Tag Archives: Curiosity

Five Years On Mars: Curiosity

Sunday was the fifth anniversary of Curiosity’s landing on Mars.  Like its predecessors, Curiosity has gone on to exceed all of its expectations, and is still going strong despite considerable wheel tread damage.  In honor of the occasion, NASA has released this time-lapse video (with a relaxing musical accompaniment) of all five years, as seen by the rover’s hazard avoidance cameras.  Note the times when it switches to driving backwards, to spread out the wear on its wheels.  😉

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20 Years at Mars!

One more post today, because this is an important one.  😉  Yesterday was Independence Day here in America, and for space geeks, it was important for another reason — it was the twentieth anniversary of the Pathfinder landing on Mars, and marked twenty years of continuous exploration of the Red Planet.

It’s amazing to think about.  I remember exactly where I was on July 4, 1997.  I was at an Independence Day party at my uncle’s house, and he had a TV on for the nerdier among us to watch and see when Pathfinder landed.  It was very exciting.  Pathfinder was the first lander to operate on Mars since November of 1982, when Viking 1 lost contact with Earth, a very long gap.

Mars had developed a powerful reputation as the Bermuda Triangle of the Solar System.  Before Viking, there had been 21 attempted missions to Mars, but only six had been successful.  After Viking, there were no further attempts until 1988, when the Soviet Union sent the ill-fated Phobos missions, both of which failed.  In 1992, NASA made another attempt with Mars Observer, which is believed to have exploded just before orbital insertion due to a fault in its propulsion system.  It seemed like Mars was off limits.  The next Mars transfer window came and went.

In 1996, another Mars window opened, and this time both NASA and the Russian Federation’s Rosaviacosmos were prepared to send spacecraft.  It would be one of the last ambitious deep space efforts by Roscosmos for some time.  Rosaviacosmos sent Mars 96, a highly ambitious spacecraft built collaboratively with European nations and carrying an orbiter, landers, and ground penetrators.  It failed to leave Earth orbit, and eventually reentered Earth’s atmosphere.  (The same fate would later befall Fobos-Grunt.)    NASA sent Mars Pathfinder, its hitchhiking Sojourner rover, and Mars Global Surveyor.

On July 4, 1997, Mars Pathfinder landed on Mars with an innovative tetrahedral lander studded with airbags, which allowed it to hit the surface in any configuration and still end up upright at the end.  Although Pathfinder had a brief scare due to an undetected race condition in its computer software, it was recovered and went on to a very full mission, deploying the breadbox-sized Sojourner rover to become the first wheels on Mars.  Pathfinder continued operating until October 7, 1997, beating its design specs by about two and a half months.

But before it failed, another spacecraft arrived: Mars Global Surveyor, the first fully successful Mars orbiter since the Viking Orbiters in the 1970s.  Mars Global Surveyor set a record (since beaten) for total operating time at Mars, lasting nearly a decade (well past its one-year primary mission), going on to conduct joint observations with later spacecraft and serving as the first Mars communications relay station, transmitting data from landers back to Earth.

After Pathfinder and MGS arrived, many more followed, although Mars continued to earn its reputation as the Eater of Space Probes.  The 1998 launch window was fraught with failures, from the Japanese Nozomi probe (ran out of propellant prematurely due to a fault), to NASA’s Mars Climate Observer (killed by an unknown unit conversion error resulting in deorbit rather than orbit capture), to Mars Polar Lander (lost due to premature shutdown of the landing engine) and its piggybacked Deep Space 2 penetrator (MPL crashed before it could be deployed).  But the 2001 window showed a reversal of fortunes.  MGS, the lone operational spacecraft at Mars, would be joined by NASA’s Mars Odyssey 2001, which remains in operation today.  In 2003, MGS and Odyssey would be joined by ESA’s Mars Express, which continues to operate today, although Mars Express’s piggybacked Beagle 2 lander (provided by the United Kingdom) never called home.  Orbital photography eventually revealed that it had landed in a very unfortunate posture among a boulder field, and was likely unable to open itself properly — this is a risk for any robotic lander, and one that is nearly impossible to prevent.    But also in 2003 launched two of the most phenomenal overachievers in the history of Mars exploration: NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.  Both operated far past their original three-month mission.  Spirit was eventually killed when it became mired in a posture which did not give its solar powers enough light during the long Martian winter, but Opportunity remains in operation today, having set both endurance and mileage records.

