MISSION UPDATES | January 20, 2021

Sols 3007-3010: Rocketing East

Written by Michelle Minitti, Planetary Geologist at Framework
Part of Curiosity rover is visible in this image of Mars

This image was taken by Left Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3005. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

Long before Curiosity landed on Mars, the science team mapped the landing ellipse covering the area within Gale crater that the combined efforts of Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers, orbital mechanics, and atmospheric dynamics would lead us to touch down within. To divide the work of mapping among the team, the landing ellipse was divided into quadrants, squares 1.5 km on a side. Each quadrant was named after a significant geologic terrain on Earth, where geologists also divide the terrain they explore into quadrants. The practice of dividing the terrain Curiosity explores into quadrants continued after Curiosity departed the landing ellipse, to not only help focus mapping and path planning efforts, but to serve as a source of the names we assign to targets imaged, shot, drilled, or scooped.

We entered the "Torridon” (Scotland) quadrant on Sol 1896, and save a northward jaunt back into the “Biwabik” (Minnesota, USA) quadrant for 70 or so sols, we have remained in the Torridon quadrant. Over this time, all the targets we have named have required pages and pages of place names from Scotland (and Scotland adjacent) provided mostly by our team member Dr. John Bridges (University of Leicester). Those lists have produced great target names like “Muckle Flugga,” “Oban,” and “Bogmill Pow.” But in the drive in today’s three sol plan, we are due to exit the Torridon quadrant and enter the “Nontron” (France) quadrant where our French ChemCam teammates will help us with our target pronunciations. The Nontron quadrant name is particularly appropriate for the clay-bearing terrain we find ourselves in, as Nontron is the type locality for a clay mineral called nontronite. Nontronite is part of the smectite group of clays, which are the most common types of clays on Mars. The science team decided to send the Torridon quadrant out with a bang - literally - using the name “Saxa Vord Spaceport” for a ChemCam target. Using the name of an in-the-works satellite launch site in northern Scotland also represents the speed at which we are rocketing toward the sulfate unit, having completed a nearly 100 meters drive in the last plan, and looking forward to a ~75 meters drive in this plan.

While undoubtedly the coolest name in the plan, Saxa Vord Spaceport was far from the only target name used in our busy plan. ChemCam will also shoot bedrock targets “Easthouses” and “Jarishof,” and one of the fields of pebbles (“Whaligoe”) that we commonly see distributed in discreet patches (like in the image above). APXS, MAHLI and Mastcam will get a closer look at Easthouses after ChemCam shoots it. Mastcam also planned images of the terrain around us near and far. Mosaics of “Sandsayre” and “Rackwick” to rover left and right will record bedrock textures and structures, a mosaic of the more distant “Cromalt Hills” will capture their vertical structure, and yet another mosaic will image the contact between the fractured intermediate unit we are currently driving through and the rubbly version of this unit that we recently explored.

On each sol of the plan, DAN will seek the signal of hydrogen in the ground below us using both their active and passive modes, REMS will record the weather conditions, and RAD will monitor the radiation environment. These systematic measurements are complemented by images from Navcam and Mastcam that will hopefully capture clouds and dust devils and will measure the amount of dust in the skies above all the quadrants in Gale.