September 28, 2022

Sols 3607-3608: Making a Pivot

Written by Alex Innanen, Atmospheric Scientist at York University
This image was taken by Left Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3606.

This image was taken by Left Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3606. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

Whenever working on Mars throws up a complication, Curiosity’s team has to make a pivot. As the past couple bloggers have mentioned, we’ve been in a bit of a precarious spot, and can’t do any direct contact science or drill. The small drive in the last plan didn’t quite get us where we wanted to go, so we’re still not able to drill.

The team quickly pivoted into other science looking at some nearby and more distant targets. On the first sol of the plan, ChemCam is going to do LIBS on a nearby block, ‘Sophia Point,’ along with Mastcam. Mastcam and ChemCam are also continuing to document the distant marker band. Later in the sol MAHLI is getting up close with two bedrock targets – ‘Esperito Santo’ and the dusty ‘El Pao de la Fortuna.’

The next sol has a ChemCam LIBS on ‘Juventina’, which we possible scuffed while driving, followed up by Mastcam. ChemCam and Mastcam are also imaging the slightly more distant ‘Kabrito Island,’ a dark, nodular block. After all this we’re going to do a small bump to try to get into a location where we can hopefully drill and do contact science, and finishing up the sol with a MARDI twilight image.

Even through changes to the plan, the environment is always there around us to check up on. We’re still well in the dusty season in Gale, and ENV is keeping an eye on the changing atmosphere. One of these observations is called a tau, which is a measurement of optical depth, or how “thick” the atmosphere is with aerosols such as dust. Another way we look at the amount of “stuff” in the atmosphere is with the line of sight, which shows us how far we see towards the crater rim. Unfortunately, our view of it can get obscured by the big hills we’ve been driving through. Luckily for us, there’s a small gap between two hills where we can see a sliver of crater rim!

We also have two dust devil observations: a survey and a movie. The survey looks all the way around the rover to see where we might spot dust devils, which can help us decide where to point for the movie. Rounding out the environmental observations is a suprahorizon cloud movie. Even though it’s not the cloudy season, we still like to keep an eye on the sky for occasional clouds drifting past. An APXS atmospheric is also planned, to look at seasonal argon changes.

September 26, 2022

Sols 3605-3606: To Drill or Not To Drill

Written by Ashley Stroupe, Mission Operations Engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
This image was taken by MAHLI onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3603.

This image was taken by MAHLI onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3603. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. Download image ›

The previous attempt to reposition the rover to be safe for additional contact science (possibly including drilling) at this location didn’t quite get us where we wanted to go. The decision was made early to make one more attempt to park the rover where we can safely contact the ground, including collecting data to help decide if we want to drill this rock. I planned this short drive today as the Mobility Rover Planner.

Prior to repositioning, science is taking advantage of still having interesting targets in our workspace. We begin with some targeted science. Targets “Lago Do Lameiros” is a rock with layers perpendicular to those in the adjacent rock. We are taking Mastcam and ChemCam LIBS observations in order to help document the geochemical variability. “Sientro Catrimani” is an interesting region with rocks of different textures. We are taking ChemCam LIBS and multiple Mastcam stereo observations of rocks in Sientro Catrimani to document the changes in color and texture. We are also taking ChemCam RMI and Mastcam stereo of different spots on the Marker Band (a distinctive layer in the distance) to document the variation in thickness. We also do an hour-long atmospheric observation with dust devil surveys and suprahorizon images to look for dust in the atmosphere.

After the targeted science, the arm is put to work. We are extending the observations on the weekend target Tapirapeco (shown in the image) to get greater coverage of the layers along the vertical face. This target is tricky because to approach the nearly-vertical face we need to come in low to the ground. Additionally, because the rover is slightly perched on some rocks today, and we are concerned about slipping off, we don’t want to get too close to the ground where any motion could cause the arm to hit a rock. We ultimately are taking 6 images from about 16cm away from the rock. Since we can’t touch the rock to get a more precise location, we will have some uncertainty in our distance, but the MAHLI camera can account for this with its focus mechanism.

