Space

August 31, 2012

Curiosity sending great photos, relays voice

mars
Layers at the Base of Mount Sharp. A chapter of the layered geological history of Mars is laid bare in this postcard from NASA’s Curiosity rover. The image shows the base of Mount Sharp, the rover’s eventual science destination. This image is a portion of a larger image taken by Curiosity’s 100-millimeter Mast Camera. For scale, an annotated version of the figure highlights a dark rock that is approximately the same size as Curiosity. The pointy mound in the center of the image, looming above the rover-sized rock, is about 1,000 feet across and 300 feet high. See http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA16104 for a photo of the larger area.

NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover con-tinues functioning at more than 100 percent as it completes over three weeks on the Martian surface.

Curiosity already is returning more data from the Martian surface than have all of NASA’s earlier rovers combined.

“We have an international network of telecommunications relay orbiters bringing data back from Curiosity,” said the Jet Propulsion Lab’s Chad Edwards, chief telecommunications engineer for NASA’s Mars Explora-tion Program. “Curiosity is boosting its data return by using a new capabil-ity for adjusting its transmission rate.”

It has also demonstrated a two-way relay of the first recorded human voice that traveled from Earth to another planet and back. The voice playback was released along with new telephoto camera views of the varied Martian landscape during an Aug. 27 news conference at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif.

Photos
The newest telephoto images beamed back to Earth show a scene of eroded knobs and gulches on a moun-tainside, with geological layering clear-ly exposed.

The new views were taken by the 100-millimeter telephoto lens and the 34-milllimeter wide angle lens of the Mast Camera (Mastcam) instrument. Mastcam has photographed the lower slope of the nearby mountain called Mount Sharp. Image quality is amaz-ingly good.

“This is an area on Mount Sharp where Curiosity will go,” said Mast-cam principal investigator Michael Ma-lin, of Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego. “Those layers are our ultimate objective. The dark dune field is between us and those layers. In front of the dark sand you see redder sand, with a different composition suggest-ed by its different color. The rocks in the foreground show diversity – some rounded, some angular, with different histories. This is a very rich geological site to look at and eventually to drive through.”

Instrument checkouts
During the news conference, the rover team reported the results of a test on Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars instrument, which can measure the composition of samples of atmo-sphere, powdered rock or soil.

The amount of air from Earth’s at-mosphere remaining in the instrument after Curiosity’s launch was more than expected, so a difference in pressure on either side of tiny pumps led SAM operators to stop pumping out the re-maining Earth air as a precaution. The pumps subsequently worked, and a chemical analysis was completed on a sample of Earth air.

“As a test of the instrument, the results are beautiful confirmation of the sensitivities for identifying the gases present,” said SAM principal investigator Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “We’re happy with this test and we’re looking forward to the next run in a few days when we can get Mars data.”
A drive last week placed Curiosity directly over a patch where one of the spacecraft’s landing engines scoured away a few inches of gravelly soil and exposed underlying rock. Researchers plan to use a neutron-shooting instru-ment on the rover to check for water molecules bound into minerals at this partially excavated target.

There are 10 science instruments on Curiosity. Thus far, five have been used successfully. These include the Mast cameras -Mastcam; the Radia-tion Assessment Detector; the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station; the Chemical camera; and the Sample Analysis at Mars. SAM is perhaps the most complex of the instruments, as it includes a laser spectrometer, a mass spectrometer, and a gas chromatograph.

Audio transmission
In spoken words radioed to the rov-er on Mars and back to NASA’s Deep Space Network on Earth, NASA Ad-ministrator Charles Bolden noted the difficulty of landing a rover on Mars, congratulated NASA employees and the agency’s commercial and government partners on the successful landing of Curiosity earlier this month, and said curiosity is what drives humans to explore.

“The knowledge we hope to gain from our observation and analysis of Gale Crater will tell us much about the possibil-ity of life on Mars as well as the past and future possibili-ties for our own planet. Curiosity will bring benefits to Earth and inspire a new generation of scientists and explorers, as it prepares the way for a human mission in the not too distant future,” Bolden said in the recorded message.

“With this voice, another small step is taken in extending human presence beyond Earth, and the experience of exploring remote worlds is brought a little closer to us all,” said Dave Lavery, NASA Curiosity program executive. “As Curiosity continues its mission, we hope these words will be an inspira-tion to someone alive today who will become the first to stand upon the surface of Mars. And like the great Neil Armstrong, they will speak aloud of that next giant leap in human exploration.”

JPL manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The rover was designed, devel-oped and assembled at JPL. NASA’s DSN is an international network of antennas that supports interplanetary spacecraft missions and radio and radar astronomy observations for the exploration of the solar system and the universe. The network also supports selected Earth-orbiting missions.




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