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Curiosity: Mars Science Laboratory

Mission Status: Aug. 22, 2012, 3:52 p.m. CDT (2052 GMT)
Curiosity leaves "Bradbury Landing"...

Curiosity on Wednesday (Aug. 20) began driving from its landing site, which has been named in honor of the late author Ray Bradbury.

Making its first movement on Mars' surface, Curiosity's drive combined forward, turn and reverse segments. This placed the rover roughly 20 feet (6 meters) from the spot where it landed 16 days ago.

NASA has approved the choice by Curiosity's science team to name the landing ground for Bradbury, who was born 92 years ago today and died on June 5 of this year. The location where Curiosity touched down in Gale Crater is now called Bradbury Landing.

"This was not a difficult choice for the science team," Michael Meyer, NASA's program scientist for Curiosity, said in a statement. "Many of us and millions of other readers were inspired in our lives by stories Ray Bradbury wrote to dream of the possibility of life on Mars."

The test drive confirmed the health of Curiosity's mobility system and produced the rover's first wheel tracks on Mars, documented in images taken after the drive.

Curiosity will spend several more days working near Bradbury Landing, performing instrument checks and studying the surroundings, before it embarks toward its first science destination, Glenelg, about 1,300 feet (400 meters) to the east-southeast.

Mission Status: Aug. 20, 2012, 11:22 p.m. CDT (0422 GMT)
Curiosity stretches its arm...

Curiosity flexed its robotic arm Monday (Aug. 20) for the first time since before its launch in November 2011.

The 7-foot-long (2.1-meter) arm maneuvers a turret of tools including a camera, drill, a spectrometer, a scoop and mechanisms for sieving and portioning samples of powdered rock and soil.

"We have had to sit tight for the first two weeks since landing, while other parts of the rover were checked out, so to see the arm extended in these images is a huge moment for us," said Matt Robinson with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the lead engineer for Curiosity's robotic arm testing and operations, in a statement. "The arm is how we are going to get samples into the laboratory instruments and how we place other instruments onto surface targets."

Weeks of testing and calibrating arm movements are ahead before the arm delivers a first sample of Martian soil to the instruments inside the rover. Monday's maneuver checked motors and joints by unstowing the robotic arm for the first time, extending it forward using all five joints, then stowing it again in preparation for the rover's first drive.

The turret has a mass of about 66 pounds (30 kilograms). Its diameter, including the tools mounted on it, is nearly 2 feet (60 centimeters).

"We will start using our sampling system in the weeks ahead, and we're getting ready to try our first drive later this week," said Richard Cook, Mars Science Laboratory Deputy Project Manager.

Mission Status: Aug. 19, 2012, 4:18 p.m. CDT (2118 GMT)
Curiosity zaps Coronation with its laser...

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity fired its laser for the first time on Mars on Sunday (Aug. 19), using the beam from a mast-mounted instrument to interrogate a fist-size rock called "Coronation," NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has announced.

The mission's Chemistry and Camera instrument, or ChemCam, hit the rock, which was before being named Coronation was known as "N165," with 30 pulses of its laser over a 10-second period. Each pulse delivers more than a million watts of power during about five one-billionths of a second.

The energy imparted by the laser excites the atoms in the rock into an ionized, glowing plasma. ChemCam observes the light emanating from that spark with a telescope and analyzes it with three spectrometers to discern what elements are in the target.

"We got a great spectrum of Coronation — lots of signal," ChemCam principal investigator Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico said in a statement. "Our team is both thrilled and working hard, looking at the results. After eight years building the instrument, it's payoff time!"

ChemCam recorded spectra from the laser-induced spark at each of the 30 pulses. The goal of this initial use of the laser on Mars was to serve as target practice for characterizing the instrument, but the activity may provide additional value.

Researchers will check whether the composition changed as the pulses progressed. If it did change, that could indicate dust or other surface material being penetrated to reveal different composition beneath the surface. The three spectrometers record intensity at 6,144 wavelengths of ultraviolet, visible and infrared light.

