Sol 771). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Hills beckon in this photo from the Curiosity rover taken Oct. 7, 2014, on Sol 771. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Martian hills beckon in this photo from the Curiosity rover taken Oct. 7, 2014, on Sol 771. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Close-up of a brush instrument on the Mars Curiosity rover on Oct. 3 (Sol 767). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Close-up of a brush instrument on the Mars Curiosity rover on Oct. 3 (Sol 767). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Cracked terrain underfoot seen by the Martian Curiosity rover on Oct. 7, 2014 (Sol 771). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Cracked terrain underfoot seen by the Martian Curiosity rover on Oct. 7, 2014 (Sol 771). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

An Incredible Journey, Mars Curiosity Rover Reaches the Base of Mount Sharp

Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have announced that the Mars Science Lab (MSL), Curiosity Rover, has reached the base of the central peak inside Gale Crater, Aeolis Mons also known as Mount Sharp. Mount Sharp is a prime objective of NASA’s Curiosity journey. The mountain is like a layer cake, holding a chronology of past events, one after the other, stacked upon each other over billions of years. It took two years and one month to reach this present point and what lies ahead is the beginning of an upward trek towards the peak of Mount Sharp, 5500 meters (18,000 feet) above the floor of Gale Crater. However, it is worth a look back and to consider what Mount Sharp represents to the mission.

For over 17 years, NASA robotic spacecraft have maintained a constant presence above or upon the surface of Mars. The Mars Pathfinder mission arrived on July 4, 1997, then quickly followed by Mars Global Surveyor on September 11 and since this time, there has always been at least one active Mars mission.

"Seven Minutes of Terror" - the Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) of the Mars Science Lab (MSL) - Mars Curiosity Rover. (Credit: NASA/JPL)
“Seven Minutes of Terror” – the Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) of the Mars Science Lab (MSL) – Mars Curiosity Rover. (Credit: NASA/JPL)

On November 26, 2011, the voyage of Mars Curiosity Rover began as a trek across 320 million kilometers (200 million miles) of the inner Solar System and culminated in the coined “Seven Minutes of Terror”. For seven long minutes, the MSL, the Mars Curiosity Rover, plowed straight into the Martian atmosphere – the entry, deployed a parachute – the descent, to slow down to about 320 km/hour (200 mph) then the Sky Crane with Rover under foot was released – the landing. With only seconds before an imminent hard impact, the Sky Crane hit the breaks, firing its rockets, then released Curiosity Rover on a tether. This was the Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL). All the while, it was the computer inside the Rover in control. When the tether was cut, the Sky Crane was forced to switch to a simpler processor within its system to complete a final scuttling of itself a few hundred meters away.

The Sky Crane gently lowered Curiosity to the landing point, christened Bradbury Station after the celebrated science fiction writer, Ray Bradbury, writer of the Martian Chronicles(c.1950), who passed away at age 91, 61 days before the landing on August 5, 2012. (recommended video – R. Bradbury reading “If Only We had been Taller” at the public event marking the arrival of Mariner 9 at Mars, November 12, 1971)

 

The ultimate Selfie - a self-protrait taken on anoher planet. This is the capability of the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera, one of 5 instruments on the turret at the end of the 2.1 meter (7 ft), 30 kg (66 lb) Robotic Arm. On numerous occasions, Curiosity has taken self-portraits, many as mosaics. This on is on Sol (Mars day) 85, post landing, showing Curiosity with its destination - Aeolis Mons (Mt. Sharp) in the background. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo, "Curiosity Celebrates 90 Sols Scooping Mars and Snapping Amazing Self-Portrait with Mount Sharp")
The ultimate Selfie – a self-protrait taken on anoher planet. This is the capability of the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera, one of 5 instruments on the turret at the end of the 2.1 meter (7 ft), 30 kg (66 lb) Robotic Arm. On numerous occasions, Curiosity has taken self-portraits, many as mosaics. This on is on Sol (Mars day) 85, post landing, showing Curiosity with its destination – Aeolis Mons (Mt. Sharp) in the background. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo, “Curiosity Celebrates 90 Sols Scooping Mars and Snapping Amazing Self-Portrait with Mount Sharp“)
September 27, 2012: A rock outcrop called Link pops out from a Martian surface taken by the 100-millimeter Mast Camera on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover September 2, 2012. Rounded gravel fragments, or clasts, up to a couple inches (few centimeters) in size are in a matrix of white material. The outcrop characteristics are consistent with a sedimentary conglomerate, or a rock that was formed by the deposition of water and is composed of many smaller rounded rocks cemented together. Scientists enhanced the color in this version to show the Martian scene as it would appear under the lighting conditions we have on Earth, which helps in analyzing the terrain. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Handout/Reuters)
September 27, 2012: A rock outcrop called Link pops out from a Martian surface taken by the 100-millimeter Mast Camera on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover September 2, 2012. Rounded gravel fragments, or clasts, up to a couple inches (few centimeters) in size are in a matrix of white material. The outcrop characteristics are consistent with a sedimentary conglomerate, or a rock that was formed by the deposition of water and is composed of many smaller rounded rocks cemented together. Scientists enhanced the color in this version to show the Martian scene as it would appear under the lighting conditions we have on Earth, which helps in analyzing the terrain. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Handout/Reuters)
Mars Curiosity at the "John Klein" site on January 10, 2013 (Mars Sol 153). The Mastcam mosaic was taken from 5 meters (16 ft). The area is full of fractures and veins with intervening rock with concretions (small spherical concentrations of minerals). The enlargements show particular areas of interest. (A) Ridge-like veins protruding from the surface. (B) Shows discontinuities in the veins that likely extend beneath the surface. (C) Shows a hole developed in the sand that overlies a fracture, implying infiltration of sand down into the fracture system. To this author, the area around (A) seems like the remnants of dried mud chips or scales one finds in the dry areas of estuaries on Earth. (Credits: NASA/JPL)
Mars Curiosity at the “John Klein” site in Yellow Knife Bay on January 10, 2013 (Mars Sol 153). The Mastcam mosaic was taken from 5 meters (16 ft). The area is full of fractures and veins with intervening rock with concretions (small spherical concentrations of minerals). The enlargements show particular areas of interest. (A) Ridge-like veins protruding from the surface. (B) Shows discontinuities in the veins that likely extend beneath the surface. (C) Shows a hole developed in the sand that overlies a fracture, implying infiltration of sand down into the fracture system. To this author, the area around (A) seems similar to the remnants of dried mud chips or scales one finds in the dry areas of estuaries on Earth. (Credits: NASA/JPL)

What has followed in the last 25 months since the landing is simply staggering. Mars Curiosity Rover, with the most advanced array of instruments and tools ever delivered to a celestial body, has already delivered an immense trove of images and scientific data that is improving and changing our understanding of Mars.