The second sol of the plan includes more targeted science. Early In the morning, we do a pre-dawn Navcam cloud movie. Then later in the morning we begin targeted science. The “Lake Amuku” target is a smooth area of the block (without nodules) on which we did MAHLI imaging today and over the weekend. We are taking ChemCam LIBS and a Mastcam to document the ChemCam on Lake Amuku. We also are taking a Mastcam mosaic of some sand troughs and ridges near the right wheels to examine their geometry and distribution. Lastly we are taking a multispectral Mastcam of a target “Jerry Spring,” which is another layered rock with significant color and texture variability. We also take Navcam images of the rover deck (to monitor the dust accumulation) and some additional dust devil movie images and horizon image.

After the imaging, we are ready to drive. Finding the exact parking spot that would allow us to DRT this rock was very tricky because of the many rocks (some of which are loose). Additionally, since we may want to drill this block, there are even more constraints on our parking attitude to ensure that drilling is safe and that we can move the arm into position to successfully drop-off sample to the CheMin and SAM instruments. Ideally, we would want the rover to just move straight to its left. However, since only the front and rear wheels can steer, driving sideways isn’t something we can do. Instead we are backing up, turning and then driving to get that distance to the left, and then turning back before driving forward again to put the original block back in our workspace. This complicated maneuver is actually driving the wheels about 5.3m with the end result being a move to the rover’s left by about 50cm. It took several iterations and 5 of us working together to ensure the path we chose would achieve the desired result.

After the drive, we take our standard suite of post-drive imaging of the local terrain and the workspace as well as some additional atmospheric observations looking for dust devils and atmospheric dust.

Meanwhile, we will have to wait until the end of the week to collect all the data we need to determine if we are going to drill at this location – which will depend on our parking spot safety as well as how interesting the science observations indicate this rock to be.

September 23, 2022

Sols 3602-3604: Mars Rocks – The Good, the Bad, and the Nodular

Written by Abigail Fraeman, Planetary Geologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
This image was taken by Front Hazard Avoidance Camera (Front Hazcam) onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3601.

This image was taken by Front Hazard Avoidance Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3601. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

This morning, I was delighted to see that the complex drive we had planned on Wednesday through some very rocky terrain successfully completed! Curiosity is currently parked in front of a finely layered rock that is dotted throughout with tiny nodules. The team was eager to investigate the fine scale textures and composition of this rock using all of Curiosity’s instruments, but unfortunately we discovered early in the planning day that we could not safely place the arm in direct contact with the rock; the rover’s wheels are precariously perched on other rocks, and we really don’t want our ~2,000 pound rover to accidentally shift its center of gravity when the arm is in contact with the ground. Our position was stable enough that we felt safe unstowing the arm and hovering above the ground, so we can collect images of the rock with our MAHLI hand lens from 5 cm distance. The science team felt this rock was interesting enough that we don’t want to drive away today, so we’ll instead reposition the rover to a more stable configuration in the hope that we can brush the rock and collect APXS data on Monday.

The specifics of today’s plan include ChemCam observations of two targets on the rock right in front of us named “Lagoa do Velame” and “Lagoa do Macaco,” as well as a third ChemCam autonomously chosen observation after we drive. MAHLI will also observe Lago do Velame and Lagoa do Macaco, plus a third target on the edge of this rock named “Tapirapeco.” Mastcam will document the nearby area with several mosaics, including a large mosaics and multispectral observation on a broken up nearby rock named “Waiokiepalul.” Navcam, DAN, RAD, REMS, and Mastcam observations of the environment around the rover will round out the plan.

September 21, 2022

Sol 3601: Do You Get a Day off on Mars? Turns Out, Yes You Do!

