Curiosity: Update 5 – First Scoop, “Rocknest”

Rocknest on Mars

One hundred yards before its destination, Glenelg, Mars Rover Curiosity scoops samples of rock and soil above and below Mars’ surface for two weeks of instrument cleaning and calibrating. Curiosity must “rinse and spit” to rid its instruments of Earth residue. In a nest littered with rocks, appropriately named “Rocknest,” the rover will scoop four times the ordinary Mars material in preparation for samples at Glenelg. According to NASA, “The end of the rover’s 220-pound arm will shake ‘at a nice tooth-rattling vibration level’ for eight hours, like a Martian martini mixer gone mad. That heavy shaking will vibrate the fine dust grains through the rover chemical testing system to cleanse it of unwanted residual Earth grease.” Before Curiosity can scoop material, it must analyze the grain-size distribution and tread the surface with its wheel to expose new material. It will be two weeks before the rover scoops its first analytical sample, or sample number three (the first two are for cleansing) and even more time to analyze the sample composition. The CheMin instrument will identify minerals and the SAM instrument will identify chemical ingredients in sample three and four.

References

Larlham, Chuck. “NASA’s Mars Rover Curiosity—Welcome To “Rocknest” Where Real Science Begins.” Technology.gather.com. Gather.com, 7 Oct 2012. Web. 8 Oct 2012.

Hubbard, Amy. “Curiosity to scoop up Martian soil: First, it must rinse and spit.” LA Times. LA Times, 5 Oct 2012. Web. 8 Oct 2012.

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Curiosity: Update 3 – H2O Traces on Mars

Ancient Martian Stream, Bedrock

On September 27, 2012, the rover Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory) snapped and sent back images of Martian bedrock possibly once home to a fast-moving stream. Curiosity founded rounded pebbles, probably due to erosion by water. The rocks ranging in size from sand grains to golf balls could not have been carried into the Gale Crater by wind, but carried water for a 20 to 25 miles and smoothed out. At one point in the past lasting thousands to millions of years, Mars may have been overflowing with liquid water, but present-day Mars is a barren desert with nothing but remnants of rock carved by water. Curiosity made this remarkable discovery when driving to Glenelg, the point where three types of terrain meet. Finding water is only the first step to discovering a once-habitable environment for microbial life. However, the dried-up stream didn’t preserve organic carbon. Carbon is necessary for life, so Curiosity will head to the foothills of Mount Sharp to find organic materials. Instead of “following the water,” scientists will now “follow the carbon.”

References

” Curiosity finds signs of ancient stream on Mars.” FOX News. Fox News, 27 Sep 2012. Web. 27 Sep 2012.

Kaufman, Mark. “Curiosity rover’s Mars landing site was once covered with fast-moving water, NASA says.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 27 Sep 2012. Web. 27 Sep 2012.

Curiosity: Update 2 – Images and Voices

Mount Sharp, Gale Crater, Mars

On August 27, 2012, the Mars Rover Curiosity beamed back images of Gale Crater’s 3-mile high Mount Sharp, whose layered terrain may reveal further details of Mars’ geological history. Curiosity will eventually travel to Mount Sharp to analyze its rocks by collecting samples. Curiosity also broadcasted a voice recording of NASA administrator Charles Bodin congratulating the Mars Rover team on the successful August 5 landing. In the recording, Bodin said: “This is an extraordinary achievement. Landing a rover on Mars is not easy. Others have tried; only America has fully succeeded.” Mars’ Sample Analysis at Mars instrument (SAM), which passed tests, is in working order and will digest and analyze rocks. In addition, Curiosity will drive to depressions on Mars’ surface where the spacecraft’s landing engines left their mark. These holes will allow Curiosity to image Mars’ interior without drilling. In the next few days, Curiosity will head over 1,300 feet to its first drilling target, Glenelg.

Will.i.am

On August 28, 2012, Curiosity transmitted to Earth (JPL in La Cañada Flintridge) artist will.i.am’s new song titled “Reach for the Stars.” The first music to be broadcasted from another planet, will.i.am’s song traveled 700 million miles to Earth. Will.i.am is an advocator of science and math education. NASA had broadcasted the Beatles’ song “Across the Universe” on the group’s 40th anniversary in 2008.

Mars Science Laboratory/ Curiosity sure is gaining ground in Mars research. What will it discover? What mysteries will Curiosity uncover? Was Mars once habitable for microorganisms? Perhaps only time will tell.

