According to an analysis done onboard NASA’s Curiosity rover, there is a surprising amount of water bound up in the soil of Mars.
When it heated a small pinch of dirt scooped up from the ground, the most abundant vapor detected was H2O.
Curiosity researcher Laurie Leshin and colleagues tell Science Magazine that Mars’ dusty red covering holds about 2% by weight of water.
This could be a useful resource for future astronauts, they say.
Curiosity soil samples showed that Mars’ dusty red covering holds about 2 percent by weight of water
“If you think about a cubic foot of this dirt and you just heat it a little bit – a few hundred degrees – you’ll actually get off about two pints of water – like two water bottles you’d take to the gym,” Dr. Laurie Leshin explained.
“And this dirt on Mars is interesting because it seems to be about the same everywhere you go. If you are a human explorer, this is really good news because you can quite easily extract water from almost anywhere.”
The revelation about the amount of water chemically bound into the fine-grained particles of the soil is just one nugget of information to come from a series of five papers in the respected journal describing the early exploits of the rover.
Some of this data has been reported previously at science meetings and in NASA press conferences, but the formal write-up gives an opportunity for the wider research community to examine the detail.
NASA has failed to find any evidence that Mars’ atmosphere is supporting life after a year roaming the surface of the Red Planet, it was revealed today.
The Curiosity rover currently scanning the Red Planet has not detected any methane, a gas that is produced by living things.
Since landing in Gale Crater last year, every morning and evening Curiosity has analyzed Mars’ air and scanned it with a tiny laser in search of the greenhouse gas.
Not finding it means that it is unlikely that microbes capable of producing the gas are living below the planet’s surface, scientists said today.
NASA had high hopes that the rover would inhale methane after orbiting spacecraft and Earth-based telescopes detected plumes of the gas several years ago.
On Earth, most of the gas is a by-product of life, spewed when animals digest or plants decay.
“If you had microbial life somewhere on Mars that was really healthy and cranking away, you might see some of the signatures of that in the atmosphere,” said mission scientist Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
The Curiosity rover currently scanning the Red Planet has not detected any methane, a gas that is produced by living things
During Curiosity’s first eight months on the red planet, it probed the air during the day and at night as the season changed from spring to summer.
“Every time we looked, we never saw it,” said Christopher Webster, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who led the research published online in the journal Science.
Christopher Webster said while the result was “disappointing in many ways”, the hunt for the elusive gas continues. While methane is linked to living things, it can also be made by non-biological processes.
Mars today is a hostile place – extremely dry and constantly bombarded by radiation. Billions of years ago, the planet boasted a thicker atmosphere and possible lakes. Scientists generally agree that nothing can exist on the Martian surface at present since it’s too toxic. If there are living things on Mars, scientists theorize they’re likely underground.
Just because Curiosity didn’t detect methane near its landing site doesn’t mean the gas is not present elsewhere on the planet, said Bill Nye, chief executive of the Planetary Society, a space advocacy group.
“Suppose you’re an alien coming to Earth and you landed in the Four Corners area, would you feel as if you’ve explored the Earth?” he said.
Several years ago, scientists became excited at the prospect of methane-producing microbes after Michael Mumma of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center noticed a mysterious belch of methane from three regions in Mars’ western hemisphere.
Michael Mumma, who had no role in the latest study, said he stood by his observations.
Earlier this month, Curiosity reached its first rest stop in its long trek toward Mount Sharp, a mountain rising from Gale Crater near the equator. The rover will take monthly readings of the Martian atmosphere during the road trip, expected to last almost a year.
Curiosity probe previously found evidence of an ancient environment that could have once been suitable for microscopic life. While the latest finding diminishes hope for present-day life, scientists still hope to uncover signs of ancient life by looking for organic compounds at the base of Mount Sharp.
Scientists have found definitive proof that many of the landscapes seen on Mars were indeed cut by flowing water.
The valleys, channels and deltas viewed from orbit have long been thought to be the work of water erosion, but it is NASA’s latest rover, Curiosity, that has provided the “ground truth”.
Researchers report its observations of rounded pebbles on the floor of the Red Planet’s 100 mile-wide Gale Crater.
Their smooth appearance is identical to gravels found in rivers on Earth.
Rock fragments that bounce along the bottom of a stream of water will have their edges knocked off, and when these pebbles finally come to rest they will often align in a characteristic overlapping fashion.
Curiosity has pictured these features in a number of rock outcrops at the base of Gale Crater.
It is confirmation that water has played its part in sculpting not only this huge equatorial bowl but by implication many of the other landforms seen on the planet.
“For decades, we have speculated and hypothesized that the surface of Mars was carved by water, but this is the first time where you can see the remnants of stream flow with what are absolutely tell-tale signs,” said Dr. Rebecca Williams from the Planetary Science Institute.
Mars valleys, channels and deltas viewed from orbit have long been thought to be the work of water erosion
NASA first announced the discovery of the pebbles in September last year, barely seven weeks after Curiosity had landed in Gale.
