3 Generations of NASA’s Mars Rovers

Three Generations of Mars Rovers in the Mars Yard. This grouping shows 3 generations of NASA’s Mars rovers from 1997 to 2012 set inside the Mars Yard at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif. The Mars Pathfinder Project (front) landed the first Mars rover - Sojourner - in 1997. The Mars Exploration Rover Project (left) landed Spirit and Opportunity on Mars in 2004. The Mars Science Laboratory Project (right) is on course to land Curiosity on Mars in August 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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NASA Mars rovers have come a long way in terms of size and capability since the rebirth of Red Planet surface exploration just 15 years ago – spanning from 1997 to 2012.

To get a really excellent sense of just how far America’s scientists and engineers have pushed the state of the art in such a short time – when the willpower and funding existed and coincided to explore another world – take a good look at the new pictures here showing 3 generations of NASA’s Mars rovers; namely Mars Pathfinder (MPF), the 1st generation Mars rover, Mars Exploration Rover (MER), the 2nd generation, and Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), the 3rd and newest generation Mars rover.

The newly released pictures graphically display a side by side comparison of the flight spare for Mars Pathfinder (1997 landing) and full scale test rovers of the Mars Exploration Rover (2004 landing) and Mars Science Laboratory (in transit for a 2012 planned landing). The setting is inside the “Mars Yard” at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. where the teams conduct mission simulations.

It’s been nothing less than a quantum leap in advancement of the scientific and technological capability from one generation to the next.

Sojourner - NASA’s 1st Mars Rover
Sojourner takes an Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) measurement of Yogi rock after Red Planet landing on July 4, 1997 landing. Sojourner was only 2 feet long, the size of a microwave oven.
Credit: NASA

Just consider the big increase in size – growing from a microwave oven to a car !

The “Marie Curie” flight spare and the actual “Sojourner” rover on Mars are 2 feet (65 centimeters) long – about the size of a microwave oven. The MER rovers “Spirit and Opportunity” and the “Surface System Test Bed” rover are 5.2 feet (1.6 meters) long – about the size of a golf cart. The MSL “Curiosity” and the “Vehicle System Test Bed” rover are 10 feet (3 meters) long – about the size of a car.

Side view of Three Generations of Mars Rovers
Front; flight spare for the first Mars rover, Sojourner. Left; Mars Exploration Rover Project test rover. Right; Mars Science Laboratory test rover Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

With your own eyes you can see the rapid and huge generational change in Mars rovers if you have the opportunity to visit the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and stroll by the Mars exhibit with full scale models of all three of NASA’s Red Planet rovers.

At the KSC Visitor Complex in Florida you can get within touching distance of the Martian Family of Rovers and the generational differences in size and complexity becomes personally obvious and impressive.

NASA’s Family of Mars rovers at the Kennedy Space Center
Full scale models on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Curiosity and Spirit/Opportunity are pictured here. Sojourner out of view. Credit: Ken Kremer

All of the Mars rovers blasted off from launch pads on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity launched atop Delta II rockets at Space Launch Complex 17 in 1996 and 2003. Curiosity launched atop an Atlas V at Space Launch Complex 41 in 2011.

Three Generations of Mars Rovers with Standing Mars Engineers
The rovers are pictured here with real Mars Engineers to get a sense of size and perspective. Front rover is the flight spare for the first Mars rover, Sojourner. At left is a Mars Exploration Rover Project test rover, working sibling to Spirit and Opportunity. At right is a Mars Science Laboratory test rover the size of Curiosity which is targeting a August 2012 Mars landing. The Mars engineers are JPL's Matt Robinson, left, and Wesley Kuykendall. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Opportunity is still exploring Mars to this day – 8 years after landing on the Red Planet, with a warranty of merely 90 Martian days.

Curiosity is scheduled to touch down inside Gale crater on 6 August 2012.

So, what comes next ? Will there be a 4th Generation Mars rover ?

Stay tuned – only time and budgets will tell.

Crucial Rocket Firing Puts Curiosity on Course for Martian Crater Touchdown

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NASA’s car-sized Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover is now on course to touch down inside a crater on Mars in August following the completion of the biggest and most crucial firing of her 8.5 month interplanetary journey from Earth to the Red Planet.

Engineers successfully commanded an array of thrusters on MSL’s solar powered cruise stage to carry out a 3 hour long series of more than 200 bursts last night (Jan. 11) that changed the spacecraft’s trajectory by about 25,000 miles (40,000 kilometers) – an absolute necessity that actually put the $2.5 Billion probe on a path to Mars to “Search for Signatures of Life !”

“We’ve completed a big step toward our encounter with Mars,” said Brian Portock of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif., deputy mission manager for the cruise phase of the mission. “The telemetry from the spacecraft and the Doppler data show that the maneuver was completed as planned.”

Mars Science Lab and cruise stage separate from Centaur upper stage just minutes after Nov. 26, 2011 launch. Thrusters on cruise stage performed course correction on Jan. 11, 2012. Up to 6 firings total will put the NASA robot on precision course to Mars.
Credit: NASA TV

This was the first of six possible TCM’s or trajectory correction maneuvers that may be required to fine-tune the voyage to Mars.

Until now, Curiosity was actually on a path to intentionally miss Mars. Since the Nov. 26, 2011 blastoff from Florida, the spacecraft’s trajectory was tracking a course diverted slightly away from the planet in order to prevent the upper stage – trailing behind – from crashing into the Red Planet.

The upper stage was not decontaminated to prevent it from infecting Mars with Earthly microbes. So, it will now sail harmlessly past the planet as Curiosity dives into the Martian atmosphere on August 6, 2012.

The thruster maneuver also served a second purpose, which was to advance the time of the Mars encounter by about 14 hours. The TCM burn increased the velocity by about 12.3 MPH (5.5 meters per second) as the vehicle was spinning at 2 rpm.

“The timing of the encounter is important for arriving at Mars just when the planet’s rotation puts Gale Crater in the right place,” said JPL’s Tomas Martin-Mur, chief navigator for the mission.


Video caption: Rob Manning, Curiosity Mars Science Lab Chief Engineer at NASA JPL describes the Jan. 11, 2012 thruster firing that put the robot on a precise trajectory to Gale Crater on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL

As of today, Jan. 12, the spacecraft has traveled 81 million miles (131 million kilometers) of its 352-million-mile (567-million-kilometer) flight to Mars. It is moving at about 10,300 mph (16,600 kilometers per hour) relative to Earth, and at about 68,700 mph (110,500 kilometers per hour) relative to the Sun.

The next trajectory correction maneuver is tentatively scheduled for March 26, 2012.

Curiosity rover launches to Mars atop Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

The goal of the 1 ton Curiosity rover is to investigate whether the layered terrain inside Gale Crater ever offered environmental conditions favorable for supporting Martian microbial life in the past or present and if it preserved clues about whether life ever existed.

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

Curiosity’s Roadmap through the Solar System-From Earth to Mars
Schematic shows 8.5 month interplanetary trajectory of Curiosity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity Countdown – 205 days to go until Curiosity lands at Gale Crater on Mars !

January 2012 marks the 8th anniversary of the landings of NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers back in January 2004.

