July 8, 2020

Sols 2817-2818: Curiosity is Going Downhill

Written by Roger Wiens, Geochemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory
surface of Mars

This image was taken by Mast Camera (Mastcam) onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 2813. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›​

Curiosity is going downhill. Not in the figurative sense—Curiosity’s 10 instruments all still work well, its six wheels are all doing well, and the drill has been working great for the last two years as well as earlier in the mission. Okay, the rover’s power output is somewhat lower than when it started but, all in all, Curiosity is doing great. No, Curiosity is just heading to a slightly lower elevation, to look for a location to potentially drill at least one more sample in the clay unit. Clay beds tend to signal habitable environments where water was present for a long time and they also tend to be good at preserving organic materials. This drive is part of our “summer road trip” towards the sulfate unit, and will allow the team to potentially get another sample of the clay-rich region while Curiosity still has the opportunity (no pun intended).

Because Curiosity’s route has generally ascended Mt. Sharp, downhill drives of this magnitude have been rare. A little over two years ago Curiosity drove back down the front (north) side of “Vera Rubin ridge” (VRR) to pick up a drill sample of the “Blunts Point” member of the “Murray formation.” Early in 2019, Curiosity drove down the back (south) side of VRR into the clay unit, which is a slight depression in the side of Mt. Sharp. And more recently, Curiosity has driven down from some buttes and down from a short excursion on “Greenheugh Pediment.” Other than that, Curiosity has been climbing most of the time.

In the last several sols, Curiosity has already descended about 16 meters in elevation from its earlier perch on “Bloodstone Hill.” The accompanying image shows the view looking downhill across the clay unit, with VRR in the background.

In this uplink plan Curiosity will do several observations at its current location, then do a relatively long drive on the second sol, followed by additional observation activities. ChemCam and Mastcam will make observations of bedrock targets “Caldback” (rubbly textured) and “Portencross” (smooth). Mastcam will also take stereo images of pebbles and of “Windy Gyle,” an outcrop to the east. Curiosity will then take its drive (hoping to go a distance of over 100 meters) combining an initial drive on terrain we can see with autonomous driving in the later part on terrain we haven’t yet imaged. The drive will be followed by a Sun tau observation by Mastcam and by post-drive image documentation. MARDI will take an image of the ground at twilight.

On the second sol, ChemCam will make a passive observation of the sky to measure its dust and water-vapor content, and will make an observation of a bedrock target selected autonomously by the rover. RAD, REMS, and DAN will continue taking data. Navcam will take a suprahorizon movie, and Mastcam will take another Sun tau measurement to check atmospheric dust.

July 7, 2020

Sol 2816: Curiosity Takes a Turn... to the North

Written by Lucy Thompson, Planetary Geologist at University of New Brunswick
Bow Fiddle block on Mars

Front Hazard camera image of the Sol 2816 workspace. “Bow Fiddle” is the block with the exposed vertical face slightly up and left from the centre of the image. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›​

We returned to nominal planning this morning after successfully upgrading Curiosity’s flight software. The drive today should take Curiosity a little to the north and east, towards our first planned stop on our summer road-trip to the sulfate-bearing unit. In order to preserve as much drive time and distance as possible, we kept the science activities relatively short and sweet.

Prior to the drive, Curiosity will acquire a ChemCam compositional analysis of the typical bedrock exposure in the workspace (“Bow Fiddle”), as well as two Mastcam mosaics of the eastern-most exposures of the Greenheugh Pediment, which we plan to visit later in the mission.

Following the drive, the ChemCam instrument will capture the chemistry of the rocks in the new workspace, using its autonomous targeting capabilities. The remaining post-drive science activities will be devoted primarily to environment and atmospheric monitoring, which are particularly important during Mars’ current dusty season. These will include a large Navcam dust devil survey, a Navcam deck survey, Mastcam full tau imaging towards the sun and a Mastcam sky survey.

A post-drive MARDI science block to monitor the ground beneath Curiosity’s wheels, as well as standard REMS, RAD and DAN activities round out our return to nominal planning.