HIRISE images from the orbiting MRO spacecraft are used to show the old and new routes of NASA's Mars Curiosity rover. The new route provides excellent access to many features in the Murray Formation. And it will eventually pass by the Murray Formation's namesake, Murray Buttes, previously considered to be the entry point to Mt. Sharp. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)
HIRISE images from the orbiting MRO spacecraft are used to show the old and new routes of NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover. The new route provides excellent access to many features in the Murray Formation. And it will eventually pass by the Murray Formation’s namesake, Murray Buttes, previously considered to be the entry point to Mt. Sharp. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

Curiosity had been making progress towards an entry point to Mount Sharp called Murray Buttes, however, because of challenges that the terrain posed – sand dunes and treacherous rocks, they have chosen to enter at Pahrump Hills. Furthermore, the new entry to the lower slopes of Mount Sharp are considered scientifically more interesting. The boundary between the mountain and the crater-floor deposits is not an exact one but NASA scientists explained the reason for the announcement at this point:

“Both entry points lay along a boundary where the southern base layer of the mountain meets crater-floor deposits washed down from the crater’s northern rim.” The terrain is now primarily material from the mountain from here on upward.

Image taken by the MastCam of Curiosity Rover on August 23, 2012 which shows the buttes representing the base of Mount Sharp, including Murray Buttes. Today, two years later, Mars Curiosity now stands at entry points in the region of the buttes at 6.6 km (direct line distance). In the middle of the image is the boulder-strewn area in which much of Curiosity's wheel damage occurred. At top are the expansive series of sendiments that is the great interest of Mars researchers. (Credit: NASA/JPL)
Image taken by the MastCam of Curiosity Rover on August 23, 2012 which shows the buttes representing the base of Mount Sharp, including Murray Buttes. Today, two years later, Mars Curiosity now stands at entry points in the region of the buttes at 6.6 km (direct line distance). In the middle of the image is the boulder-strewn area in which much of Curiosity’s wheel damage occurred. At top are the expansive series of sendiments that is the great interest of Mars researchers. (Credit: NASA/JPL)

Mount Sharp is anything but the normal central peak of an impact crater. Gale crater at 154 km (96 miles) in diameter is what is called a complex crater. Beyond a certain size, depending on the gravity of the planet, craters will have a central peak. It is similar to the spike of water which is thrust upwards when you drop an object into a pool of water. Like the spike of water, an impact, thrusts regolith upwards and it collapses and coalesces into a central peak. However, with Mount Sharp there is something more. If the peak was nothing but a central impact peak, NASA with Mars Curiosity would not be trekking inside Gale Crater.

As data and analysis has accumulated from not just Mars Curiosity Rover but rather from all the active Mars missions, the models and hypotheses describing the structure and morphology on Mars has become more complex. This model and explanation of how Mount Sharp built up over billions of years uses deposition of ice and dust. Click to enlarge to review the five steps to making a layer cake mountain - Aeolis Mons (Mount Sharp). It is a process which is comparable to how the Martian polar caps formed. Illustration presented by Paul Niles (NASA Johnson Space Center) and Joseph Michalski (Planetary Science Insitute, UK)at the 43rd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, The Woodlands, Texas)
As data and analysis has accumulated from not just Mars Curiosity Rover but rather from all the active Mars missions, the models and hypotheses describing the structure and morphology on Mars have become more complex. This model and explanation of how Mount Sharp built up over billions of years uses deposition of ice and dust. Click to enlarge and review the five steps to making a layer cake mountain – Mount Sharp. (Credit:  Illustration presented by Paul Niles (NASA Johnson Space Center) and Joseph Michalski (Planetary Science Insitute, UK)at the 43rd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, The Woodlands, Texas)

Mars scientists believe that Gale crater after its creation was completely filled with sedimentary material from a series of huge floods passing over the surrounding terrain or by dust and ice deposits such as happened at the Martian polar caps. The deposition over 2 billion years left a series sedimentary layers that filled the crater.

Following the deposition of the layers, there was a long period of erosion which has finally led to the condition of the crater today. The erosion by some combination of aeolean (wind) forces and water (additional flooding), scooped out the huge crater, re-exposing most of the original depth. However, covering the original central peak are many sedimentary layers of debris. Gale crater’s original central peak actually remains completely hidden and covered by sedimentation. This is what has attracted scientists with Curiosity to the base of Mount Sharp.

The Mars Trek of NASA's Curiosity Rover from Bradbury Station (landing site) up to Martian Sol 743. The announcement that Curiosity has reached the base of Mt. Sharp is Sol 746. (Credit: NASA/JPL)
The trek of NASA’s Curiosity Rover from Bradbury Station (landing site, Sol 1) up to Martian Sol 743. The announcement that Curiosity had reached the base of Mt. Sharp is Sol 746. On Martian Sol 675, the Rover took its first step beyond its landing ellipse. (Credit: NASA/JPL)

Within the sedimentary layers covering Mount Sharp, there is a sequential record of the events that laid down the layers. Embedded in each of those layers is a record of the environmental conditions on Mars going back over 2 billion years. At the base are the oldest sedimentary layers and as Curiosity climbs the flanks of the mountain, it will step forward in time. The advanced instrumentation residing on and inside Curiosity will be able to analyze each layer for material content and also determine its age. Each layer and its age will reveal information such as how much water was present, whether the water was alkaline or acidic, if there is any organic compounds. The discovery of organic compounds on Mount Sharp could be, well, Earth shaking. There are organic compounds and then there are organic compounds that are linked to life and this search for organics is of very high importance to this mission.

