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  NASA's Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (Page 2)

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Author Topic:   NASA's Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory
Robert Pearlman
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NASA Mars Rover Team Aims for Landing Closer to Prime Science Site

NASA has narrowed the target for its most advanced Mars rover, Curiosity, which will land on the Red Planet in August. The car-sized rover will arrive closer to its ultimate destination for science operations, but also closer to the foot of a mountain slope that poses a landing hazard.

"We're trimming the distance we'll have to drive after landing by almost half," said Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "That could get us to the mountain months earlier."

Above: This image shows changes in the target landing area for Curiosity, the rover of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory project. The larger ellipse was the target area prior to early June 2012, when the project revised it to the smaller ellipse centered nearer to the foot of Mount Sharp, inside Gale Crater.

It was possible to adjust landing plans because of increased confidence in precision landing technology aboard the MSL spacecraft, which is carrying the rover. That spacecraft can aim closer without hitting Mount Sharp at the center of Gale crater. Rock layers located in the mountain are the prime location for research with the rover.

Curiosity is scheduled to land at approximately 10:31 p.m. PDT Aug. 5 (1:31 a.m. EDT, Aug. 6). Following checkout operations, Curiosity will begin a 2-year study of whether the landing vicinity ever offered an environment favorable for microbial life.

Theisinger and other mission leaders described the target adjustment during a June 11 update to reporters Monday about preparations for landing and for operating Curiosity on Mars.

The landing target ellipse had been an ellipse approximately 12 miles wide and 16 miles long (20 kilometers by 25 kilometers). Continuing analysis of the new landing system's capabilities has allowed mission planners to shrink the area to approximately 4 miles wide and 12 miles long (7 kilometers by 20 kilometers), assuming winds and other atmospheric conditions as predicted.

Above: As of June 2012, the target landing area for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission is the ellipse marked on this image of Gale Crater. The ellipse is about 12 miles long and 4 miles wide (20 kilometers by 7 kilometers).

Even with the smaller ellipse, Curiosity will be able to touch down at a safe distance from steep slopes at the edge of Mount Sharp.

"We have been preparing for years for a successful landing by Curiosity, and all signs are good," said Dave Lavery, MSL program executive. "However, landing on Mars always carries risks, so success is not guaranteed. Once on the ground we'll proceed carefully. We have plenty of time since Curiosity is not as life-limited as the approximate 90-day missions like NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix lander.”

Since the spacecraft was launched in November 2011, engineers have continued testing and improving its landing software. MSL will use an upgraded version of flight software installed on its computers during the past two weeks. Additional upgrades for Mars surface operations will be sent to the rover about a week after landing.

Other preparations include upgrades to the rover's software and understanding effects of debris coming from the drill the rover will use to collect samples from rocks on Mars. Experiments at JPL indicate that Teflon from the drill could mix with the powdered samples. Testing will continue past landing with copies of the drill. The rover will deliver the samples to onboard instruments that can identify mineral and chemical ingredients.

"The material from the drill could complicate, but will not prevent analysis of carbon content in rocks by one of the rover's 10 instruments. There are workarounds," said John Grotzinger, MSL project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "Organic carbon compounds in an environment are one prerequisite for life. We know meteorites deliver non-biological organic carbon to Mars, but not whether it persists near the surface. We will be checking for that and for other chemical and mineral clues about habitability."

Curiosity will be in good company as it nears landing. Two NASA Mars orbiters along with a European Space Agency orbiter will be in position to listen to radio transmissions as MSL descends through Mars' atmosphere.

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NASA's car-sized rover nears landing on Mars

NASA's most advanced planetary rover is on a precise course for an early August landing beside a Martian mountain to begin two years of unprecedented scientific detective work. However, getting the Curiosity rover to the surface of Mars will not be easy.

"The Curiosity landing is the hardest NASA mission ever attempted in the history of robotic planetary exploration," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "While the challenge is great, the team's skill and determination give me high confidence in a successful landing."

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission is a precursor mission for future human mission to Mars. President Obama has set a challenge to reach the Red Planet in the 2030s.

To achieve the precision needed for landing safely inside Gale Crater, the spacecraft will fly like a wing in the upper atmosphere instead of dropping like a rock. To land the 1-ton rover, an air-bag method used on previous Mars rovers will not work. Mission engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., designed a "sky crane" method for the final several seconds of the flight. A backpack with retro-rockets controlling descent speed will lower the rover on three nylon cords just before touchdown.

During a critical period lasting only about seven minutes, the MSL spacecraft carrying Curiosity must decelerate from about 13,200 mph (about 5,900 meters per second) to allow the rover to land on the surface at about 1.7 mph (three-fourths of a meter per second). Curiosity is scheduled to land at approximately 1:31 a.m. EDT Aug. 6 (10:31 p.m. PDT Aug. 5).