"It's surprising that the data are even better than we ever had during tests on Earth, in signal-to-noise ratio," said ChemCam deputy project scientist Sylvestre Maurice. "It's so rich, we can expect great science from investigating what might be thousands of targets with ChemCam in the next two years."

The technique employed by ChemCam, called laser induced breakdown spectroscopy, has been used to determine the composition of targets in other extreme environments, such as inside nuclear reactors and on the sea floor, and has had experimental applications in environmental monitoring and cancer detection. The investigation of Coronation is the first use of the technique in interplanetary exploration.

ChemCam was developed, built and tested by the U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory in partnership with scientists and engineers funded by the French national space agency, CNES, and research agency, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS).

Mission Status: Aug. 17, 2012, 1:42 p.m. CDT (1842 GMT)
Naming Curiosity's neighborhood...

Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission scientists and team members have begun naming the surface features revealed in images sent back by Curiosity and which are potential targets for the rover to explore.

The mission's science team first divided the landing region into several square quadrangles, or quads, of interest that were about one mile (1.3 kilometers) wide each. Curiosity touched down in the quad now referred to as "Yellowknife."

Yellowknife is a city in northwestern Canada and a group of rocks from the same region. The rocks were formed 2.7 billion years ago from both volcanoes and sediments laid down by water, and were deposited over 4-billion-year-old rocks, the oldest known on Earth.

"If you ask, 'What is the port of call you leave from to go on the great missions of geological mapping to the oldest rocks in North America?' — it's Yellowknife," Curiosity chief scientist John Grotzinger, of Caltech in Pasadena, told reporters.

Other Canadian geological regions and features have since become the namesake to features within Yellowknife.

Scientists have named the four marks near Curiosity where blasts from its descent stage retro-rockets blew away some of the surface material, exposing bedrock, as Burnside, Goulburn, Hepburn and Sleepy Dragon. The names were chosen from a list of norther Canadian rock formations because they all have something to do with heat, for example "burn" or "dragon."

Team members also named the nearby destination where they are now planning to first drive Curiosity. "Glenelg" now denotes that target area, where three kinds of terrain intersect: a kind of bedrock that may be suitable for eventual drilling; a terrain showing the marks of many small craters and intrigues that may represent an older or harder surface; and a third kind of terrain that may be the same rock texture at Goulburn.

The science team thought the name Glenelg was appropriate because, if Curiosity traveled there, it would visit the area twice — both coming and going — and the word Glenelg is a palindrome. After Glenelg, the rover will aim to drive to the base of Mount Sharp at the center of Gale Crater.

Mission Status: Aug. 13, 2012, 1:30 p.m. CDT (1830 GMT)
President Obama calls with congratulations...

President Barack Obama on Monday (Aug. 13) congratulated members of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Obama said he "could not be more excited" about the car-size rover's mission to explore Mars' Gale Crater over the next two years.

"If in fact you do make contact with Martians, please let me know right away," he said, "because I've got a lot of other things on my plate, but I suspect that will go to the top of the list, even if they're just microbes."

Mission Status: Aug. 10, 2012, 6:34 p.m. CDT (2334 GMT)
Curiosity undergoing "brain transplant"...

Curiosity is spending its first weekend on Mars transitioning to software better suited for its tasks ahead, like driving and using its strong robotic arm.

Above: Curiosity's first high-resolution color mosaic of the environment around the rover's landing site in Gale Crater. The colors in this version have been modified as if the scene were on Earth and illuminated by terrestrial sunlight. Click on the image above to view the full 360-degree panorama.

The rover's "brain transplant," which is taking place during a series of steps executed Aug. 10 through Aug. 13, is installing a new version of the software on both redundant main computers. This software for Mars surface operations was uploaded to the rover's memory during the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft's flight from Earth.

