The Curiosity Rover Preps for Big Plans After its Daring Descent

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NASA-JPl / Reuters

This artist's concept depicts the moment that NASA's Curiosity rover touches down onto the Martian surface

Barreling in from space at 13,000 mph before stopping a mere 25 feet above the ground would make anyone want to catch their breath, and NASA’s Curiosity rover is no exception.  Now that the “Seven Minutes of Terror” is over, the compact-car-sized biochemistry lab is spending its first two weeks doing the same thing you might do after stepping off a hair-raising roller coaster: making sure its parts are where they’re supposed to be and functioning correctly.

That means daily surprises, as technicians at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, Calif., raise antennas, activate cameras, and gradually bring systems on line.  Among the early treats: 297 black-and-white thumbnail pictures, which NASA processed into a low-quality video showing the final two-and-a-half minutes of Curiosity’s stomach-churning plunge through the Martian atmosphere. The thumbnails, though grainy, show the protective heat shield dropping away, the bumps from the rover’s parachute descent, and dust kicking up as cables lowered the rover to the Martian surface. Scientists expect to have a full-resolution video from Curiosity’s descent imager in a few days.

(PHOTOS: An Inside Look at the Mars Curiosity Rover)

The rover also sent a new postcard: the first full-color landscape image of Curiosity’s Gale Crater home, taken as part of a focus test to check one of the cameras mounted on the rover’s mast. Until this week the camera, called the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), hadn’t moved its focal components since July 2011—four months before Curiosity launched. Even now, with the mast still tucked horizontally atop the rover’s front left shoulder, the camera’s initial focus test offers a tempting glimpse of the north wall of the rim at Gale Crater.

But that’s just a small taste of what this particular camera, one of 17 aboard Curiosity, will provide once the mast is lifted and extended, especially once the camera’s clear dust covers lift away. “It’s so awesome because we can put this camera anywhere,” says Ken Edgett of Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, which operates the camera. “Up, down, within an inch of the soil, underneath the rover, anywhere. It’ll extend up above the mast to give us the giraffe’s-eye view, or give us the oblique, dog’s-eye view across the Martian surface. This camera can look wherever we want.”

Many of this week’s most captivating images haven’t come from Curiosity but a high-resolution camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, another player on NASA’s robotic exploration team. One day after capturing a stunning shot of Curiosity parachuting towards Martian surface, the Orbiter executed an unusual 41-degree roll to deliver a fascinating “crime scene” image taken by a high-resolution camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter some 186 miles above the surface. The view offers a look at the pimple-sized rover in relation to the locations where Curiosity’s heat shield, parachute, back shell, and ballyhooed sky crane crash-landed after dropping away from the rover during its descent.

(Cover Story: Live From Mars)

Simply put, they’re all in the same Gale Crater neighborhood. The heat shield is farthest from Curiosity, about three-quarters of a mile away. Both the back shell and sky crane wound up about four-tenths of a mile from the rover. Of particular visual interest is a jagged pattern in the Martian soil to one side of the downed sky crane. “Those dark areas downrange are the disturbed dust,” says Sarah Milkovich, a JPL scientist. “It’s the same pattern we see when we have meteorites forming impact craters on the surface of a planetary body.” Since the impacts from the spacecraft’s components kicked up plenty of dust as well, Milkovich says future images should have even greater resolution. The Orbiter will again aim its cameras at Gale Crater in a few days, possibly for color photos.

All of this is just prep work, however. In the coming two weeks, JPL engineers will conduct numerous systems checks while the science team decides where, if anywhere, they want to go. “It’s designed as a go-to mission, but the place where we landed looks really interesting,” says project scientist John Grotzinger. “We have millions of years of Mars history to sample, and it starts where we landed, so we don’t really want to roll out of there.” One reason scientists chose to land at Gale Crater is the fact it’s surface soil is part of what geologists call an alluvial fan, meaning it’s the site where ancient water shed debris from the crater’s rim and nearby Mount Sharp. “It could be a jackpot,” Grotzinger says. “We studied Mount Sharp first, but now that we’re starting in on the ellipse we’re realizing this place is awesome.”

But even interplanetary rovers in awesome locations have to tackle mundane chores, and Curiosity’s turn begins this weekend when the rover waits for a software upgrade. Much like we change operating systems on a home PC, Curiosity will spend parts of four days upgrading its dual computers. There are no Lions or Windows on Mars, however. Curiosity is switching from the blandly named R9 operating system to, yes, the R10. The upgrade removes much of the computer’s entry, descent and landing functions, which are no longer needed, and replaces them with software for controlling the robotic arm and sample analysis.  “Once we get on that new OS we can start flexing our arm and checking the surface,” says mission manager Michael Watkins. No connection speed issues for Curiosity’s upgrade; the rover already downloaded the new software while en route to Mars.