"Those seven minutes are the most challenging part of this entire mission," said Pete Theisinger, JPL's MSL project manager. "For the landing to succeed, hundreds of events will need to go right, many with split-second timing and all controlled autonomously by the spacecraft. We've done all we can think of to succeed. We expect to get Curiosity safely onto the ground, but there is no guarantee. The risks are real."

During the initial weeks after the actual landing, JPL mission controllers will put the rover through a series of checkouts and activities to characterize its performance on Mars while gradually ramping up scientific investigations. Curiosity then will begin investigating whether an area with a wet history inside Mars' Gale Crater ever has offered an environment favorable for microbial life.

"Earlier missions have found that ancient Mars had wet environments," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Program at NASA Headquarters. "Curiosity takes us the next logical step in understanding the potential for life on Mars."

Curiosity will use tools on a robotic arm to deliver samples from Martian rocks and soils into laboratory instruments inside the rover that can reveal chemical and mineral composition. A laser instrument will use its beam to induce a spark on a target and read the spark's spectrum of light to identify chemical elements in the target.

Other instruments on the car-sized rover will examine the surrounding environment from a distance or by direct touch with the arm. The rover will check for the basic chemical ingredients for life and for evidence about energy available for life. It also will assess factors that could be hazardous for life, such as the radiation environment.

"For its ambitious goals, this mission needs a great landing site and a big payload," said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters. "During the descent through the atmosphere, the mission will rely on bold techniques enabling use of a smaller target area and a heavier robot on the ground than were possible for any previous Mars mission. Those techniques also advance us toward human-crew Mars missions, which will need even more precise targeting and heavier landers."

The chosen landing site is beside a mountain informally called Mount Sharp. The mission's prime destination lies on the slope of the mountain. Driving there from the landing site may take many months.

"Be patient about the drive. It will be well worth the wait and we are apt to find some targets of interest on the way," said John Grotzinger, MSL project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "When we get to the lower layers in Mount Sharp, we'll read them like chapters in a book about changing environmental conditions when Mars was wetter than it is today."

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NASA Mars orbiter repositioned to phone home Mars landing

NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft has successfully adjusted its orbital location to be in a better position to provide prompt confirmation of the August landing of the Curiosity rover.

The Mars Science Laboratory carrying Curiosity can send limited information directly to Earth as it enters Mars' atmosphere. Before the landing, Earth will set below the Martian horizon from the descending spacecraft's perspective, ending that direct route of communication. Odyssey will help to speed up the indirect communication process.

NASA reported on July 16 that Odyssey, which originally was planned to provide a near-real-time communication link with Curiosity, had entered safe mode July 11. This would have affected communication operations, but not the rover's landing. Without a repositioning maneuver, Odyssey would have arrived over the landing area about two minutes after Curiosity landed.

A spacecraft thruster burn Tuesday lasting about six seconds has nudged Odyssey about six minutes ahead in its orbit. Odyssey now is operating normally, and confirmation of Curiosity's landing is expected to reach Earth at about 10:31 p.m. PDT Aug. 5, as originally planned.

"Information we are receiving indicates the maneuver has been completed as planned," said Gaylon McSmith, Mars Odyssey project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, Calif. "Odyssey has been working at Mars longer than any other spacecraft, so it is appropriate that it has a special role in supporting the newest arrival."

Two other Mars orbiters, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the European Space Agency's Mars Express, also will be in position to receive radio transmissions from MSL during its descent. However, they will be recording information for later playback. Only Odyssey can relay information immediately.

Odyssey arrived at Mars in 2001. In addition to its own scientific observations, it has served as a communications relay for NASA's Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers and the Phoenix lander. Spirit and Phoenix are no longer operational. Odyssey and MRO will provide communication relays for Curiosity during the rover's two-year prime mission.

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Entry, descent and landing timeline activated

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) continues its final preparations for entry, descent and landing this upcoming weekend.

On July 30, the flight team completed and confirmed a memory test on the software for the mechanical assembly that controls MSL's descent motor. They also configured the spacecraft for its transition to entry, descent and landing approach mode, and they enabled the spacecraft's hardware pyrotechnic devices.

MSL is now under the control of the autonomous entry, descent and landing timeline flight software. The flight team continues to monitor Curiosity's onboard systems and flight trajectory. The spacecraft and ground systems remain in good health, with no significant issues being worked.

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Entry, descent and landing...

For updates through the entry, descent and landing at Gale Crater, see the collectSPACE Special Report: Curiosity: Mars Science Laboratory with live reporting from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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collectSPACE
NASA's Curiosity lands on Mars: Car-sized rover to seek signs of life-friendly land

NASA has a new six-wheeled science lab on Mars.