Written by Susanne Schwenzer, Planetary Geologist at The Open University
This image was taken by Right Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3597. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

This image was taken by Right Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3597. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

Imagine you are a rover on Mars, your team back home on Earth is working around the clock to send you tasks to do, well, would your team get days off? The answer is yes, and that’s what happens in this plan. Although it’s a two-sol plan, only one sol is being planned. This is to allow the timelines on Mars and Earth to get back into a good alignment again. That’s because a Mars day is approximately 37 minutes longer than an Earth day. But before Curiosity’s team has its day off, the rover is going to do a full day of science. And it happens pretty regularly, too, and it’s also being mentioned before, see here by my colleague Abigail.

After staying in place in the last plan, the drive takes precedence in this plan. Therefore, science had to be very strict on the timings to preserve the energy needed for the drive. We had quite a lot of discussion, as lots of interesting rocks are in the area, but in the end we agreed on the following: APXS gets a pause, but target "Cauarane" will be DRT-ed and then investigated by MAHLI to get a close look at the grain size of the target, and it will then be investigated by ChemCam. ChemCam also images an extension of already existing imagery on the Bolivar area, which has some very interesting changes in the sedimentary structure. The same area will also be imaged by Mastcam, which in addition gets documentation images of "Cauarane" and the ChemCam Aegis target from the last plan, as well as investigate target "Malica Macu."

The drive will be an important part of the plan. We are all holding our breath here, because this terrain is anything but easy. Have a look at the image above, which will give you an idea about the difficulty to plan a safe drive in a landscape littered with rocks, some of them sharp. The drive will have to avoid many obstacles, and while our amazing rover planners are planning this meticulously, it’s still an off-road drive, and we will be looking forward to seeing if we will have reached our final parking position. If not, then that’s ok, too, because Curiosity will keep itself safe, and if the drive does not complete, we’ll just try again from wherever it stopped. So, stay tuned, if we’ll get to our destination.

September 19, 2022

Sols 3599-3600: A Stay and Play Kind of Day

Written by Catherine O'Connell-Cooper, Planetary Geologist at University of New Brunswick
This image was taken by Front Hazard Avoidance Camera (Front Hazcam) onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3597.

This image was taken by Front Hazard Avoidance Camera (Front Hazcam) onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3597. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

Coming into planning, we were ready for a standard “Touch and Go” plan, where we do some early morning science and then drive onto our next location. However, our workspace had some really great bedrock within arm reach, so we decided to convert the plan into a “Stay and Play” type of plan instead and spend more time characterizing the rocks here.

On the first sol of the plan, APXS and MAHLI will analyze the large nodules in the bedrock at the target “Nova Cintra” and a raised ridge feature at “Pirara” on the block closest to the rover. ChemCam will shoot at the block behind this, using LIBS to analyse at “El Triunfo.” MAHLI will image the same target after the LIBS measurement, as the active laser used by ChemCam has the handy side effect of clearing away dust and sand. On the second sol of the plan, ChemCam will use LIBS to look at a second nodular target “El Manteco” and Mastcam will image both El Manteco and El Triunfo.

ENV planned a Dust devil movie and a Mastcam tau observation, which measures dust in the atmosphere, in addition to REMS and DAN active and passive measurements.

As our Science Operations Coordinator Elena described a few weeks ago, we have been longing to get here to the “Marker Band Valley” (an area which has an orbital signature suggesting the presence of Mg-sulfates) for the past 10 years, and so we are investigating this area very thoroughly. Our recent long-range planning for this part of the campaign identified two areas of prime interest (“Area 1” and yes, you guessed it, “Area 2”) which have intriguing textures and potentially tonal differences. Right now, we are moving from Area 1 into Area 2 (dead ahead in the accompanying Front Haz image) so it is important to get as much information and context, looking in particular for any transitions or changes.

Mastcam and the ChemCam RMI (long distance imager) are both key instruments for this sort of campaign. The Mastcam mosaic “Progresso” looks at a stretch of vertical faces in the left of the Front Haz image. The larger mosaic “Lago Ano Bom” looks further ahead into Area 2, where we hope to end up later in the week. The ChemCam RMI target “Uiramuta” also looks at bedrock further into Area 2. Mastcam will also look at a layer called the “Marker Band” in the Orinoco butte (you can just see the edge of the butte on the left-hand side of the Front Haz image) – the valley is named after this layer, which is identifiable through out this area.