The 2005 launch window saw the most powerful camera ever sent to Mars, aboard Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.  This spacecraft has enabled exquisitely detailed imagery over time, tracking changes in the surface features of the Red Planet beyond the capabilities of its predecessors, and even photographing many of the landers and rovers. MRO remains in operation today.  In 2007, Mars Phoenix Lander was sent, partially reflying some of the experiments planned for Mars Polar Lander, as well as following new plans, adhering to the overall NASA strategy of “follow the water”.  Phoenix operated for 157 sols (Martian days), nearly double the planned mission duration, when the polar darkness of winter arrived and claimed it.  Among its many discoveries was the first observation of liquid water on the surface of Mars, likely water melted from the icepack by its landing rockets and then briefly recondensed on the spacecraft’s landing legs before boiling away in the low atmospheric pressure.

The 2011 window saw both tragedy and triumph — first, the loss of Roscosmos’ Fobos-Grunt and its piggybacked Yinghu0-1 lander from China, and then the brilliant success of Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity”.  Curiosity is by far the largest rover ever sent to another world, so large that the tetrahedral airbag lander of Mars Pathfinder and the twin Mars Exploration Rovers would not suffice.  Instead, a “Skycrane” vehicle was devised to bring it in like a helicopter.  The system worked perfectly, and Curiosity remains in operation today, although the perils of exploring the unknown have been driven home by the shocking amount of damage in its aluminum wheels; the rocks of Gale Crater seem to be much harder and sharper than those encountered anywhere else that landers have visited.

In 2013, NASA’s MAVEN was launched; it is still operating in Mars orbit today.  And another nation joined the elite club of deep space explorers, as India’s ISRO placed the Mangalyaan (Mars Orbiter Mission) spacecraft into Mars orbit.  It, too, remains in operation today.  2016, the latest Mars window, saw the launch of ExoMars, a collaboration between ESA and Russia, and its piggybacked Schiaparelli lander.  ExoMars remains in operation today, while Schiaparelli unfortunately was lost on landing.

So, that makes 20 continuous years of spacecraft operating on Mars or in orbit around it, and today there are six functioning orbiters and two functioning rovers on the surface.  It makes a wonderful change from the long drought of Mars exploration before that!  It is quite likely that there will never again be a gap in Mars exploration, not now that there are so many different space agencies at work on it.

The next window opens in May.  NASA plans to launch its InSight spacecraft (delayed from the 2016 window). In 2020, things get really busy. NASA has another mission in the planning stages, and Europe and Russia will be collaborating on the second ExoMars spacecraft.  China and Japan both are planning to make their second attempts for Mars, and the United Arab Emirates is planning their first deep space mission, and India might manage their second Mangalyaan in that window (if not, they’ll likely make the following window).  And perhaps most intriguingly of all, in 2020 SpaceX is planning their Red Dragon mission, the first crewed mission to Mars (unless someone manages to beat them to it).  We’ll have to wait and see if they can actually make that date; it seems a tad ambitious to me!  But wouldn’t it be exciting?


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Curiosity’s drill is down

The Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity” is an amazing vehicle in an exceptionally hostile environment, and it seems it is having some issues with its drill.  The drill itself is working fine, but the motor that extends the drill bit forward to touch the rock face is not cooperating.  As a consequence, Curiosity is on non-drilling duties while the JPL team analyzes the problem and decides what to try next.  Fortunately, it has a wealth of other instrumentation, so Curiosity has been far from idle.  Here’s one of the pictures it took while on its “drilling hiatus”:

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Curiosity seems to be on Tatooine

The Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity” continues to return astonishing images of its environment as it tootles around Mount Sharp at the heart of Gale Crater.  The latest images look straight out of Star Wars, at least until you look a little more closely.

These images come from a place dubbed “Murray Buttes”, and they look as desolate as the spots in Tunisia where the first Star Wars movie recorded its images of Tatooine.  But of course they are far more desolate than that.  Unbelievably dry by comparison to even the deserts of the Atacama and central Antarctica, with fine layers formed by the deposition of sand by wind.  But even so, the images are truly spectacular, suitable for a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, or, as NASA put it, comparable to the pictures the National Park Service has been putting together to celebrate their hundredth anniversary.  They’re quite breathtaking.