The car-size Curiosity rover touched down safely on the Red Planet at 1:17:57 a.m. EDT (0517 GMT) on Monday (Aug. 6), after eight months cruising from Earth to Mars. Leading up to the landing was a 7-minute automated entry and descent through the planet's atmosphere that relied on thrusters, a supersonic parachute, eight retrorockets and a "sky crane" to deposit the nearly one-ton, nuclear-powered rover at Gale Crater.

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collectSPACE
NASA's Mars rover Curiosity leaves coded tracks on first test drive

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has left its first tracks in the Martian soil, leaving the coded mark of its maker in its trail.

On Wednesday (Aug. 22), the car-size, six-wheeled rover took its first test drive since arriving on the Red Planet more than two weeks ago. Its drivers on Earth ordered Curiosity to roll forward about 15 feet, (4.5 meters), turn right and then back up about 8 feet (2.5 meters), such that when it stopped it was positioned to the left and roughly perpendicular to where it touched down inside Mars' Gale Crater.

"You can see in the tracks how we drive forward, and then you can see roughly a circle, which is where the rover did what we call its turn in place maneuver," said lead rover planner Matt Heverly of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "So it steered all of its wheels and then performed a turn of a 120 degrees, pivoting about a point in the center of that circle, and then it backed up."

Curiosity's path to its new parking spot was emblazoned on the Martian surface by a series of dash and dot tread marks that were left in the soil by each of the rover's 20-inch diameter (50 centimeter) wheels...

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NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory release
NASA Mars rover fully analyzes first martian soil samples

NASA's Mars Curiosity rover has used its full array of instruments to analyze Martian soil for the first time, and found a complex chemistry within the Martian soil. Water and sulfur and chlorine-containing substances, among other ingredients, showed up in samples that Curiosity's arm delivered to an analytical laboratory inside the rover.

Above: A view of the third (left) and fourth (right) trenches made by the 1.6-inch-wide (4-centimeter-wide) scoop on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity in October 2012.

Detection of the substances during this early phase of the mission demonstrates the laboratory's capability to analyze diverse soil and rock samples over the next two years. Scientists also have been verifying the capabilities of the rover's instruments.

Curiosity is the first Mars rover able to scoop soil into analytical instruments. The specific soil sample came from a drift of windblown dust and sand called "Rocknest." The site lies in a relatively flat part of Gale Crater still miles away from the rover's main destination on the slope of a mountain called Mount Sharp. The rover's laboratory includes the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite and the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument. SAM used three methods to analyze gases given off from the dusty sand when it was heated in a tiny oven. One class of substances SAM checks for is organic compounds — carbon-containing chemicals that can be ingredients for life.

"We have no definitive detection of Martian organics at this point, but we will keep looking in the diverse environments of Gale Crater," said SAM Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Curiosity's APXS instrument and the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on the rover's arm confirmed Rocknest has chemical-element composition and textural appearance similar to sites visited by earlier NASA Mars rovers Pathfinder, Spirit and Opportunity.

Curiosity's team selected Rocknest as the first scooping site because it has fine sand particles suited for scrubbing interior surfaces of the arm's sample-handling chambers. Sand was vibrated inside the chambers to remove residue from Earth. MAHLI close-up images of Rocknest show a dust-coated crust one or two sand grains thick, covering dark, finer sand.

"Active drifts on Mars look darker on the surface," said MAHLI Principal Investigator Ken Edgett, of Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego."This is an older drift that has had time to be inactive, letting the crust form and dust accumulate on it."

CheMin's examination of Rocknest samples found the composition is about half common volcanic minerals and half non-crystalline materials such as glass. SAM added information about ingredients present in much lower concentrations and about ratios of isotopes. Isotopes are different forms of the same element and can provide clues about environmental changes. The water seen by SAM does not mean the drift was wet. Water molecules bound to grains of sand or dust are not unusual, but the quantity seen was higher than anticipated.

SAM tentatively identified the oxygen and chlorine compound perchlorate. This is a reactive chemical previously found in arctic Martian soil by NASA's Phoenix Lander. Reactions with other chemicals heated in SAM formed chlorinated methane compounds — one-carbon organics that were detected by the instrument. The chlorine is of Martian origin, but it is possible the carbon may be of Earth origin, carried by Curiosity and detected by SAM's high sensitivity design.

"We used almost every part of our science payload examining this drift," said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "The synergies of the instruments and richness of the data sets give us great promise for using them at the mission's main science destination on Mount Sharp."

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NASA release
NASA Curiosity rover collects first Martian bedrock sample

NASA's Curiosity rover has, for the first time, used a drill carried at the end of its robotic arm to bore into a flat, veiny rock on Mars and collect a sample from its interior. This is the first time any robot has drilled into a rock to collect a sample on Mars.