We will not drive in this plan, so Wednesday will find us in the same place, but armed with more information about our path forward.

September 16, 2022

Sols 3596-3598: The Sweet Spots

Written by Keri Bean, Rover Planner Deputy Team Lead at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
This image was taken by Front Hazard Avoidance Camera (Front Hazcam) onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3594.

This image was taken by Front Hazard Avoidance Camera (Front Hazcam) onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3594. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

As discussed in the previous blog, we’ve had some drive faults recently due to the tricky terrain we are on. After the drive on sol 3592 faulted, on sol 3594 I planned the drive as the mobility Rover Planner. I was so happy to log into my workstation this morning to see that the drive worked and put a really cool rock into the robotic arm’s workspace that the scientists had been aiming for!

We start out sol 3596 with a remote sensing block full of ChemCam and Mastcam goodies. We start with ChemCam using its laser on “Marshall Falls” which will also be a later robotic arm target. ChemCam will also image Bolivar in the distance. After that, Mastcam will image Bolivar, Marshall Falls, Orinoco, “Pirai Pond” cobble, “Joao Gama” bedrock, and “Agua Blanca.”

Next up is the first set of our robotic arm activities for the sol. Today I was the arm Rover Planner, although I had a trainee, Changrak, shadowing me and he was the one writing up the arm commands while I was double checking his work. It was his first shift for operating the robotic arm! He recently received the mobility Rover Planner certification so next up is working towards the robotic arm Rover Planner certification. He got a trial by fire as the science team asked for a lot of robotic arm activities today, including two brushes with our Dust Removal Tool! Usually, we’ll only do one brushing activity because of planning constraints like time or power available for rover activities, but the science team was incredibly excited about this rock and we have abundant time and power in this plan, so we were able to get in the two brushes, one on Marshall Falls and another one on “Corona Falls.” Corona Falls is a darker section of the rock and Marshall Falls is a lighter section of the rock, so the scientists want to investigate the differences between the two areas. We will also take extensive MAHLI imaging of both targets. This first group of arm activities ends by placing APXS onto Corona Falls for an evening integration. A bit later in the evening, we reposition the arm to place APXS onto Marshall Falls for another set of integrations. Later in the night we’ll stow the arm so we’ll be ready to drive on the next sol.

On sol 3597, we begin with some ChemCam and Mastcam observations. ChemCam starts by using the laser on Corona Falls, then images an inverted channel in the distance. Mastcam will then take multispectral imaging of Marshall Falls and Corona Falls. As you can see, we are using a lot of the rover’s instruments to study Corona Falls and Marshall Falls! Taking observations with multiple instruments help the scientists reveal more information, since each instrument can provide a different data set that when combined can reveal more information about the rocks. Mastcam will also image the rover deck to keep an eye on how dusty the rover is. Navcam will also look for any Martian dust devils and monitor dust within Gale Crater.

Once all of that is done, we’ll drive! We’ll be driving about 12 meters to another interesting rock the scientists hope to analyze in the next plan. During this drive we’ll also be taking a MARDI video to watch the terrain change below the rover. Today’s plan has what we call a small decisional pass, in that we will not get a lot of data down after the drive that will help guide the next arm or drive activities. The scientists and engineers work closely to prioritize the data to try and make sure the critical imaging will come down that will hopefully enable robotic arm activities and more driving in the next plan. Sometimes these passes can overperform and give us more data than we anticipated, so we’re crossing our fingers for this to happen and give us a better chance of having all the information we need.

Later in the afternoon of sol 3597, we’ll take a zenith movie to look for clouds in the sky. In the evening we’ll take a picture with MARDI to see the terrain again below the rover in different lighting and shadows from the end of the drive movie.