The foothills of Mount Sharp, with the rim of Gale Crater in the distance.  It's not fog obscuring it, of course.  It's dust suspended in the Martian air.

The foothills of Mount Sharp, with the rim of Gale Crater in the distance. It’s not fog obscuring it, of course. It’s dust suspended in the Martian air.

Portions of the Stinson Formation jut out from sand deposited in the Murray Buttes region. The Stinson Formation was studied up close by Curiosity earlier in the year, at another location at Murray Buttes.

A close-up look at the breathtaking clarity of the Stinson Formation.  Thin layers of rock, displayed for all to see, a cross-section of geological history.

A close-up look at the breathtaking clarity of the Stinson Formation. Thin layers of rock, displayed for all to see, a cross-section of geological history.

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Space Probe Catchup: Hayabusa 2, Curiosity, New Horizons, and Dawn – Occator Crater revealed!

I’ve been busy lately, so I have not had much time to write, so here’s the latest on three different deep space probes!

First off, Hayabusa 2 made a successful flyby of the Earth on December 3, flying about 3,090 km above Hawaii at closest approach.  The spacecraft was performing a gravity assist maneuver, and controllers now report the maneuver was performed flawlessly: Hayabusa 2 is right on target to encounter asteroid 162173 Ryugu in 2018.  Hayabusa 2 is a follow-on to the original Hayabusa mission, which encountered serious difficulties but still managed to return samples from asteroid 25143 Itokawa.  Hayabusa 2 builds on the lessons learned from that mission and should be able to return much larger samples, scheduled for 2018.  It will also deploy a set of landers, both Japanese and European.

Earth from Hayabusa 2, just after the gravity assist.  Summer has reached the South Pole.

Earth from Hayabusa 2, just after the gravity assist. Summer has reached the South Pole.

Here’s a fantastic animation showing its flight:

Next, Curiosity!

The Mars Science Lander “Curiosity” is now well into its mission exploring Mount Sharp in the center of Gale Crater.  Its latest object of interest is a field of sand dunes.  The going will be difficult, and the team will be very cautious, since it was sand dunes that irretrievably mired MER-A “Spirit”.  This is the rippled surface of “High Dune”, within a dune field named Bagnold Dunes.


The texture and particles are very intriguing, and Curiosity may learn a lot when it samples them.  They’ve already used the wheels to help get a peek below the surface:



And still New Horizons returns data!

The probe is continuing its long, slow plod through the enormous data set that it collected at Pluto.  Color data is now available for those high resolution images taken at closest approach, and it only looks wilder:


Click for the larger image.  It’s really quite weird looking.  The geology must involve some processes that simply don’t happen on Earth, although some of it looks distinctly familiar to our eyes.

Last but not least, Dawn!

Dawn has continued studying 1 Ceres, the closest of the dwarf planets, and there is new information on the mysterious lights in Occator Crater!   Occator Crater has by far the brightest spots on Ceres, but the small world is sprinkled with bright spots.  New spectrographic analysis is consistent with all of those spots being a salt called hexahydrite, which is a type of magnesium sulfate.  Furthermore, all of the spots are associated with impact craters.  This allows them to rule out ice volcanism.  They  believe the spots are salt left behind after water sublimated away following impacts which exposed a briny water layer just below Ceres’ crust.  They aren’t yet suggesting that layer to be liquid, by the way.  It could well be ice, which would rapidly boil away in the sunlight this close to the Sun.  (Ceres is near the limit of our Sun’s golidlocks zone.)  Occator Crater they think is brightest because of relative youth, and possibly also a more energetic impact digging deeper into this layer.  It appears that the water may not have finished sublimating away from Occator Crater, as there is evidence of water vapor accumulating in the crater from both Dawn and also the Herschel Space Observatory.

Another team was analyzing for evidence of ammonia compounds on Ceres, and came up with a lot of evidence, locked up in clays.  This is particularly interesting because surface ammonia is even more volatile than water; that Ceres has some suggests it formed further away from the Sun than its present position.  Perhaps interactions with the giant planets pushed it in.  Ceres is also unusually rich in water ice for a main belt asteroid, which would tend to suggest the same thing.