It has been a quiet day for me as the APXS strategic planner, as we maximize driving for distance on our summer road-trip. However, I am looking forward to Curiosity being able to stretch her arm over the weekend, to touch the rocks, and hopefully document the chemistry and textures with the contact science instruments (APXS and MAHLI).

July 1, 2020

Sols 2810-2815: No Holidays on Mars

Written by Scott Guzewich, Atmospheric Scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
Surface of Mars

This image was taken by Rear Hazard Avoidance Camera (Rear Hazcam) onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 2809. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›​

To give the (American) Earthlings a holiday on Friday, we planned 5 sols of activities for Curiosity today. But our rover will certainly not be taking any days off, with a mix of science and engineering activities over the long weekend. We are continuing to update the rover computer’s flight software, which will preclude nearly all science activities during the first and last sols of those 5 sols. In between is a fairly normal 3-sol weekend plan.

We started planning today with the realization that the rover had adjusted its position from the previous sol and the front left wheel moved downward onto the surface. This uncertainty in our position precluded contact science at this location, but GEO still scheduled a full list of remote sensing science with ChemCam and Mastcam before we drive away over the weekend.

Mars is in the middle of the dusty season currently (southern hemisphere spring) and the amount of dust in the atmosphere has been increasing over the last 2 weeks, although it is still within typical values for the season above Gale Crater. For the long weekend, I added several additional activities to the rover’s plan to monitor atmospheric dust devils so we’re aware if any storms develop.

June 26, 2020

Sols 2805-2809: Pit Stop for Curiosity

Written by Catherine O'Connell-Cooper, Planetary Geologist at University of New Brunswick
Bloodstone Hill on Mars

Front hazard (FHAZ) image from our current workspace, looking back up towards "Bloodstone Hill." Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›​

We drove in our last plan, about 15 metres, ending up with some bedrock and sand in our workspace. Normally, Fridays are our busiest day in the geology theme group (GEO). We choose targets for contact science, with lots of back and forth between all the geochemistry, camera and engineering teams, to pick the best ones, while the environment theme group (ENV) plans a range of environmental activities.

Not this weekend though! Curiosity is taking some time to do routine software updates, so the next couple of plans will be concentrating on those, leaving not much room for anything else. ENV have planned REMS and RAD environmental monitoring activities, part of their ongoing daily activities.

We will still be here next week, and we’ll pick up our contact science at that point, in time for the July 4th U.S. holiday.

June 24, 2020

Sols 2803-2804: A Drive to a View

Written by Fred Calef, Planetary Geologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Surface of Mars

"Bloodstone Hill" appears just to the right as well as numerous decimeter-scale bounders on the bumpy road ahead up Mt. Sharp. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›​

As much as the science team loves seeing Mars up close, sometimes the view isn't quite as pretty for the engineering team. As the rover gets closer to hills or cliffs, like "Bloodstone Hill" that we just left, we encounter boulders that have rolled downslope (as they are wont to do), creating visual obstacles in our path. It's also the case that sometimes Mars makes bouldery landscapes, like when we drove up towards Vera Rubin Ridge. The path ahead is very similar to that. Rover planners only want to drive where they can see in the navigation images from the Mars surface. The area that is visible from where you are is called a viewshed. You can imagine that for a big rock, if you're standing several meters away, you only see one side of it. For moving the rover, you don't want to "drive around a corner" and find yourself staring over a cliff, driving over pointy rocks, or ending up embedded in sand! Granted, we can see a lot of martian terrain from satellite imagery, but since there's no tow service or garages in Gale Crater, we have to be cautious. All that said, our next drive will be only about 15 meters, so we can get a better view for a longer drive in the next planning cycle.

On Sol 2803, we'll scope out some of the local bedrock at the outskirts of Bloodstone Hill with ChemCam on "Powburn," "Hunterian," 'Earl's Palace," and "Otterburn" with accompanying Mastcam images. The rover arm will be deployed to get some APXS chemistry, microscopic views with MAHLI, and Mastcam images on "Capercaillie," a rock with multiple layers. Despite not being able to see too far ahead, we'll still take some Mastcam mosaics of polygonally fractured bedrock and a look back at Bloodstone Hill. Environmental monitoring will include a line-of-sight view and dust devil search movie with Navcam. After a short drive on Sol 2805, we'll take some views ahead and do a Mastcam clast survey, looking at the pebbles on the ground.