Above: An animated set of three images from NASA's Curiosity rover shows the rover's drill in action on Feb. 8, 2013, or Sol 182, Curiosity's 182nd Martian day of operations. This was the first use of the drill for rock sample collection. The target was a rock called "John Klein," in the Yellowknife Bay region of Gale Crater on Mars.

The fresh hole, about 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) wide and 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters) deep in a patch of fine-grained sedimentary bedrock, can be seen in images and other data Curiosity beamed to Earth Saturday. The rock is believed to hold evidence about long-gone wet environments. In pursuit of that evidence, the rover will use its laboratory instruments to analyze rock powder collected by the drill.

"The most advanced planetary robot ever designed now is a fully operating analytical laboratory on Mars," said John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for the agency's Science Mission Directorate. "This is the biggest milestone accomplishment for the Curiosity team since the sky-crane landing last August, another proud day for America."

For the next several days, ground controllers will command the rover's arm to carry out a series of steps to process the sample, ultimately delivering portions to the instruments inside.

"We commanded the first full-depth drilling, and we believe we have collected sufficient material from the rock to meet our objectives of hardware cleaning and sample drop-off," said Avi Okon, drill cognizant engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena.

Rock powder generated during drilling travels up flutes on the bit. The bit assembly has chambers to hold the powder until it can be transferred to the sample-handling mechanisms of the rover's Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis (CHIMRA) device.

Before the rock powder is analyzed, some will be used to scour traces of material that may have been deposited onto the hardware while the rover still was on Earth, despite thorough cleaning before launch.

"We'll take the powder we acquired and swish it around to scrub the internal surfaces of the drill bit assembly," said JPL's Scott McCloskey, drill systems engineer. "Then we'll use the arm to transfer the powder out of the drill into the scoop, which will be our first chance to see the acquired sample."

"Building a tool to interact forcefully with unpredictable rocks on Mars required an ambitious development and testing program," said JPL's Louise Jandura, chief engineer for Curiosity's sample system."To get to the point of making this hole in a rock on Mars, we made eight drills and bored more than 1,200 holes in 20 types of rock on Earth."

Inside the sample-handling device, the powder will be vibrated once or twice over a sieve that screens out any particles larger than six-thousandths of an inch (150 microns) across. Small portions of the sieved sample will fall through ports on the rover deck into the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument and the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument. These instruments then will begin the much-anticipated detailed analysis.

The rock Curiosity drilled is called "John Klein" in memory of a Mars Science Laboratory deputy project manager who died in 2011. Drilling for a sample is the last new activity for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Project, which is using the car-size Curiosity rover to investigate whether an area within Mars' Gale Crater has ever offered an environment favorable for life.

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NASA release
NASA Mars rover confirms first drilled Martian rock sample

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has relayed new images that confirm it has successfully obtained the first sample ever collected from the interior of a rock on another planet. No rover has ever drilled into a rock beyond Earth and collected a sample from its interior.

Transfer of the powdered-rock sample into an open scoop was visible for the first time in images received Wednesday at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

"Seeing the powder from the drill in the scoop allows us to verify for the first time the drill collected a sample as it bore into the rock," said JPL's Scott McCloskey, drill systems engineer for Curiosity. "Many of us have been working toward this day for years. Getting final confirmation of successful drilling is incredibly gratifying. For the sampling team, this is the equivalent of the landing team going crazy after the successful touchdown."

The drill on Curiosity's robotic arm took in the powder as it bored a 2.5-inch (6.4-centimeter) hole into a target on flat Martian bedrock on Feb. 8. The rover team plans to have Curiosity sieve the sample and deliver portions of it to analytical instruments inside the rover.

The scoop now holding the precious sample is part of Curiosity's Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis (CHIMRA) device. During the next steps of processing, the powder will be enclosed inside CHIMRA and shaken once or twice over a sieve that screens out particles larger than 0.006 inch (150 microns) across.

Small portions of the sieved sample later will be delivered through inlet ports on top of the rover deck into the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument and Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument.

In response to information gained during testing at JPL, the processing and delivery plan has been adjusted to reduce use of mechanical vibration. The 150-micron screen in one of the two test versions of CHIMRA became partially detached after extensive use, although it remained usable. The team has added precautions for use of Curiosity's sampling system while continuing to study the cause and ramifications of the separation.

The sample comes from a fine-grained, veiny sedimentary rock called "John Klein," named in memory of a Mars Science Laboratory deputy project manager who died in 2011. The rock was selected for the first sample drilling because it may hold evidence of wet environmental conditions long ago. The rover's laboratory analysis of the powder may provide information about those conditions.