Sol 3598 contains a lot of Martian atmospheric observations with a Mastcam atmospheric dust opacity measurement, a ChemCam autonomous laser activity and some imaging of the sky, and Navcam imaging of the sky and a dust devil search. The entire plan also contains a lot of background REMS, RAD, and DAN observations to characterize the Martian environment.

September 14, 2022

Sols 3594-3595: An Unexpected Stop, the Sequel

Written by Scott VanBommel, Planetary Scientist at Washington University
Mosaic image taken by NASA's Mars Curiosity rover.

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity took 33 images in Gale Crater using its mast-mounted Right Navigation Camera (Navcam) to create this mosaic. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

Navcam image of Curiosity's right-middle and right-rear wheels.
Navcam image of Curiosity's right-middle and right-rear wheels. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

As Dr. Abigail Fraeman noted a couple weeks ago, Curiosity is navigating through terrain that is difficult to traverse. At the start of today's planning cycle, Curiosity's operations team received data that informed us that our previously planned drive came up short, only completing 36 cm of a planned ~7 m drive. Curiosity remained surrounded by a mix of large rocks and sand, neither of which are overly amenable to swift Mars driving. In the case of the prior intended drive, Curiosity terminated mobility activities autonomously, prompted by the effects of having the right-rear wheel in sand and the right-middle wheel perched on a sizable rock.

The plan today focused on backing Curiosity out of this configuration, and re-re-attempting the intended drive. In terms of science in the plan, our mobility goals were complemented by DAN activities before (passive) and after (active) our drive. Prior to the drive, Curiosity completed Mastcam and ChemCam imaging activities before unstowing the arm to acquire MAHLI images of the raised-fin target "Tiger Pond" and a vein-like target "La Mata."

September 12, 2022

Sols 3592-3593: Onwards

Written by Kristen Bennett, Planetary Geologist at USGS Astrogeology Science Center
This image was taken by Right Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3583.

This image was taken by Right Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3583. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

Curiosity is back on the road! The arm (seen above while conducting science activities on sol 3583) is good to go, so the team planned a full day of activities. Curiosity has been sitting in the same place for a few sols, so the team has been taking advantage of that to get extra observations in this area. One Mastcam observation is an extension of a mosaic (“Parai Pond”) that was started last week. Additionally, there is a Mastcam multispectral observation in the plan to capture bedrock that shows color variations. We will get a closer look at a feature in the distance that is thought to be an inverted channel with a ChemCam long distance RMI. ChemCam will also target the “Kurupung” block in the workspace. The ChemCam team is taking advantage of spending several sols in one location to build up their statistics of the geochemistry in this area. By targeting multiple rocks in the scene, we will get a better understanding as to whether everything has the same chemistry or if there are small variations. Contact science is back in the mix, with a MAHLI observation of an interesting pink pebble in the workspace called “Piabas.” We also get back on the road in this plan, with a short seven meter drive that will take the rover to the edge of the next area of interest. Onwards!

September 9, 2022

Sols 3589-3591: There's Plenty to See Around Here

Written by Lauren Edgar, Planetary Geologist at USGS Astrogeology Science Center
This image was taken by Left Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3580.

This image was taken by Left Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3580. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

Curiosity is back to planning after an issue with the rover’s arm in last weekend’s plan. The engineers are still making sure we understand what happened before doing more contact science or driving. That means that today’s 3-sol plan is focused on remote sensing and environmental monitoring, and there is a lot to see in this area! Curiosity is in a beautiful valley with intriguing buttes in every direction, some interesting bedrock blocks in our workspace, and windblown fines scattered throughout. The diverse landscape can be seen in the above Navcam image.