Here's to an expansive view of the road ahead!

June 23, 2020

Sol 2802: Finishing Observations at 'Bloodstone Hill'

Written by Roger Wiens, Geochemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory
Surface of Mars

This image was taken by Right Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 2799. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›​

Last week while giving a talk on Mars, I was reminded of the times when, as a kid, I used to sketch the features of the Red Planet seen through a telescope in my back yard. It is possible to see some of those features (polar caps, darker and brighter albedo regions, and sometimes clouds) with a telescope having a mirror six inches (~150 mm) or larger in diameter. The features become obvious when the Earth passes Mars, as is happening this year.

Mars glob
Hubble Takes Mars Portrait Near Close Approach
Credits: NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), ASU, SSI
Full image and caption ›​
The closest approach will be in early October, when the Red Planet comes within 39 million miles (62 million kilometers) of Earth. Opposition—when Mars and the Sun are opposite each other from the Earth’s perspective—will occur just a little later, on the 13th of October. As this date approaches, Mars will appear to move quite rapidly against the background of stars from night to night. Right now, it is “moving” from Aquarius to Pisces, visible in the eastern sky in the early morning before dawn.

Back in Gale Crater, Curiosity is finishing its very brief investigation of “Bloodstone Hill.” It will start the day with documentation imaging by Hazcam and Navcam of the APXS overnight target, and stowing of the arm. That will be followed by Mastcam observations of “Chambers Street” and calibration targets. ChemCam and Mastcam will both make observations of “Skaw,” which is a rock that was scuffed by the rover wheel. Curiosity will then drive back downhill for a planned distance of ~60 m. There will be post-drive imaging by Navcam, looking at the rearward terrain and the rover deck. MARDI will take an image of the terrain below the rover after the drive. REMS, RAD, and DAN will also take data. With that, Curiosity should be back on the road (figuratively speaking) toward the sulfate unit.

June 22, 2020

Sol 2801: Keep Running Up That Hill?

Written by Scott Guzewich, Atmospheric Scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
Surface of Mars

This image was taken by Front Hazard Avoidance Camera (Front Hazcam) onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 2800. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›​

"Bloodstone Hill" continued to present a challenge to us over the weekend, when our second attempt to reach an ideal spot for contact science failed. The hill is steep and rocky, making it harder to gain traction. But ultimately, the sulfate unit is more of a priority to the science team, so we’ll be leaving Bloodstone Hill behind and continuing our journey. Today, the first discussion was weighing whether to try again or use the bedrock that was available in the current workspace for our contact science. After finding that our position was stable for contact science, GEO quickly identified a suitable location for analysis by APXS and MAHLI. Beyond the contact science, GEO has a busy plan with 3 ChemCam LIBS targets and a large Mastcam mosaic of the layers in Bloodstone Hill.

As ENV theme group lead today, I added a dust devil movie and two images of the crater rim to monitor dust in the atmosphere. We’re seeing lots of dust devil activity lately as we’re in the peak season for them on Mars and also seem to be near an area that is conducive for their formation.

June 19, 2020

Sols 2799-2800: We've Gone About as Far (Up 'Bloodstone Hill') as We Can Go

Written by Abigail Fraeman, Planetary Geologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Surface of Mars

This image was taken by Left Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 2797. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›​

Wednesday’s planned drive up "Bloodstone Hill" ended a little earlier than we’d anticipated because the slopes became too steep and slippery for our intrepid rover to ascend. As we were nearing the end of the planned drive, software onboard Curiosity detected the rover was making very little forward progress, so the computer told Curiosity to stop early and await further instruction from the team back on Earth.

All of this made for a fun and interesting day for me because I was staffed as “surface properties scientist.” In this role, I use my geologist background to provide input about the terrain properties to the rover drivers as we plan Curiosity’s drives. Although the rover’s maximum tilt was only 27˚ when the software ended Wednesday’s planned drive (our record is ~31˚), the rover drivers and I decided we probably wouldn’t make it much higher up Bloodstone Hill given the properties of the terrain and geometry of the potential paths forward. Instead, we decided our best option would be to do contact science near our current location. We’ll still need to adjust ourselves a bit in today’s plan to confirm the rover is stable enough for us to unstow the arm.