Already, over the two year trek, Curiosity has seen numerous signs of the flow of water and sedimentation. At its first major waypoint, Glenelg, Curiosity stepped into an area called Yellow Knife Bay that showed numerous signs of past water. There were veins of magnesium  salt deposits embedded in the soil, sedimentation and even conglomerate rock such as that found in river beds.

In late 2013, wear and tear accelerated on Curiosity's wheels, the result of crossing boulder-strewn terrain. Clearly signs of punctures, tears and dents are seen in the photo taken by Curiosity performing a self-inspection. While it certainly raised alarm, mission planners remain confident that it can be handled and will not limit the duration of the mission.(Credits: NASA/JPL)
In late 2013, wear and tear accelerated on Curiosity’s wheels, the result of crossing boulder-strewn terrain. Clearly signs of punctures, tears and dents are seen in the photo taken by Curiosity performing a self-inspection. While it certainly raised alarm, mission planners remain confident that it can be handled and will not limit the duration of the mission.(Credits: NASA/JPL)

There is another side to the terrain that Curiosity is traversing. The crater floor, essentially a flood plain has been particularly hard on the mobility system of Curiosity. This is to say that the sharp rocks it continues to encounter under foot are taking a toll on the wheels. Curiosity is now being operated in reverse in order to reduced the impact forces on its wheels.

Furthermore, while scientists are helping to choose the path of the rover, the Curiosity drivers who must assess the field ahead must find paths with fewer sharp rocks in order to slow the damage being done. The Mars Curiosity team is concerned but remain confident that the mobility system will be capable of surviving the ten year life span of the rover’s power supply. So, the momentous occasion is hardly a time to pause and reflect, the trek moves upward, northward to see what the layers on Mount Sharp will reveal.

There are competing hypotheses on how Mount Sharp evolved. Here are two worthy web pages with additional reading.

Crater mound a prize and puzzle for Mars rover“, Eric Hand, August 3, 2012

Big pile in Gale Crater“, R. Burnham, March 30, 2012

For further reading –

NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover Arrives at Martian Mountain“, September 11, 2014

Recommended gateway to the Mars Curiosity web pages – a Curiosity Slide Show

Recent Universe Today articles on Curiosity: Sept 9,  Sept. 4,  Aug 23, Aug 20, Aug 16

Curiosity Skips Drilling, Resumes Mount Sharp Trek after Pounding Slippery Rock at Martian Valley of Slippery Sands

NASA’s Curiosity rover will skip drilling into a possible 4th rock target and instead resume the trek to Mount Sharp after finding it was unfortunately a slippery rock at the edge of a Martian valley of slippery sands and was therefore too risky to proceed with deep drilling and interior sampling for chemical analysis.

After pounding into the “Bonanza King” rock outcrop on Wednesday, Aug. 20, to evaluate its potential as Curiosity’s 4th drill target on Mars and seeing that it moved on impact, the team decided it was not even safe enough to continue with the preliminary ‘mini-drill’ operation that day.

So they cancelled the entire drill campaign at “Bonanza King” and decided to set the rover loose to drive onwards to her mountain climbing destination.

This image from the front Hazcam on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the rover's drill in place during a test of whether the rock beneath it, "Bonanza King," would be an acceptable target for drilling to collect a sample. Subsequent analysis showed the rock budged during the Aug. 19, 2014, test. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This image from the front Hazcam on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the rover’s drill in place during a test of whether the rock beneath it, “Bonanza King,” would be an acceptable target for drilling to collect a sample. Subsequent analysis showed the rock budged during the Aug. 19, 2014, test. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“We have decided that the rocks under consideration for drilling, based on the tests we did, are not good candidates for drilling,” said Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, in a statement.

“Instead of drilling here, we will resume driving toward Mount Sharp.”

Bonanza King was an enticing target because the outcrop possessed thin, white, cross-cutting mineral veins which could indicate that liquid water flowed here in the distant past. Water is a prerequisite for life as we know it.

Loose, unstable rocks pose a prospective hazard to the 1 ton robots hardware and health if they become dislodged during impact by the percussive drill located at the end of the robotic arm.

It’s worth recalling that whirling rocks during the nailbiting Red Planet touchdown two years ago on Aug. 6, 2012, inside Gale Crater are suspected to have slightly damaged Curiosity’s REMS meteorological instrument station.

Each drill target must pass a series of tests. And the prior three at more extensive outcrops all met those criteria. By comparison, imagery showed Bonanza King was clearly part of a much smaller outcrop. See our Bonanza King photo mosaics herein.

NASA’s Curiosity rover looks back to ramp with potential 4th drill site target at ‘Bonanza King’ rock outcrop in ‘Hidden Valley’ in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 6, 2014, Sol 711.  Inset shows results of brushing on Aug. 17, Sol 722, that revealed gray patch beneath red dust.  Note the rover’s partial selfie, valley walls, deep wheel tracks in the sand dunes and distant rim of Gale crater beyond the ramp. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Curiosity rover looks back to ramp with potential 4th drill site target at ‘Bonanza King’ rock outcrop in ‘Hidden Valley’ in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 6, 2014, Sol 711. Inset shows results of brushing on Aug. 17, Sol 722, that revealed gray patch beneath red dust. Note the rover’s partial selfie, valley walls, deep wheel tracks in the sand dunes and distant rim of Gale crater beyond the ramp. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

“One step in the procedure, called “start hole,” uses the hammering action of the percussive drill to create a small indentation in the rock. During this part of the test, the rock moved slightly, the rover sensed that instability in the target, and protective software properly halted the procedure,” according to a NASA statement.