Researchers have since been studying the robot’s pictures in more detail and have now written up a report for Science magazine – the first scholarly paper from the surface mission to make it into print; and the study reinforces the initial interpretation.
It describes the nature of the outcrops, and estimates the probable conditions in which their sediments were laid down.
The pebbles range in size from about two to 40 mm in diameter – too big to have been blown along by the wind.
These clasts, as scientists will often call them, are cemented together in a sandy matrix to make a rock type referred to as a conglomerate.
In many places, the clasts are touching each other, and the pictures show examples of so-called imbrication – an arrangement where elongated pebbles stack like a row of toppled dominos. It is a classic sign of past river activity.
Precisely dating landforms on Mars is not possible, but the rock outcrops seen by the rover are almost certainly more than three billion years old.
Curiosity’s pictures have enabled the team to make some informed statements about the speed and depth of the water that once flowed across the crater floor.
The pebbles come in a variety of dark and light shades, further indicating that they have been eroded from different rock types and transported from different locations.
Using its Chemcam remote-sensing laser, the rover was able to detect feldspar in the lighter toned clasts.
Feldspar is a common mineral on Earth that weathers quickly in the presence of water.
This suggests past conditions were not overly wet and that the pebbles were carried only a relatively short distance – probably no more than 10-15km.
This fits with satellite observations of what appears to be a nearby network of old rivers or streams spreading away from the mouth of a channel that cuts through the northern rim of Gale Crater.
This valley – or Peace Vallis as it is known – is the probable route down which the water flowed and later dumped its load of rounded gravels.
Curiosity is due to drive back on itself in the coming weeks as it makes for the big peak, Mount Sharp, at the centre of the crater.
Scientists hope this will take the vehicle past similar rock outcrops so that additional pictures can be obtained.
NASA has reported that its Curiosity rover has made another significant discovery on Mars.
Curiosity has drilled into a rock that contains clay minerals – an indication of formation in, or substantial alteration by, neutral water.
Scientists say the find is one more step towards showing conditions on Mars in the distant past could have supported life.
Many rocks studied previously were probably deposited in acidic water.
While this would not have precluded the possibility of micro-organisms taking hold on Mars, it would have been more challenging, scientists believe.
Identifying clays shows there were at least some locations on the planet billions of years ago where environments would have been much more favorable.
“We have found a habitable environment that is so benign and supportive of life that probably if this water was around and you had been there, you would have been able to drink it,” said John Grotzinger, Curiosity’s project scientist.
Curiosity rover drilled a powdered sample from a mudstone at its exploration site in Gale Crater, a deep impact bowl on Mars’ equator.
This was delivered to the two big onboard laboratories, Sam and Chemin, for analysis.
The rock sample was found to contain 20-30% smectite – a particular group of clay minerals.
Their high abundance and the relative lack of salt are strongly suggestive of a fresh-water environment for the mudstone’s formation.
The presence of calcium sulphates, rather than the magnesium or iron sulphates seen in previous rock analyses at other locations on the planet, adds to the evidence that the sampled rock in Gale was deposited in a neutral to mildly alkaline pH environment.
Mars Curiosity rover has drilled into a rock that contains clay minerals, an indication of formation in, or substantial alteration by, neutral water
Scientists think Curiosity probably drilled into an ancient lakebed.
The analysis also identified sulphur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon – some of the key chemical elements for life.
Additionally, it found compounds in a range of oxidized states, meaning there were electrons moving through the environment. Those could have been co-opted as an energy source by simple life-forms, if they ever existed in Gale.
“What we’ve learned in the last 20 years of modern microbiology is that very primitive organisms – they can derive energy just by feeding on rocks,” explained Prof. John Grotzinger.
“Just like on [a] battery – you hook up the wires and it goes to a lightbulb and the lightbulb turns on. That’s kind of what a micro-organism would have done in this environment, if life had ever evolved on Mars and it was present here.”
Curiosity rover is assembling quite a catalogue of water evidence in the crater.
Already, it has seen the remains of an ancient riverbed system, where water once flowed perhaps a metre deep and quite vigorously.
The picture that seems to be emerging is one where sediments were transported downhill from the eroding crater rim into a network of streams that then flowed into the lake environment represented by the mudstone.
Curiosity is currently working in a small depression known as Yellowknife Bay, about half a kilometre from the location where it touched down last August.
NASA’s original mission plan was to head towards the big mountain that dominates the centre of Gale Crater, but the fascinating science at Yellowknife Bay has delayed this journey somewhat.
In recent days, operations have been slowed by a software glitch, requiring the vehicle to be run off its reserve computer.
There is also the imminent issue of solar conjunction, which will see Mars move behind the Sun as viewed from Earth, blocking communications.
All this means that Curiosity will be at Yellowknife Bay for a while yet.
“Basically, we can’t talk to the rover and the rover [can’t] talk to us for most of the month of April,” said Michael Meyer, the lead scientist on NASA’s Mars exploration programme.
