Tag: Curiosity

Pew! Pew! Take *that*, Mars!

By Phil Plait | October 24, 2012 7:00 am

Hey, remember that one ton nuclear rover we sent to Mars? Yeah, that. On October 20, it aimed its megaWatt laser at the sand on Mars and blasted it 30 times in rapid succession, carving out a hole about 3 mm across. NASA kindly has provided a before-and-after animation of the damage inflicted on the Red Planet:

Cool, eh? [Click to coherentlightenate.]

Curiosity’s laser is designed not as a weapon against a hapless Marvin, but instead to do actual science. It very rapidly heats the rock (or sand or whatever) to the point where it vaporizes. Material heated like that glows, and in fact glows at very specific colors. By identifying those colors, scientists can determine precisely what the material is composed of. I gave the details in an earlier post when Curiosity zapped its first rock. You should read it, because spectroscopy is cool, and I spent many years doing it.

This sand was chosen to get lasered because it’s made of fine grains that are blown by the wind. Some Martian sand is bigger, some smaller, but it’s all pretty much formed from eroded rocks. But different grains may have different compositions, and be blown around differently. The only way to know is to find out. So Curiosity will be blasting various things as it roves around Gale crater, its home for the next two years.

Curiosity’s real name is Mars Science Laboratory, and it’s useful to keep that in mind. It’s not just some golf cart tooling around the planet; it’s a fully functional science lab, with cameras, spectroscopes, sampling devices, and more. Everything it does is so we can learn more about Mars. What’s the the history of the planet? Why is its geology the way it is? What’s the deal with it used to having water? Where’d it all go?

I think these are questions worth exploring, even if it means blasting tiny holes in the planet to find out.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/LPGN/CNRS. Tip o’ the Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator to Keri Bean, including the idea for the title.


Related Posts:

- Now you will feel the firepower of a fully armed and operational Mars rover
- Wheels on Mars
- One small tread for Curiosity, one giant leap for roverkind
- Curiosity looks Sharp
- Gallery – Curiosity’s triumphant first week on Mars

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures, Science
MORE ABOUT: Curiosity, laser, Mars

Standing on Mars

By Phil Plait | October 17, 2012 7:00 am

What would it look like to stand on Mars? Probably like this:

[I had to shrink this image considerably to fit the width of my blog; click to properly enaresenate.]

Space enthusiast Denny Bauer created this spectacular panorama of the Martian landscape using images from the Curiosity rover; he arduously stitched raw images together in Photoshop. The original shots were taken on Sol 64 (October 10, 2012; a "sol" is one Mars day and is slightly longer than an Earth day) using Curiosity’s MASTCAM.

The view is wonderful: you can see small rocks in the foreground, all kinds of geology as you let your eye move upwards, and then finally the horizon and the central mountains of Gale Crater, Curiosity’s home, looming in the distance. It almost looks like a dusty summer day in northern California… except it’s the cold, distant, almost airless yet still dust-stormy surface of another planet.

Not only that, but Denny made an even bigger, high-resolution image made of 65 subimages which I have no hope of showing you here. You can take a look at it at that link, or you can go to the 100+ megapixel pan-and-scan version where you can surf around the surface of Mars. It’s tremendous.

Looking at this image I was thinking of what it would be like to stand there – properly outfitted in an insulated pressure suit, of course. And then I saw this 3D anaglyph picture Denny put together and really felt like I was standing on the Red Planet:

If you have red/cyan glasses, click that to get a bigger view and soak it in. He did a fantastic job of matching up the images (from Sol 60 using NAVCAM shots), and there’s no trace of the usual color edges you see in such images. It really is like you’re standing there!

Image credit: Denny Bauer, used with permission.


Related Posts:

- Wheels on Mars
- One small tread for Curiosity, one giant leap for roverkind
- Curiosity’s self-portrait
- Curiosity looks Sharp
- Now you will feel the firepower of a fully armed and operational Mars rover
- Gallery – Curiosity’s triumphant first week on Mars

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Wheels on Mars

By Phil Plait | October 11, 2012 7:00 am

Speaking of amazing pictures from Mars, over the weekend Emily Lakdawalla tweeted about a shot from the Curiosity rover that is simply too too cool:

I love the perspective on this! [Click to hotwheelsenate - and you really should to see just how awesome this picture is.]

It was taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on October 6, 2012. MAHLI is a color camera that’s mounted on the end of Curiosity’s robotic arm. It provides detailed (1600 x 1200 pixel) color images, and can take close-ups to show microscopic detail of Martian rock samples.

But it can also take spectacular shots of the rover itself. You can see details on the rover wheels, including some of the dings they’ve gotten as they roll over rocks. It also gives you a sense of the size of the rover: it’s as big as a car, and those wheels in the picture are 50 cm (18 inches) in diameter! That’s about the same size as the wheels on my own car.

… and then, while thinking about all this, I remember: this is on Mars. That’s another world, a planet tens of millions of kilometers away, a nine-month trip even by rocket! And Curiosity will be there for two full Earth years, returning vast amounts of incredible data about its surroundings.