This pale, flat Martian rock thus failed to pass the team’s safety criteria for drilling when it budged.

Bonanza King sits in an bright outcrop on the low ramp at the northeastern end of a spot leading in and out of an area called “Hidden Valley” which lies between Curiosity’s August 2012 landing site in Gale Crater and her ultimate destinations on Mount Sharp which dominates the center of the crater.

Just days ago, the rover team commanded a quick exit from “Hidden Valley” to backtrack out of the dune filled valley because of fears the six wheeled robot could get stuck in slippery sands extending the length of a football field.

“Hidden Valley” looked like it could turn into “Death Valley.”

As Curiosity tested the outcrop, the rover team was simultaneously searching for an alternate safe path forward to the sedimentary layers of Mount Sharp because she arrived at Hidden Valley after recently driving over a field of sharp edged rocks in the “Zabriskie Plateau” that caused further rips and tears in the already damaged 20 inch diameter aluminum wheels.

It will take a route skirting the north side of the sandy-floored valley taking care to steer away from the pointiest rocks.

Curiosity rover looks back to the rocky plains of the Zabriskie plateau from sandy ramp into ‘Hidden Valley’ with 4th drill site target at ‘Bonanza King’ rock outcrop as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 14, 2014, Sol 719.  Sharp edged rocks at Zabriskie tore new holes into rover wheels.   Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Curiosity rover looks back to the rocky plains of the Zabriskie plateau from sandy ramp into ‘Hidden Valley’ with 4th drill site target at ‘Bonanza King’ rock outcrop as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 14, 2014, Sol 719. Sharp edged rocks at Zabriskie tore new holes into rover wheels. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

“After further analysis of the sand, Hidden Valley does not appear to be navigable with the desired degree of confidence,” Erickson said. “We will use a route avoiding the worst of the sharp rocks as we drive slightly to the north of Hidden Valley.”

To date, Curiosity’s odometer totals over 5.5 miles (9.0 kilometers) since landing inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012. She has taken over 179,000 images.

Curiosity still has about another 2 miles (3 kilometers) to go to reach the entry way at a gap in the treacherous sand dunes at the foothills of Mount Sharp sometime later this year.

Hidden Valley gives a foretaste of the rippely slippery sand dune challenges lurking ahead!

Mount Sharp is a layered mountain that dominates most of Gale Crater and towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky and is taller than Mount Rainier.

“Getting to Mount Sharp is the next big step for Curiosity and we expect that in the Fall of this year,” Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences at NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC, told me in an interview marking the 2nd anniversary since touchdown on Aug. 6.

“Drilling on the crater floor will provide needed geologic context before Curiosity climbs the mountain.”

The team may go back to its original plan to drill at the potential science destination known as “Pahrump Hills” which was changed due to the route change forced by the slippery sands in Hidden Valley.

The main map here shows the assortment of landforms near the location of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover as the rover's second anniversary of landing on Mars nears. The gold traverse line entering from upper right ends at Curiosity's position as of Sol 705 on Mars (July 31, 2014). The inset map shows the mission's entire traverse from the landing on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (Aug. 6, EDT) to Sol 705, and the remaining distance to long-term science destinations near Murray Buttes, at the base of Mount Sharp. The label "Aug. 5, 2013" indicates where Curiosity was one year after landing.    Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
The main map here shows the assortment of landforms near the location of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover as the rover’s second anniversary of landing on Mars nears. The gold traverse line entering from upper right ends at Curiosity’s position as of Sol 705 on Mars (July 31, 2014). The inset map shows the mission’s entire traverse from the landing on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (Aug. 6, EDT) to Sol 705, and the remaining distance to long-term science destinations near Murray Buttes, at the base of Mount Sharp. The label “Aug. 5, 2013” indicates where Curiosity was one year after landing. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Read an Italian language version of this story by my imaging partner Marco Di Lorenzo – here

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Rosetta, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, Dream Chaser, commercial space, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014 (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater.  Note rover wheel tracks at left.  She will eventually ascend the mountain at the ‘Murray Buttes’ at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.   Credit:   NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014 (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater. Note rover wheel tracks at left. She will eventually ascend the mountain at the ‘Murray Buttes’ at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Up close view of hole in one of rover Curiosity’s six wheels caused by recent driving over rough Martian rocks. Mosaic assembled from Mastcam raw images taken on Dec. 22, 2013 (Sol 490).  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Up close view of hole in one of rover Curiosity’s six wheels caused by recent driving over rough Martian rocks. Mosaic assembled from Mastcam raw images taken on Dec. 22, 2013 (Sol 490). Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Curiosity Brushes ‘Bonanza King’ Target Anticipating Fourth Red Planet Rock Drilling

Curiosity brushes ‘Bonanza King’ drill target on Mars
NASA’s Curiosity rover looks back to ramp with 4th drill site target at ‘Bonanza King’ rock outcrop in ‘Hidden Valley’ in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 6, 2014, Sol 711. Inset shows results of brushing on Aug. 17, Sol 722, that revealed gray patch beneath red dust. Note the rover’s partial selfie, valley walls, deep wheel tracks in the sand dunes and distant rim of Gale crater beyond the ramp. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo[/caption]

Eagerly eyeing her next drill site on Mars, NASA’s Curiosity rover laid the groundwork by brushing the chosen rock target called ‘Bonanza King’ on Wednesday, Aug. 17, Sol 722, with the Dust Removal Tool (DRT) and collecting high resolution imagery with the Mast Camera (Mastcam) to confirm the success of the operation.

By brushing aside the reddish, more-oxidized dust scientists and engineers leading the mission observed a gray patch of less-oxidized rock material beneath that they anticipated seeing while evaluating the utility of ‘Bonanza King’ as the rover’s fourth candidate for Red Planet rock drilling and sampling.

To date, the 1-ton robot has drilled into three target rocks to collect sample powder for analysis by the rover’s onboard pair of the chemistry labs, SAM and CheMin, to analyze for the chemical ingredients that could support Martian microbes, if they ever existed.