“We’ll do some more science activities though the end of this month, [provided] the engineers confirm it’s safe for us to do those operations. But we will not do a second drill hole until after solar conjunction.”
When the rover does finally get to the mountain, known as Mount Sharp, the expectation, based on satellite imagery, is that it will again find clay minerals.
This will enable the robot to compare and contrast past environments.
The US space agency’s Opportunity rover, which continues to work nine years on from its landing, is also believed to be sitting on top of clay-bearing rocks at its exploration site far to the west of Gale. Opportunity, however, does not have Curiosity’s capability to assess those rocks.
NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars has finally drilled deep enough into a rock to acquire a powdered sample for analysis.
The fine grey tailings from the 6cm-hole will be sieved and inspected before being delivered to the robot’s onboard labs in the coming days.
It will represent a historic first in planetary exploration – never before has the interior of a rock on another world been probed in such a way.
The US space agency said the drilling was an immense achievement.
“This is the biggest milestone accomplishment for the Curiosity team since the sky-crane landing last August, another proud day for America,” said Prof. John Grotizinger, the mission’s chief scientist.
Drilling is absolutely central to the rover’s mission in Gale Crater, a deep bowl sited on Mars’ equator.
Curiosity is investigating whether past environments at this location could ever have supported life, and getting inside rocks to analyze their make-up will provide some of the most telling evidence.
Engineers have waited a full six months before deploying the drill tool, which is held on the end of the rover’s 2.2 m-long robotic arm.
Its first action was just to hammer down briefly on a rock target last weekend – a simple check to prove the machinery was behaving as it should.
This was followed in the week by the drill turning in the chosen rock to cut a shallow, 2cm hole.
It produced a fine powder that engineers deemed suitable to try to pick up. So, the command was given to drill a second hole that was deep enough to push some tailings into the tool’s sample acquisition chamber.
NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars has finally drilled deep enough into a rock to acquire a powdered sample for analysis
Some of this material will be used to scrub the machinery’s innards of any contamination that may have travelled with the rover from Earth.
The rest will be sorted to a size and volume that can be put inside Curiosity’s Chemin and Sam labs.
These instruments will determine the rock sample’s precise chemistry and mineralogy, and identify any interesting carbon chemistry that may be present.
Chemin will likely set to work on the powder first. This is because its findings can influence the settings run the Sam experiments..
“We may alter our temperatures depending on what they see in Chemin,” said Paul Mahaffy, the principal investigator on Sam.
The flat slabs of rock currently being investigated by the rover have been dubbed “John Klein”, the name of a Curiosity engineer who died in 2011. They lie in a small depression referred to as Yellowknife Bay, about half a kilometre from the robot’s point of touchdown last year.
The rocks contain very fine-grained sediments but are cut through with pale veins of what could be calcium sulphate.
Curiosity has already seen plenty of evidence for past running water in Gale Crater and the results from the drill-hole analysis are expected to reveal further information about that wet history.
NASA’s Curiosity rover is very close to drilling into its first Martian rock, with the set-up operation likely to begin next week.
After breaking for the holidays, the mission team would be raring to undertake the task in the coming days, said lead scientist John Grotzinger.
The robot has driven about 650 m from its landing site, dropping down into a depression known as Yellowknife Bay.
It is in this depression that the target rock will probably be chosen.
All of Curiosity’s instruments have been commissioned. The drill is the only tool that has yet to be deployed.
Its hammer action will enable the device to retrieve powdered samples from up to 5 cm inside the rock, which can then passed to the rover’s onboard laboratories for analysis.
“We are firing on all cylinders now and our last thing to do is drilling, and we really hope to start on that process beginning next week,” said the California Institute of Technology professor.
As Curiosity trundled through Yellowknife Bay in December, it used its survey instruments to try to identify the most promising candidate rock. This equipment comprises the mast-mounted color cameras and laser spectrometer, and the arm-held “hand lens” camera and X-ray spectrometer.
Yellowknife was chosen as a destination because it represents a different type of rock terrain to the one on which Curiosity landed in August and on which it has done most of its driving. Satellite observations indicate this landscape has a high thermal inertia – that is to say, at night it loses heat more slowly than the terrains that about it in the local area.
Pictures returned to Earth from inside Yellowknife Bay appear to show copious sedimentary deposits.
“We’re down at the very lowest layer – what would be the oldest layer that we would see in this succession that might be five to eight metres thick, and that is very likely where we are going to choose our first drilling target, because suddenly we’ve come into an area that represents a very high diversity of things we haven’t seen before,” said Prof. John Grotzinger.
In 2012, Curiosity examined the dusty soils that gave it an insight into the processes that drive the dry and cold environment that dominates Mars today. Drilling into rock this month will allow scientists to glimpse processes that held sway in ancient times, hopefully ones where water played key roles.
“The place where Curiosity is right now is a small stack of layers – very impressive – and they could be 3-3.5 billion years old, and so we’re very excited about this because unlike the soil which we were analyzing before the holiday season – a loose, windswept patch of dirt on the surface of Mars – we’re now going to start digging down into the very ancient bedrock which we really built the rover to look at,” explained Prof. John Grotzinger.