(PHOTOS: Martian Vistas: A Look at Curiosity Rover’s New Home)

Curiosity may also begin rolling next week, but not far. “We’ll probably do a ‘test bump’ with some wheel rotation,” Watkins says. The wheels won’t move much—maybe one full rotation, which amounts to no more than three feet of movement. It’s all part of the “slow and go” mantra that scientists say is a luxury they’ve never had during a Mars mission.  “It’s a learning experience for us too,” says Watkins. “In the meetings we’re always thinking we need to go fast because with the other rovers we had tasks we tried to get to right away. But this time we’re saying from the start, ‘we’ve got two years, let’s use that rover to our full capability.'”

Or as Edgett says, “it’s going to go on, and on, and on.” He means it as a joke, but there’s at least a chance that he’s right, and that Curiosity will continue throwing treats our way for years to come.

VIDEO: Mars Curiosity Rover: How We’ll Know It’s Safe

16 comments
ERenger
ERenger

I upgraded from R9 to R10, and I've had nothing but trouble. They should just sit tight and see if R11 is any better. 

f_galton
f_galton

If the Martians see it coming they will hide, so what they should do is drive it really slowly behind some rocks then all of a sudden wheel it around and come out as fast as possible to take the Martians by surprise.

ERenger
ERenger

Or slowly poke the mast up over the rock to spy on the Martian before blasting it with the laser. 

Chris Umer
Chris Umer

This  I believe is the fourth rover on Mars and they have not found anything concrete, next 2 years they may find traces of ice may be frozen methane and some gases. it will be called a success and 2.5 Billion well spent and NASA will go on to lobby for more money to send a better rover.

in my opiniion 6 to 8 Billion spent so far on this Mars dream should have been used on better things.

Harrison Bradford
Harrison Bradford

Previous rovers found ice already. This time they're looking for elements that make up organic molecules as we know them (Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, etc). This rover is in a good spot on the planet to find them and it's equipped with the tools to identify them. If I need to explain the significance of finding organic molecules on another celestial body, please stop reading now because you have missed the point of existing.

As for your monetary concerns, this project cost $2.5 billion as we all know. It has kept many people at work for the last 8 years and still at work on it today. Also, your US Government goes into approximately $4 billion more dollars of debt EVERY DAY. Have a nice day :)

Molly_Rn
Molly_Rn

I don't know about you, but when I get off a hair-raising roller coster, I puke.

ERenger
ERenger

That's actually what Curiosity is doing too --- just too embarrassed to admit it. 

Khine Myint
Khine Myint

It is vigorous victory for America and humanbeing.thanks President Obama

and I am citizen of burma (Myanmar)

TommyTCG
TommyTCG

I bet Burma doesnt know that the Brookings Institute, USA,  in 1958 decreed that should  future space explorers of our solar system, ie NASA, find any intelligently created artifacts, structures etc, it would NOT be disseniated to the public.

Did Burna also know that enterprisemissiondotcom shows many photos from NASAs Orbiter and Viking s Missions that have been deliberately airbrushed/degraded to hide such info., and that many have  slipped through. Today view that intelligent life existed on Mars, without reading and getting excited about... water on Mars.

If you also open theyflydotcom. you will find out who was on Mars, and that we are NOT alone.

 

Drew Hadz
Drew Hadz

Thank you for exposing poor Burma to our crazy pseud0-science. Nothing like kooks like Hoagland the Demented convincing ignorant Americans random shapes having meaning on a planet that never could have evolved intelligent life. 

Scum like Hoagland have convinced my fellow Americans (with putty for brains) that there is a case (at all period) that evidence of intelligent life having visited our solar system.

Such evidence is a load of BS swallowed spoonful at a time by my soft-headed countrymen embarrassing the few of us left with scientific literacy.

Believers deserve any and all ridicule they find until perhaps they simply shut up and go back to working at Taco Bell.

ERenger
ERenger

Welcome to Mars, citizen of Burma! 

Eagle88
Eagle88

I still don't completely understand the separate staging components... especially the rocket powered "skycrane" that did such an awesome job of thruster control all on it's own.  I hope a scale model company makes models of these things.  Like the scale models that were made  for the Apollo Program for the 'Command Module' (nicknamed, 'Snoopy' during the mission). And a model was made for the boxy 'Lunar Module' that landed on the moon for six missions bringing six pairs of men on the moon and back again.  Thank you.

Trajan Saldana
Trajan Saldana

well, i see the English professors are out in force

Jim Lindsey
Jim Lindsey

So, even Time can't get a headline right? A 'daring decent'? That would be President Obama. What the Curiosity Rover made was a 'descent'. You might wonder how a machine can be daring, too. 

opensets
opensets

Daring is modifying descent, not the machine.