Surface of Mars
This image was taken by Left Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 2797. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›​

Despite not making it to the exact spot we’d hoped, the views today are still specular (The horizon isn’t tilted, we are!). We’ll spend the first sol of the weekend plan collecting remote information before repositioning to set us up for Monday. Today reminded me there is never a dull day of operating a rover on Mars!

June 17, 2020

Sols 2797-2798: Last Leg to 'Bloodstone Hill!'

Written by Rachel Kronyak, Planetary Geologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Surface of Mars

This image was taken by Right Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 2795. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›​

Following our drive in Monday’s plan, we’re one step closer to "Bloodstone Hill!" The drive in today’s plan should put us in a perfect spot to conduct contact science with our arm instruments (MAHLI, DRT, and APXS) in the upcoming weekend plan.

Today we planned a suite of remote sensing observations to document our surroundings as we approach Bloodstone Hill. On the first sol of our plan, we filled our science block with three ChemCam targets: two nodular-rich bedrock targets (“Dry Harbour” and “Embra”) and bedrock target “Ormiston.” Following ChemCam, we’ll document Dry Harbour and Ormiston with a single Mastcam documentation image since the targets are in close proximity to one another. We’ll document the Embra target as part of a larger mosaic to investigate a nearby trough feature. We also planned for a large Mastcam stereo mosaic to capture our view of Bloodstone Hill from our current parking spot. Following our science block, Curiosity will drive the last leg to Bloodstone Hill and collect post-drive images to document our new surroundings.

On the second sol of our plan, we’ll use ChemCam to collect data on three targets at our new location. ChemCam is able to do this using its Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science (AEGIS) mode. The AEGIS software allows the rover to automatically identify targets near the rover and collect geochemical data. Having these three additional ChemCam targets will bolster our geochemical dataset at Bloodstone Hill.

Today was an extra exciting day of Mars planning for me – it was my first shift serving as the Geology Science Theme Group Lead (Geo-STL). As the Geo-STL, I worked closely with the science and instrument teams and together we assembled our list of science observations for today’s plan. Every day on Mars is a team effort!

June 15, 2020

Sols 2795-2796: Approaching 'Bloodstone Hill'

Written by Kristen Bennett, Planetary Geologist at USGS Astrogeology Science Center
Surface of Mars with Bloodstone Hill

This image of "Bloodstone Hill" was taken by Mast Camera (Mastcam) onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 2790. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›​

A few months ago, Curiosity drove up on top of the "Greenheugh pediment" to investigate the capping unit that is visible on top. After Curiosity drove off the pediment, the rover has been driving along the base of the pediment scarp and is about to reach the eastern edge. An interesting feature that is located at the eastern edge of the pediment is called "Bloodstone Hill" (visible in the image above). This is a light-toned mound that the team has been observing in long distance images for the entire mission. Bloodstone Hill was even visible from Curiosity's landing site! This light-toned mound is located right at the edge of the pediment, although it does not appear to have the pediment capping unit on top. Bloodstone Hill caught the team's attention because it is so bright, which raises many questions. Is it bright because it is covered in dust? Because it has a different mineralogy? A different alteration history? Now Curiosity is approaching Bloodstone Hill, and we can start answering some of these questions.

In tosol’s plan the main event is a long drive that will place Curiosity close to the base of Bloodstone Hill. Another important piece of the plan is the Mastcam multispectral mosaic that will be taken of Bloodstone Hill. As we approach this feature, the team is gathering more data that will help us plan our investigation at this location. Multispectral observations can help identify variations in color and/or mineralogy across the outcrop. If the multispectral mosaic reveals any interesting variations, we can target those areas once we arrive at Bloodstone Hill.

Additionally, there are several other Mastcam observations in the plan that will document fractures or troughs between bedrock patches as well as the contact between the pediment capping unit and the strata below. ChemCam will also target “Earlish” to investigate the chemistry of nodule-rich bedrock in this area. Finally, a MARDI image will be taken after the drive to document the terrain underneath the rover.