“We use these layers as a sort of recording device of past events and conditions, and the rover has the same kind of analytical capability that we would use here on Earth to tell us about the early environmental conditions; and, if life had ever evolved, [whether it would] be the kind of environment that would have been conducive towards sustaining that life.”
The panorama of Yellowknife Bay at the top of this page was assembled by US-based scientist and journalist Ken Kremer and Italy-based physicist and photographer Marco Di Lorenzo. Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo are routinely stitching together the stream of images returned by Curiosity to make vistas that NASA itself does not always find the time to produce and place in the public domain.
The top picture incorporates shots from the rover’s black-and-white navigation cameras that have subsequently been colored.
Below is a panorama looking away into the distance towards the foothills of Mount Sharp, the 5 km rise that is the eventual destination of Curiosity. Once the rover has finished investigating Yellowknife Bay, it will climb back out and begin the drive to the mountain. This journey is likely to take many months.
NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity has zapped its first Martian rock.
Curiosity rover fired its ChemCam laser at a tennis-ball-sized stone lying about 2.5 m away on the ground.
The brief but powerful burst of light from the instrument vaporized the surface of the rock, revealing details of its basic chemistry.
This was just target practice for ChemCam, proving it is ready to begin the serious business of investigating the geology of the Red Planet.
It is part of a suite of instruments on the one-ton robot, which landed two weeks ago in a deep equatorial depression known as Gale Crater.
Over the course of one Martian year, Curiosity will try to determine whether past environments at its touchdown location could ever have supported life.
The US-French ChemCam instrument will be a critical part of that investigation, helping to select the most interesting objects for study.
The inaugural target of the laser was a 7 cm-wide rock dubbed “Coronation” (previously N165).
NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity has zapped its first Martian rock
It had no particular science value, and was expected to be just another lump of ubiquitous Martian basalt, a volcanic rock.
Its appeal was the nice smooth face it offered to the laser.
ChemCam zapped it with 30 pulses of infrared light during a 10-second period.
Each pulse delivered to a tiny spot more than a million watts of power for about five billionths of a second.
The instrument observed the resulting spark through a telescope; the component colors would have told scientists which atomic elements were present.
“We got a great spectrum of Coronation – lots of signal,” said ChemCam principal investigator Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico.
“Our team is both thrilled and working hard, looking at the results. After eight years building the instrument, it’s pay-off time.”
One aspect being considered by the team is whether the signal changed slightly as the laser burrowed through any exterior layers that might have coated Coronation.
“Coatings can tell you about, say, the weather or what has happened to a rock through the eons,” said Dr. Rogers Wiens last week.
“We will look at the first few laser shots and see if there is any difference as we move further into the rock.”
The British company e2v provided the imaging sensor behind the ChemCam telescope that routes the light signal, via optical fibres, to the onboard spectrometer which does the chemical analysis.
The charge-coupled device (CCD) was specially prepared for the instrument to increase its sensitivity.
“The scientists always want to see more, but they want to see more without cost to performance,” said e2v’s Jon Kemp.
“Our process was able to almost double the signal to noise ratio.”
The first science target for ChemCam will be bedrock exposed on the ground next to Curiosity by the rocket-powered crane used to lower the vehicle to the crater floor on 6 August (GMT).
Exhaust from this descent stage scattered surface grit and pebbles to reveal a harder, compact material underneath.
The crane made four scour marks in the ground – two either side of the rover. These have been dubbed Burnside, Goulburn, Hepburn and Sleepy Dragon – names taken from ancient rock formations in Canadian North America.
Goulburn Scour will be zapped by ChemCam once the mission team has reviewed fully the Coronation performance and results.
Curiosity rover is getting ready to zap its first Martian rock.
A small stone lying just to the side of the vehicle at its landing site on the floor of Gale Crater has been selected as a test target for the ChemCam laser.
The brief but powerful burst of light from this instrument will vaporize the surface of the rock, revealing details of its basic chemistry.
Dubbed N165, the object is not expected to have any science value, but should show ChemCam is ready for serious work.
“I’d probably guess this is a typical Mars basalt – basaltic rocks making up a large fraction of all the igneous rocks on Mars,” said Roger Wiens, the instrument’s principal investigator.
“A basalt, which is also common under the ocean on Earth, typically has 48% silicon dioxide and percent amounts of iron, calcium and magnesium, and sodium and potassium oxides as well. We’re not expecting any surprises,” said the Los Alamos National Laboratory researcher.
Curiosity rover is getting ready to zap its first Martian rock
Curiosity touched down in its equatorial crater two weeks ago.
Its mission is to investigate the rocks at its landing site for evidence that past environments could have supported life.
The rover carries a suite of instruments for the purpose, but its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) experiment has probably garnered most attention because nothing like it has ever been flown to Mars before.
ChemCam sits high up on the rover’s mast from where it directs a laser beam on to rocks up to 7 m (23 ft) away.