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NASA release
Computer Swap on Curiosity Rover

The ground team for NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has switched the rover to a redundant onboard computer in response to a memory issue on the computer that had been active.

The intentional swap at about 2:30 a.m. PST today (Thursday, Feb. 28) put the rover, as anticipated, into a minimal-activity precautionary status called "safe mode." The team is shifting the rover from safe mode to operational status over the next few days and is troubleshooting the condition that affected operations yesterday. The condition is related to a glitch in flash memory linked to the other, now-inactive, computer.

"We switched computers to get to a standard state from which to begin restoring routine operations," said Richard Cook of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, project manager for the Mars Science Laboratory Project, which built and operates Curiosity.

Like many spacecraft, Curiosity carries a pair of redundant main computers in order to have a backup available if one fails. Each of the computers, A-side and B-side, also has other redundant subsystems linked to just that computer. Curiosity is now operating on its B-side, as it did during part of the flight from Earth to Mars. It operated on its A-side from before the August 2012 landing through Wednesday.

"While we are resuming operations on the B-side, we are also working to determine the best way to restore the A-side as a viable backup," said JPL engineer Magdy Bareh, leader of the mission's anomaly resolution team.

The spacecraft remained in communications at all scheduled communication windows on Wednesday, but it did not send recorded data, only current status information. The status information revealed that the computer had not switched to the usual daily "sleep" mode when planned. Diagnostic work in a testing simulation at JPL indicates the situation involved corrupted memory at an A-side memory location used for addressing memory files.

Scientific investigations by the rover were suspended Wednesday and today. Resumption of science investigations is anticipated within several days. This week, laboratory instruments inside the rover have been analyzing portions of the first sample of rock powder ever collected from the interior of a rock on Mars.

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NASA release
NASA Rover Finds Conditions Once Suited for Ancient Life on Mars

An analysis of a rock sample collected by NASA's Curiosity rover shows ancient Mars could have supported living microbes.

Scientists identified sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon -- some of the key chemical ingredients for life -- in the powder Curiosity drilled out of a sedimentary rock near an ancient stream bed in Gale Crater on the Red Planet last month.

"A fundamental question for this mission is whether Mars could have supported a habitable environment," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "From what we know now, the answer is yes."

Clues to this habitable environment come from data returned by the rover's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instruments. The data indicate the Yellowknife Bay area the rover is exploring was the end of an ancient river system or an intermittently wet lake bed that could have provided chemical energy and other favorable conditions for microbes. The rock is made up of a fine-grained mudstone containing clay minerals, sulfate minerals and other chemicals. This ancient wet environment, unlike some others on Mars, was not harshly oxidizing, acidic or extremely salty.

The patch of bedrock where Curiosity drilled for its first sample lies in an ancient network of stream channels descending from the rim of Gale Crater. The bedrock also is fine-grained mudstone and shows evidence of multiple periods of wet conditions, including nodules and veins.

Curiosity's drill collected the sample at a site just a few hundred yards away from where the rover earlier found an ancient streambed in September 2012.

"Clay minerals make up at least 20 percent of the composition of this sample," said David Blake, principal investigator for the CheMin instrument at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

These clay minerals are a product of the reaction of relatively fresh water with igneous minerals, such as olivine, also present in the sediment. The reaction could have taken place within the sedimentary deposit, during transport of the sediment, or in the source region of the sediment. The presence of calcium sulfate along with the clay suggests the soil is neutral or mildly alkaline.

Scientists were surprised to find a mixture of oxidized, less-oxidized, and even non-oxidized chemicals, providing an energy gradient of the sort many microbes on Earth exploit to live. This partial oxidation was first hinted at when the drill cuttings were revealed to be gray rather than red.

"The range of chemical ingredients we have identified in the sample is impressive, and it suggests pairings such as sulfates and sulfides that indicate a possible chemical energy source for micro-organisms," said Paul Mahaffy, principal investigator of the SAM suite of instruments at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

An additional drilled sample will be used to help confirm these results for several of the trace gases analyzed by the SAM instrument.

"We have characterized a very ancient, but strangely new 'gray Mars' where conditions once were favorable for life," said John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. "Curiosity is on a mission of discovery and exploration, and as a team we feel there are many more exciting discoveries ahead of us in the months and years to come."

Scientists plan to work with Curiosity in the "Yellowknife Bay" area for many more weeks before beginning a long drive to Gale Crater's central mound, Mount Sharp. Investigating the stack of layers exposed on Mount Sharp, where clay minerals and sulfate minerals have been identified from orbit, may add information about the duration and diversity of habitable conditions.

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NASA release
Curiosity Rover Exits 'Safe Mode'

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has returned to active status and is on track to resume science investigations, following two days in a precautionary standby status, "safe mode."

