Before Curiosity sets off across the Martian landscape, it needs a chance to catch its (metaphorical) breath. As the rover performs health checks on its systems to ensure that everything is working properly, the robot’s cameras are also checking out its surroundings. This panoramic view, showing Gale Crater and its rim, is a combination of two images taken by the navigation cameras on Curiosity’s mast. Click on it to see the Martian surface in full-resolution glory.
In the wee hours after midnight on Monday, the Mars Science Laboratory, known to its many admirers as “Curiosity,” touched down on Mars—and ever since, photos have been trickling in from the Red Planet.
This image isn’t just a great shot of Curiosity’s shadow; it also shows us the rover’s goal: Mount Sharp, that great big mountain in the middle of Gale Crater. Curiosity will trundle up to the mountain and probe its strata to uncover the past and present Martian environment.
Mars Science Laboratory descending
to the surface, as seen by Mars
It has been quite a morning, science fans.
In the wee hours, after traveling Mars-ward for months, the Mars Science Laboratory executed its nail-biting landing maneuver, nicknamed by NASA engineers “Seven Minutes of Terror.” The $2.5 billion craft, bearing the largest-ever Mars rover, Curiosity, autonomously sped into the Martian atmosphere, threw out a parachute, blew off its heat shield, blasted rockets downwards to slow itself, split in two, and lowered one half of itself, the rover, down to the surface, where Curiosity opened its camera eyes and began sending pictures back to Earth.
What’s the News: On Friday, after five years of deliberation over 100 candidates, NASA announced its choice of landing site for Curiosity, the next Mars rover: Gale crater, a massive pit with a three-mile-high mound in its center. The mission’s primary goal is to assess whether conditions suitable for microbial life ever existed on the Red Planet; Gale was selected over the three other finalists in part because its mountain promises access to layered sediments extending deep into the Martian past.
NASA’s next Mars rover took its first tiny test drive at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Friday. If all goes well, it will be en route to the Red Planet by late next year on a mission to look for environments that could have once harbored life.
Spacecraft technicians and engineers attached the Curiosity rover’s neck and head (called the Remote Sensing Mast) to its body, and mounted two navigation cameras (Navcams), two mast cameras (Mastcam) and the laser-toting chemistry camera (ChemCam). Curiosity was also sporting a new set of six aluminum wheels, each about 20 inches (about half a meter) in diameter, as it took its first drive on Earth. The large rover now stands at about 7 feet (2 meters) tall [MSNBC].
With its major pieces attached, Curiosity is about the size of an SUV. It dwarfs the overachieving Spirit and Opportunity rovers that have been on the martian surface since 2004. JPL scientists broadcast a live feed of the rover’s first roll back and forth.
It’s entirely possible that researchers may have detected the first ever evidence of extraterrestrial life. Researchers who spent seven years studying the atmosphere of Mars say they glimpsed discrete plumes of methane gas rising from the surface of the planet in 2003, which could have been produced by bacteria living deep underground. On Earth, a class of bacteria known as methanogens breathes out methane as a waste product [The New York Times].
Before the public could get too excited, the researchers noted that that the biological explanation is just one of two possibilities–there’s also geological processes to consider. The methane could have been produced by geothermal chemical reactions involving water and heat like those in the hot springs of Yellowstone…. [N]o signs of recent volcanism, or even any hot spots, have been spotted on Mars [The New York Times], but ancient volcanic activity could have left methane deposits trapped underground, and puffs of that gas could be routinely released. Finally, the source could be a process known as serpentinisation that occurs at low temperatures and occurs when rocks rich in the minerals olivine and pyroxene react chemically with water, releasing methane [BBC News].
Rumors are flying that President-elect Barack Obama will nominate retired fighter pilot Jonathan Scott Gration to lead NASA, a surprising pick due to Gration’s very limited experience with NASA and the space community. However, the 32-year veteran of the Air Force is close with Obama–the two traveled through Africa together in 2006–and space policy expert John Logsdon says that personal history augers well for the agency: “Obama has picked one of his close personal associates to be the head of NASA. It would make no sense for Obama to send a close associate to an agency (and) then not support the agency” [Houston Chronicle].
Gration spent one year in the 1980s as a White House Fellow working for NASA’s deputy administrator, but that is his only direct experience with the space agency. However, he may have been studying up recently. People familiar with the selection of Gration said he helped craft Obama’s space policy, which calls for the U.S. to minimize the gap between the 2010 retirement of NASA’s shuttle fleet and the first piloted flights of successor spacecraft in 2015. Released last August, the policy also calls for returning American astronauts to the moon by 2020 as a precursor to missions to other more distant destinations, such as Mars [Florida Today].
In another promising sign that primitive life could have once existed on the surface of Mars, researchers have found deposits of a mineral that suggest that the planet once had life-friendly bodies of liquid water. The mineral, carbonate, has previously been detected in only trace quantities on Mars, but new data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s spectrometer shows deposits in a rock outcropping in a region of valleys called the Nili Fossae. Since acidic conditions can prevent carbonates from forming, the discovery suggests that the rocks were created in neutral-pH water that might have provided a cosy habitat for life [New Scientist].
Water ice currently exists on Mars, and over the past few years researchers have accumulated evidence of liquid lakes and streams in the planet’s distant past. Most evidence has pointed to a period when water on the planet’s surface formed clay-rich minerals, followed by a time of drier conditions, when salt-rich, acidic water affected much of the planet. These later conditions would have proven difficult for any Martian life — if it ever existed — to endure or to leave any traces for scientists to find. Because carbonates dissolve quickly in acid, finding them shows at least some areas of the planet escaped the acid bath [SPACE.com].
The next robotic explorer in NASA’s ambitious Mars program will have to wait an extra two years before taking off towards the red planet, NASA officials announced yesterday. The Mars Science Laboratory was scheduled to lift off in the fall of 2009, but with unsolved issues with some of the spacecraft’s electrical motors … NASA officials no longer thought they could meet that schedule without rushing the testing program.“We’ve determined that trying for ‘09 would require us to assume too much risk, more than I think is appropriate for a flagship mission like Mars Science Laboratory,” Michael D. Griffin, NASA’s administrator, said [The New York Times].
Because Earth and Mars only draw near to each other every 26 months, the next possible launch window will come in 2011. The new delay is just the latest bit of bad news regarding the Science Lab, which has busted deadlines and budgets since the project was approved in 2006. The rover was initially expected to cost $1.6 billion, but the new delay will push costs up to about $2.3 billion, NASA officials said.
NASA is keeping the faith and pushing forward with its most ambitious Mars rover mission to date, despite serious cost overruns and technical problems. NASA officials announced on Friday that they expect the Mars Science Laboratory to launch as planned in 2009, rebutting speculation that NASA would postpone the craft’s launch until 2011, or even cancel the mission. “It’s easy to say, ‘let’s just cancel it and move on’ but we’ve poured over a billion-and-half dollars into this,” [NASA official Ed] Weiler said. “The science is critical. It’s a flagship mission in the Mars program and as long as we think we have a good technical chance to make it we are going to do what we have to do” [SPACE.com].
The SUV-sized rover was originally expected to cost $1.6 billion, but it’s already $300 million over budget and the latest cost overruns may push the final price to over $2 billion. To meet costs, NASA may be forced to scale back or postpone other Mars missions, and could even take funds from other planetary missions. A group of scientists that advises NASA on planetary missions called this week for an outside investigation into the Mars Science Lab’s financial troubles. The scientists noted that the pricey project was a “poor model for future missions” [AP].