Curiosity takes us to Mars

You’ve seen plenty of media coverage already about NASA‘s Curiosity roverlanding safely on Mars. It went better than they’d hoped. Now the robot will sniff around the red planet for signs that life might ever have existed there. What it finds could tell us all sorts of things about how life began here on Earth, or about the likelihood of life elsewhere in the universe.

Its primary mission will last one Martian year (about 98 of our weeks, nearly two Earth years). But with some luck it’ll keep going longer than that.

You can read about how the mission’s going on NASA’s mission web site; here’s part of today’s:

On its first Martian day, designated Sol 0, the rover is checking its health and measuring its tilt. All Sol 0 spacecraft activities appear to have been completely nominal. These include firing all of Curiosity’s pyrotechnic devices for releasing post-landing deployments. Spring-loaded deployments, such as removal of dust covers from the Hazard-Avoidance cameras (Hazcams) occur immediately when pyros are fired. Curiosity also took images with its front and rear Hazcams both before and after removal of the dust covers, checked out its UHF telecommunications system and rover motor controller assembly, and completed all activities required to proceed with its planned activities on Sol 1. Approximately five megabytes of data were successfully relayed back to Earth from NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft during its overpass today.

Activities planned for Sol 1 during the mission’s approximately one-month characterization activity phase include deploying Curiosity’s high-gain antenna, collecting science data from Curiosity’s Radiation Assessment Detector and Rover Environmental Monitoring Station instruments, and obtaining additional imagery. The mission’s characterization activity phase is design to learn how all Curiosity’s subsystems and instruments are functioning after landing and within the environment and gravitational field of Mars.

There are lots of photos of Curiosity’s surroundings on Mars too, though you can’t get away from them if you’re near a TV or newspaper these days. I’m looking forward to a constant stream of fascinating info from Curiosity.

Curiosity’s first color image of the Martian landscape. This view of the landscape to the north of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity was acquired by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on the afternoon of the first day after landing. In the distance, the image shows the north wall and rim of Gale Crater. The image is murky because the MAHLI’s removable dust cover is apparently coated with dust blown onto the camera during the rover’s terminal descent. Images taken without the dust cover in place are expected during checkout of the robotic arm in coming weeks. Click the image above to embiggen.

Martian Opportunity

I blogged lots last year about Phoenix, the probe on Mars that landed, found evidence of water, and died on the red planet.

There are other probes on Mars, though: the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission has two probes – Opportunity and Spirit – that, despite having three-month lifespans, are still rolling around four years later. In fact, they’re both heading off on their biggest journeys ever.

Looking Back at Opportunitys Arena of Exploration (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Looking Back at Opportunity’s Arena of Exploration (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Thoughts from a dying probe

I’ve blogged on and off about the Phoenix explorer probe, and its search for water on Mars. It’s just about done its mission: it found the water it was looking for (in block ice and snow form) and sent massive amounst of data back to NASA. Phoenix’s batteries are now dead, and while there may be a few brief Lazarus-mode moments, it’s effectively dying.

Read its touching dying thoughts in this guest spot on Gizmodo.

Dropping temperatures measured by Phoenix

Mars Phoenix to chemically test for water

The Phoenix Mars lander is ready to sample a scoop of icy ground and hopefully prove, chemically, that that white shiny stuff is water.

They’ve done thermal tests of the soil to see what time of day is best to minimise sublimation (i.e., turning into gas) of any ice they expose and dig up. They’ve given the topsoil a good digging and scraping to expose a promising area. They’ve monitored how quickly the ice in newly exposed soil sublimates. They’ve planned their rasping, digging, and dumping moves. And they’ve cleared the scoop and opened the TEGA doors.

TEGA doors open on the Mars Phoenix lander

More Mars data

The Phoenix explorer on Mars is now returning lots of cool new data.

  • Earlier samples of soil have been put through some analysis inside Phoenix; the resultant data, for NASA scientists, “was like winning the lottery.” For example, the soil at the landing spot appears to be similar to surface soils found in the upper dry valleys in Antarctica. One scientist said, “This is more evidence for water because salts are there. We also found a reasonable number of nutrients, or chemicals needed by life as we know it.”Another said, “At this point, we can say that the soil has clearly interacted with water in the past.”
  • A couple of days later the digging arms on Phoenix scraped a new area, and photos of the scraped spot indicate “that surface soil, subsurface soil and icy soil can be sampled at a single trench.”

Are we sure it’s ice on Mars?

Pretty sure, yes. Some people have asked whether NASA is jumping the gun, since solid CO2 – dry ice – also exists in abundance on Mars, and it can sublimate (turn into gas) as well. Maybe it’s that.

As this recent Q&A posted on Wired explains, it can’t be CO2 because it’s currently ‘way too warm there (they landed during Martian summer) for CO2 to exist in solid form at all. It’s still cool enough for it to be solid H2O under the soil that gradually sublimates when exposed to heat from the sun. That’s why they think it’s ice.

That Wired page also has a link to a nifty weather report from Mars on the Canadian Space Agency’s website.