I literally get a chill down my back when I think about that. It’s so easy to get mired down worrying about the present and the future, but, quite literally, pictures like this give me hope for humanity. It’s amazing what we can do when we put our minds to it.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems


Related Posts:

- A solar eclipse… FROM MARS!
- Curiosity’s self-portrait
- Curiosity looks Sharp
- Now you will feel the firepower of a fully armed and operational Mars rover
- Gallery – Curiosity’s triumphant first week on Mars

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures, Space
MORE ABOUT: Curiosity, Mars

Curiosity got shaved?

By Phil Plait | October 9, 2012 3:08 pm

Yesterday, the Mars rover Curiosity was using its scoop for the first time to grab a sample of Martian regolith (the crumbled sand, rock and dust covering the planet) when scientists back here on Earth spotted something funny looking. It was an object roughly a centimeter long that appeared shiny, in contrast to the rust-colored dust-covered pebbles and rocks around it.

Using the ChemCam, they took this close-up picture of the object:

I added the arrows. My first thought was that it looked like a piece of shredded plastic, and it may very well be something like that. Not from any Martian litterbugs, though! It’s probably something from the rover itself; it was spotted just after the scoop had dumped the regolith sample into a shaker which vibrated the material to help separate and analyze it. It seems likely whatever this thing is may have come off then.

No matter what it is, it’s stopped Curiosity’s mission progress until it can be figured out. If it’s something that got shaved off the rover itself that might be kindof important. Also, if something like that got caught in the sampling scoop, or someplace else, it could do anything from mess up the observations to damage the rover itself (if it wasn’t the result of some kind of damage in the first place). That strikes me as pretty unlikely, but better safe than sorry when you’re dealing with a $2.5 billion chem lab on a planet a couple of hundred million kilometers away.

It may very well be something benign, but it’s certainly cause for concern, and the folks at JPL are looking into it. Stay tuned for more.

You can also read more about this at Universe Today and USA Today.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Pretty pictures, Space
MORE ABOUT: Curiosity, Mars, rover

One small tread for Curiosity, one giant leap for roverkind

By Phil Plait | October 9, 2012 7:03 am

I’m posting this just because I can: a closeup of the tread track left by the Mars Curiosity rover’s wheel in the sand:

That image was taken by the left MASTCAM on Sol 57, the 57th Mars day after the rover landed – October 3, 2012 to you and me, stuck as we are here on Earth.

If this picture looks familiar, if it tickles some part of your brain as it did mine, then it’s probably because it bears a remarkable similarity to the bootprint left on the Moon by Buzz Aldrin. That iconic image will forever represent the moment humanity’s foot first set upon an alien world.

Perhaps currently there is no one iconic picture from Mars that has earned its place in history’s archive. But that day may yet come when we see a picture very similar to Buzz’s… and the dust compressed by a human boot will be red, not grey.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures, Space
MORE ABOUT: Buzz Aldrin, Curiosity, Mars

A solar eclipse… FROM MARS!

By Phil Plait | September 15, 2012 12:34 pm

OK, this is simply too cool.

The Mars Curiosity rover has already returned thousands of images taken of the Red Planet’s landscape. But on September 13, 2012, it was commanded not to look around, but to look up, at the Sun. Why? Because Mars’s tiny moon Phobos passed directly in front of the Sun, partially eclipsing it!

Sweeeeet. I blew the original image up by a factor of two for clarity.

Technically, this is called a transit – when a much smaller body passes in front of a larger one. Usually, there’s some science that can come from this; the timing of the transit gives a better orbit for the moon (since the rover’s location on the surface is precisely known), and so on. In this case, though, we study Phobos with other orbiting spacecraft, so I’d think its orbit and position are extremely well determined.

It may very well be that this shot was taken just because it’s cool. I actually kinda hope so.

It’s not the first time a Phobos transit has been seen; in fact it’s been done several times. Here’s a video of one seen by the rover Opportunity in November 2010:

Wikipedia has more info. I’ll note that as of right now, the image above is the only one I’ve seen listed on the Curiosity raw images page (at decent resolution, that is; there are lots of tiny thumbnails, and bigger, cleaner versions should show up soon). The image was taken by the MASTCAM, which has a filter on it so it can observe the Sun. It does that for various reasons, including being able to observe how much the Martian atmosphere is absorbing sunlight.

Phobos orbits Mars pretty close in, just about 6000 km (3600 miles) above the surface of Mars – compare that to the 400,000 km distance from the Earth to the Moon! Phobos is so close that it transits the Sun pretty much every day for some location on Mars, making this something of a less-than-rare event. It’ll only be a year before it happens again at Curiosity’s location.

Still. It’s an eclipse, seen from Mars, taken by a nuclear powered one-ton mobile chem lab that we put there. I think that qualifies as pretty damn cool.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems. Tip o’ the heat shield to… MarsCuriosity on Twitter!


Related Posts:

- Curiosity’s self-portrait
- Curiosity looks Sharp
- Curiosity rolls!
- Now you will feel the firepower of a fully armed and operational Mars rover
- Gallery – Curiosity’s triumphant first week on Mars

A new space race?