Curiosity rover used the Dust Removal Tool on its robotic arm to brush aside reddish, more-oxidized dust, revealing a gray patch of less-oxidized rock material at a target called "Bonanza King," visible in this image from the rover's Mast Camera (Mastcam). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Curiosity rover used the Dust Removal Tool on its robotic arm to brush aside reddish, more-oxidized dust, revealing a gray patch of less-oxidized rock material at a target called “Bonanza King,” visible in this image from the rover’s Mast Camera (Mastcam). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

So far everything is proceeding quite well.

The brushing activity also revealed thin, white, cross-cutting veins which is a further indication that liquid water flowed here in the distant past. Water is a prerequisite for life as we know it.

“They might be sulfate salts or another type of mineral that precipitated out of solution and filled fractures in the rock. These thin veins might be related to wider light-toned veins and features in the surrounding rock,” NASA said in a statement.

Based on these results and more from laser zapping with Curiosity’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument on Sol 719 (Aug. 14, 2014) the team decided to proceed ahead.

The imminent next step is to bore a shallow test hole into the brushed area which measures about about 2.5 inches (6 centimeters) across.

If all goes well with the “mini-drill” operation, the team will proceed quickly with full depth drilling to core a sample from the interior of the dinner plate sized rock slab for delivery to Curiosity’s two chemistry labs.

Bonanza King sits in a bright outcrop on the low ramp at the northeastern end of a spot leading in and out of an area called “Hidden Valley” which lies between Curiosity’s August 2012 landing site in Gale Crater and her ultimate destinations on Mount Sharp which dominates the center of the crater.

Just days ago, the rover team commanded a quick exit from “Hidden Valley” to backtrack out of the dune filled valley because of fears the six wheeled robot could get stuck in slippery sands extending the length of a football field.

As Curiosity drills, the rover team is also searching for an alternate safe path forward to the sedimentary layers of Mount Sharp.

To date, Curiosity’s odometer totals over 5.5 miles (9.0 kilometers) since landing inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012. She has taken over 178,000 images.

The main map here shows the assortment of landforms near the location of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover as the rover's second anniversary of landing on Mars nears. The gold traverse line entering from upper right ends at Curiosity's position as of Sol 705 on Mars (July 31, 2014). The inset map shows the mission's entire traverse from the landing on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (Aug. 6, EDT) to Sol 705, and the remaining distance to long-term science destinations near Murray Buttes, at the base of Mount Sharp. The label "Aug. 5, 2013" indicates where Curiosity was one year after landing.    Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
The main map here shows the assortment of landforms near the location of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover as the rover’s second anniversary of landing on Mars nears. The gold traverse line entering from upper right ends at Curiosity’s position as of Sol 705 on Mars (July 31, 2014). The inset map shows the mission’s entire traverse from the landing on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (Aug. 6, EDT) to Sol 705, and the remaining distance to long-term science destinations near Murray Buttes, at the base of Mount Sharp. The label “Aug. 5, 2013” indicates where Curiosity was one year after landing. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Curiosity still has about another 2 miles (3 kilometers) to go to reach the entry way at a gap in the treacherous sand dunes at the foothills of Mount Sharp sometime later this year.

Mount Sharp is a layered mountain that dominates most of Gale Crater and towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky and is taller than Mount Rainier.

“Getting to Mount Sharp is the next big step for Curiosity and we expect that in the Fall of this year,” Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences at NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC, told me in an interview making the 2nd anniversary on Aug. 6.

“Drilling on the crater floor will provide needed geologic context before Curiosity climbs the mountain.”

1 Martian Year on Mars!  Curiosity treks to Mount Sharp in this photo mosaic view captured on Sol 669, June 24, 2014.    Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.   Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
1 Martian Year on Mars! Curiosity treks to Mount Sharp in this photo mosaic view captured on Sol 669, June 24, 2014. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Read an Italian language version of this story by my imaging partner Marco Di Lorenzo – here

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Rosetta, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, Dream Chaser, commercial space, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Curiosity Reverses Back from Martian Valley of Slippery Sand and Finds Fourth Rock Drilling Candidate at ‘Bonanza King’

NASA’s Curiosity rover looks back to ramp with 4th drill site target at ‘Bonanza King’ rock outcrop in ‘Hidden Valley’ at site marking her 2nd anniversary on Mars, as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 6, 2014, Sol 711. Note the rover’s partial selfie, valley walls, deep wheel tracks in the sand dunes and distant rim of Gale crater beyond the ramp. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo[/caption]

Not wanting to get stuck in a rut, Curiosity’s handlers have commanded NASA’s SUV-sized rover to reverse course and drive out of a potentially hazardous Martian valley of slippery sand with poor wheel traction and instead backtrack towards an enticing nearby spot that the team feels could be the fourth candidate for rock drilling – and thereby widen the scope of the story of habitable environments on the Red Planet.

The new drilling target under up close evaluation right now is named ‘Bonanza King’ – shown in our photo mosaic above.

Bonanza King was chosen after the six wheeled rover unexpectedly experienced significant wheel slippage in the past week while driving over an extended dune field of sandy ripples that basically stopped forward movement inside the Martian valley.

The team was thus in a quandary over whether to push forward on a route through the loose sands of “Hidden Valley” and possibly risk getting mired in a hidden sand trap or drive backwards over a field of sharp rocks on the “Zabriskie plateau” and beyond that are certain to tear further holes in the wheels.

