August 11, 2020

Sol 2850: Wishing On ... Mars

Written by Lucy Thompson, Planetary Geologist at University of New Brunswick
The “Mary Anning” drill area on Mars

The “Mary Anning” drill area as seen by the left navigation camera. The “Ayton” target is towards the top left corner of the same block that the drill hole is in. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›​

As many of us look up at the night sky this evening and perhaps wish on a Perseid meteor shower shooting star, today we spent time making a wish list on Mars. We are keeping a list of observations we would like to make before we leave the “Mary Anning” drill site. Because we are trying to conserve power in order to complete all the upcoming SAM activities on the Mary Anning drilled sample, we are only able to plan ~30 minutes of science observations. It doesn’t take long to come up with 30 minutes worth of observations at this interesting location, hence our wish list!

When this plan is uplinked, Curiosity will spend the 30 minutes of science time using her Mastcam to: 1) image the drill site, to monitor movement of drill fines and sand during this windy period on Mars, and 2) extend imaging of the drill site area. The majority of other activities will be centered around preparing the Sample Acquisition, Processing and Handling (SA/SPaH) system to dump the remaining Mary Anning drilled sample in the next plan. A Navcam dust devil survey and standard background REMS, DAN and RAD activities are also included in this plan.

As the APXS strategic planner today, and with sample still in SA/SPaH, which means that we are unable to use the APXS until the drilled sample is dumped, I concentrated on our APXS wish list for this particular location. We will analyze the Mary Anning drilled sample (both the material dumped from SA/SPaH, and the powder surrounding the drilled hole) as part of our standard, upcoming drill-related activities. However, we are also hoping to squeeze in an extra observation of a close by, compositionally and texturally interesting area, previously analyzed by ChemCam (“Ayton”). I worked with the Long Term Planner and the Science Operations Chief to try and fit this observation in (we have to take into consideration power, timing, how complex the proposed activity is, etc.). We’ll have to see how many activities we get to cross off our wish list before we leave here!

August 10, 2020

Sol 2849: ChemCam Does a Double Take

Written by Melissa Rice, Planetary Geologist at Western Washington University
small, dark nodules embedded in a Mars rock

The small, dark nodules embedded in the "Ayton" rock shown in the Remote Micro-Imager. This image was taken by Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 2837. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL. Download image ›

The most important activity for Curiosity on sol 2849 is an analysis of the "Mary Anning" drill sample with SAM’s gas chromatograph (GC) and quadrupole mass spectrometer (QMS). The operation of these instruments together, in what we call GCMS mode, is how we can identify the organic compounds that may be preserved in this clay-bearing outcrop. This is a big day for the Mary Anning drill campaign, and the results of the GCMS will help determine how we will continue our investigation of this site.

During extensive drill campaigns such as these, while Curiosity parked in one location for several weeks, the science team has ample time to scrutinize the rocks, pebbles and sands in the immediate vicinity of the rover. This is a luxury, because when Curiosity is driving, we usually get just a quick glimpse of the terrain in front of the rover before leaving it behind forever. Often, an instrument such as ChemCam will measure the chemistry of a rock, and by the time we have received and analyzed that chemistry data, that rock is just a speck in the rearview mirror. But during a drill campaign, when ChemCam reveals something interesting about a nearby target, we have the chance to follow up with more measurements.

So that’s exactly what ChemCam is doing today: a double take on a rock called “Ayton.” ChemCam’s first LIBS measurement of Ayton on sol 2837 targeted the small, dark nodules embedded in the rock (shown in the Remote Micro-Imager picture above). On sol 2849, ChemCam will look back at Ayton for a second LIBS observation to investigate why the chemistry is so different from its surroundings. Although Ayton is adjacent to the Mary Anning drill target, it looks completely unrelated, as Mary Anning does not have any of those dark speckles at all. It is amazing how much variability there is over such small spatial scales here – and it sure is nice to have some time to peer around and take it in!

August 7, 2020

Sols 2846-2848: Continuing Along the "Sol Path"

Written by Abigail Fraeman, 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 2845. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

We received confirmation very early this morning that Wednesday’s planned SAM sample bake was successful. This weekend we will therefore continue with activities to further analyze the "Mary Anning" drilled sample. On the first sol of the plan we will prepare SAM for analyzing the sample in a slightly different way, and we are planning to do this supplementary analysis early next week. The second sol of the plan contains ChemCam analyses of two targets named “Clamshell Cove” and “Musselburgh.” We’ll also analyze the portion of the Mary Anning sample that was already delivered to CheMin for a second night. On the third sol of the plan we will measure the amount of argon in the atmosphere with APXS, collect more information about the walls of the drill hole with ChemCam, and image a small trough near Curiosity named “Upper Ollach.” Today was a very smooth planning day overall, which is always a nice thing to be able to say when you’re operating a science laboratory on another planet from your couch!