Opportunity continues to operate to this day. Read my salute to Spirit here

Read continuing features about Curiosity and Mars rovers by Ken Kremer starting here:
8 Years of Spirit on Mars – Pushing as Hard as We Can and Beyond !
2011: Top Stories from the Best Year Ever for NASA Planetary Science!
Opportunity Discovers Most Powerful Evidence Yet for Martian Liquid Water
Flawlessly On Course Curiosity Cruising to Mars – No Burn Needed Now
NASA Planetary Science Trio Honored as ‘Best of What’s New’ in 2011- Curiosity/Dawn/MESSENGER
Curiosity Mars Rover Launch Gallery – Photos and Videos
Curiosity Majestically Blasts off on ‘Mars Trek’ to ascertain ‘Are We Alone?
Mars Trek – Curiosity Poised to Search for Signs of Life

8 Years of Spirit on Mars – Pushing as Hard as We Can and Beyond !

Spirit Mars rover - view from Husband Hill summit. Spirit snapped this view self portrait from the summit of Husband Hill inside Gusev crater on Sol 618 on 28 September 2005. The rovers were never designed or intended to climb mountains. It took more than 1 year for Spirit to scale the Martian mountain. This image was created by an international team of astronomy enthusiasts and appeared on the cover of the 14 November 2005 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine and the April 2006 issue of Spaceflight magazine. Also selected by Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on 28 November 2005. Credit: Marco Di Lorenzo, Douglas Ellison, Bernhard Braun and Kenneth Kremer. NASA/JPL/Cornell/Aviation Week & Space Technology

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January 2012 marks the 8th anniversary since of the daring landing’s of “Spirit” and “Opportunity”NASA’s now legendary twin Mars Exploration Rovers (MER), on opposite sides of the Red Planet in January 2004. They proved that early Mars was warm and wet – a key finding in the search for habitats conducive to life beyond Earth.

I asked the leaders of the MER team to share some thoughts celebrating this mind-boggling milestone of “8 Years on Mars” and the legacy of the rovers for the readers of Universe Today. This story focuses on Spirit, first of the trailblazing twin robots, which touched down inside Gusev Crater on Jan. 3, 2004. Opportunity set down three weeks later on the smooth hematite plains of Meridiani Planum.

“Every Sol is a gift. We push the rovers as hard as we can,” Prof. Steve Squyres informed Universe Today for this article commemorating Spirit’s landing. Squyres, of Cornell University, is the Scientific Principal Investigator for the MER mission.

“I seriously thought both Spirit and Opportunity would be finished by the summer of 2004,” Ray Arvidson told Universe Today. Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis, is the deputy principal investigator for the MER rovers.

'Calypso' Panorama of Spirit's View from 'Troy'
This full-circle view from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit shows the terrain surrounding the location called "Troy," where Spirit became embedded in soft soil during the spring of 2009. The hundreds of images combined into this view were taken beginning on the 1,906th Martian day (or sol) of Spirit's mission on Mars (May 14, 2009) and ending on Sol 1943 (June 20, 2009). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University
click to enlarge

Spirit endured for more than six years and Opportunity is still roving Mars today !

The dynamic robo duo were expected to last a mere three months, or 90 Martian days (sols). In reality, both robots enormously exceeded expectations and accumulated a vast bonus time of exploration and discovery in numerous extended mission phases.

Spirit survived three harsh Martian winters and only succumbed to the Antarctic-like temperatures when she unexpectedly became mired in an unseen sand trap driving beside an ancient volcanic feature named ‘Home Plate’ that prevented the solar arrays from generating life giving power to safeguard critical electronic and computor components.

Spirit was heading towards another pair of volcanic objects named von Braun and Goddard and came within just a few hundred feet when she died.

Everest Panorama from Husband Hill summit
It took Spirit three days, sols 620 to 622 (Oct. 1 to Oct. 3, 2005), to acquire all the images combined into this mosaic, called the "Everest Panorama". Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University
Click to enlarge

“I never thought that we would still be planning sequences for Opportunity today and that we only lost Spirit because of her limited mobility and bad luck of breaking through crusty soil to get bogged down in loose sands,” said Arvidson

By the time of her last dispatch from Mars in March 2010, Spirit had triumphantly traversed the red planets terrain for more than six years of elapsed mission time – some 25 times beyond the three month “warranty” proclaimed by NASA as the mission began back in January 2004.

The "Columbia Hills" in Gusev Crater on Mars
Husband Hill is 3.1 kilometers distant. Spirit took this mosaic of images with the panoramic camera at the beginning of February, 2004, less than a month after landing on Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

“I am feeling pretty good as the MER rover anniversaries approach in that Spirit had an excellent run, helping us understand without a doubt that early Mars had magmatic and volcanic activity that was “wet”, Arvidson explained.

“Magmas interacted with ground water to produce explosive eruptions – at Home Plate, Goddard, von Braun – with volcanic constructs replete with steam vents and perhaps hydrothermal pools.”

Altogether, the six wheeled Spirit drove over 4.8 miles (7.7 kilometers) and the cameras snapped over 128,000 images. NASA hoped the rovers would drive about a quarter mile during the planned 90 Sol mission.

“Milestones like 8 years on Mars always make me look forward rather than looking back,” Squyres told me.

Carbonate-Containing Martian Rocks discovered by Spirit Mars Rover
Spirit collected data in late 2005 which confirmed that the Comanche outcrop contains magnesium iron carbonate, a mineral indicating the past environment was wet and non-acidic, possibly favorable to life. This view was captured during Sol 689 on Mars (Dec. 11, 2005). The find at Comanche is the first unambiguous evidence from either Spirit or Opportunity for a past Martian environment that may have been more favorable to life than the wet but acidic conditions indicated by the rovers' earlier finds. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University

Spirit became the first robotic emissary from humanity to climb a mountain beyond Earth, namely Husband Hill, a task for which she was not designed.

“No one expected the rovers to last so long,” said Rob Manning to Universe Today. Manning, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory, Pasadena, CA. was the Mars Rover Spacecraft System Engineering team lead for Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL)

“Spirit surmounted many obstacles, including summiting a formidable hill her designers never intended her to attempt.”

“Spirit, her designers, her builders, her testers, her handlers and I have a lot to be thankful for,” Manning told me.

After departing the Gusev crater landing pad, Spirit traversed over 2 miles to reach Husband Hill. In order to scale the hill, the team had to create a driving plan from scratch with no playbook because no one ever figured that such a mouthwatering opportunity to be offered.

Spirit Rover traverse map from Gusev Crater landing site to Home Plate: 2004 to 2011

It took over a year to ascend to the hill’s summit. But the team was richly rewarded with a science bonanza of evidence for flowing liquid water on ancient Mars.

Spirit then descended down the other side of the hill to reach the feature dubbed Home Plate where she now rests and where she found extensive evidence of deposits of nearly pure silica, explosive volcanism and hot springs all indicative of water on Mars billions of years ago.

“Spirit’s big scientific accomplishments are the silica deposits at Home Plate, the carbonates at Comanche, and all the evidence for hydrothermal systems and explosive volcanism, Squyres explained. “ What we’ve learned is that early Mars at Spirit’s site was a hot, violent place, with hot springs, steam vents, and volcanic explosions. It was extraordinarily different from the Mars of today.”

“We’ve still got a lot of exploring to do [with Opportunity], but we’re doing it with a vehicle that was designed for a 90-sol mission,” Squyres concluded. “That means that ever sol is a gift at this point, and we have to push the rover and ourselves as hard as we can.”

NASA concluded the last attempt to communicate with Spirit in a transmission on May 25, 2011.

Spirit Rover traverse map from Husband Hill to resting place at Home Plate: 2004 to 2011
The Last View Ever from Spirit rover on Mars
Spirit’s last panorama from Gusev Crater was taken during February 2010 before her death from extremely low temperatures during her 4th Martian winter. Spirit was just 500 feet from her next science target - dubbed Von Braun – at center, with Columbia Hills as backdrop.
Mosaic Credit: Marco De Lorenzo/ Kenneth Kremer/ NASA/JPL/Cornell University
Mosaic featured on Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on 30 May 2011 - http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap110530.html

Meanwhile, the Curiosity Mars Science Lab rover, NASA’s next Red Planet explorer, continues her interplanetary journey on course for a 6 August 2012 landing at Gale Crater.