Here is a color-enhanced image of Ceres rotating.  The enhanced colors help to pick out subtle differences but should not be interpreted as what the human eye would see.

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Martian Sunset

Spirit and Opportunity both photographed the sunset on Mars; now Curiosity has done it, and taken advantage of its nighttime strengths (it’s powered by a plutonium RTG rather than solar panels) to watch the Sun go all the way down — in color.


The image has been white-balanced to approximate the function of the human eye, but the bluish tint you’re noticing is real.  Mars’ atmosphere is different than ours, and blue tints penetrate better than reds, which makes the sunsets generally blue rather than red.  The image sequence was captured with the lefthand Mastcam on Curiosity.

It makes me think of the Little Prince:

Oh, little prince! Bit by bit I came to understand the secrets of your sad little life . . . For a long time you had found your only entertainment in the quiet pleasure of looking at the sunset. I learned that new detail on the morning of the fourth day, when you said to me:

“I am very fond of sunsets. Come, let us go look at a sunset now.”

“But we must wait,” I said.

“Wait? For what?”

“For the sunset. We must wait until it is time.”

At first you seemed to be very much surprised. And then you laughed to yourself. You said to me:

“I am always thinking that I am at home!”

Just so. Everybody knows that when it is noon in the United States the sun is setting over France.

If you could fly to France in one minute, you could go straight into the sunset, right from noon. Unfortunately, France is too far away for that. But on your tiny planet, my little prince, all you need do is move your chair a few steps. You can see the day end and the twilight falling whenever you like . . .

“One day,” you said to me, “I saw the sunset forty-four times!”

And a little later you added:

“You know–one loves the sunset, when one is so sad . . .”

“Were you so sad, then?” I asked, “on the day of the forty-four sunsets?”

But the little prince made no reply.

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2014 In Spaceflight: Top of the Month

A lot of amazing things happened in 2014, but for this year-in-review survey, let’s pick just one each month.

January: Cygnus ORB-1 Mission Complete

The second Cygnus spacecraft, C. Gordon Fullerton, blasted off from Wallops Island, Virginia aboard an Antares rocket on the first operational cargo mission by Orbital Sciences, following the G. Gordon Low in the previous year.  2014 would also see the Janice E Voss reach the Space Station before the unfortunate loss of the Deke Slayton on the ORS-4 mission, when the Antares rocket succumbed to an engine failure a few seconds into the flight.  Orbital Sciences is preparing to return Cygnus to flight using Atlas V as a gapfiller while engine manufacture NPO Energomash prepares the RD-193 to replace their remanufactured N-1 legacy NK-33 engines.  RD-193 is close cousin to the RD-180 used on Atlas V and is an excellent engine with superior performance.  But let’s remember January’s flight, officially bringing NASA a second domestic cargo provider.


February: GPM Core Launch

The Global Precipitation Monitor Core is a multinational mission controlled by Goddard Space Flight Center and involving teams from the US, Japan, and Europe.  The job is to produce an unprecedented map over time of worldwide precipitation patterns.  It was launched by Japan’s H2 rocket:

March: MESSENGER celebrates three years at Mercury

Now three years into its two-year mission in one of the most hostile environments in the solar system, MESSENGER is enduring intense solar heating even as it strives to maintain its delicate orbit through mass concentrations on Mercury that are just as frustrating as those around the Moon; it will probably only be able to manage its orbit until sometime in 2015.