By Phil Plait | September 15, 2012 7:00 am

When Curiosity landed on Mars, I was interviewed by RTTV about it, and China’s plans on landing on the Moon. The interview’s online:

Like I’ve said before: I’d like to see us cooperating more internationally, and I fear a new space race with China might be good for funding in the short run, but terrible in the long run. We spent a lot on getting to the Moon – and don’t get me wrong, we gained a huge amount from it – but the effort itself fizzled quickly, leaving us with a space program that lacked vision and didn’t have big goals. As amazing as Curiosity is, I wonder if we would be putting people on Mars by now had the American government, and the people too, had the gumption to keep that technology moving forward.

Oh, what might have been…


Related Posts:

- What to make of the Chinese space effort?
- China’s space lab has a spot in the Sun
- Rocket envy
- Did the Chinese fake their space walk?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Politics, Space
MORE ABOUT: China, Curiosity, space race

Curiosity's self-portrait

By Phil Plait | September 10, 2012 6:49 am

I’m on travel in the UK right now – I’m filming a part for a documentary which I’ll talk more about in a later post – but I want to make sure you get a chance to see this really quite fun self-portrait the Mars Curiosity rover took over the weekend:

[Click to narcissusenate.]

I love how it almost looks like the rover is surprised to see itself.

The picture was taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), a camera mounted on the end of the robot arm. It’s designed to look up close at specimens of rocks or whatever else the rover happens to see as it rolls across Mars. It has a transparent dust cover on it, which is why the image is a bit fuzzy. It’s covered in Mars dust!

But engineers commanded the dust cover to flip open, and then it took this picture looking straight down (again, click to embiggen). Those may just look like rocks, but they’re rocks on Mars! That alone makes them awesome. But in fact pictures like this will tell scientists back home volumes about the geology of Mars, and the history of its surface in this region.

Even just looking at how the rocks are laid out can be telling; water flowing over a rocky area redistributes rocks in certain patterns, and that can be seen right away in pictures. A lot of science can be gleaned just from a shot like this. But the rover can also drill into this surface, scoop up samples to test, or zap them with its laser to see what they’re made of. All in all, this is the little rover that could… which is actually a big rover that does.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems


Related Posts:

- Curiosity looks Sharp
- Curiosity rolls!
- Now you will feel the firepower of a fully armed and operational Mars rover
- Gallery – Curiosity’s triumphant first week on Mars

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: Curiosity, MAHLI, Mars

Live Hangout with me at RocketFest!

By Phil Plait | September 3, 2012 11:55 am

As I write this I am in Huntsville, Alabama at Space Camp! I’m here for
RocketFest, a celebration of space with music, talks, and a Saturn V full of fun stuff. We’re doing this to raise money for the U.S. Space & Rocket Center Foundation.

We’ve set up a live Google+ Hangout, and if all is well it’s embedded below. It starts at 2:00 Central time (19:00 UTC), and you’ll see performances by Molly Lewis, Ken Plume, Joseph Scrimshaw, and Marian Call.

You can donate to this great cause at the RocketFest page!

And here’s the video!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Geekery, NASA, Science, Space

OK, *one* more Curiosity descent video

By Phil Plait | August 28, 2012 11:25 am

I know, I’ve posted a few of these, but a new video came out showing the descent of Curiosity to the surface of Mars that’s worth a look.

YouTube user "hahahaspam" did a clever thing. The Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) is a camera that points straight down, past the rover, so engineers on Earth could later see the exact path Curiosity took on its way down to the Martian surface and also get an overview of the area. It took a series of images that were later put together to make various animations (see Related Posts below). The motion appears jerky because the camera only took about four pictures per second.

What hahahaspam did was interpolate between the frames, making the motion appear much more smooth. The animation he made is really quite wonderful:

Nice, huh? Interpolation is a math term that involves estimating the value of something between two measurements. A simple example involves someone running. You measure their progress: after one second they’ve traveled 2 meters, and after two seconds they’ve run 4 meters. How far did they get in 1.5 seconds?

Obviously, the answer is 3 meters. It may not be exact – a person’s running speed might change – but it’s probably close. There is a precise mathematical way to do interpolations like this, and that’s what hahahaspam did. Digital pictures are really just long strings of numbers, and video is the same thing except each pixel value changes with time. All you need to do is take two frames taken some time apart, then interpolate the value at each pixel for what it would be halfway between the time of the first frame and the second, and boom! You’ve made a video with twice the frame rate and the motion looks smoother.

It’s actually a lot harder than this in practice (rapid brightness or color changes makes this more difficult and less accurate, for example), but I hope this gives you the idea of how it works. The result in this case is pretty cool. Hahahaspam also created a side-by-side comparison of the original and interpolated videos, too, so you can see how they look together.

Very nice! And well done. I think it’s great that so many folks are so inspired by this that they want to play with the data. It really shows how much this has affected people.


Related Posts:

- Two amazing Curiosity descent videos
- Watch as Curiosity touches down gently *and* its heat shield slams into Mars
- Video of Curiosity saying bye bye to its heat shield
- VIDEO of Curiosity’s descent… from the rover cam itself!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures
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