The spot hit by the infrared laser gets more than a million watts of power focused on it for five one-billionths of a second.
This produces a spark that the instrument observes with a telescope. The colors tell scientists which atomic elements are present in the rock.
ChemCam is going to be a key part of the process of selecting science targets during Curiosity’s two-year mission.
If the laser shows up an interesting rock, the vehicle will move closer and deploy its other instruments for a more detailed investigation.
Assuming the test with the 7 cm-wide N165 object goes well, ChemCam will move on to its first science target.
This will be rock exposed on the ground next to the rover by the rocket-powered crane used to lower the vehicle to the crater floor.
Exhaust from this descent stage scattered surface grit and pebbles to reveal a harder, compact material underneath.
The crane made four scour marks in the ground – two either side of Curiosity. These have been dubbed Burnside, Goulburn, Hepburn and Sleepy Dragon.
The names, all related to fire, are taken from ancient rock formations in Canadian North America.
Goulburn Scour will be zapped by ChemCam.
“There’s bedrock exposed beneath the soil with interesting patterns of color,” said John Grotzinger, Curiosity’s project scientist.
“There’re lighter parts; there’re darker parts, and the team is busy deliberating over how this rock unit may have formed and what it’s composed of. We’ll aim the ChemCam [at Goulburn Scour], as well as taking even higher resolution images.”
Curiosity has not moved since landing on 6 August (GMT). That is about to change.
The rover is going to roll forward briefly to test its locomotion system in the next few days. A reverse manoeuvre is planned, also.
Researchers want eventually to drive several kilometres to the base of the big mountain at the centre of Gale Crater to study sediments that look from satellite pictures to have been laid down in the presence of abundant water.
This journey to the foothills of Mount Sharp is going to have to wait a few months, however, because the science team intends first to go in the opposite direction.
Several hundred metres to the east of Curiosity’s present position is an intersection of three geological terrains.
Again, this location has been given a name – Glenelg. And, again, it is taken from the geology of North America.
The intersection is intriguing and a good place to compare and contrast with the bedrock exposed in Goulburn Scour.
In addition, it may provide access to older, harder rocks. These could make for a first opportunity for Curiosity to use its drill.
“Even though it is in the opposite direction from the path to Mount Sharp, it’s the one place we can go to capture a lot of the information that’s persevered in our landing [location],” said Prof. John Grotzinger.
NASA has released the first full color mosaic from its Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars.
Scientists have remarked that the rover’s surroundings resembled parts of the southwestern US.
Curiosity’s ultimate goal is to drive towards a peak – informally known as Mount Sharp – to study its rocks.
NASA has released the first full color mosaic from its Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars
Shown in the mosaic is a section on the crater wall where a network of valleys is believed to have formed through water entering from the outside.
This is the first view scientists have had of a fluvial system – one relating to a river or stream – from the surface of Mars.
Team members are also studying a section looking south of the landing site that provides an overview of the eventual geological targets Curiosity will explore, including the rock-strewn, gravelly surface nearby, a dark dune field and the sedimentary rock of Mount Sharp.
The rover will also study a patch of ground where rocks have been uncovered by the blast of the rockets used on the “sky crane”, which lowered Curiosity to the surface.
Curiosity rover has returned its first 360-degree color panorama from the surface of Mars.
The robot used its wideangle science camera placed high up on a mast to acquire the frames.
The low-resolution vista shows at centre the big mountain that lies in the middle of Gale Crater, the deep depression in which the rover landed.
Curiosity rover has returned its first 360-degree color panorama from the surface of Mars
Curiosity’s ultimate goal is to drive towards this peak – informally known as Mount Sharp – to study its rocks.
Evidence from satellite photos has suggested there are sediments exposed at the base of the mountain that were laid down in the presence of abundant water.
Curiosity rover will uses its science instruments to try to understand what kind of environments existed at the time of the rocks’ formation, and whether there were periods in Mars history when any type of microbial life could have thrived.
NASA’s Curiosity rover has lifted its mast and used its high navigation cameras for the first time.
The robot vehicle has returned black and white images that capture part of its own body, its shadow on the ground and views off to the horizon.
Spectacular relief – the rim cliffs of the crater in which the rover landed – can be seen in the distance.
Curiosity – also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, MSL – put down on the Red Planet on Monday (GMT).
The NASA mission came to rest on the floor of a deep depression on Mars’ equator known as Gale Crater, close to a 5.5 km-high mountain.
The plan eventually is to take the robot to the base of this mountain where it is expected to find rocks that were laid down billions of years ago in the presence of liquid water.
Curiosity rover on Mars has returned black and white images that capture part of its own body, its shadow on the ground and views off to the horizon
Curiosity will probe these sediments for evidence that past environments on Mars could once have favored microbial life.
Since its landing, engineers have been running through a list of health checks and equipment tests.
These have included deploying a high-gain antenna to provide a data link to Earth additional to the UHF satellite relays it uses most of the time. This antenna failed to point correctly at first, but the problem has now been fixed.