Read continuing features about the Mars Rovers, Curiosity and GRAIL by Ken Kremer here:
Two new Moons join the Moon – GRAIL Twins Achieve New Year’s Orbits
2011: Top Stories from the Best Year Ever for NASA Planetary Science!
Opportunity Discovers Most Powerful Evidence Yet for Martian Liquid Water
Curiosity Starts First Science on Mars Sojurn – How Lethal is Space Radiation to Life’s Survival

Jan 11: Free Lecture by Ken Kremer at the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, PA at 8 PM for the Rittenhouse Astronomical Society. Topic: Mars & Vesta in 3 D – Plus Search for Life & GRAIL

Opportunity Discovers Most Powerful Evidence Yet for Martian Liquid Water

Opportunity discovers Water related mineral vein at Endeavour Crater - November 2011. Opportunity rover discovered Gypsum at the Homestake mineral vein, while exploring around the base of Cape York ridge at the rim of Endeavour Crater. The vein is composed of calcium sulfate and indicates the ancient flow of liquid water at this spot on Mars. Opportunity drove North (ahead) from here in search of a sunny winter haven. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Kenneth Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

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NASA’s long lived Opportunity rover has discovered the most scientifically compelling evidence yet for the flow of liquid water on ancient Mars. The startling revelation comes in the form of a bright vein of the mineral gypsum located at the foothills of an enormous crater named Endeavour, where the intrepid robot is currently traversing. See our mosaic above, illustrating the exact spot.

Update: ‘Homestake’ Opportunity Mosaic above has just been published on Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) – 12 Dec 2011 (by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo)

Researchers trumpeted the significant water finding this week (Dec. 7) at the annual winter meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco.

“This gypsum vein is the single most powerful piece of evidence for liquid water at Mars that has been discovered by the Opportunity rover,” announced Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., Principal Investigator for Opportunity, at an AGU press conference.

The light-toned vein is apparently composed of the mineral gypsum and was deposited as a result of precipitation from percolating pools of liquid water which flowed on the surface and subsurface of ancient Mars, billions of years ago. Liquid water is an essential prerequisite for life as we know it.

“This tells a slam-dunk story that water flowed through underground fractures in the rock,” said Squyres. “This stuff is a fairly pure chemical deposit that formed in place right where we see it. That can’t be said for other gypsum seen on Mars or for other water-related minerals Opportunity has found. It’s not uncommon on Earth, but on Mars, it’s the kind of thing that makes geologists jump out of their chairs.”

'Homestake' Vein in Color and Close-up
This color view of a mineral vein called "Homestake" was taken by the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. The vein is about the width of a thumb and about 18 inches (45 centimeters) long. Opportunity examined it in November 2011 and found it to be rich in calcium and sulfur, possibly the calcium-sulfate mineral gypsum.

The light-toned vein is informally named “Homestake”, and was examined up close by Opportunity’s cameras and science instruments for several weeks this past month in November 2011, as the rover was driving northwards along the western edge of a ridge dubbed ‘Cape York’ – which is a low lying segment of the eroded rim of Endeavour Crater.

Veins are a geologic indication of the past flow of liquid water

Opportunity just arrived at the rim of the 14 mile (22 kilometere) wide Endeavour Crater in mid-August 2011 following an epic three year trek across treacherous dune fields from her prior investigative target at the ½ mile wide Victoria Crater.

“It’s like a whole new mission since we arrived at Cape York,” said Squyres.

‘Homestake’ is a very bright linear feature.

“The ‘Homestake’ vein is about 1 centimeter wide and 40 to 50 centimeters long,” Squyres elaborated. “It’s about the width of a human thumb.”

Opportunity's Approach to 'Homestake'
This view from the front hazard-avoidance camera on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows the rover's arm's shadow falling near a bright mineral vein informally named Homestake. The vein is about the width of a thumb and about 18 inches (45 centimeters) long. Opportunity examined it in November 2011 and found it to be rich in calcium and sulfur, possibly the calcium-sulfate mineral gypsum. Opportunity took this image on Sol 2763 on Mars (Nov. 7, 2011). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Homestake protrudes slightly above the surrounding ground and bedrock and appears to be part of a system of mineral veins running inside an apron (or Bench) that in turn encircles the entire ridge dubbed Cape York.

In another first, no other veins like these have been seen by Opportunity throughout her entire 20 miles (33 kilometers) and nearly eight year long Martian journey across the cratered, pockmarked plains of Meridiani Planum, said Squyres.

The veins have also not been seen in the higher ground around the rim at Endeavour crater.

“We want to understand why these veins are in the apron but not out on the plains,” said the mission’s deputy principal investigator, Ray Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis. “The answer may be that rising groundwater coming from the ancient crust moved through material adjacent to Cape York and deposited gypsum, because this material would be relatively insoluble compared with either magnesium or iron sulfates.”

Opportunity was tasked to engage her Microscopic Imager and Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) mounted on the terminus of the rover’s arm as well as multiple filters of the mast mounted Panoramic Camera to examine ‘Homestake’.

“The APXS spectrometer shows ’Homestake’ is chock full of Calcium and Sulfur,” Squyres gushed.

Microscopic Close-up View of 'Homestake' Vein
This close-up view of a mineral vein called Homestake comes from the microscopic imager on Opportunity. The vein is about the width of a thumb and about 18 inches (45 centimeters) long. Opportunity examined it in November 2011 and found it to be rich in calcium and sulfur, possibly the calcium-sulfate mineral gypsum. Homestake is near the edge of the "Cape York" segment of the western rim of Endeavour Crater. This view blends three exposures taken by the microscopic imager during the 2,765th and 2,766th Martian days, or sols, of Opportunity's career on Mars (Nov. 3 and 4, 2011). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/USGS

The measurements of composition with the APXS show that the ratio points to it being relatively pure calcium sulfate, Squyres explained. “One type of calcium sulfate is gypsum.”

Calcium sulfate can have varying amounts of water bound into the minerals crystal structure.

The rover science team believes that this form of gypsum discovered by Opportunity is the dihydrate; CaSO4•2H2O. On Earth, gypsum is used for making drywall and plaster of Paris.

The gypsum was formed in the exact spot where Opportunity found it – unlike the sulfate minerals previously discovered which were moved around by the wind and other environmental and geologic forces.

“There was a fracture in the rock, water flowed through it, gypsum was precipitated from the water. End of story,” Squyres noted. “There’s no ambiguity about this, and this is what makes it so cool.”

At Homestake we are seeing the evidence of the ground waters that flowed through the ancient Noachian rocks and the precipitation of the gypsum, which is the least soluble of the sulfates, and the other magnesium and iron sulfates which Opportunity has been driving on for the last 8 years.

Opportunity Traverse Map 2004 to 2011
Traverse map showing the 8 Year Journey of Opportunity from Eagle Crater landing site Sol 1 (Jan. 24, 2004) to Sol 2775 (November 2011). Map shows rover location around Homestake water related mineral on Sol 2763 (November 2011) at Cape York ridge at Endeavour Crater rim. Endeavour Crater is 14 miles or 22 kilometers in diameter. Opportunity has driven more than 21 miles (34 km).
Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer

“Here, both the chemistry, mineralogy, and the morphology just scream water,” Squyres exclaimed. “This is more solid than anything else that we’ve seen in the whole mission.”

It’s inconceivable that the vein is something else beside gypsum, said Squyres.

As Opportunity drove from the plains of Meridiani onto the rim of Endeavour Crater and Cape York, it crossed a geologic boundary and arrived at a much different and older region of ancient Mars.

The evidence for flowing liquid water at Endeavour crater is even more powerful than the silica deposits found by Spirit around the Home Plate volcanic feature at Gusev Crater a few years ago.

“We will look for more of these veins in the [Martian] springtime,” said Squyres.

If a bigger, fatter vein can be found, then Opportunity will be directed to grind into it with her still well functioning Rock Abrasion Tool, or RAT.

Homestake was crunched with the wheels – driving back and forth over the vein – to break it up and expose the interior. Opportunity did a triple crunch over Homestake, said Arvidson.

Homestake was found near the northern tip of Cape York, while Opportunity was scouting out a “Winter Haven” location to spend the approaching Martian winter.

