Thursday, January 3, 2013

Curiosity Rover the Mars Mission Update

Curiosity Self Portrait from NASA site

On August 6th 2012 at 1:32 am (eastern time) the rover Curiosity, a large mobile laboratory, was set down on Mars inside the Gale Crater by NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, MSL, beginning a two-year investigation of Mars, the Red Planet. The rover was designed to analyze samples scooped from the soil and drilled from rocks. The record of the planet's climate and geology is essentially "written in the rocks and soil" -- in their formation, structure, and chemical composition and this Mars mission is designed to unveil some of those secrets. The rover's on-board laboratory will study rocks, soils, and the local geologic setting in order to detect forms of carbon, the chemical building blocks of life on Mars. Curiosity carries a radioisotope power system that generates electricity from the heat of plutonium's radioactive decay. This power source gives the mission an operating lifespan on Mars' surface of a full Martian year (687 Earth days) or more and hopefully be able to gather enough data to assess what the Martian environment was like in the past. 

For about three weeks NASA scientists put Curiosity through its paces, testing its equipment and upgrading its software to the exploration software. According to Ben Cichy chief software engineer for the Mars Science Laboratory mission. The flight software for Curiosity was focused on landing the vehicle. It included many capabilities that were no longer needed once Curiosity was down, and contained only basic surface operation capabilities, so the software was upgraded. Once the Curiosity rover was checked out and ready to go the rover began it eastward trek toward Mount Sharp, a mountain about 3 miles (5 kilometers) tall. The rover is conducting experiments along the way, seeking clues in the rocks and soil that would indicate whether Mars ever was capable of supporting microbial life. It is taking and sharing pictures of the trip and using the Foursquare application.

The first Martian rock NASA's Curiosity rover investigated was found to be a close match in chemical composition to an unusual but well-known type of igneous rock found in many volcanic provinces on Earth according to Edward Stolper of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., who is working with the Curiosity team. On Earth, rocks with this composition typically come from the planet's mantle beneath the crust, from crystallization of relatively water-rich magma at elevated pressure and hints of a Mars past when there was water on the plant.

A set of instruments aboard the have analyzed samples of the atmosphere collected near the "Rocknest" site in Gale Crater where the rover stopped for research. Findings from the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instruments found  an increase of 5 %  in heavier isotopes of carbon in the atmospheric carbon dioxide compared to scientists’ estimates of the isotopic ratios present when Mars formed. These enriched ratios of heavier isotopes to lighter ones suggest the top of the atmosphere may have been lost to interplanetary space. Losses at the top of the atmosphere would deplete lighter isotopes. Isotopes of argon also show enrichment of the heavy isotope, matching previous estimates of atmosphere composition derived from studies of Martian meteorites on Earth. 

Scientists theorize that in Mars' distant past its environment may have been quite different, with persistent water and a thicker atmosphere. NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, mission will investigate possible losses from the upper atmosphere when it arrives at Mars in 2014. The Opportunity rover that landed in 2004 is still operational in the southern hemisphere of Mars. The Spirit rover also landed in 2004 stopped communicating with NASA in 2010. Previous work on Mars found water carved channels and sediments that was once carried by water to form fans and deltas within lake basins. Recent small craters discovered by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter expose buried ice in the middle latitudes of Mars. This ice is a record of past climate change. Not stable today, it was deposited during a period of different obliquity, or tilt, of the planet's axis. 

So far Curiosity has traveled 0.42 mile (677 meters) since Curiosity's landing stopping ever few meters to take samples and test rocks. The Curiosity rover is parked for the holidays but continues testing the Martian environment from its holiday location within Yellowknife Bay. The mission's plans for most of 2013 center on driving toward the primary mission destination, the 3-mile-high (5-kilometer) layered mound we are calling Mount Sharp to determine if areas within the Gale Crater and specifically Mount Sharp ever were a habitable environment for microbes. The mission, like all the Mars missions is slow going.  It is now expected that the trek to Mount Sharp will not begin until end of January or early February. 

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