April: LADEE Goes Out With a Bang

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer was designed to study the extremely tenuous atmosphere of the Moon, a crucial thing for understanding the process that distribute dust across the lunar surface, which we’ll need to know before we start colonizing.  In April, its propellant exhausted so it could no longer fight against the lumpy gravitational field of the Moon, it was deliberately crashed into the farside, safely away from the historically sensitive Apollo and Lunkohod sites.  LRO later found the mark it left:


May: ISEE-3 Reawakens

Launched in 1978, ISEE-3 became the first probe to reside at a Lagrange Point.  Four years later, it was redesignated ICE and sent through the tail of Comet Giacobini-Zinner — the first time any spacecraft attempted such a maneuver.  It next flew through the tail of Comet Halley, and then went on to study the heliosphere in conjunction with Ulysses.  But funding ran out in 1997 and the probe was put into hibernation.  NASA recontacted it a few more times, but did not have funding to reactivate it.  So a team of dedicated amateurs (many of whom were former NASA engineers) received permission to mount their mission to take control of the probe.  They obtained funding via Kickstarter, and in May of 2014, successfully reawakened ISEE-3.  Its instruments were still alive and well, but unfortunately an attempted trajectory correction maneuver failed, possibly due to depleted nitrogen pressurant.  The team still continued gathering science data, intending to continue doing so until the probe again receded too far from Earth to communicate.



June: Cassini Celebrates 10 Years At Saturn

Continuing the theme of spacecraft way past their warranty period, Cassini last June reached 10 years into its 4-year mission.  It is now in its second and final mission extension; this mission extension will end with a suicide plunge into the planet Saturn.  NASA had considered using flybys of moons to eject Cassini from the Saturn system at the end of the mission, but the opportunity to get additional data from Titan and Enceladus plus the unprecedented opportunity to dive within Saturn’s rings for a prolonged period of time was just too good to pass up.


July: Opportunity Breaks Lunokhod 2’s Record

NASA announced that Opportunity had now travelled 40 km, which beat Lunokhod 2’s impressive record of 39 km, giving it the title of the most travelled wheeled vehicle off the planet Earth.  Though it has taken severe wear and tear, over ten years into its 90 day mission, Opportunity is still going, trundling along, backwards, dragging a dead wheel behind it.  In honor of the occasion, NASA had it look around, found a crater, and named it “Lunokhod Crater”


August: SpaceX Flies To Geostationary Orbit

The Falcon 9 has made its first deliver to geosynchronous transfer orbit, a job normally handled by larger and more massive rockets.  To do so, it had to omit the equipment for a first stage return test (SpaceX is working towards becoming the first nation to achieve the dream of a fully reusable flyback liquid booster) but it did manage it.  The age of commercial spaceflight is truly upon us, and the current market cost leaders (Russia and China) must take note.

September: Rosetta Arrives at 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko

This was a tough month to pick, what with India’s first Mars orbiter and the MAVEN probe arriving in Mars orbit, and Curiosity reaching its target, the slopes of Mount Sharp, but in the end, the most historic event of the month was the successful rendezvous of Rosetta with 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko after a decade-long snooze.  Its piggybacked Philae lander would have to wait a few more months before descending to the comet’s surface; cross your fingers and hope Philae wakes up again in the growing sun over the next few months.  😉


October: Comet Siding Spring Visits Mars

In a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, scientists discovered a comet, dubbed Siding Spring for the observatory used to track it, which was almost certainly making its first trip to the inner solar system from the Oort Cloud.  And although the comet would have a lousy appearance from Earth, the view from Mars would be a completely different story.  So the fleet of spacecraft at Mars worked together, seizing the opportunity to get a targeted set of observations of a pristine comet — the only comet studied in this way which is *not* a Jupiter family short-period comet.  Although the rovers on the surface got disappointing pictures (their cameras are really not optimized for astrophotography), the MAVEN spacecraft collected data which indicates the planet would’ve seen an astonishing meteor shower.


November: RIP Venus Express

And at the end of November, Venus made its final trajectory correction maneuver during a dip into Venus’ thick atmosphere.  Contact was lost and never regained, so it is presumed that it finally burned the last of its propellant.  With nine years around the most hostile planet in the inner solar system, it performed beautifully.  But alas, all good things must come to an end, and so did Venus Express.


December: Orion MPCV Exploration Test Flight 1

And I’ll finish out with the first major step towards human in deep space: the first test flight of the Orion spacecraft.  Since its ride isn’t ready yet, it took a Delta IV Heavy instead, currently the most powerful vehicle in the US inventory.  And dang, but it looked good.  The vehicle performed two orbits of the Earth, rising high enough on the second to encounter the Van Allen Belts and qualify the spacecraft in that environment, and returns fast enough to validate the heatshield for a lunar or even interplanetary return.

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