Arvidson emphasized that the team wants Opportunity to be positioned on a northerly tilted slope to catch the maximum amount of the sun’s rays to keep the rover powered up for continuing science activities throughout the fast approaching Martian winter.

“Martian winter in the southern hemisphere starts on March 29, 2012. But, Solar power levels already begin dropping dramatically months before Martian winter starts,” said Alfonso Herrera to Universe Today, Herrera is a Mars rover mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

“Opportunity is in excellent health,” said Bruce Banerdt, the Project Scientist for the Mars rover mission at JPL.

“This has been a very exciting time. We’ll head back south in the springtime and have a whole bunch of things to do with a very capable robot,” Squyres concluded.

'Botany Bay' and 'Cape York' with Vertical Exaggeration
This graphic combines a perspective view of the "Botany Bay" and "Cape York" areas of the rim of Endeavour Crater on Mars, and an inset with mapping-spectrometer data. Major features are labeled. In the perspective view, the landscape's vertical dimension is exaggerated five-fold compared with horizontal dimensions. NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity examined targets in the Cape York area during the second half of 2011. The perspective view was generated by producing an elevation map from a stereo pair of images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, then draping one of the HiRISE images over the elevation model. The inset presents data from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. In this CRISM observation, taken on March 29, 2011 Thermal inertia estimates from observations by the Thermal Emission Imaging System on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter indicate that Botany Bay is a region with extensive outcrop exposures. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA/JHUAPL

Meanwhile, NASA’s next leap in exploring potential Martian habitats for life – the car sized Curiosity Mars Science Lab rover – is speeding towards the Red Planet.

Read Ken’s continuing features about Opportunity starting here:

NASA Robot seeks Goldmine of Science and Sun at Martian Hill along vast Crater
Opportunity spotted Exploring vast Endeavour Crater from Mars Orbit
Twin Towers 9/11 Tribute by Opportunity Mars Rover
NASA Robot arrives at ‘New’ Landing Site holding Clues to Ancient Water Flow on Mars
Opportunity Arrives at Huge Martian Crater with Superb Science and Scenic Outlook
Opportunity Snaps Gorgeous Vistas nearing the Foothills of Giant Endeavour Crater

Curiosity Majestically Blasts off on ‘Mars Trek’ to ascertain ‘Are We Alone?’

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover blast off on Mars Trek. NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft, sealed inside its payload fairing atop the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, clears the tower at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.The mission lifted off at 10:02 a.m. EST on Nov. 26, beginning an eight-month interplanetary cruise to Mars. Credit: Mike Deep/David Gonzales

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Atop a towering inferno of sparkling flames and billowing ash, Humankinds millennial long quest to ascertain “Are We Alone ?” soared skywards today (Nov. 26) with a sophisticated spaceship named ‘Curiosity’ – NASA’s newest, biggest and most up to date robotic surveyor that’s specifically tasked to hunt for the ‘Ingredients of Life’ on Mars, the most ‘Earth-like’ planet in our Solar System.

‘Mars Trek – Curiosity’s Search for Undiscovered Life’ zoomed to the heavens with today’s (Nov. 26) pulse pounding blastoff of NASA’s huge Curiosity Mars rover mounted atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 10:02 a.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory MSL) rover blasts off for Mars atop an Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26 at 10:02 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

Curiosity’s noble goal is to meticulously gather and sift through samples of Martian soil and rocks in pursuit of the tell-tale signatures of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based building blocks of life as we know it – as well as clays and sulfate minerals that may preserve evidence of habitats and environments that could support the genesis of Martian microbial life forms, past or present.

The Atlas V booster carrying Curiosity to the Red Planet vaulted off the launch pad on 2 million pounds of thrust and put on a spectacular sky show for the throngs of spectators who journeyed to the Kennedy Space Center from across the globe, crowded around the Florida Space Coast’s beaches, waterways and roadways and came to witness firsthand the liftoff of the $2.5 Billion Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover.

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover blasts off for Mars atop an Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26 at 10:02 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The car-sized rover, Curiosity, which has 10 science instruments designed to search for signs of life, including methane, and to help determine if this gas is from a biological or geological source. Credit: Ken Kremer

The car sized Curiosity rover is the most ambitious, important and far reaching science probe ever sent to the Red Planet – and the likes of which we have never seen or attempted before.

“Science fiction is now science fact,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters at the post launch briefing for reporters at KSC. “We’re flying to Mars. We’ll get it on the ground… and see what we find.”

“’Ecstatic’ – in a word, NASA is Ecstatic. We have started a new Era in the Exploration of Mars with this mission – technologically and scientifically. MSL is enormous, the equivalent of 3 missions frankly.”

“We’re exactly where we want to be, moving fast and cruising to Mars.”

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover blasts off for Mars atop an Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26 at 10:02 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Mike Deep/David Gonzales

NASA is utilizing an unprecedented, rocket powered precision descent system to guide Curiosity to a pinpoint touch down inside the Gale Crater landing site, with all six wheels deployed.

Gale Crater is 154 km (96 mi) wide. It is dominated by layered terrain and an enormous mountain rising some 5 km (3 mi) above the crater floor which exhibits exposures of minerals that may have preserved evidence of ancient or extant Martian life.

“I hope we have more work than the scientists can actually handle. I expect them all to be overrun with data that they’ve never seen before.”

“The first images from the bottom of Gale Crater should be stunning. The public will see vistas we’ve never seen before. It will be like sitting at the bottom of the Grand Canyon,” said McCuistion.

Topography of Gale Crater - Curiosity Mars rover landing site
Color coding in this image of Gale Crater on Mars represents differences in elevation. The vertical difference from a low point inside the landing ellipse for NASA's Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (yellow dot) to a high point on the mountain inside the crater (red dot) is about 3 miles (5 kilometers). Credit: NASA

The 197 ft tall Atlas booster’s powerful liquid and solid fueled engines ignited precisely on time with a flash and thunderous roar that grew more intense as the expanding plume of smoke and fire trailed behind the rapidly ascending rockets tail.

The Atlas rockets first stage is comprised of twin Russian built RD-180 liquid fueled engines and four US built solid rocket motors.

The engines powered the accelerating climb to space and propelled the booster away from the US East Coast as it majestically arced over in between broken layers of clouds. The four solids jettisoned 1 minute and 55 seconds later. The liquid fueled core continued firing until its propellants were expended and dropped away at T plus four and one half minutes.

The hydrogen fueled Centaur second stage successfully fired twice and placed the probe on an Earth escape trajectory at 22,500 MPH.

The MSL spacecraft separates and heads on its way to Mars. Credit: NASA TV

The Atlas V initially lofted the spacecraft into Earth orbit and then, with a second burst from the Centaur, pushed it out of Earth orbit into a 352-million-mile (567-million-kilometer) journey to Mars.

MSL spacecraft separation of the solar powered cruise stage stack from the Centaur upper stage occurred at T plus 44 minutes and was beautifully captured on a live NASA TV streaming video feed.

“Our spacecraft is in excellent health and it’s on its way to Mars,” said Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California at the briefing. “I want to thank the launch team, United Launch Alliance, NASA’s Launch Services Program and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for their help getting MSL into space.”

Curiosity punches through Florida clouds on the way to Mars. Credit: Mike Deep/David Gonzales

“The launch vehicle has given us a first rate injection into our trajectory and we’re in cruise mode. The spacecraft is in communication, thermally stable and power positive.”

“I’m very happy.”

“Our first trajectory correction maneuver will be in about two weeks,” Theisinger added.

“We’ll do instrument checkouts in the next several weeks and continue with thorough preparations for the landing on Mars and operations on the surface.”

Curiosity is a 900 kg (2000 pound) behemoth. She measures 3 meters (10 ft) in length and is nearly twice the size and five times as heavy as Spirit and Opportunity, NASA’s prior set of twin Martian robots.

NASA was only given enough money to build 1 rover this time.