Drilling Candidate Site 'Bonanza King' on Mars.    This image from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows a portion of the pale rock outcrop that includes the "Bonanza King" target chosen for evaluation as the mission's fourth rock-drilling site. Raised ridges on the flat rocks -- possible mineral veins -- are visible at upper and middle right. Tread marks from one of Curiosity's wheels are visible in the lower half of the image from Sol 707, Aug. 12, 2014.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Drilling Candidate Site ‘Bonanza King’ on Mars. This image from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows a portion of the pale rock outcrop that includes the “Bonanza King” target chosen for evaluation as the mission’s fourth rock-drilling site. Raised ridges on the flat rocks — possible mineral veins — are visible at upper and middle right. Tread marks from one of Curiosity’s wheels are visible in the lower half of the image from Sol 707, Aug. 12, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

As reported here last week on the occasion of her 2nd anniversary on Mars since the dramatic touchdown inside Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012, Curiosity had been driving merrily through the supposed safe valley of sandy ripples of “Hidden Valley.” She was approaching a bedrock unit named “Pahrump Hills” that for the first time is actually part of the humongous mountain named Mount Sharp she will soon scale and which is the primary science destination of the mission.

But rather soon after driving over a low hump from Zabriskie plateau (see our mosaic below) into Hidden Valley, the robot experienced wheel slippage in the ripples of sand filling the crater floor which was much higher than anticipated. And even worse than comparable test drives in a practice sand lot at JPL.

Curiosity rover looks back to the rocky plains of the Zabriskie plateau from sandy ramp into ‘Hidden Valley’ with 4th drill site target at ‘Bonanza King’ rock outcrop as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 14, 2014, Sol 719.  Sharp edged rocks at Zabriskie tore new holes into rover wheels.   Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/
Curiosity rover looks back to the rocky plains of the Zabriskie plateau from sandy ramp into ‘Hidden Valley’ with 4th drill site target at ‘Bonanza King’ rock outcrop as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 14, 2014, Sol 719. Sharp edged rocks at Zabriskie tore new holes into rover wheels. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

The sandy ripples extend out to the sloping valley walls with no end in sight.

“We need to gain a better understanding of the interaction between the wheels and Martian sand ripples, and Hidden Valley is not a good location for experimenting,” said Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in a statement.

And since Hidden Valley is as long as a football field and has only two navigable exits at the northeastern and southwestern ends (see map below), the team was forced to drive back to the entrance way at the northern end to consider an alternative route forward to the base of Mount Sharp.

In the meantime while they evaluate the way forward, the team decided that Bonanza King offers similar science to what scientists anticipate at the outcrops at “Pahrump Hills”- a preview of a geological unit that is part of the base of Mount Sharp for the first time since landing rather than still belonging to the floor of Gale Crater.

“Geologically speaking, we can tie the Bonanza King rocks to those at Pahrump Hills. Studying them here will give us a head start in understanding how they fit into the bigger picture of Gale Crater and Mount Sharp,” said Curiosity Deputy Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of JPL, in a statement.

Bonanza King sits in an bright outcrop on the low ramp leading in and out of Hidden Valley.

Curiosity rover up close view of ‘Bonanza King’ rock outcrop and 4th drill target looking down from ramp and back into ‘Hidden Valley’ and hazardous dune field of sandy ripples on Aug. 14, 2014, Sol 719.  Wheel tracks show where Curiosity drove into the valley, and back out again, earlier in August 2014. The largest of the individual flat rocks in the foreground are a few inches (several centimeters) across. Hazcam camera raw image flattened and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Curiosity rover up close view of ‘Bonanza King’ rock outcrop and 4th drill target looking down from ramp and back into ‘Hidden Valley’ and hazardous dune field of sandy ripples on Aug. 14, 2014, Sol 719. Wheel tracks show where Curiosity drove into the valley, and back out again, earlier in August 2014. The largest of the individual flat rocks in the foreground are a few inches (several centimeters) across. Hazcam camera raw image flattened and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

It looks like a pale paving stone. Since its location within the geological layers visible on the ramp is similar to what was expected at the Pahrump Hills outcrop, it’s very appealing to the science team.

Furthermore when one of the rovers wheel’s drove over the outcrop, it cracked open one of the rocks and exposed bright interior material, possibly from mineral veins – which is super exciting from a science perspective as a potential marker for flowing liquid water.

Right now the team is collecting spectral data with the science instruments to assess its science utility and is planning a super fast drilling campaign, far shorter than the prior three.

The plan would be to core a sample from the interior of the dinner plate sized rock slab for delivery to Curiosity’s pair of the onboard chemistry labs, SAM and CheMin to analyze for the chemical ingredients to support miartin microbes, if they ever existed.

“This outcrop on the ramp is too appealing to pass up,” Vasavada said.

The main map here shows the assortment of landforms near the location of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover as the rover's second anniversary of landing on Mars nears. The gold traverse line entering from upper right ends at Curiosity's position as of Sol 705 on Mars (July 31, 2014). The inset map shows the mission's entire traverse from the landing on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (Aug. 6, EDT) to Sol 705, and the remaining distance to long-term science destinations near Murray Buttes, at the base of Mount Sharp. The label "Aug. 5, 2013" indicates where Curiosity was one year after landing.    Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
The main map here shows the assortment of landforms near the location of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover as the rover’s second anniversary of landing on Mars nears. The gold traverse line entering from upper right ends at Curiosity’s position as of Sol 705 on Mars (July 31, 2014). The inset map shows the mission’s entire traverse from the landing on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (Aug. 6, EDT) to Sol 705, and the remaining distance to long-term science destinations near Murray Buttes, at the base of Mount Sharp. The label “Aug. 5, 2013” indicates where Curiosity was one year after landing. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

To date, Curiosity’s odometer totals over 5.5 miles (9.0 kilometers) since landing inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012. She has taken over 178,000 images.

Curiosity still has about another 2 miles (3 kilometers) to go to reach the entry way at a gap in the treacherous sand dunes at the foothills of Mount Sharp sometime later this year.

Mount Sharp is a layered mountain that dominates most of Gale Crater and towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky and is taller than Mount Rainier.

“Getting to Mount Sharp is the next big step for Curiosity and we expect that in the Fall of this year,” Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences at NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC, told me in an interview making the 2nd anniversary on Aug. 6.