I was on shift as SOWG Chair today, and the team planned a lot of great science observations. On the first sol, GEO planned ChemCam LIBS of a bedrock block, as well as a Mastcam multispectral observation, and some imaging of loose sediment to look for changes. The plan also includes Mastcam imaging of sedimentary structures and diagenetic features, and bedding within the Chenapau butte and adjacent channel. GEO also planned a MARDI image to look for changes in the past week. The second sol includes two long distance ChemCam RMI mosaics to investigate the stratigraphy at a butte named Deepdale, featured in the above Navcam image. The third sol includes another LIBS target on a bedrock block, and a Mastcam mosaic to assess bedrock weathering. In addition to characterizing the geology and geochemistry, ENV is going to keep the rover busy looking at the sky. The team planned observations to monitor dust in the atmosphere, search for dust devils, monitor clouds, and search for cosmic rays. Looks like a busy weekend on Mars!

September 5, 2022

Sols 3582-3585: Labor of Love

Written by Michelle Minitti, Planetary Geologist at Framework
This image was taken by Left Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3580.

This image was taken by Left Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3580. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

It is tempting to list off the multitude of science observations the Curiosity team planned for the four sols that cover the Labor Day weekend in the US - an astonishing 15 targets, hundreds of Mastcam images, dozens of RMI images, and more than 2 Gb of science data collected. But rather than writing my usual summary of our activities for a plan, it feels more apt given the holiday to focus on the people who made it happen - the kind of people who have been showing up for 10 years to make all the science Curiosity does possible.

Downlink leads like Trinh and Matt, and localization scientists like Tim and Scott give us the data to make any new planning possible. They figure out things like: just where did our drive end up? what rocks can we reach with the arm? what targets are safe for ChemCam to shoot? where can we drive next? These folks quite literally set the scene for the plan ahead.

Scientists like Aster, Amelie, and Lucy show up to see the new scene, quickly digest what is there: what matters to building our understanding of this place? what is interesting? what is new? They suggest observations to capture those targets. Scientists like Bill and Alex show up that have been keeping track of the structures and buttes around us for hundreds or even thousands of sols. They suggest observations that build on previous ones, digging into features and structures we only now see as we approach this topography. Scientists like Mike and Mark show up to ensure our dedicated watch on the Martian atmosphere and environment continues, creating a systematic dataset of surface conditions that builds a modern climate record for Mars. Led by our science theme leads Jeff and Claire, everyone has to rapidly triage and prioritize their observations, and make trades against how much time and power are available in the plan.

The uplink leads like Deirdra, Natalie, and Cindy are magic mixtures of scientists and engineers that know how to make the most out of their instruments’ observations and write the commands to make them happen. They work hand in hand with the scientists to idealize all the desired observations to idealize their desired observations: is this at the right time of day? is this enough coverage? are these images of sufficient resolution? Often, multiple iterations are required to plan a scientifically-valuable, practically-executable observation. The uplink leads translate science desires to camera parameters and laser settings, and translate camera parameters and laser settings to code that travels through the Deep Space Network for the rover to execute.

Rover planners like Evan and Ashley are the engineers who design every motion of rover hardware. They figure out how to position the DRT, MAHLI, and APXS - located on a 50 kg turret at the end of a 2 meter long robotic arm - mere centimeters over a rock target. They figure out how to drive safely across jumbled, rocky terrain with wheels that have holes you could put your hand through, and end up in the next scientifically interesting spot. They model and remodel and tweak and change a dizzying array of arm angles, slip limits, and drive paths that ultimately give Curiosity life and motion on Mars.

All of it is buttoned up by the uplink team at JPL, who keeps tabs on everything related to rover health and functionality from our communication passes with the orbiters, to battery and current levels, to the amount of data storage available. Witnessing Nicky, the Science Planner in charge of checking and confirming every action in the plan during our main planning meeting today, was like watching a track athlete in a 5000 meter race - perfect, unrelenting pacing resulting in victory (a successful plan).

I could only list a small fraction of the names of those on shift today to build Curiosity’s weekend plan. Please know, though, that every time you visit the MSL website, or see images from Curiosity on Twitter or Insta, that a team like today’s was responsible for them. It is our collective labor of love, executed on a mountain in a crater on a planet a hundred million miles away.