“We are ready to go for landing on the surface of Mars, and we couldn’t be happier,” said John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist from the California Institute of Technology at the briefing. “I think this mission will be a great one. It is an important next step in NASA’s overall goal to address the issue of life in the universe.”

Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist from the California Institute of Technology at the Nov. 26 post-launch media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), pose with model of Atlas V rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer

Curiosity is equipped with a powerful 75 kilogram (165 pounds) array of 10 state-of-the-art science instruments weighing 15 times more than its predecessor’s science payloads.

Curiosity rover launches to Mars atop an Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Mike Killian/Zero-G News

A drill and scoop located at the end of the robotic arm will gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover. A laser will zap rocks to determine elemental composition.

“We are not a life detection mission.”

“It is important to distinguish that as an intermediate mission between the Mars Exploration Rovers, which was the search for water, and future missions, which may undertake life detection.”

“Our mission is about looking for ancient habitable environments – a time on Mars which is very different from the conditions on Mars today.”

“The promise of Mars Science Laboratory, assuming that all things behave nominally, is we can deliver to you a history of formerly, potentially habitable environments on Mars,” Grotzinger said at the briefing. “But the expectation that we’re going to find organic carbon, that’s the hope of Mars Science Laboratory. It’s a long shot, but we’re going to try.”

Today’s liftoff was the culmination of about 10 years of efforts by the more than 250 science team members and the diligent work of thousands more researchers, engineers and technicians spread around numerous locations across the United States and NASA’s international partners including Canada, Germany, Russia, Spain and France.

“Scientists chose the site they wanted to go to for the first time in history, because of the precision engineering landing system. We are going to the very best place we could find, exactly where we want to go.”

“I can’t wait to get on the ground,” said Grotzinger.

John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist from the California Institute of Technology and Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters at the post launch briefing for reporters at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer

Complete Coverage of Curiosity – NASA’s Next Mars Rover launched 26 Nov. 2011
Read continuing features about Curiosity by Ken Kremer starting here:

Mars Trek – Curiosity Poised to Search for Signs of Life
Curiosity Rover ‘Locked and Loaded’ for Quantum Leap in Pursuit of Martian Microbial Life
Science Rich Gale Crater and NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover in Glorious 3-D – Touchdown in a Habitable Zone
Curiosity Powered Up for Martian Voyage on Nov. 26 – Exclusive Message from Chief Engineer Rob Manning
NASA’s Curiosity Set to Search for Signs of Martian Life
Curiosity Rover Bolted to Atlas Rocket – In Search of Martian Microbial Habitats
Closing the Clamshell on a Martian Curiosity
Curiosity Buttoned Up for Martian Voyage in Search of Life’s Ingredients
Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action
Packing a Mars Rover for the Trip to Florida; Time Lapse Video
Test Roving NASA’s Curiosity on Earth

Curiosity Rover ‘Locked and Loaded’ for Quantum Leap in Pursuit of Martian Microbial Life

In the future, planetary protection (where we ensure that missions do not contaminate other words with Earth-borne organisms) will be especially important. Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech

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NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, the most technologically complex and scientifically capable robot built by humans to explore the surface of another celestial body, is poised to liftoff on Nov. 26 and will enable a quantum leap in mankind’s pursuit of Martian microbes and signatures of life beyond Earth.

“The Mars Science Lab and the rover Curiosity is ‘locked and loaded’, ready for final countdown on Saturday’s launch to Mars,” said Colleen Hartman, assistant associate administrator in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, at a pre-launch media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

The $2.5 Billion robotic explorer remains on track for an on time liftoff aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 10:02 a.m. on Nov. 26 from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. An Atlas V rocket similar to this one utilized in August 2011 for NASAS’s Juno Jupiter Orbiter will blast Curiosity to Mars on Nov. 26, 2011 from Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

NASA managers and spacecraft contractors gave the “Go-Ahead” for proceeding towards Saturday’s launch at the Launch Readiness Review on Wednesday, Nov. 23. The next milestone is to move the Atlas V rocket 1800 ft. from its preparation and assembly gantry inside the Vertical Integration Facility at the Cape.

“We plan on rolling the vehicle out of the Vertical Integration Facility on Friday morning [Nov. 25] ,” said NASA Launch Director Omar Baez at the briefing. “We should be on the way to the pad by 8 a.m.”

The launch window on Nov. 26 is open until 11:14 a.m. and the current weather prognosis is favorable with chances rated at 70 percent “GO”.

“The final launch rehearsal – using the real vehicle ! – went perfectly, said NASA Mars manager Rob Manning, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. Manning is the Curiosity Chief Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

“I was happy.”

“The folks at KSCs Payload Handling Facility and at JPL’s cruise mission support area (CMSA) – normally a boisterous bunch – worked quietly and professionally thru to T-4 minutes and a simulated fake hold followed by a restart and a recycle (shut down) due to a sail boat floating too close to the range,” Manning told me.

Curiosity rover - Engineering support team working at consoles at JPL. Credit: Rob Manning

Readers may recall that NASA’s JUNO Jupiter orbiter launch in August was delayed by an hour when an errant boat sailed into the Atlantic Ocean exclusion zone.

“This rover, Curiosity rover, is really a rover on steroids. It’s an order of magnitude more capable than anything we have ever launched to any planet in the solar system,” said Hartman.

“It will go longer, it will discover more than we can possibly imagine.”

Curiosity rover explores inside Gale Crater after landing in August 2012. The mast, or rover's "head," rises to about 2.1 meters (6.9 feet) above ground level, about as tall as a basketball player. Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech

Curiosity is locked atop the powerful Alliance Atlas V rocket that will propel the 1 ton behemoth on an eight and one half month interplanetary cruise from the alligator filled swamps of the Florida Space Coast to a layered mountain inside Gale Crater on Mars where liquid water once flowed and Martian microbes may once have thrived.

Curiosity is loaded inside the largest aeroshell ever built and that will shield her from the extreme temperatures and intense buffeting friction she’ll suffer while plummeting into the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 MPH (5,900 m/s) upon arrival at the Red Planet in August 2012.

The Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover is the most ambitious mission ever sent to Mars and is equipped with a powerful 75 kilogram (165 pounds) array of 10 state-of-the-art science instruments weighing 15 times as much as its predecessor’s science payloads.

Curiosity measures 3 meters (10 ft) in length and weighs 900 kg (2000 pounds), nearly twice the size and five times as heavy as NASA’s prior set of twin robogirls – Spirit and Opportunity.

The science team selected Gale crater as the landing site because it exhibits exposures of clays and hydrated sulfate minerals that formed in the presence of liquid water billions of years ago, indicating a wet history on ancient Mars that could potentially support the genesis of microbial life forms. Water is an essential prerequisite for life as we know it.

Gale Crater is 154 km (96 mi) in diameter and dominated by a layered mountain rising some 5 km (3 mi) above the crater floor.

Oblique View of Gale Crater, Mars, with Vertical Exaggeration
Gale Crater, where the rover Curiosity of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission will land in August 2012, contains a mountain rising from the crater floor. This oblique view of Gale Crater, looking toward the southeast, is an artist's impression using two-fold vertical exaggeration to emphasize the area's topography. Curiosity's landing site is on the crater floor northeast of the mountain. The crater's diameter is 96 miles (154 kilometers). The image combines elevation data from the High Resolution Stereo Camera on the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter, image data from the Context Camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and color information from Viking Orbiter imagery.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS

The car sized rover is being targeted with a first of its kind precision rocket powered descent system to touchdown inside a landing ellipse some 20 by 25 kilometers (12.4 miles by 15.5 miles) wide and astride the towering mountain at a location in the northern region of Gale.

Curiosity’s goal is to search the crater floor and nearby mountain – half the height of Mt. Everest – for the ingredients of life, including water and the organic molecules that we are all composed of.