"We designed the [MSL] mission from the start to be able to upgrade the software as needed for different phases of the mission," Ben Cichy, the mission's chief software engineer, said. "The flight software version Curiosity currently is using was really focused on landing the vehicle. It includes many capabilities we just don't need any more. It gives us basic capabilities for operating the rover on the surface, but we have planned all along to switch over after landing to a version of flight software that is really optimized for surface operations."

A key capability within the new software is image processing to check for obstacles. This allows for Curiosity to make longer drives by giving it more autonomy to identify and avoid potential hazards, driving along a safe path that it identifies for itself. Other capabilities facilitate use of the tools at the end of the rover's robotic arm.

While Curiosity is completing the transition to its surface software, the mission's science team is continuing to analyze the imagery that the rover has taken of its surroundings inside Gale Crater. Researchers are discussing which features in the scene to investigate after a few weeks of initial checkouts and observations to assess equipment on the rover and characteristics of the landing site.

Mission Status: Aug. 9, 2012, 12:48 p.m. CDT (1748 GMT)
Gale Crater, now in color...

This is the first 360-degree panorama in color of the Gale Crater landing site captured by NASA's Curiosity rover. The panorama was made from thumbnail versions of images taken by the Mast Camera.

Click on the image above to view the full 360-degree panorama.

Mars Science Laboratory mission scientists will be taking a closer look at several splotches in the foreground that appear gray. These areas show the effects of the descent stage's rocket engines blasting the ground.

What appeared as a dark strip of dunes in previous, black-and-white pictures from Curiosity can also be seen along the top of this mosaic, but the color images also reveal additional shades of reddish brown around the dunes, likely indicating different textures or materials.

The images to create this panorama were taken late Aug. 8 PDT (Aug. 9 EDT) by the 34-millimeter Mast Camera. This panorama mosaic was made of 130 images of 144 by 144 pixels each. Chosen full frames from this panorama, which are 1,200 by 1,200 pixels each, are expected to be transmitted to Earth later.

The images in this panorama were brightened in the processing. Mars only receives half the sunlight Earth does and this image was taken in the late Martian afternoon.

Mission Status: Aug. 8, 2012, 8:56 p.m. CDT (0156 GMT)
Curiosity looks around its new home...

Curiosity raised its "head" on Wednesday with the deployment of its 3.6 foot-tall (1.1-meter) camera mast. The rover then used its new vantage point to take its first panorama of its surroundings — and itself.

The images taken by Curiosity's newly-activated navigation cameras, or Navcams, include the rover's first self-portrait, looking down at its deck from above. Another set, received as lower-resolution thumbnails, is the first 360-degree view of Curiosity's new home in Gale Crater.

Also received were two, higher-resolution Navcam images providing the most detailed depiction to date of the surface adjacent to the rover.

"These Navcam images indicate that our powered descent stage did more than give us a great ride, it gave our science team an amazing freebie," John Grotzinger, mission project scientist, said on Wednesday (Aug. 8). "The thrust from the rockets actually dug a one and a half foot long [0.5-meter] trench in the surface. It appears we can see Martian bedrock on the bottom."

"Its depth below the surface is valuable data we can use going forward," he said.

Yet another image set, courtesy of the Context Camera, or CTX, aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has pinpointed the final resting spots for the six, 55-pound (25-kilogram) entry ballast masses. The tungsten masses impacted the Martian surface at a high speed of about 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) from Curiosity's landing location.

Mission Status: Aug. 7, 2012, 1:05 p.m. CDT (1805 GMT)
Scene of a Martian landing...

A NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars has provided an overhead view of the Curiosity rover and its Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) descent stage components on the surface of Gale Crater.

The four primary pieces of hardware that arrived on the Red Planet with NASA's Curiosity rover were spotted by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter using its High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera captured this image about 24 hours after landing.

