Curiosity rover has measured the Red Planet’s atmospheric composition.
NASA’s robot sucked the air into its big Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument to reveal the concentration of different gases.
It is the first time that the chemistry of the atmosphere has been tested from the surface of the planet since the Viking landers in the 1970s.
The SAM analysis is ongoing but no major surprises are expected at this stage – carbon dioxide will dominate.
CO2 is the chief component of the Martian air, as the Viking probes found. Of keener interest will be whether a signal for methane has been detected by Curiosity.
The gas has recently been observed by satellite and by Earth telescopes, and its presence on the Red Planet is intriguing.
Methane should be short-lived and its persistence suggests a replenishing source of some kind – either biological or geochemical. It is hoped SAM can shed light on the issue.
Curiosity rover has measured the Red Planet's atmospheric composition
The results from this first test could be announced next week, said Curiosity deputy principal scientist Joy Crisp, but she cautioned that it would be some time before definitive statements could be made about the status of methane on Mars.
“When SAM is at its best it can measure various parts per trillion of methane, and the expected amounts based on measurements taken from orbit around Mars and from Earth telescopes should be in the 10 to a few 10s of parts per billion,” she told reporters.
“But it’s so early in the use of Sam, which is a complicated instrument, and we have to sort through the data.”
Curiosity – also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, MSL – has now driven more than 100 m from the location on the floor of Gale Crater where it landed a month ago.
A new picture from the overflying Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft shows its progress.
“You can see the rover with the white deck on top and the black wheels, and you can see our tracks behind us,” explained mission manager Mike Watkins.
“We’re about a football field or so away from the touch-down point – from Bradbury Landing.”
Curiosity is heading to a point dubbed Glenelg by scientists.
This is about 300 m further to the east from its current position. Satellite pictures point to Glenelg being an intersection of three distinct types of rock terrain. Researchers think it will be a good place to start to characterize the geology of Gale Crater.
The rover’s arrival at the junction is still some weeks away, however.
Engineers have parked the vehicle for a few days to practice using the 2 m-long robotic arm. This carries a 30 kg tool turret on its end and the mission team needs to learn how to move the device in the weaker gravity conditions that exist on Mars.
“Mars has about 38% of Earth gravity,” said Matt Robinson, the lead engineer on Curiosity’s arm.
“Under Earth gravity, the arm sags to a certain position. On Mars, if you were to command the arm to the exact same joint angles, the turret would be at a higher position than it was on Earth.
“To compensate, we have flight software that does the mathematics to position the arm lower to recreate the exact same pose of the turret with respect to the hardware on the rover.
“So a big part of this exercise is to verify that flight software is doing that compensation properly,” he said.
Once the arm check-out is done, Curiosity will pick up the pace to get to Glenelg.
En route, the rover will watch for an early opportunity to test its turret instruments on a rock.
This will involve putting the “hand lens” known as Mahli (Mars Hand Lens Imager) close to the test object.
Mahli is essentially a close-up camera that can resolve rock minerals down to the size of a grain of talcum powder.
The other turret instrument engineers want to see in action is APXS, an X-ray spectrometer that can determine the abundance of chemical elements in rocks.
Also in line to make its debut soon is the turret’s scoop mechanism (Collection and Handling for Interior Martian Rock Analysis, or Chimra). The robot arm will pick up a sample of soil and deliver it to the labs inside the rover body for analysis.
NASA has reported its first setback in its Curiosity rover mission to Mars.
A sensor on the robot’s weather station that takes wind readings has sustained damage.
The mission team stresses this is not a major problem and will merely degrade some measurements – not prevent them.
It is not certain how the damage occurred but engineers suspect surface stones thrown up during Curiosity’s rocket-powered landing may have struck sensor circuits and broken the wiring.
NASA is describing the news as an isolated “disappointment” in what has otherwise been a spectacular start to the mission.
Javier Gomez-Elvira, the principal investigator on the broken instrumentation – the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) – said he was hopeful of finding a good way to get past the issue.
NASA has reported its first setback in its Curiosity rover mission to Mars
“We are working to recover as much functionality as possible,” he told reporters.
Curiosity – also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, MSL – touched down in the equatorial Gale Crater two weeks ago.
It will operate on Mars for at least two Earth years, looking for evidence that the planet may once have had the conditions suitable to host microbial life.
Engineers are close to completing their programme of post-landing check-outs on Curiosity.
This has involved powering up all of the machine’s instruments, and it was during this testing that the problem was found on REMS.
The weather station is a Spanish contribution to the rover project.
It records air and ground temperature, air pressure and humidity, wind speed and direction, as well the amount of ultraviolet radiation falling on the surface.
These parameters are measured from sensors distributed around the rover, but a number are held on two finger-like mini-booms positioned halfway up the vehicle’s camera mast. This is where the wind sensors are located.
The REMS team first noticed there was something wrong when readings from the side-facing boom were being returned saturated at high and low values.
Further investigation suggested small wires exposed on the sensor circuits were open, probably severed. It is permanent damage.
No-one can say for sure how this happened, but engineers are working on the theory that grit thrown on to the rover by the descent crane’s exhaust plume cut the small wires.
The wind sensor on the forward-facing mini-boom is unaffected. With just the one sensor, it makes it difficult to fully understand wind behavior.
“It degrades our ability to detect wind speed and direction when the wind is blowing from a particular direction, but we think we can work around that,” said Curiosity’s deputy project scientist, Ashwin Vasavada.
All the other REMS measurements look good.
Air temperatures in Gale Crater have been up to about minus 2C in the Martian afternoon, and down to minus 75C in the middle of the Martian night.
In general, the rover is in rude health. On Monday, it wiggled its front and back wheels to check its steering capability.
Commands will now be sent up to initiate the first drive.
“We’re going to drive forward a few metres, turn in place about 90 degrees and then back up,” said mission manager Mike Watkins.
“We should make tracks.”
Another major engineering milestone passed this week has been the unpacking of Curiosity’s robotic arm.
It was flexed to exercise its joints. The arm holds a 30 kg tool turret on its end that includes a drill to take powered samples from rocks.
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.
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