The robot will deploy its 7 foot long arm to collect soil and rock samples to assess their composition and determine if any organic materials are present – organics have not previously been detected on Mars.

Curiosity will also vaporize rocks with a laser to determine which elements are present, look for subsurface water in the form of hydrogen, and assess the weather and radiation environments

“After the rocket powered descent, the Sky-Crane maneuver deploys the rover and we land on the mobility system, said Pete Theisinger, MSL project manager from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., at the briefing.

The rover will rover about 20 kilometers in the first year. Curiosity has no life limiting constraints. The longevity depends on the health of the rovers components and instruments.

“We’ve had our normal challenges and hiccups that we have in these kinds of major operations, but things have gone extremely smoothly and we’re fully prepared to go on Saturday morning. We hope that the weather cooperates, said Theisinger

Missions to Mars are exceedingly difficult and have been a death trap for many orbiters and landers.

“Mars really is the Bermuda Triangle of the solar system,” said Hartman. “It’s the ‘death planet,’ and the United States of America is the only nation in the world that has ever landed and driven robotic explorers on the surface of Mars. And now we’re set to do it again.”

Complete Coverage of Curiosity – NASA’s Next Mars Rover launching 26 Nov. 2011

Read continuing features about Curiosity by Ken Kremer starting here:

Science Rich Gale Crater and NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover in Glorious 3-D – Touchdown in a Habitable Zone
Curiosity Powered Up for Martian Voyage on Nov. 26 – Exclusive Message from Chief Engineer Rob Manning
NASA’s Curiosity Set to Search for Signs of Martian Life
Curiosity Rover Bolted to Atlas Rocket – In Search of Martian Microbial Habitats
Closing the Clamshell on a Martian Curiosity
Curiosity Buttoned Up for Martian Voyage in Search of Life’s Ingredients
Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action
Packing a Mars Rover for the Trip to Florida; Time Lapse Video
Test Roving NASA’s Curiosity on Earth

Timelapse: The Spirit Rover’s Entire Journey on Mars

In just under 3 minutes, this timelapse video uses 3,418 different images taken by Spirit’s front-right Hazcam to give an overview of her mission — from waking up and driving off the lander back in January, 2004 to studying countless rocks, climbing up (and down) Husband Hill, studying more rocks, trekking across Gusev Crater, stirring up some interesting light-colored soil, to ultimately getting stuck not being able to get out. This time-lapse covers 7.25 km (4.8 miles) of driving over the course of 5 years, 3 months, 27 days, all played back at 24 frames per second.

Via @SpaceFuture

Curiosity Rover Bolted to Atlas Rocket – In Search of Martian Microbial Habitats

The payload fairing containing Curiosity, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover rises from the transporter below as it is lifted up the side of the Vertical Integration Facility At Space Launch Complex 41. The fairing, which protects the payload during launch, was attached to the Atlas V rocket already stacked inside the facility. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

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Only time now stands in the way of Curiosity’s long awaited date with the Red Planet. NASA’s next, and perhaps last Mars rover was transported to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and then hoisted on top of the mighty Atlas V rocket that will propel her on a 10 month interplanetary journey to Mars to seek out the potential habitats of Extraterrestrial life.

In less than three weeks on November 25 – the day after Thanksgiving – the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover will soar to space aboard the Atlas V booster. Touchdown astride a layered mountain at the Gale Crater landing site is set for August 2012.

Collage showing transport of Curiosity inside nose cone to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: NASA

The $2.5 Billion rover must liftoff by Dec. 18 at the latest, when the launch window to Mars closes for another 26 months. Any delay would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Curiosity represents a quantum leap in science capabilities and is by far the most advanced robotic emissary sent to the surface of another celestial body. MSL will operate for a minimum of one Martian year, equivalent to 687 days on earth.

After years of meticulous design work and robotic construction by dedicated scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and months of vigilant final assembly and preflight processing at the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Curiosity was finally moved the last few miles (km) she’ll ever travel on Earth – in the dead of night – to Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape.

Curiosity inside the Nose Cone to Mars. In the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Atlas V rocket's payload fairing containing the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft stands securely atop the transporter that will carry it to Space Launch Complex 41. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

The robo behemoth was tucked inside her protective aeroshell Mars entry capsule and clamshell-like nose cone, gingerly loaded onto the payload transporter inside the PHSF and arrived – after a careful drive – at Pad 41 at about 4:35 a.m. EDT on Nov. 3. The move was delayed one day by high winds at the Cape.

Employees at Space Launch Complex 41 keep watch as the payload fairing containing NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft is lifted up the side of the Vertical Integration Facility. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Teams from rocket builder United Launch Alliance then hoisted MSL by crane on top of the Atlas V rocket already assembled inside the launch gantry known as the Vertical Integration Facility, or VIF, and bolted it to the venerable Centaur upper stage. Technicians also attached umbilicals for mechanical, electrical and gaseous connections.

Curiosity’s purpose is to search for evidence of habitats that could ever have supported microbial life on Mars and determine whether the ingredients of life exist on Mars today in the form of organic molecules – the building blocks of life.

We are all made of organic molecules – which is one of the essential requirements for the genesis of life along with water and an energy source. Mars harbors lots of water and is replete with energy sources, but confirmation of organics is what’s lacking.

Curiosity, inside the payload fairing at Pad 41, has been attached to a lifting device in order to be raised and attached to the Atlas V rocket inside the Vertical Integration Facility. The fairing will protect the payload from heat and aerodynamic pressure generated during ascent. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

The Atlas V will launch in the configuration known as Atlas 541. The 4 indicates a total of four solid rocket motors (SRM) are attached to the base of the first stage. The 5 indicates a five meter diameter payload fairing. The 1 indicates use of a single engine Centaur upper stage.

One of the last but critical jobs remaining at the pad is installation of Curiosity’s MMRTG (Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator) power source about a week before launch around Nov. 17. Technicians will install the MMRTG through small portholes on the side of the payload fairing and aeroshell.

The nuclear power source will significantly enhance the driving range, scientific capability and working lifetime of the six wheeled rover compared to other solar powered landed surface explorers like Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix and Phobos-Grunt.

The minivan sized rover measures three meters in length, roughly twice the size of the MER rovers; Spirit and Opportunity. MSL is equipped with 10 science instruments for a minimum two year expedition across Gale crater. The science payload weighs ten times more than any prior Mars rover mission.

The Atlas V rocket and Curiosity will roll out to the launch pad on Wednedsay, November 23, the day before Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars and Phobos is on target to blast off on November 9, Moscow time [Nov 8, US time].

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory Rover - inside the Cleanroom at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer

Read Ken’s continuing features about Curiosity starting here:
Closing the Clamshell on a Martian Curiosity
Curiosity Buttoned Up for Martian Voyage in Search of Life’s Ingredients
Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action

Read Ken’s continuing features about Phobos-Grunt upcoming Nov 9 launch here:
Phobos-Grunt and Yinghuo-1 Encapsulated for Voyage to Mars and Phobos
Phobos and Jupiter Conjunction in 3 D and Amazing Animation – Blastoff to Martian Moon near
Russia Fuels Phobos-Grunt and sets Mars Launch for November 9
Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 Arrive at Baikonur Launch Site to tight Mars Deadline
Phobos-Grunt: The Mission Poster
Daring Russian Sample Return mission to Martian Moon Phobos aims for November Liftoff

NASA Robot arrives at ‘New’ Landing Site holding Clues to Ancient Water Flow on Mars

Opportunity investigates Tisdale 2 rock showing indications of ancient Martian water flow. NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity used its front hazard-avoidance camera to take this picture showing the rover's arm extended toward a light-toned rock, "Tisdale 2," during Sol 2695 of the rover's work on Mars (Aug. 23, 2011). The composition of Tisdale 2 is unlike any rock studied by Opportunity since landing 7.5 years ago. It is about 12 inches (30 centimeters) tall. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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Opportunity has begun a whole new mission at the vast expanse of Endeavour Crater promising a boatload of new science discoveries.