The large, reduced-scale image reveals the strewn hardware: the heat shield was the first piece to hit the ground, followed by the back shell attached to the parachute, then the Curiosity rover itself touched down, and finally, after its cables were cut, the sky crane flew away to the northwest and crashed. Relatively dark areas in all four spots are from disturbances of the bright dust on Mars, revealing the darker material below the surface dust.

Around the rover, this disturbance was from the descent stage's eight retro-rockets, and forms a bilaterally symmetrical pattern. The darkened radial jets from the sky crane are downrange from the point of oblique impact, much like the oblique impacts of asteroids. In fact, they make an arrow pointing to Curiosity.

This image was acquired during a special 41-degree roll of MRO, larger than the normal 30-degree limit. It rolled towards the west and towards the sun, which increases visible scattering by atmospheric dust as well as the amount of atmosphere the orbiter has to look through, thereby reducing the contrast of surface features. Future images will show the hardware in greater detail.

The view is tilted about 45 degrees from the surface (more than the 41-degree roll due to planetary curvature), like a view out of an airplane window. Tilt the image 90 degrees clockwise to see the surface better from this perspective. The views are primarily of the shadowed side of the rover and other objects.

The image scale is 39 centimeters (15.3 inches) per pixel. The distance between the Curiosity rover and its heat shield (lower right above) is about 0.7 miles (1200 meters). The descent stage ("sky crane") landed about 0.4 miles (650 meters) away; the backshell and its parachute touched down 0.38 miles (615 meters) from the rover.

Mission Status: Aug. 7, 2012, 12:20 p.m. CDT (1720 GMT)
Curiosity's first color image of Mars' landscape...

A camera attached to the end of Curiosity's still-stowed robotic arm has sent back a dusty first look at the Martian landscape in color.

This view of the landscape to the north of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity was acquired by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on the afternoon of the first day after landing (called Sol 1, which is the first Martian day of operations; Sol 1 began on Aug. 6, 2012.)

In the distance, the image shows the north wall and rim of Gale Crater. The image is murky because MAHLI's removable dust cover is coated with dust that was blown onto the camera during the rover's descent to the surface. Images taken without the dust cover in place are expected during checkout of the robotic arm in the coming weeks.

The MAHLI is located on the turret at the end of Curiosity's robotic arm. At the time this image was taken, the arm was in its stowed position. It has been stowed since the rover was packaged for its launch in 2011.

When the robotic arm, turret, and MAHLI are stowed, the MAHLI is in a position that is rotated 30 degrees relative to the rover deck. The image shown here has been rotated to correct for that tilt, so that the sky is "up" and the ground is "down".

The main purpose of Curiosity's MAHLI camera is to acquire close-up, high-resolution views of rocks and soil at the rover's Gale Crater field site. The camera is capable of focusing on any target at distances of about 0.8 inch (2.1 centimeters) to infinity. This means it can, as seen here, also obtain pictures of the Martian landscape.

Mission Status: Aug. 6, 2012, 7:38 p.m. CDT (0038 GMT Aug. 7)
Curiosity's descent to Gale Crater...

During the final few minutes of Curiosity's flight to the surface of Mars, the Mars Descent Imager, or MARDI, recorded a full-color video of the ground below. The stop-frame video provides an unprecedented view of what it is like to ride a spacecraft to a landing on Mars.

The video strings together the 297 low-resolution thumbnail frames that have been transmitted back to Earth, spanning the last two and a half minutes of Curiosity's descent. The video begins with the jettison of the heat shield and ends with the descent stage kicking up dust before the rover settles on the surface.

In addition to providing a spectacular view, the MARDI data allowed for the pinpointing of Curiosity's landing site.

"We actually know where the vehicle landed by matching features in the descent images to the HiRISE mosaics that we had," said Michael Malin, principal investigator for MARDI, referencing the surface imagery taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). "So it landed at -4.5895 South, 137.4417 East."

Mission Status: Aug. 6, 2012, 1:05 p.m. CDT (1805 GMT)
Curiosity caught during descent...