The mast was stowed for the journey to Mars, lying flat on the deck of the rover.
Raising it into the vertical was the main task of Sol 2 – the second full Martian day of surface operations.
Locked in the upright position, the masthead and its cameras stand some 2m above the ground.
Curiosity has two pairs of black and white, greyscale, navigation cameras which can acquire stereo imagery to help the rover pick a path across the surface.
These Navcams sit just to the side of two science cameras – one wideangle, one telephoto. It is these Mastcams that will provide the really exquisite, true color views of the Martian landscape. We should see something of their output following Sol 3.
Most of the pictures we have seen so far have been low-resolution thumbnails – easy to downlink. But we are now starting to get one or two hi-res versions also.
Mike Malin, the principal investigator on Mardi (Mars Descent Imager), has released a detailed view taken of the heatshield as it fell away from the rover’s capsule during Monday’s entry descent and landing (EDL).
Eventually hundreds of Mardi pictures will be run together to make a movie of the descent.
With the rover now on the ground and Mardi still pointing downwards, Mike Malin has also got a good shot of the gravel surface under the vehicle.
One instrument on the rover has already had a chance to gather some data. This is the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD).
Indeed, this instrument has acquired quite a lot of data so far, as it was working for periods even during the rover’s cruise to Mars.
It is endeavoring to characterize the flux of high-energy atomic and subatomic particles reaching Mars from the Sun and distant exploded stars.
This radiation would be hazardous to any microbes alive on the planet today, but would also constitute a threat to the health of any future astronauts on the Red Planet.
In other news, NASA reports it has now found more components of the landing system discarded by the rover during EDL.
These are a set of six tungsten blocks that the rover’s capsule ejected to shift its centre of mass and help guide its flight through the atmosphere.
Satellite imagery has identified the line of craters these blocks made when they slammed into the ground about 12 km from Curiosity’s eventual landing position.
NASA has also confirmed the precise timing of Monday’s touchdown.
The rover’s computer put this at 05:17:57 UTC on Mars. With a one-way light-travel time of 13 minutes and 48 seconds to cover the 250 million km to Earth, this equates to a receive time here at mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of 05:31:45 UTC (GMT).
Images of the surface of Mars taken by the Curiosity rover as it made its historic descent yesterday have now been released.
NASA has provided almost 300 thumbnails from a sequence of pictures that will eventually be run together as a color hi-def movie.
Visible in the timelapse is the heatshield discarded by the vehicle as it neared the ground.
It was the crane that finally settled the robot on to the surface.
A signal confirming the Curiosity rover had landed on Mars was received here at mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at 05:32 GMT (22:32 PDT Sunday).
Curiosity – also known as the Mars Science laboratory (MSL) – put down in a deep equatorial depression known as Gale Crater.
Pictures from the Mars Descent Imager (Mardi), even in their thumbnail form, have now allowed engineers to work out Curiosity’s precise position on the planet – a latitude of -4.5895 and a longitude of 137.4417.
Pictures from the Mars Descent Imager (Mardi), even in their thumbnail form, have now allowed engineers to work out Curiosity's precise position on the planet
The full set of high-resolution pictures from Mardi will take some weeks to downlink.
The mission team has also got its best view yet of Mount Sharp, the 5.5 km-high peak sitting in the middle of Gale.
This comes from a hazard avoidance camera mounted on the lower-front of the vehicle.
Ordinarily, hazcam pictures are very wide-angle in view and therefore distorted, but image processing software has been used to correct the geometry.
The mountain is the ultimate destination for this $2.5 billion mission.
Satellite data has indicated that sediments at the base of Mount Sharp were laid down in the presence of abundant water.
Curiosity, with its sophisticated suite of 10 instruments, will study those rocks to try to determine if ancient environments on Mars were ever favorable for life.
Released earlier on Monday was a spectacular shot acquired not by the rover but of the rover. This came from one of the US space agency’s satellites at the Red Planet – the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
MRO played a key role in Monday’s landing by recording telemetry from the robot as it approached the ground.
But NASA also tasked it with trying to get a picture of the new arrival. The rover is seen when still inside its protective shell.
Moments after this image was acquired, the vehicle would have dropped out of the capsule to ride its rocket-powered crane to the base of the crater. The resolution in the picture is such that it is even possible to pick out the discarded heatshield.
The mission team is now in its first full day of Martian operations (Sol 1). One of the key activities will be to deploy Curiosity’s high-gain antenna. This unit will allow the vehicle to talk direct to Earth, in addition to relaying data via satellites like MRO.
Another action planned for Sol 1 will be to get a color shot from the Mars Hand Lens Imager (Mahli).
This camera is mounted on the rover’s tool-bearing turret at the end of its robotic arm. The picture, which should be released on Tuesday, will provide the most detailed view of the rover’s surroundings to date.
The one-ton vehicle was reported to have landed in a deep crater near the planet’s equator at 06:32 BST (05:32 GMT).
It will now embark on a mission of at least two years to look for evidence that Mars may once have supported life.