August 5, 2020

Sols 2844-2845: SAM is Baking to Celebrate 8 Years on Mars

Written by Sean Czarnecki, Planetary Geologist at Arizona State University
Mount Sharp on Mars

A Dramatic View of Mars' Mount Sharp​: The Mast Camera, or Mastcam, on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover used its telephoto lens to capture Mount Sharp in the morning illumination on Oct. 13, 2019, the 2,555th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. Download image ›

Today Curiosity will drop off some of its newly acquired "Mary Anning" drill sample to SAM for Evolved Gas Analysis (EGA). During EGA, SAM bakes the powdered rock sample at up to 900°C (1652°F). This releases, or "evolves," volatile compounds which are then measured. In addition, Navcam will image the area in front of the rover and look for dust devils, Mastcam will take two stereo mosaics of the surrounding countryside, and DAN, REMS, and RAD will continue to monitor the environment at this site.

Tonight, around 10 PM PDT, Curiosity will celebrate 8(!) years on Mars. Since Curiosity is turning 8, we expect that celebrations in Gale Crater will include games like "Pin the Mast on the Rover" and "Red Rover" ("Red rover, red rover, send Perseverance on over!") while enjoying treats from SAM's bakery!

Back on Earth, the MSL team is also celebrating with a retrospective in the form of 8 Martian postcards including the mosaic at the top of this post, a dust storm selfie, a descriptive tour of Gale Crater, a Martian cloud movie, and much more! You can see this cool selection of images from the past 8 years here:

Thank you for following Curiosity's journey for the last 8 years. We look forward to a ninth year and more of exciting exploration and discovery!

August 4, 2020

Sol 2843: On Your Marks SAM, Get Ready...!

Written by Catherine O'Connell-Cooper, Planetary Geologist at University of New Brunswick
observation of the drill hole on Mars

ChemCam observation of the drill hole (taken on sol 2839), this image will be retaken in today’s plan to help future targeting of the drill hole. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL. Download image ›

We are at the "Mary Anning" drill site, getting ready for the next experiment here at this exciting drill site. Yesterday’s plan saw some drill sample delivered to the Chemical and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument, and we are eagerly awaiting the first results of that analysis. Today we planned a Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) preconditioning activity to get ready for sample drop off to SAM and analysis later in the week, which will catalogue the composition and check for traces of organic molecules in these rocks. SAM is a very power hungry instrument, so we are budgeting most of our energy across this week around the SAM activities. As the “precon” activity takes up most of our available energy today, the geology theme group (GEO) limited itself to re-imaging the drill hole (shown in the cover image) using ChemCam, Mastcam and Navcam. This will allow us to refine targeting of the drill hole by ChemCam, APXS, and MAHLI in future plans, when power is not as constrained as it is right now! We squeezed every last bit of power available for today’s planning, so that the environmental theme group (ENV) were able to get in some monitoring activities, looking for dust devils and dust in the atmosphere, as well as standard REMS (weather) and DAN activities.

August 3, 2020

Sol 2842: Eyes on Our Surroundings

Written by Rachel Kronyak, Planetary Geologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Black and white image of Mars, with parts of the Curiosity rover visible

This image was taken by Left Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 2824. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

Today we planned a short and sweet single-sol plan, carrying on with our drill campaign at the “Mary Anning” site. The meat of today’s plan focuses on dropping off our powdered drill sample to our onboard CheMin instrument, which will tell us all about the mineralogical composition of our latest drill hole.

In addition to dropping off to CheMin, we planned about an hour’s worth of remote science activities in today’s plan to help document our surroundings. To kick off the science block, Mastcam will take a meaty 53-frame stereo mosaic pointed at the fractured intermediate unit to the southeast. This mosaic will document a large portion of our surroundings and will also help the science team plan our drive path once we finish up our drilling activities at Mary Anning. Next, ChemCam will shoot its laser at the target “Bishop’s Palace,” which exposes some nice small-scale layering and possible diagenetic features. ChemCam will also use its Remote Micro Imager (RMI) to take a long-distance mosaic of the “Maybole” target. Maybole is shown in the Navcam image above as a partially exposed, layered outcrop at the top of a nearby hill. In fact, we purposely planned for a few frames to overlap between the long-distance RMI and Mastcam mosaics so that the lighting conditions between the two mosaics match up. This overlap will allow for nice comparisons between the two mosaics to be made. Towards the end of the science block, Mastcam will take a documentation image of the ChemCam target Bishop’s Palace. We also planned several atmospheric monitoring activities with Navcam. Later in the sol, we’ll take a MARDI image to continue with our change detection campaign at our current location.