Next steps will include checking the rover's active computer, the B-side computer, by commanding a preliminary free-space move of the arm. The B-side computer was provided information last week about the position of the robotic arm, which was last moved by the redundant A-side computer.

The rover was switched from the A-side to the B-side by engineers on Feb. 28 in response to a memory glitch on the A-side. The A-side now is available as a back-up if needed.

"We expect to get back to sample-analysis science by the end of the week," said Curiosity Mission Manager Jennifer Trosper of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Engineers quickly diagnosed the software issue that prompted the safe mode on March 16 and know how to prevent it from happening again.

Other upcoming activities include preparations for a moratorium on transmitting commands to Curiosity during most of April, when Mars will be passing nearly directly behind the sun from Earth's perspective. The moratorium is a precaution against interference by the sun corrupting a command sent to the rover.

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NASA release
Used Parachute on Mars Flaps in the Wind

Photos from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show how the parachute that helped NASA's Curiosity rover land on Mars last summer has subsequently changed its shape on the ground.

The images were obtained by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Seven images taken by HiRISE between Aug. 12, 2012, and Jan. 13, 2013, show the used parachute shifting its shape at least twice in response to wind.

Researchers have used HiRISE to study many types of changes on Mars. Its first image of Curiosity's parachute, not included in this series, caught the spacecraft suspended from the chute during descent through the Martian atmosphere.

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NASA release
NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover Nears Turning Point

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission is approaching its biggest turning point since landing its rover, Curiosity, inside Mars' Gale Crater last summer.

Curiosity is finishing investigations in an area smaller than a football field where it has been working for six months, and it will soon shift to a distance-driving mode headed for an area about 5 miles (8 kilometers) away, at the base Mount Sharp.

In May, the mission drilled a second rock target for sample material and delivered portions of that rock powder into laboratory instruments in one week, about one-fourth as much time as needed at the first drilled rock.

"We're hitting full stride," said Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager Jim Erickson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "We needed a more deliberate pace for all the first-time activities by Curiosity since landing, but we won't have many more of those."

No additional rock drilling or soil scooping is planned in the "Glenelg" area that Curiosity entered last fall as the mission's first destination after landing. To reach Glenelg, the rover drove east about a third of a mile (500 meters) from the landing site. To reach the next destination, Mount Sharp, Curiosity will drive toward the southwest for many months.

"We don't know when we'll get to Mount Sharp," Erickson said. "This truly is a mission of exploration, so just because our end goal is Mount Sharp doesn't mean we're not going to investigate interesting features along the way."

Images of Mount Sharp taken from orbit and images Curiosity has taken from a distance reveal many layers where scientists anticipate finding evidence about how the ancient Martian environment changed and evolved.

While completing major first-time activities since landing, the mission has also already accomplished its main science objective. Analysis of rock powder from the first drilled rock target, "John Klein," provided evidence that an ancient environment in Gale Crater had favorable conditions for microbial life: the essential elemental ingredients, energy and ponded water that was neither too acidic nor too briny.

The rover team chose a similar rock, "Cumberland," as the second drilling target to provide a check for the findings at John Klein. Scientists are analyzing laboratory-instrument results from portions of the Cumberland sample. One new capability being used is to drive away while still holding rock powder in Curiosity's sample-handling device to supply additional material to instruments later if desired by the science team.

For the drill campaign at Cumberland, steps that each took a day or more at John Klein could be combined into a single day's sequence of commands. "We used the experience and lessons from our first drilling campaign, as well as new cached sample capabilities, to do the second drill campaign far more efficiently," said sampling activity lead Joe Melko of JPL. "In addition, we increased use of the rover's autonomous self-protection. This allowed more activities to be strung together before the ground team had to check in on the rover."

The science team has chosen three targets for brief observations before Curiosity leaves the Glenelg area: the boundary between bedrock areas of mudstone and sandstone, a layered outcrop called "Shaler" and a pitted outcrop called "Point Lake."

JPL's Joy Crisp, deputy project scientist for Curiosity, said "Shaler might be a river deposit. Point Lake might be volcanic or sedimentary. A closer look at them could give us better understanding of how the rocks we sampled with the drill fit into the history of how the environment changed."

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NASA video release
Twelve Months in Two Minutes; Curiosity's First Year on Mars

Here is a rover's eye view of driving, scooping and drilling during Curiosity's first year on Mars, August 2012 through July 2013.

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NASA release
NASA Curiosity Rover Detects No Methane on Mars

Data from NASA's Curiosity rover has revealed the Martian environment lacks methane. This is a surprise to researchers because previous data reported by U.S. and international scientists indicated positive detections.