A signal confirming the rover was on the ground safely was relayed to Earth via NASA’s Odyssey satellite, which is in orbit around the Red Planet.
The success was greeted with a roar of approval here at mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The mission has even already sent its first low-resolution images – showing the rover’s wheel and its shadow, through a dust-covered lens cap that has yet to be removed.
A first color image of Curiosity’s surroundings should be returned in the next couple of days.
NASA’s Curiosity rover has just landed on Mars
Engineers and scientists who have worked on this project for the best part of 10 years punched the air and hugged each other.
The descent through the atmosphere after a 570-million-km journey from Earth had been billed as the “seven minutes of terror” – the time it would take to complete a series of high-risk, automated manoeuvres that would slow the rover from an entry speed of 20,000 km/h to allow its wheels to set down softly.
The Curiosity team had to wait 13 tense minutes for the signals from Odyssey and the lander to make their way back to Earth.
After the landing, the flight director reported that Curiosity had hit the surface of Mars at a gentle 0.6 metres per second.
“We’re on Mars again, and it’s absolutely incredible,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden.
“It doesn’t get any better than this.”
The mission team will now spend the next few hours assessing the health of the vehicle (also referred to as the Mars Science Laboratory, MSL).
This is the fourth rover NASA has put on Mars, but its scale and sophistication dwarf all previous projects.
Its biggest instrument alone is nearly four times the mass of the very first robot rover deployed on the planet back in 1997.
Curiosity has been sent to investigate the central mountain inside Gale Crater that is more than 5 km high.
It will climb the rise, and, as it does so, study rocks that were laid down billions of years ago in the presence of liquid water.
The vehicle will be looking for evidence that past environments could have favored microbial life.
Scientists warn, however, that this will be a slow mission – Curiosity is in no hurry.
For one thing, the rover has a plutonium battery that should give it far greater longevity than the solar-panelled power systems fitted to previous vehicles.
“People have got to realize this mission will be different,” commented Steve Squyres, the lead scientist of the Opportunity and Spirit rovers landed in 2004.
“When we landed we only thought we’d get 30 sols (Martian days) on the surface, so we had to hit the ground running. Curiosity has plenty of time,” he said.
Initially, the rover is funded for two years of operations. But many expect this mission to roll and roll for perhaps a decade or more.
The Curiosity rover remains perfectly on course to make its Monday (GMT) landing on the Red Planet, NASA says.
The NASA robot’s flight trajectory is so good engineers cancelled the latest course correction they had planned.
To be sure of touching down in the right place on the surface, the vehicle must hit a box at the top of the atmosphere that is just 3 km by 12 km.
“Our inbound trajectory is right down the pipe,” said Arthur Amador, Curiosity’s mission manager.
“The team is confident and thrilled to finally be arriving at Mars, and we’re reminding ourselves to breathe every so often. We’re ready to go.”
Curiosity’s power and communications systems are in excellent shape.
The one major task left for the mission team is to prime the back-up computer that will take command if the main unit fails during the entry, descent and landing (EDL) manoeuvres.
The Curiosity rover remains perfectly on course to make its Monday (GMT) landing on the Red Planet
Curiosity – also known as the Mars Science Laboratory – has spent the past eight months travelling from Earth to Mars, covering more than 560 million km.
The robot was approaching Mars at about 13,000 km/h on Saturday. By the time the spacecraft hits the top of Mars’ atmosphere, about seven minutes before touch-down, gravity will have accelerated it to about 21,000 km/h.
The vehicle is being aimed at Gale Crater, a deep depression just south of the planet’s equator.
It is equipped with the most sophisticated science payload ever sent to another world.
Its mission, when it gets on the ground, is to characterize the geology in Gale and examine its rocks for signs that ancient environments on Mars could have supported microbial life.
Touch-down is expected at 05:31 GMT (06:31 BST) Monday 6 August; 22:31 PDT, Sunday 5 August.
It is a fully automated procedure. NASA will be following the descent here at mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The rover will broadcast X-band and UHF signals on its way down to the surface.
These will be picked up by a mix of satellites at Mars and radio antennas on Earth.
The key communication route will be through the Odyssey orbiter. It alone will see the rover all the way to the ground and have the ability to relay UHF telemetry straight to Earth.
And mission team members remain hopeful that this data will also include some images that Curiosity plans to take of itself just minutes after touching the ground.
These would be low-resolution, wide-angle, black and white images of the rear wheels.
They may not be great to look at, but the pictures will give engineers important information about the exact nature of the terrain under the rover.
A lot has been made of the difficulty of getting to Mars, and historically there have been far more failures than successes (24 versus 15), but the Americans’ recent record at the Red Planet is actually very good – six successful landings versus two failures.
Even so, NASA continues to downplay expectations.
“If we’re not successful, we’re going to learn,” said Doug McCuistion, the head of the US space agency’s Mars programme.
“We’ve learned in the past, we’ve recovered from it. We’ll pick ourselves up, we’ll dust ourselves off, we’ll do something again; this will not be the end.