Scientists directing NASA’s Mars Opportunity rover gushed with excitement as they announced that the aging robot has discovered a rock with a composition unlike anything previously explored on the Red Planet’s surface – since she landed on the exotic Martian plains 7.5 years ago – and which offers indications that liquid water might have percolated or flowed at this spot billions of years ago.

Barely three weeks ago Opportunity arrived at the rim of the gigantic 14 mile ( 22 km) wide crater named Endeavour after an epic multi-year trek, and for the team it’s literally been like a 2nd landing on Mars – and the equivalent of the birth of a whole new mission of exploration at an entirely ‘new’ landing site.

“This is like having a brand new landing site for our veteran rover,” said Dave Lavery, program executive for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It is a remarkable bonus that comes from being able to rove on Mars with well-built hardware that lasts.”

Opportunity has traversed an incredible distance of 20.8 miles (33.5 km) across the Meridiani Planum region of Mars since landing on January 24, 2004 for a 3 month mission – now 30 times longer than the original warranty.

“Tisdale 2” is the name of the first rock that Opportunity drove to and investigated after reaching Endeavour crater and climbing up the rim at a low ridge dubbed ‘Cape York’.

This rock, informally named "Tisdale 2," was the first rock the NASA's Mars Rover Opportunity examined in detail on the rim of Endeavour crater. It has textures and composition unlike any rock the rover examined during its first 90 months on Mars. Its characteristics are consistent with the rock being a breccia -- a type of rock fusing together broken fragments of older rocks. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/ASU

Endeavour’s rim is heavily eroded and discontinuous and divided into a series of segmented and beautiful mountainous ridges that offer a bonanza for science.

“This is not like anything we’ve ever seen before. So this is a new kind of rock.” said Steve Squyres, principal investigator for Opportunity at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y at a briefing for reporters on Sept. 1.

“It has a composition similar to some volcanic rocks, but there’s much more zinc and bromine than we’ve typically seen. We are getting confirmation that reaching Endeavour really has given us the equivalent of a second landing site for Opportunity.”

Tisdale 2 is a flat-topped rock about the size of a footstool that was blasted free by the impact that formed the tennis court sized “Odyssey” crater from which it was ejected.

“The other big take-away message, and this is to me the most interesting thing about Tisdale, is that this rock has a huge amount of zinc in it, way more zinc than we have ever seen in any Martian rock. And we are puzzling, we are thinking very hard over what that means,” Squyres speculated.

Bright veins cutting across outcrop in a section of Endeavour crater's rim called "Botany Bay" are visible in the foreground and middle distance of this view assembled from images taken by the navigation camera on Opportunity during Sol 2,681on Mars (Aug. 9, 2011). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Squyres said that high levels of zinc and bromine on Earth are often associated with rocks in contact with flowing water and thus experiencing hydrothermal activity and that the impact is the source of the water.

“When you find rocks on Earth that are rich in zinc, they typically form in a place where you had some kind of hydrothermal activity going on, in other words, you have water that gets heated up and it flows through the rocks and it can dissolve out and it can get redeposited in various places,” Squyres explained.

“So this is a clue, not definitive proof yet, but this is a clue that we may be dealing with a hydrothermal system here, we may be dealing with a situation where water has percolated or flowed or somehow moved through these rocks, maybe as vapor, maybe as liquid, don’t know yet.”

“But it has enhanced the zinc concentration in this rock to levels far in excess of anything we’ve ever seen on Mars before. So that’s the beginning of what we expect is going to be a long and very interesting story about these rocks.”

Endeavour crater was chosen three years ago as the long term destination for Opportunity because it may hold clues to a time billions and billions of years ago when Mars was warmer and wetter and harbored an environment that was far more conducive to the formation of life beyond Earth.

Endeavour Crater Panorama from Opportunity, Sol 2681, August 2011
Opportunity arrived at the rim of Endeavour on Sol 2681, August 9, 2011 and climbed up the ridge known as Cape York. Odyssey crater is visible at left. The rover has driven to Tisdale 2 rock at the outskirts of Odyssey to investigate the ejecta blocks which may hold clues to ancient water flow on Mars. Distant portions of Endeavour’s rim - as far as 13 miles away – visible in the background. The rover will likely drive eventually to the Cape Tribulation rim segment at right which holds a mother lode of clay minerals. This photo mosaic was stitched together from raw images taken by Opportunity on Sol 2681.
Mosaic Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer

Signatures of clay minerals, or phyllosilicates, were detected at several spots at Endeavour’s western rim by observations from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

“The motherlode of clay minerals is on Cape Tribulation. The exposure extends all the way to the top, mainly on the inboard side,” said Ray Arvidson, the rover’s deputy principal investigator at Washington University in St. Louis.

Opportunity Traverse Map: 2004 to 2011. The yellow line on this map shows where NASA's Mars Rover Opportunity has driven from the place where it landed in January 2004 -- inside Eagle crater, at the upper left end of the track -- to a point approaching the rim of Endeavour crater. The map traces the route through the 2,670th Martian day, or sol, of Opportunity's work on Mars (July 29, 2011). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/NMMNHS.

Phyllosilicates are clay minerals that form in the presence of pH neutral water and which are far more hospitable to the possible genesis of life compared to the sulfate rich rocks studied in the more highly acidic aqueous environments examined by both the Opportunity and Spirit rovers thus far.

“We can get up the side of Cape Tribulation,” said Arvidson. It’s not unlike Husband Hill for Spirit. We need to finish up first at Cape York, get through the martian winter and then start working our way south along Solander Point.

The general plan is that Opportunity will probably spend the next several months exploring the Cape York region for before going elsewhere. “Just from Tisdale 2 we know that we have something really new and different here,” said Squyres.

“On the final traverses to Cape York, we saw ragged outcrops at Botany Bay unlike anything Opportunity has seen so far, and a bench around the edge of Cape York looks like sedimentary rock that’s been cut and filled with veins of material possibly delivered by water,” said Arvidson. “We made an explicit decision to examine ancient rocks of Cape York first.”

So far at least the terrain at Cape York looks safe for driving with good prospects for mobility.

Opportunity approaches Tisdale 2 rock at Endeavour Crater rim
Opportunity Mars rover climbed up the ridge known as Cape York and drove to the flat topped Tisdale 2 rock at upper left to analyze it with the science instruments on the robotic arm. This photo mosaic was stitched together from raw images taken by Opportunity on Sol 2685, August 2011.
Mosaic Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer

“The good news is that, as predicted, we have hard packed soils like the plains at Gusev that Spirit saw before getting to the Columbia Hills,” said Arvidson. “The wheel tracks at Cape York are very, very shallow. So if anything we will have some skid going downhill the slopes of 5 to 10 degrees on the inboard side which we can correct for.”

“We are always on the lookout for sand traps. We are particularly sensitized to that after the Spirit situation. So far it’s clear sailing ahead.”

Opportunity will then likely head southwards towards an area dubbed “Botany Bay” and eventually drive some 1.5 km further to the next ridge named Cape Tribulation and hopefully scale the slopes in an uphill search for that mother lode of phyllosilicates.

“My strong hope – if the rover lasts that long – is that we will have a vehicle that is capable of climbing Cape Tribulation just as we climbed Husband Hill with Spirit. So it’s obvious to try if the rover is capable, otherwise we would try something simpler. But even if we lose a wheel we still have a vehicle capable of a lot of science,” Squyres emphasized. “Then we would stick to lower ground and more gently sloping stuff.”

“The clear intention as we finish up at Cape York, and look at what to do next, is that we are going to work our way south. We will focus along the crater’s rim. We will work south along the rim of Endeavour unless some discovery unexpectedly causes us to do something else.”

“We will go where the science takes us !” Squyres stated.

Opportunity is in generally good health but the rover is showing signs of aging.