The roving laboratory performed extensive tests to search for traces of Martian methane. Whether the Martian atmosphere contains traces of the gas has been a question of high interest for years because methane could be a potential sign of life, although it also can be produced without biology.

"This important result will help direct our efforts to examine the possibility of life on Mars," said Michael Meyer, NASA's lead scientist for Mars exploration. "It reduces the probability of current methane-producing Martian microbes, but this addresses only one type of microbial metabolism. As we know, there are many types of terrestrial microbes that don't generate methane."

Curiosity analyzed samples of the Martian atmosphere for methane six times from October 2012 through June and detected none. Given the sensitivity of the instrument used, the Tunable Laser Spectrometer, and not detecting the gas, scientists calculate the amount of methane in the Martian atmosphere today must be no more than 1.3 parts per billion, which is about one-sixth as much as some earlier estimates. Details of the findings appear in the Thursday edition of Science Express.

"It would have been exciting to find methane, but we have high confidence in our measurements, and the progress in expanding knowledge is what's really important," said the report's lead author, Chris Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We measured repeatedly from Martian spring to late summer, but with no detection of methane."

Webster is the lead scientist for spectrometer, which is part of Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory. It can be tuned specifically for detection of trace methane. The laboratory also can concentrate any methane to increase the gas' ability to be detected. The rover team will use this method to check for methane at concentrations well below 1 part per billion.

Methane, the most abundant hydrocarbon in our solar system, has one carbon atom bound to four hydrogen atoms in each molecule. Previous reports of localized methane concentrations up to 45 parts per billion on Mars, which sparked interest in the possibility of a biological source on Mars, were based on observations from Earth and from orbit around Mars. However, the measurements from Curiosity are not consistent with such concentrations, even if the methane had dispersed globally.

"There's no known way for methane to disappear quickly from the atmosphere," said one of the paper's co-authors, Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan. "Methane is persistent. It would last for hundreds of years in the Martian atmosphere. Without a way to take it out of the atmosphere quicker, our measurements indicate there cannot be much methane being put into the atmosphere by any mechanism, whether biology, geology, or by ultraviolet degradation of organics delivered by the fall of meteorites or interplanetary dust particles."

The highest concentration of methane that could be present without being detected by Curiosity's measurements so far would amount to no more than 10 to 20 tons per year of methane entering the Martian atmosphere, Atreya estimated. That is about 50 million times less than the rate of methane entering Earth's atmosphere.

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NASA release
Mars orbiter images rover, tracks in Gale Crater

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover and its recent tracks from driving in Gale Crater appear in an image taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Dec. 11, 2013.

Excerpts from the large HiRISE observation show the rover and tracks across a landscape in enhanced color.

The tracks show where the rover has zigzagged around obstacles on its route toward the lower slopes of Mount Sharp, its next major destination.

HiRISE first imaged the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft while it was descending on a parachute to place Curiosity on Mars 17 months ago. Since then, it has provided updated views of the rover's traverse, as seen from orbit.

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NASA release
NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover Marks First Martian Year

NASA's Mars Curiosity rover will complete a Martian year — 687 Earth days — on June 24, having accomplished the mission's main goal of determining whether Mars once offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life.

One of Curiosity's first major findings after landing on the Red Planet in August 2012 was an ancient riverbed at its landing site. Nearby, at an area known as Yellowknife Bay, the mission met its main goal of determining whether the Martian Gale Crater ever was habitable for simple life forms. The answer, a historic "yes," came from two mudstone slabs that the rover sampled with its drill. Analysis of these samples revealed the site was once a lakebed with mild water, the essential elemental ingredients for life, and a type of chemical energy source used by some microbes on Earth. If Mars had living organisms, this would have been a good home for them.

Above: NASA's Curiosity Mars rover used the camera at the end of its arm in April and May 2014 to take dozens of component images combined into this self-portrait where the rover drilled into a sandstone target called "Windjana." Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Other important findings during the first Martian year include:

  • Assessing natural radiation levels both during the flight to Mars and on the Martian surface provides guidance for designing the protection needed for human missions to Mars.

  • Measurements of heavy-versus-light variants of elements in the Martian atmosphere indicate that much of Mars' early atmosphere disappeared by processes favoring loss of lighter atoms, such as from the top of the atmosphere. Other measurements found that the atmosphere holds very little, if any, methane, a gas that can be produced biologically.

  • The first determinations of the age of a rock on Mars and how long a rock has been exposed to harmful radiation provide prospects for learning when water flowed and for assessing degradation rates of organic compounds in rocks and soils.
Curiosity paused in driving this spring to drill and collect a sample from a sandstone site called Windjana. The rover currently is carrying some of the rock-powder sample collected at the site for follow-up analysis.