Up close view of hole in one of rover Curiosity’s six wheels caused by recent driving over rough Martian rocks. Mosaic assembled from Mastcam raw images taken on Dec. 22, 2013 (Sol 490).  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Up close view of hole in one of rover Curiosity’s six wheels caused by driving over rough Martian rocks. Mosaic assembled from Mastcam raw images taken on Dec. 22, 2013 (Sol 490). Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Rosetta, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, Dream Chaser, commercial space, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

1 Martian Year on Mars!  Curiosity treks to Mount Sharp in this photo mosaic view captured on Sol 669, June 24, 2014.    Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.   Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
1 Martian Year on Mars!
Curiosity treks to Mount Sharp in this photo mosaic view captured on Sol 669, June 24, 2014. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
2 Earth Years on Mars!  NASA’s Curiosity rover celebrated the 2nd anniversary on Mars at ‘Hidden Valley’ as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 6, 2014, Sol 711.   Note the valley walls, rover tracks and distant crater rim.  Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
2 Earth Years on Mars! NASA’s Curiosity rover celebrated the 2nd anniversary on Mars at ‘Hidden Valley’ as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 6, 2014, Sol 711. Note the valley walls, rover tracks and distant crater rim. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Pictures: Punishing Mars Plateau For Curiosity Rover And Damaged Wheels

This picture alone illustrates the challenge NASA has as it slowly moves the Curiosity rover across Mars to its mountainous destination. You can see rocks surrounding the rover on Sol 713 (on Aug. 8), which is a challenge because of the ongoing wear and tear on Curiosity’s aluminum wheels.

In mid-July, Curiosity crossed one of the most difficult stretches of terrain yet since NASA spotted the damage and took measures to mitigate further problems, which includes picking out the smoothest terrain possible for its rover — which just celebrated two years on the Red Planet.

“For about half of July, the rover team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, drove Curiosity across an area of hazardous sharp rocks on Mars called ‘Zabriskie Plateau’,”  NASA wrote in a recent press release.

A closeup of Curiosity's wheels on Mars on Aug. 9, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A closeup of Curiosity’s wheels on Mars on Aug. 9, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Damage to Curiosity‘s aluminum wheels from driving across similar terrain last year prompted a change in route, with the plan of skirting such rock-studded terrain wherever feasible. The one-eighth mile (200 meters) across Zabriskie Plateau was one of the longest stretches without a suitable detour on the redesigned route toward the long-term science destination.”

The rover is planning to make its way up the slope of science destinations on Mount Sharp, which is about two miles (3 kilometers) away. NASA pointed out that an interim stop for the rover will take place less than a third of a mile away (500 meters).

“The wheels took some damage getting across Zabriskie Plateau, but it’s less than I expected from the amount of hard, sharp rocks embedded there,” added Jim Erickson, project manager for Curiosity at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement.

A low view of the terrain taken by the Mars Curiosity rover in August 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A low view of the terrain taken by the Mars Curiosity rover in August 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The rover drivers showed that they’re up to the task of getting around the really bad rocks. There will still be rough patches ahead. We didn’t imagine prior to landing that we would see this kind of challenge to the vehicle, but we’re handling it.”

Curiosity has driven out of its landing ellipse and will continue the trek to the mountain, stopping to perform science along the way.

NASA plans to heavily borrow from Curiosity’s design for its next rover, called Mars 2020. The science instruments for that rover were selected last week. While Curiosity was made to seek potentially habitable environments in the past or present, Mars 2020 will have the capability to search for organic materials that could indicate precursors to life.

The Mars Curiosity rover leaves tracks in the sand in this picture taken Aug. 9, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Mars Curiosity rover leaves tracks in the sand in this picture taken Aug. 9, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A shadow of Mars Curiosity lies across the surface in this picture taken Aug. 9, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A shadow of Mars Curiosity lies across the surface in this picture taken Aug. 9, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity Celebrates Two Years on Mars Approaching Bedrock of Mountain Climbing Destination

2 Years on Mars!
Curiosity treks to Mount Sharp, her primary science destination, in this photo mosaic view captured on Sol 669, June 24, 2014. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Story and mosaics updated[/caption]

NASA’s most scientifically powerful rover ever dispatched to the Red Planet, Curiosity, is celebrating her 2nd anniversary on Mars since the dramatic touchdown inside Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012, EDT (Aug. 5, 2012, PDT) while simultaneously approaching a bedrock unit that for the first time is actually part of the humongous mountain she will soon scale and is the primary science destination of the mission.

Mount Sharp is a layered mountain that dominates most of Gale Crater and towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky and is taller than Mount Rainier.

Aug. 6, 2014 marks ‘2 Years on Mars’ and Sol 711 for Curiosity in an area called “Hidden Valley.”

“Getting to Mount Sharp is the next big step for Curiosity and we expect that in the Fall of this year,” Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences at NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC, told me in an interview making the 2nd anniversary.

The 1 ton rover is equipped with 10 state-of-the-art science instruments and searching for signs of life.

The mysterious mountain is so huge that outcrops of bedrock extend several miles out from its base and Curiosity is now within striking distance of reaching the area the rover team calls “Pahrump Hills.”

2 Earth Years on Mars!  NASA’s Curiosity rover celebrated the 2nd anniversary on Mars at ‘Hidden Valley’ as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 6, 2014, Sol 711.  Note the valley walls, rover tracks and distant crater rim. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
2 Earth Years on Mars!
NASA’s Curiosity rover celebrated the 2nd anniversary on Mars at ‘Hidden Valley’ as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 6, 2014, Sol 711. Note the valley walls, rover tracks and distant crater rim. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Scientists anticipate that the outcrops at “Pahrump Hills” offer a preview of a geological unit that is part of the base of Mount Sharp for the first time since landing rather than still belonging to the floor of Gale Crater.

“We’re coming to our first taste of a geological unit that’s part of the base of the mountain rather than the floor of the crater,” said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, in a statement.

“We will cross a major terrain boundary.”

Since “Pahrump Hills” is less than one-third of a mile (500 meters) from Curiosity she should arrive soon.