August 2, 2020

Sols 2839-2841: 'Mary Anning' Makes It 27 Drill Holes on Mars!

Written by Vivian Sun, Planetary Geologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
drill hole surrounded by a pile of drill tailings -

This image, taken by Mast Camera (Mastcam) onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 2838, shows the "always welcome sight of a drill hole surrounded by a pile of drill tailings." Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. Download image ›

The end of July has been exciting for Mars and us Martians, with the successful launch of the Perseverance rover and Curiosity drilling her 27th drill hole on the “Mary Anning” target! At the start of planning, we were greeted by the always welcome sight of a drill hole surrounded by a pile of drill tailings (see image above). We learned from the engineering data that the drill cut through the rock like butter, mostly using the rotary-only mode with only low levels of percussion needed towards the end. It’s fascinating how just the act of drilling can tell you a lot about the rock composition before a sample is even fed to CheMin. The ease of drilling, plus the clumpy nature of the drill tailings, hints that the Mary Anning rock is fine-grained and potentially clay-bearing. Still, we need CheMin analyses to confirm the rock’s mineralogy so we are eagerly anticipating those results next week!

To continue our drilling checklist, Friday’s three-sol plan focused on portion characterization of Mary Anning. This step will drop some of the drilled powder onto the ground so that we can image the drilled sample and ensure that it is good to deliver to CheMin and SAM. We also planned ChemCam chemical measurements of the drill hole to document rock chemistry at depth. Mastcam multispectral and ChemCam passive observations on the drill tailings will also give us a complementary spectral assessment of the drilled mineralogy.

Multiple other observations rounded out the packed weekend plan. ChemCam will measure three bedrock targets, “Geikie,” “Fearns,” and “Great Trossachs,” some containing dark spots that may account for the variable chemistry we have been observing lately. Mastcam will also be taking two large mosaics to fill out our workspace imaging and image a long, prominent outcrop of the fractured intermediate unit in the clay-bearing unit. We also planned a MARDI image to continue change detection observations, which are focused on imaging the same location over time to observe grain movement due to winds. Atmospheric conditions will also be monitored with various atmospheric observations, dust devil surveys, and a SAM atmospheric measurement using the Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer (QMS) and Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS).

July 30, 2020

Sol 2838: Bon Voyage, Perseverance!

Written by Melissa Rice, Planetary Geologist at Western Washington University
A black and white view of Mars

This image was taken by Front Hazard Avoidance Camera (Front Hazcam) onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 2837. NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

This past week, while Curiosity has been preparing to drill its next rock target, the Perseverance rover mission has been preparing to launch to Mars. We had expected to see the Mary Anning drill hole yesterday morning, but because of a minor issue with the rover’s arm, the drill sequence did not execute - so we are now expecting to see the new drill hole tomorrow. Perhaps Curiosity is just a humble, conscientious rover that did not want to steal any glory from Perseverance on its launch day.

For sol 2838, the re-do of the drill activities will use most of Curiosity’s available resources, but there is also some time available for atmospheric monitoring activities. These will include a Mastcam observation of the sky to observe the high levels of dust that are expected in this season on Mars. Looking up seems like the appropriate thing to on this day, as Perseverance starts hurtling towards Mars’ skies.

I have been reflecting this week about Curiosity’s launch, which was nearly nine years ago now, but still feels as vivid in my memory as yesterday. I was lucky enough to witness that launch in from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida with the Mars Science Laboratory team – I was just a graduate student at the time. While I had only recently started collaborating on the mission, many of the colleagues surrounding me on the bleachers had been working tirelessly to design, build and test Curiosity for nearly a decade.

Imagine devoting so many years of your career to a project, and then strapping your delicate creation to a skyscraper full of explosives and pointing it towards the sky… that’s essentially what a spacecraft launch is! There was a palpable tension leading up to the final countdown. I remember a pin-drop silence as the clock reached 3… 2… 1… and then I was completely shocked at just how LOUD it was during liftoff. The Atlas V rocket seemed to shake the whole Earth, and I felt the sound hit my chest like a wall. But even more noise came from the screaming mass of scientists and engineers surrounding me, who were clapping, yelling, jumping and hugging. I tried to keep my eyes on Curiosity for as long as I could, but several times I had to look away because the flames were too bright - it felt like I was staring directly at the Sun. That sensory overload just doesn’t come across when you watch a rocket launch on TV.