“The human spirit gets driven by these kinds of challenges, and these are challenges that drive us to explore our surroundings and understand what’s out there.”
The mission team warned reporters on Saturday not to jump to conclusions if there was no immediate confirmation of landing through Odyssey.
There were “credible reasons”, engineers said, why the UHF signal to Odyssey could be lost during the descent, such as a failure on the satellite or a failure of the transmitter on the rover.
Continued efforts would be made to contact Curiosity in subsequent hours as satellites passed overhead and when Gale Crater came into view of radio antennas on Earth.
“There are situations that might come up where we will not get communications all the way through [to the surface], and it doesn’t necessarily mean that something bad has happened; it just means we’ll have to wait and hear from the vehicle later,” explained Richard Cook, the deputy project manager.
This was emphasized by Allen Chen, the EDL operations lead. His is the voice from mission control that will be broadcast to the world during the descent. He will call out specific milestones on the way down. He said there would be no rush to judgement if the Odyssey link was interrupted or contained information that was “off nominal”.
“I think we proceed under any situation as though the spacecraft is there, and there for us to recover – to find out what happened,” he said.
“That’s the most sensible thing to do. There are only a few instances I think where you could know pretty quickly that we’d be in trouble.”
Curiosity, the big robot rover NASA is sending to Mars, looks in excellent shape for its Monday (GMT) landing.
Curiosity – also known as the Mars Science laboratory (MSL) – was launched from Earth in November last year and is now nearing the end of a 560-million-km journey across space.
To reach its intended touch-down zone in a deep equatorial crater, the machine must enter the atmosphere at a very precise point on the sky.
Engineers told reporters on Thursday that they were close to a bulls-eye.
A slight course correction – the fourth since launch – was instigated last Saturday, and the latest analysis indicates Curiosity will be no more than a kilometre from going straight down its planned “keyhole”.
The team’s confidence is such that it may pass up the opportunity to make a further correction on Friday.
“We are about to land a small compact car on the surface with a trunk-load of instruments. This is a pretty amazing feat getting ready to happen. It’s exciting, it’s daring – but it’s fantastic,” said Doug McCuistion, the head of NASA’s Mars programme.
Curiosity, also known as the Mars Science laboratory, was launched from Earth in November last year and is now nearing the end of a 560-million-km journey across space
Curiosity is the biggest and most sophisticated Mars rover yet.
It will study the rocks inside Gale Crater, one of the deepest holes on Mars, for signs that the planet may once have supported microbial life.
The $2.5 billion mission is due to touch down at 05:31 GMT Monday 6 August; 22:31 PDT, Sunday 5 August.
It will be a totally automated landing.
Engineers here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, can only watch and wait.
The vast distance between Mars and Earth means there is a 13-minute lag in communications, making real-time intervention impossible.
NASA has had to abandon the bouncing airbag approach to making soft landings.
This technique was used to great effect on the three previous rovers – Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity.
But at nearly a ton, Curiosity is simply too heavy to be supported by inflated cushions.
Instead, the mission team has devised a rocket-powered, hovering crane to lower the rover to the surface in the final moments of its descent.
Adam Steltzner, who led this work for NASA, said: “It looks a little bit crazy. I promise you it is the least crazy of the methods you could use to land a rover the size of Curiosity on Mars, and we’ve become quite fond of it – and we’re fairly confident that Sunday night will be a good night for us.”
The team is also keeping a sharp eye on the Martian weather and any atmospheric conditions that might interfere with the descent manoeuvres.
It is the equivalent of August also on Mars right now, meaning Gale Crater at its position just inside the southern hemisphere is coming out of winter and moving towards spring.
It is the time of year when winds can kick up huge clouds of dust, and a big storm was spotted this week about 1,000km from the landing site. But NASA expects this storm to dissipate long before landing day.
The first black-and-white images of the surface taken by Curiosity should be returned to Earth in the first hours after touch down, but the mission team do not intend to rush into exploration.
For one thing, the rover has a plutonium battery that should give it far greater longevity than the solar-panelled power systems on previous vehicles.
“This is a very complicated beast,” said Pete Theisinger, Curiosity’s project manager.
“The speech I made to the team is to recognize that on Sunday night at [22:32 PDT], we will have a priceless asset that we have placed on the surface of another planet that could last a long time if we operate it correctly, and so we will be as cautious as hell about what we do with it.”
Curiosity – Mars Science Laboratory:
• Mission goal is to determine whether Mars has ever had the conditions to support life
• Project costed at $2.5 billion; will see initial surface operations lasting two Earth years
• Onboard plutonium generators will deliver heat and electricity for at least 14 years
• 75 kg science payload more than 10 times as massive as those of earlier US Mars rovers
• Equipped with tools to brush and drill into rocks, to scoop up, sort and sieve samples
• Variety of analytical techniques to discern chemistry in rocks, soil and atmosphere
• Will try to make first definitive identification of organic (carbon-rich) compounds
• Even carries a laser to zap rocks; beam will identify atomic elements in rocks