NASA's Curiosity rover, now safely on the surface of Mars' Gale Crater, was caught mid-descent by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The single image, which was captured by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on MRO from a distance of 211.3 miles (340 kilometers) from Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), shows Curiosity just about a minute before it touched down. The rover is lowering to the surface within its descent stage under its supersonic parachute.

"You can see the lines on the parachute, you can see the hole in the top," described Sarah Milkovich, HiRISE investigation scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). "That inset image has been stretched differently so you can see the parachute clearly without saturation."

"HiRISE has taken over 120 pictures of Gale as part of the landing site selection and characterization process, but I really think that this is the coolest one," she added.

Curiosity landed at 12:14 a.m. CDT (0514 GMT) Aug. 6 near the foot of a mountain 3 miles (about 5 kilometers) tall inside Gale Crater, 96 miles (nearly 155 kilometers) in diameter.

Mission Status: Aug. 6, 2012, 12:32 a.m. CDT (0532 GMT)
Curiosity lands on Mars!

NASA's Curiosity rover has landed on Mars!

Its descent-stage retrorockets fired, guiding it to the surface of the Red Planet. Nylon cords lowered the rover to the ground in the "sky crane" maneuver. When the spacecraft sensed the touchdown, the connecting cords were severed, and the descent stage flew out of the way.

The time of day at the landing site is mid-afternoon — about 3:00 p.m. local Mars time at Gale Crater.

This image shows one of the first views from NASA's Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars, taken through a fisheye wide-angle lens on one of the rover's hazard-avoidance cameras. These engineering cameras are located at the rover's base. As planned, the early received images are lower resolution. Larger color images are expected later this week when the rover's mast, carrying high-resolution cameras, is deployed.

The clear dust cover that protected the camera during landing has been sprung open. Part of the spring that released the cover is visible at the bottom right, near the rover's wheel.

Mission Status: Aug. 6, 2012, 12:29 a.m. CDT (0529 GMT)
Parachute pops open...

The parachute guiding NASA's Mars Science Laboratory to the surface of Mars has opened.

At this point, the Curiosity rover has already slowed down considerably due to friction with the atmosphere. The parachute, which is 51 feet (16 meters) in diameter, deploys approximately 254 seconds after entry, at an altitude of about 7 miles (11 kilometers) and a velocity of about 900 mph (about 405 meters per second).

Mission Status: Aug. 6, 2012, 12:25 a.m. CDT (0525 GMT)
Sailing through the Martian atmosphere...

Mars Science Laboratory has entered Mars' atmosphere.

The top of the atmosphere gradually transitions to interplanetary space, it is not a sharp boundary. In addition, the atmospheric entry point is not directly above the landing site. While descending from that altitude to the surface, the spacecraft will also be traveling eastward relative to the Mars surface, covering a ground-track distance of about 390 miles (630 kilometers) between the entry point and the touchdown target.

Two tungsten weights will be released to shift the spacecraft's center of mass and give it the lift it needs to fly through the atmosphere.

Mission Status: Aug. 6, 2012, 12:15 a.m. CDT (0515 GMT)
Curiosity sheds its cruise stage...

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft, carrying Curiosity, has separated from the cruise stage that carried it from Earth to the Red Planet.

The rover, snuggly packed between a protective back shell and forward heat shield, is about 10 minutes away from entering Mars atmosphere and about 17 minutes away from landing.

Thrusters located on the back shell are orienting the spacecraft so the heat shield faces forward in preparation for entering the atmosphere. At this stage, the Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent and Landing Instrument (MEDLI) suite begins recording measurements related to the performance of the spacecraft's heat shield that will aid in the design of future missions.

Mission Status: Aug. 5, 2012, 9:10 p.m. CDT (0210 GMT Aug. 6)
Curiosity set for Mars landing tonight...