“All in all, we have a very senior rover that’s showing her age, she has some arthritis and some other issues but generally, she’s in good health, she’s sleeping well at night, her cholesterol levels are excellent and so we look forward to productive scientific exploration for the period ahead,” said John Callas, project manager for Opportunity at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

“This has the potential to be the most revealing destination ever explored by Opportunity,” said Lavery. “This region is substantially different than anything we’ve seen before. We’re looking at this next phase of Opportunity’s exploration as a whole new mission, entering an area that is significantly different in the geologic context than anything we’ve seen with the rovers.”

This image taken from orbit shows the path of the path driven by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity in the weeks around the rover's arrival at the rim of Endeavour crater. The sol number (number of Martian days since the rover landed on Mars) are indicated along the route. Sol 2674 corresponds to Aug. 2, 2011; Sol 2688 corresponds to Aug. 16, 2011. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
Elevated Zinc and Bromine in Tisdale 2 Rock on Endeavour Rim. This graphic presents information gained by examining part of the Martian rock called "Tisdale 2" with the alpha particle X-ray spectrometer on Mars rover Opportunity and comparing the composition measured there with compositions of other targets examined by Opportunity and its rover twin, Spirit. The comparison targets are soil in Gusev crater, examined by Spirit; the relatively fresh basaltic rock Adirondack, examined by Spirit; the stony meteorite Marquette examined by Opportunity; and Gibraltar, an example of sulfate-rich bedrock examined by Opportunity. The target area on Tisdale 2, called "Timmins 1," contains elevated levels of bromine (Br), zinc (Zn), phosphorus (P), sulfur (S) and chlorine (Cl) relative to the non-sulfate-rich comparison rocks, and high levels of zinc and phosphorus relative to Gibraltar. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Max Planck Institute/University of Guelph

Read Ken’s continuing features about Mars starting here
Opportunity Arrives at Huge Martian Crater with Superb Science and Scenic Outlook
Opportunity Snaps Gorgeous Vistas nearing the Foothills of Giant Endeavour Crater
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action
Opportunity Rover Heads for Spirit Point to Honor Dead Martian Sister; Science Team Tributes
Opportunity Rover Completes Exploration of fascinating Santa Maria Crater
Opportunity Surpasses 30 KM Driving and Snaps Skylab Crater in 3 D

Opportunity Arrives at Huge Martian Crater with Superb Science and Scenic Outlook

Endeavour Crater Panorama from Opportunity, Sol 2681, August 2011. NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover arrived at the rim of huge Endeavour crater on Sol 2681, August 9, 2011 and climbed up the ridge known as Cape York. A small crater dubbed ‘Odyssey’ is visible in the foreground at left. The rover has now driven to the outskirts of Odyssey to investigate the ejecta blocks which may stem from an ancient and wetter Martian Epoch. Opportunity snapped this soaring panorama showing distant portions of Endeavour’s rim - as far as 13 miles away - in the background. This photo mosaic was stitched together from raw images taken by Opportunity on Sol 2681. Mosaic Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer

[/caption]NASA’s Mars Opportunity rover has finally arrived at the huge Martian crater named Endeavour that simultaneously offers a mother lode of superb scenery and potentially the “Mother of all Martian Science”. The epic journey took nearly three years.

The intrepid robogirl is now climbing uphill on a Scientific quest that may well produce bountiful results towards the most important findings ever related to the search for life on Mars. Opportunity arrived at the western rim of the 13 mile (21 km) wide Endeavour crater on the 2681st Sol , or Martian day, of a mission only warrantied to last 90 Sols.

See our new Opportunity panoramic mosaics (Marco Di Lorenzo & Ken Kremer) illustrating the magnificent scenery and science targets now at hand on the surface of the Red Planet, thanks to the diligent work of the science and engineering teams who created the twin Mars Exploration Rover (MER) vehicles – Spirit & Opportunity.

Opportunity made landfall at Endeavour at a ridge of the discontinuous crater rim named Cape York and at a spot dubbed “Spirit Point” – in honor or her twin sister Spirit which stopped communicating with Earth about a year ago following more than six years of active science duty. See traverse map mosaic.

The martian robot quickly started driving northwards up the gnetle slopes of Cape York and has reached a small crater named “Odyssey” – the first science target, Dr. Matt Golembek told Universe Today. Golembek is a Senior Research Scientist with the Mars Exploration Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

“Large ejecta blocks are clearly visible on the rim of Odyssey crater,” said Golembek. The crater is about 66 feet (20 m) in diameter.

Odyssey is a small impact crater of interest to the team because it features exposed material from Mars ancient Noachian era that was ejected when the crater was excavated long ago. Opportunity carefully drove over several days to one of those ejecta blocks – a flat topped rock nicknamed Tisdale 2.

Endeavour Crater Panorama from Opportunity, Sol 2685, August 2011
NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover arrived at the rim of huge Endeavour crater on Sol 2681, August 9, 2011 and is climbed up the ridge known as Cape York. She drove to the flat topped Tisdale 2 rock at upper left to analyze it with the science instruments on the robotic arm. Opportunity snapped this soaring panorama showing distant portions of Endeavour’s rim - as far as 13 miles away - in the background. This photo mosaic was stitched together from raw images taken by Opportunity on Sol 2685.
Mosaic Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer

“Opportunity is at a block of Odyssey crater ejecta called Tisdale 2 and the rock appears different from anything else we have seen,” Golembek explained.

Starting on Sol 2688 (Aug. 16) the rover began a science campaign time to investigate the rock with the instruments at the terminus of its robotic arm or IDD (Instrument Deployment Device) that will continue for some period of time.

“We are about to start an IDD campaign,” Golembek stated.

The Long Journey of Opportunity form Eagle to Endeavour Crater (2004 to 2011).
This map mosaic shows Opportunity’s epic trek of nearly eight years from landing at Eagle crater on January 24, 2004 to arrival at the giant 13 mile (21 km) diameter Endeavour crater in August 2011. Opportunity arrived the Endeavour’s rim and then drove up a ridge named Cape York. The photomosaic at top right show the outlook from Cape York on Sol 2685 (August 2011).
Mosaic Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Kenneth Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

The team reports that the soil at Cape York is also of a different texture than any that Opportunity has seen so far on her incredible 20 mile (33 km) trek across the Meridiani Planum region of Mars. So far they haven’t seen of the iron-rich concretions, nicknamed “blueberries,” which have been plentiful on the surface along the way at numerous locations Opportunity has stopped at and investigated over the past 90 months. Initially the prime mission was projected to last 3 months – the remainder has been a huge bonus.

The science team is directing Opportunity to hunt for clay minerals, also known as phyllosilicates, that could unlock the secrets of an ancient Epoch on Mars stretching back billions and billions of years ago that was far wetter and very likely more habitable and welcoming to life’s genesis.

Phyllosilicate minerals form in neutral water that would be vastly more friendly to any potential Martian life forms – if they ever existed in the past or present. Signatures for phyllosilicates were detected by the CRISM instrument aboard NASA’s powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft circling Mars

Flat-topped Tisdale 2 rock. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
'Ridout' Rock on Rim of Odyssey Crater. Opportunity looked across small Odyssey crater on the rim of much larger Endeavour crater to capture this raw image from its panoramic camera during the rover's 2,685th Martian day, or sol, of work on Mars (Aug. 13, 2011). From a position south of Odyssey, this view is dominated by a rock informally named "Ridout" on the northeastern rim of Odyssey. The rock is roughly the same size as the rover, which is 4.9 feet (1.5 meters) long. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/ASU

Read my continuing features about Mars starting here
Opportunity Snaps Gorgeous Vistas nearing the Foothills of Giant Endeavour Crater
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action
Opportunity Rover Heads for Spirit Point to Honor Dead Martian Sister; Science Team Tributes
Opportunity Rover Completes Exploration of fascinating Santa Maria Crater
Opportunity Surpasses 30 KM Driving and Snaps Skylab Crater in 3 D