"Windjana has more magnetite than previous samples we've analyzed," said David Blake, principal investigator for Curiosity's Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California. "A key question is whether this magnetite is a component of the original basalt or resulted from later processes, such as would happen in water-soaked basaltic sediments. The answer is important to our understanding of habitability and the nature of the early-Mars environment."

Preliminary indications are that the rock contains a more diverse mix of clay minerals than was found in the mission's only previously drilled rocks, the mudstone targets at Yellowknife Bay. Windjana also contains an unexpectedly high amount of the mineral orthoclase, a potassium-rich feldspar that is one of the most abundant minerals in Earth's crust that had never before been definitively detected on Mars.

This finding implies that some rocks on the Gale Crater rim, from which the Windjana sandstones are thought to have been derived, may have experienced complex geological processing, such as multiple episodes of melting.

"It's too early for conclusions, but we expect the results to help us connect what we learned at Yellowknife Bay to what we'll learn at Mount Sharp," said John Grotzinger, Curiosity project scientist at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. "Windjana is still within an area where a river flowed. We see signs of a complex history of interaction between water and rock."

Curiosity departed Windjana in mid-May and is advancing westward. It has covered about nine-tenths of a mile (1.5 kilometers) in 23 driving days and brought the mission's odometer tally up to 4.9 miles (7.9 kilometers).

Since wheel damage prompted a slow-down in driving late in 2013, the mission team has adjusted routes and driving methods to reduce the rate of damage.

For example, the mission team revised the planned route to future destinations on the lower slope of an area called Mount Sharp, where scientists expect geological layering will yield answers about ancient environments. Before Curiosity landed, scientists anticipated that the rover would need to reach Mount Sharp to meet the goal of determining whether the ancient environment was favorable for life. They found an answer much closer to the landing site. The findings so far have raised the bar for the work ahead. At Mount Sharp, the mission team will seek evidence not only of habitability, but also of how environments evolved and what conditions favored preservation of clues to whether life existed there.

The entry gate to the mountain is a gap in a band of dunes edging the mountain's northern flank that is approximately 2.4 miles (3.9 kilometers) ahead of the rover's current location. The new path will take Curiosity across sandy patches as well as rockier ground. Terrain mapping with use of imaging from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter enables the charting of safer, though longer, routes.

The team expects it will need to continually adapt to the threats posed by the terrain to the rover's wheels but does not expect this will be a determining factor in the length of Curiosity's operational life.

"We are getting in some long drives using what we have learned," said Jim Erickson, Curiosity project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "When you're exploring another planet, you expect surprises. The sharp, embedded rocks were a bad surprise. Yellowknife Bay was a good surprise."

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NASA release
NASA Mars Curiosity Rover: Two Years and Counting on Red Planet

NASA's most advanced roving laboratory on Mars celebrates its second anniversary since landing inside the Red Planet's Gale Crater on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (Aug. 6, 2012, EDT).

During its first year of operations, the Curiosity rover fulfilled its major science goal of determining whether Mars ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. Clay-bearing sedimentary rocks on the crater floor in an area called Yellowknife Bay yielded evidence of a lakebed environment billions of years ago that offered fresh water, all of the key elemental ingredients for life, and a chemical source of energy for microbes, if any existed there.

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

During its second year, Curiosity has been driving toward long-term science destinations on lower slopes of Mount Sharp. Those destinations are in an area beginning about 2 miles (3 kilometers) southwest of the rover's current location, but an appetizer outcrop of a base layer of the mountain lies much closer -- less than one-third of a mile (500 meters) from Curiosity. The rover team is calling the outcrop "Pahrump Hills."

For about half of July, the rover team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, drove Curiosity across an area of hazardous sharp rocks on Mars called "Zabriskie Plateau." Damage to Curiosity's aluminum wheels from driving across similar terrain last year prompted a change in route, with the plan of skirting such rock-studded terrain wherever feasible. The one-eighth mile (200 meters) across Zabriskie Plateau was one of the longest stretches without a suitable detour on the redesigned route toward the long-term science destination.

Another recent challenge appeared last week in the form of unexpected behavior by an onboard computer currently serving as backup. Curiosity carries duplicate main computers. It has been operating on its B-side computer since a problem with the A-side computer prompted the team to command a side swap in February 2013. Work in subsequent weeks of 2013 restored availability of the A-side as a backup in case of B-side trouble. In July, fresh commanding of the rover was suspended for two days while engineers confirmed that the A-side computer remains reliable as a backup.

To help prepare for future human missions to Mars, Curiosity incudes a radiation detector to measure the environment astronauts will encounter on a round-trip between Earth and the Martian surface. The data are consistent with earlier predictions and will help NASA scientists and engineers develop new technologies to protect astronauts in deep space.

See here for discussion of NASA's Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover.


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