Its approximately 352 million mile (567 million kilometer), 36-week trip from Earth almost complete, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft and its Curiosity rover are "all systems go" for touchdown in Mars' Gale Crater tonight at 12:31 a.m. CDT (0531 GMT).

Sunday morning (Aug. 5), flight controllers decided to forgo the sixth and final opportunity they had for a course-correction maneuver. MSL is headed for its entry point at the top of the atmosphere precisely enough that the maneuver was deemed unnecessary.

In addition, mission controllers determined that no further updates were necessary to the on board information the spacecraft will use during its autonomous control of MSL's entry, descent and landing.

As of 8:18 p.m. CDT on Sunday, MSL was approximately 36,000 miles (57,936 km) from Mars, traveling about 8,400 mph (about 3,755 meters per second).

Tonight's schedule (ideal estimates for Earth-receive times in CDT)
  • 12:24:34 a.m. — Entry into Mars atmosphere
  • 12:25:49 a.m. — Peak heating (3,800 F°)
  • 12:25:59 a.m. — Peak deceleration (10g - 11g)
  • 12:28:46 a.m. — Six tungsten Entry Balance Mass Devices (55 lbs each) are ejected from the back shell
  • 12:28:48 a.m. — Parachute deploys (70 foot diameter)
  • 12:29:12 a.m. — Heat shield separation: Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) begins imaging, the terminal descent sensor begins collecting velocity and altitude info
  • 12:30:38 a.m. — Descent Stage with Curiosity separates from back shell and does a horizontal maneuver
  • 12:31:14 a.m. — Four of eight engines shut off as Curiosity separates from descent stage ("sky crane"), rover extended to full length (24.6 foot bridal) and mobility system (wheels) deployed
  • 10:31:30 a.m. — Touchdown of Curiosity on Mars!

Mission Status: Aug. 4, 2012, 9:30 p.m. CDT (0230 GMT Aug. 5)
Curiosity closes in on its new home...

With Mars looming ever larger, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft and its Curiosity rover are in the final stages of preparing for entry, descent and landing on the Red Planet at 12:31 a.m. CDT Aug. 6 (0531 GMT).

On Saturday (Aug. 4), the mission's flight team uplinked commands to make minor corrections to the spacecraft's navigation. On board MSL, as part of the automated activities that will lead to the landing, heaters were turned on to prepare the eight retrorockets on the descent stage, called the Mars landing engines.

As of 9:30 p.m. CDT, MSL was approximately 221,000 miles (355,665 kilometers) from Mars, closing in at a little more than 8,000 mph (about 3,600 meters per second).

"I'm closer to Mars than the moon is to Earth." — @MarsCuriosity

Mission Status: Aug. 3, 2012, 3:43 p.m. CDT (2043 GMT)
Curiosity on course for landing...

With less than three days to go before its touchdown on Mars, Curiosity remains in good health, with all systems operating as expected.

Given the spacecraft's consistent and stable course, team members decided that today's planned trajectory correction and its corresponding update to the software that will control events during entry, descent and landing was not necessary.

As of 2:35 p.m. CDT (1935 GMT), Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) was approximately 468,000 miles (753,200 kilometers) from Mars, or a little less than twice the distance from Earth to the moon. It is traveling at about 8,000 mph (3,576 meters per second). It will gradually increase in speed to about 13,200 mph (5,900 meters per second) by the time it reaches the top of the Martian atmosphere.

Mission Status: Aug. 2, 2012, 4:22 p.m. CDT (2122 GMT)
Preparing for Entry, Descent and Landing...

With Curiosity now under the control of the autonomous entry, descent and landing (EDL) timeline, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) team is continuing to monitor the spacecraft's health and trajectory.

In the event that a trajectory correction is needed to fine-tune the craft's course to reach Curiosity's target landing area, that maneuver would be executed on Friday (Aug. 3).

Curiosity remains in good health, with no issues currently in work.

Curiosity - 7 Minutes of Terror