Friday, August 17, 2012

Mars Rover Update

The first color image taken from orbit showing NASA's rover Curiosity on Mars includes details of the layered bedrock on the floor of Gale Crater that the rover is beginning to investigate.

Operators of the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter added the color view to earlier observations of Curiosity descending on its parachute, and one day after landing.

The rover appears as double bright spot plus shadows, looking at its shadowed side, set in the middle of the blast pattern from the descent stage. This image was acquired from an angle looking 30 degrees westward of straight down.

Meanwhile, Curiosity has finished a four-day process transitioning both of its redundant main computers to flight software for driving and using tools on the rover's arm. During the latter part of the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft's 36-week flight to Mars and its complicated descent to deliver Curiosity to the Martian surface on Aug. 5, PDT (Aug. 6, EDT and Universal Time), the rover's computers used a version of flight software with many capabilities no longer needed. The new version expands capabilities for work the rover will do now that it is safely on the surface of Mars.

The first drive, possibly within a week or so, will likely include short forward and reverse segments and a turn. Curiosity has a separate drive motor on each of its six wheels and steering motors on the four corner wheels. Preparation and testing of the motor controllers will precede the first drive.

After the test drive, the planning schedule has an "intermission" before a second testing phase focused on use of the rover's robotic arm. For the intermission, the 400-member science team will have the opportunity to pick a location for Curiosity to drive to before the arm-testing weeks.

Researchers have been examining images from Curiosity's cameras and HiRISE to identify potential targets to investigate near the rover and on the visible slope of the nearby three-mile-high mound informally named Mount Sharp.  A 360 degree look from Curiosity shows the crater and Mount Sharp is shown in the above photo.

The science and operations teams are evaluating several potential routes that would take us to Mount Sharp, with perhaps a few waypoints to inspect some of the different terrains that have been identified near the landing area.  Even after Curiosity starts moving, it will take a good part of a year to make it to the layered sediments on Mount Sharp.

During a prime mission of nearly two years, researchers will use Curiosity to investigate whether the selected area of Mars has ever offered chemical ingredients for life and other environmental conditions favorable for supporting microbial life. Curiosity carries 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science payloads on NASA's Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

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