References

” Curiosity rover beams new will.i.am song from Mars.” FOX News. Fox News, 28 Aug 2012. Web. 28 Aug 2012.

Khan, Amina. “Curiosity rover broadcasts message from Mars.” LA Times. LA Times, 27 Aug 2012. Web. 28 Aug 2012.

Curiosity to Land on the Red Planet

Curiosity: A model at the Discovery Science Center

The Mars Rover Curiosity will land on the Red Planet on August 5, 2012 (Pacific Time).

A collaboration between JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and NASA, Mars Rover Curiosity (SUV), otherwise known as Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), has technology that succeeds its predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity (golf carts) and Sojourner (microwave). NASA launched Curiosity on November 26, 2011 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Curiosity is expected to land on August 5, 2012 on the Aeolis Palus region of the Gale crater. Curiosity‘s four objectives are: 1) determine whether Mars is suitable for life; 2) study Mars’ climate; 3) study Mars’ climate; 4) plan future human mission to Mars.

THE BASICS

  • Weight: 2,000 lbs.
  • Length: >9.8 ft.
  • Distance Covered (per day): ~600 ft
  • Lifetime: >687 Earth days (1 Martian year)

SPECIFICATIONS

  • Power: Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) – uses the decay of plutonium-238 to generate 2.5 kilowatt hours per day
  • Heat Rejection System: To keep Curiosity at optimal temperatures since temperatures on Mars vary dramatically (30°C  to -127°C)
  • Computers: “Rover Compute Element” – tolerates extreme radiation from space; Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) – rover navigation
  • Communications: X band transmitter – communicate directly with Earth; UHF Electra-Lite software defined radio – communicate with Mars orbiters
  • Mobility: 6 wheels in rocker-bogie suspension – serve as landing gear

COOL GADGETS

  • Cameras: 1. MastCam – multiple spectra and true color imaging; 2. Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) – microscopic images of rock and soil; 3. MSL Descent Imager (MARDI) – color images to map the  surrounding terrain and landing location
  • ChemCam: laser to vaporize samples up to 7 meters away for analysis, with the laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) and micro-imager (RMI)
  • Alpha-particle X-ray spectrometer (APXS): map the spectra of X-rays to elemental composition of samples
  • Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin): identify and quantify abundance of minerals on Mars
  • Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM): analyze organics and gases from atmospheric and solid samples
  • Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN): measure hydrogen, ice, and water at and near Martian surface
  • Rover Environmental Monitoring System (REMS): measure atmospheric pressure, humidity, wind currents and direction, air and ground temperature, UV levels
  • MSL Entry Descent and Landing Instrumentation (MEDLI): measure aerothermal environments, sub-surface heat shield response, vehicle orientation, atmospheric density; detect heat shield separation
  • Hazard Avoidance Cameras (HazCams): use light to capture 3-D image to protect the rover from crashing
  • Navigation Cameras (Navcams): use visible light to capture 3-D images for navigation

LANDING

Landing Sequence

  • EDL (Entry, Descent, Landing): also called the “7 minutes of Terror,” because any malfunction or any misstep means failure of the mission
  • Landing Sequence: “6 vehicles, 76 pyrotechnic devices, 500,000 lines of code, zero margin of error”; from 13,000 miles an hour to 0 miles and hour; 1,600 degrees upon entry
  • Mar’s atmosphere is 100 times thinner than Earth’s so it is harder for MSL to slow down
  1. Guided Entry: control the craft to approximate landing site region
  2. Parachute Descent: supersonic parachute (can withstand 65,000 lbs of force but only weighs 100 lbs.) deploys at 10 km altitude
  3. Powered Descent: cut parachute off and rocket thrusters (Mars Lander Engine, MLE) extend out and slow the descent
  4. Sky Crane: lower the rover with a 21-foot tether wheels down onto the Martian crater to prevent the rockets from making dust clouds; the bridle is cut and the rock thrusters fly away to a safe distance

INTERESTING FACTS

  • Each wheel on Curiosity has a specific traction pattern that is Morse code for “JPL”
  • It takes 13 minutes and 46 seconds to relay signals from Earth to Curiosity

References

Grecius, Tony, ed. “Mars Science Laboratory.” NASA. NASA, July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012.

Solar Flares in 2012

Solar Flare

2012 marks the height of another 11-year solar cycle as the number of solar flares peak. Throughout 2012, solar flares will disrupt satellite transmissions and radio signals. A solar flare is a high-energy ejection from the sun’s corona, emitting up to 6 × 1025 Joules and reaching up to the edge of the solar system!