For their launch this morning, the Perseverance team stayed home to keep each other safe during the present pandemic, and they watched the launch from many hundreds of individual screens. But their excitement was no less than what we felt in November 2011 – and their screams at liftoff, following that tense silence beforehand, reverberated through living rooms across the globe.

Safe travels, Perseverance! We can’t wait for you to join us on Mars!

July 27, 2020

Sols 2836-2837: Looking for 'Dinosaur Bones'

Written by Fred Calef, Planetary Geologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
the APXS instrument on the "Mary Anning" target.

The APXS instrument on the "Mary Anning" target. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

A little inside joke among rover scientists, going back to previous rover missions, is the refrain "well, if we see a dinosaur bone, we'll stick around." While, sadly, there is (checks notes) zero chance of finding dinosaur bones on Mars, our search for Martian organics is something we're here to do! Following in the footsteps of the renowned paleontologist Mary Anning, we've been scouring the outcrop, like she did at the limestone and shale "Blue Lias" cliffs in England, and today will crack the outcrop with our 'rock hammer' (drill) and see what mysteries are captured within. As "Keeper of the Maps," I also get to add a dot on our drill targets map, which always makes my day.

After a short discussion about the results from our weekend observation on the target "Mary Anning," the science team concurred that this place is geologically similar to the "Glen Etive" drill location, and would be suitable for our next drilled sample. To help characterize the pre-drill surface, we'll take a full multispectral Mastcam image of the Mary Anning, as well as a ChemCam Z-stack and 5x1 observation. Two additional targets, "Ayton" and "Carriden," will be observed with ChemCam and Mastcam to characterize the outcrop. We'll also expand the Mastcam color imaging of the workspace in front of the rover, document two Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science (AEGIS) targets with Mastcam, and a MARDI image of the surface.

During today's science planning, Curiosity rover geologist Dr. Rebecca Williams said, "We're drilling on Mars and launching to the red planet this week. It's all very exciting!" I can't agree more! When the new rover images come down tomorrow, I hope you find some exciting things in them. And if you see a plesiosaur tail or pterosaur wing-tip, please let us know.

July 22, 2020

Sols 2831-2835: The One Where Curiosity Takes Mary Anning to Mars

Written by Michelle Minitti, Planetary Geologist at Framework
Surface of Mars

This image was taken by Left Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 2829. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›​

Our drive in the last plan successfully placed at what we hope is our next drill site, the large, lovely, layered block in the image above. It is always exciting to name a new drill target, but the new name, "Mary Anning," is particularly special. Mary Anning spent her life scouring the seaside cliffs near Lyme Regis, along the southern coast of England, for fossils. She uncovered innumerable samples, most notably the first full Ichthyosaur and the first Plesiosaur. But as all too often occurs in society, Mary Anning’s gender and societal status led her groundbreaking work and discoveries to be dismissed by the scientific establishment or, worse, appropriated by men. Let Mary Anning’s name on Mars remind us to include everyone in the endeavor of exploration.

Fittingly, every team played a role in planning the five sols that will accomplish the work necessary to attempt drilling next week. ChemCam will measure the chemistry of both the primary and back up Mary Anning drill targets, in addition to “Carter Fell,” another target on the large bedrock slab we will drill. APXS will also analyze the chemistry of the primary Mary Anning target, MAHLI will image the target in detail, and then the rover planners will push the drill bit into the drill target to gauge its hardness and test its ability to withstand the force of the drill activity. Mastcam will acquire a 360 degree panoramic mosaic of our surroundings, which documents the context of our drill location within the Glen Torridon region and facilitates planning for more detailed imaging of the region. Since the workspace is obviously of interest, Mastcam will also acquire a detailed stereo mosaic that covers the workspace. CheMin will conduct an empty cell analysis and SAM will test out analysis techniques, each in preparation for analyzing the next drill sample.

Even as our attention is drawn to the rocks around us, dust storm season swirls about Curiosity, warranting our attention on the skies as well. ChemCam will turn its spectrometers skyward in passive mode to observe a wide area of the sky in order to measure concentrations of minor gases (especially oxygen and water) and dust. Combinations of Navcam and Mastcam will monitor the amount of dust in the atmosphere early in the morning, around midday, and later in the afternoon; Navcam will also look for dust devils around midday and clouds early in the morning. RAD and DAN will make dozens of measurements across four sols and while REMS will make regular measurements of Martian weather conditions throughout the plan, it is the lone star of the show on the final sol of the plan, dutifully working away as the rest of the instruments take a much needed break at the end of the long plan.