In late July 2014, the rover arrived in an area of sandy terrain called “Hidden Valley” which is on the planned route ahead leading to “Pahrump Hills” and easily traversable with few of the sharp edged rocks that have caused significant damage to the rovers six aluminum wheels.

This full-circle panorama of the landscape surrounding NASA's Curiosity Mars rover on July 31, 2014, Sol 705, offers a view into sandy lower terrain called "Hidden Valley," which is on the planned route ahead. It combines several images from Curiosity's Navigation Camera. South is at the center. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This full-circle panorama of the landscape surrounding NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover on July 31, 2014, Sol 705, offers a view into sandy lower terrain called “Hidden Valley,” which is on the planned route ahead. It combines several images from Curiosity’s Navigation Camera. South is at the center. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The sedimentary layers in the lower slopes of Mount Sharp have been Curiosity’s long-term science destination.

They are the principal reason why the science team specifically chose Gale Crater as the primary landing site based on high resolution spectral observations collected by NASA’s powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) indicating the presence of deposits of clay-bearing sedimentary rocks.

Curiosity’s goal all along has been to determine whether Mars ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. Finding clay bearing minerals. or phyllosilicates, in Martian rocks is the key to fulfilling its major objective.

The team expected to find the clay bearing minerals only in the sedimentary layers at the lower reaches of Mount Sharp.

Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014 (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater.  Note rover wheel tracks at left.  She will eventually ascend the mountain at the ‘Murray Buttes’ at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.   Credit:   NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014 (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater. Note rover wheel tracks at left. She will eventually ascend the mountain at the ‘Murray Buttes’ at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Soon after landing, the team spotted some rather interesting looking outcrops barely a half mile away from the touchdown zone at a spot dubbed ‘Yellowknife Bay” and decided to take a detour towards it to investigate.

Well the scientists won the bet and struck scientific gold barely six months after landing when they drilled into a rock outcrop named “John Klein” at “Yellowknife Bay” and unexpectedly discovered the clay bearing minerals on the crater floor.

Yellowknife Bay was found to be an ancient lakebed where liquid water flowed on Mars surface billions of years ago.

The discovery of phyllosilicates in the 1st drill sample during the spring of 2013 meant that Curiosity had rather remarkably already fulfilled its primary goal of finding a habitable zone during its first year of operations!

The rock analysis “yielded evidence of a lakebed environment billions of years ago that offered fresh water, all of the key elemental ingredients for life, and a chemical source of energy for microbes, if any existed there,” according to NASA.

Curiosity accomplished Historic 1st drilling into Martian rock at John Klein outcrop on Feb 8, 2013 (Sol 182) and discovered a habitable zone, shown in this context mosaic view of the Yellowknife Bay basin taken on Jan. 26 (Sol 169). The robotic arm is pressing down on the surface at John Klein outcrop of veined hydrated minerals – dramatically back dropped with her ultimate destination; Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity accomplished Historic 1st drilling into Martian rock at John Klein outcrop on Feb 8, 2013 (Sol 182) and discovered a habitable zone, shown in this context mosaic view of the Yellowknife Bay basin taken on Jan. 26 (Sol 169). The robotic arm is pressing down on the surface at John Klein outcrop of veined hydrated minerals – dramatically back dropped with her ultimate destination; Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

“Before landing, we expected that we would need to drive much farther before answering that habitability question,” said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. “We were able to take advantage of landing very close to an ancient streambed and lake. Now we want to learn more about how environmental conditions on Mars evolved, and we know where to go to do that.”

During the rovers second Earth year on the Red Planet, Curiosity has been driving as fast as possible towards a safe entry point to the slopes of Mount Sharp. The desired destination for the car sized rover is now about 2 miles (3 kilometers) southwest of its current location.

‘Driving, Driving, Driving’
is indeed the rover teams mantra.

The main map here shows the assortment of landforms near the location of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover as the rover's second anniversary of landing on Mars nears. The gold traverse line entering from upper right ends at Curiosity's position as of Sol 705 on Mars (July 31, 2014). The inset map shows the mission's entire traverse from the landing on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (Aug. 6, EDT) to Sol 705, and the remaining distance to long-term science destinations near Murray Buttes, at the base of Mount Sharp. The label "Aug. 5, 2013" indicates where Curiosity was one year after landing.    Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
The main map here shows the assortment of landforms near the location of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover as the rover’s second anniversary of landing on Mars nears. The gold traverse line entering from upper right ends at Curiosity’s position as of Sol 705 on Mars (July 31, 2014). The inset map shows the mission’s entire traverse from the landing on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (Aug. 6, EDT) to Sol 705, and the remaining distance to long-term science destinations near Murray Buttes, at the base of Mount Sharp. The label “Aug. 5, 2013” indicates where Curiosity was one year after landing. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

To date, Curiosity’s odometer totals over 5.5 miles (9.0 kilometers) since landing inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012. She has taken over 174,000 images.

Curiosity still has about another 2 miles (3 kilometers) to go to reach the entry way at a gap in the treacherous sand dunes at the foothills of Mount Sharp sometime later this year.

And NASA is moving forward with future Red Planet missions when it recently announced the selection of 7 instruments chosen to fly aboard the Mars 2020 rover, the agency’s next rover going to Mars that will search for signs of ancient life as well as carry a technology demonstration that will help pave the way for ‘Humans to Mars’ in the 2030s. Read my story – here.

Coincidentally, ESA’s Rosetta comet hunting spacecraft arrived in orbit at its destination Comet 67P after a 10 year voyage on the same day as Curiosity’s 2 Earth year anniversary.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Rosetta, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Up close view of hole in one of rover Curiosity’s six wheels caused by recent driving over rough Martian rocks. Mosaic assembled from Mastcam raw images taken on Dec. 22, 2013 (Sol 490).  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Up close view of hole in one of rover Curiosity’s six wheels caused by recent driving over rough Martian rocks. Mosaic assembled from Mastcam raw images taken on Dec. 22, 2013 (Sol 490). Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo