April 26, 2023

Sols 3812-3813: Tiny Sticks Poking Out at Us

Written by Susanne Schwenzer, Planetary Geologist at The Open University
This image of ripples in the sandy Mars terrain and part of Curiosity visible was taken by the Curiosity rover on Sol 3810.

This image was taken by Left Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3810. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

I am ‘shadow’ Geo science team lead (GeoSTL) today, helping a new colleague to learn the details of the role. It’s so amazing that we train the next generation, in year 11 of our mission. I still remember my own training, as I wasn’t part of the initial cohort of GeoSTLs. Inspired by watching my colleague doing a great job, I went back through my notebook, and found out that one of the earliest sol plannings I have notes from are sols 1412 and 1413! What a nice coincidence, and looking back at Ken’s blog and my notes, those actually have the same target names all lined up. Coming back along memory lane from 2016 to today’s reality, we’ve got a busy two sol plan with some terrain features that keep the engineers well awake without the need of any caffeine!

Above, you can see parts of the terrain in front of us: we have sand, and we have rocks that were described as ‘poky-sticky’ when describing all the little protruding features. Of course, that makes it harder to place our contact instruments than a smooth surface would be. But those features are also very interesting as they often indicate a difference in hardness between different parts of the rocks. This could be a result of water-rock interactions depositing different minerals in different parts of these rocks. And that’s clearly of great interest to the team in our quest to understand the environmental conditions at the time the rocks formed. The engineers who place our arm are clearly awake as they managed to find us a spot on which we can safely use our DRT, the dust removal tool. And that’s despite all those little protruding features. Well dusted off, APXS and MAHLI will investigate the target ‘Armero,’ which is a bedrock target. ChemCam tries to cover the variability of the area by investigating a different target, namely target ‘Dona Juana.’ After the drive, ChemCam will also perform a LIBS investigation for which the rover picks the targets by itself before we see the end of drive images here on Earth. Those are known within the team as AEGIS. (Something we also did back in sols 1412 and 1413!)

There is, of course, a lot of imaging going on as the area is so interesting and we are still on the lookout for the transition between two units that is indicated by different rock textures. We see the difference in the appearance of the rocks around us to the rocks at a distance, but the many boulders and the nature of the terrain mean that we cannot see all the details until we are right there. So, lots of images and also a MARDI sidewalk it is. If you’ve never seen that term, here is what that means: normally MARDI takes one image when the rover has stopped after its drive. This is to document the terrain the rover is standing on. In a MARDI sidewalk, the rover takes many images along the way, resulting in one continuous strip of ground images – think of it like a panorama, but of the ground under the rover wheels instead of the landscape around it. That will help us see any changes that might occur during the drive.

Mastcam is very busy these sols, with a multispectral image on the APXS target ‘Armero,’ a documentation image on the ChemCam target ‘Dona Juana’ and two small stereo mosaics on ‘Awalapa’ and ‘Almerina Scour’ as well as a larger mosaic called ‘Almerina region.’ Of course, we also have atmospheric investigations in the plan, busy as always!

The drive should get us into an area with the other rock textures, but given the bouldery terrain, which also has lots of sand patches, the rover cannot just beeline to where we want it to be. Instead, the engineers will carefully evaluate every turn of the wheels to avoid pointy rocks and also slipping on the sand. As a consequence, it is hard to judge from our current vantage point where exactly on the rover’s tortuous path the rock features will change. We shall stand by in anticipation until we see the images. Exciting times climbing in a canyon on Mars … comfortably from my office chair!

April 25, 2023

Sols 3810-3811: Full Speed Ahead... Carefully!

Written by Catherine O'Connell-Cooper, Planetary Geologist at University of New Brunswick
This image was taken by Left Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3808.

This image was taken by Left Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3808. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

As the blog for sols 3807-3809 noted, we have cleared the canyon! The accompanying Left Navcam image shows the view back down the canyon, showing all those tricky rocks we had to climb over. You can even spot some wheel tracks further back down if you peer vey closely. We don't exactly have free-wheeling territory up ahead in our drive direction, but it is a little flatter. This hopefully will give us better views of the path ahead and reduce slippage as we drive, so that we can drive for longer than we have been recently – today, the RPs planned a 25 metre drive, much more ambitious than recent drives! We also will hopefully have a higher rate of passing our "SRAP" test (this stands for Stability Risk Assessment Process and is the way we evaluate rover stability) up here than we did last week as we climbed the canyon. If we fail SRAP, we cannot use the arm instruments MAHLI and APXS – and for me, as a scientist on the APXS team, that’s always disappointing.

Fortunately, our weekend drive was successful – it took us where we had planned to go, ending with some solid workspace and safely parked to allow us to take the arm out for contact science. This bedrock has strong laminations apparent along its side and a flat top (seen here in this Left Navcam image of the workspace). The flat top is smooth enough for brushing, so we will DRT "Anortosito Repartimento" before taking MAHLI images, analyzing with APXS and getting a Mastcam multispectral image, all centred on the same spot for maximum science return.

ChemCam will use its LIBS instrument to look at an interesting fracture face, which looks like an upturned smile in the workspace image. "Galeras" is centred on the far right corner of the fracture, where the fracture is thickest. ChemCam will also take a long distance image ("LD RMI") looking much further afield to "Gediz Vallis ridge." These LD RMI can acquire a lot of detail from a great distance, helping to inform discussions about future science campaigns and potential drive directions.

Mastcam will take two mosaics close to the rover, a smaller mosaic looking at a laminated target ("Vichada") to the right of the workspace, and a larger mosaic covering the main block in our workspace (including the ChemCam and APXS/MAHLI targets) and the way that sand has gathered in a trough feature around the block.

Further afield, Mastcam will get an observation of the stratigraphy of the Chenapau butte and some interesting wind scour patterns just beyond today’s workspace.

ENV continue to monitor environmental conditions in Gale. In addition to our routine DAN and REMS measurements, Mastcam will acquire three tau measurements, which help to constrain the amount of dust in the atmosphere. Navcam will take a "dust devil" movie, in the hopes of catching a wind vortex in action.

April 24, 2023

Sols 3807-3809: We Made It to the Top!

Written by Kristen Bennett, Planetary Geologist at USGS Astrogeology Science Center
This image was taken by Front Hazard Avoidance Camera (Front Hazcam) onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3805.

This image was taken by Front Hazard Avoidance Camera (Front Hazcam) onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3805. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

It always feels great to reach the top of a mountain, especially when the path was challenging. While the top of Mt. Sharp still looms above Curiosity, the team was very excited to see that in the last drive the rover successfully reached the top of the canyon that it has been climbing for the past few weeks. After the previous drive fell short of the top of the canyon in marker band valley, in the most recent plan Curiosity rose above the challenge of this terrain to reach the plateau above the canyon. And what a view! (See the front hazcam image displayed above.)

The workspace includes several interesting rocks, including the “Floresta” target which will be cleared of dust by the DRT and then observed by APXS, MAHLI, and Mastcam with a multispectral image. APXS and MAHLI will also target “Calama,” which is a rock that appears to have a dark coating on it. A dark toned float rock lies beyond the reach of the arm, so ChemCam will target it (“Ile Portal”) for a LIBS observation and Mastcam will take a corresponding image. A ChemCam RMI mosaic will document the structure and texture of contact between two units in the distance that were mapped from orbital images. Mastcam will also take several stereo observations, including at “Camopi” documenting dark rock textures and their relationship to underlying units, at “Limao” assessing rock textures, and at a location exhibiting interesting patterns in the rocks behind the rover.

The plan also includes coordinated ChemCam passive sky and APXS and SAM atmospheric observations. These measurements from three different instruments will be used together to constrain trace elements that are present in the martian atmosphere.

April 19, 2023

Sols 3805-3806: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Written by Lucy Thompson, Planetary Geologist at University of New Brunswick
This image shows the scuffed bedrock and sand in the workspace including the “Pepejoe” target and was taken by Curiosity's Navcam on Sol 3803.

Navcam image showing the scuffed bedrock and sand in the workspace including the “Pepejoe” target. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

To quote our project scientist, Ashwin, it was clear when we assessed our downlink that Curiosity had almost literally taken “two steps forward and one steps back” during the drive in our previous plan. It has been tricky for our intrepid Mars explorer as we have tried to pick our way through this small canyon as we exit marker band valley. There are abundant large blocks that we are trying to avoid and sand patches that are potential slip hazards for the rover. Unluckily, as Curiosity attempted to back up from the previous parking spot before driving forward, we encountered some of these blocks and sand such that the planned drive did not execute any further. An unforeseen bonus of driving backwards is that we had freshly scuffed sand and rock in our workspace. As a geologist, any time I am in the field here on Earth looking at rocks, one of the first things I do is to use my hammer to expose fresh surfaces, which often reveal different colours and textures than on a weathered surface. At Gale crater, the only time we get to investigate a freshly exposed rock surface is when we scuff or break a rock from driving over it, and then it is often behind us, so we are lucky to have the fresh surfaces in our workspace today.

Unfortunately, because of the tricky terrain, Curiosity was not on stable enough ground to safely unstow the arm. As the APXS payload uplink lead today, I was disappointed that we could not get an APXS compositional measurement and close up MAHLI images of the fresh rock, which would require arm movement. Instead, we will utilize ChemCam and Mastcam to investigate the chemistry and textures of the fresh rock and sand in the workspace. “Paramaca” and “Pepejoe” are examples of the freshly exposed/scuffed bedrock, and we will also capture the wheel tracks in the sand with Mastcam. Looking further afield, we are also acquiring Mastcam and ChemCam RMI imaging of a possible channel feature (“Owentiek”) and a large boulder within the Gediz Vallis channel (“Ratunde”) respectively.

Curiosity will hopefully then weave her way through the sand and blocks, taking many steps forward to our next workspace. After the drive has completed MARDI will image the new terrain beneath the rover, and ChemCam will acquire an AEGIS compositional measurement from a bedrock target in the new workspace.

Not to be left out, the environmental science team have also planned a full set of activities to continue monitoring the atmosphere. These include a Mastcam basic tau observation, as well as a Navcam 360 sky survey, line of sight image, large dust devil survey and suprahorizon movie. Standard REMS, DAN and RAD activities round out this plan.

April 18, 2023

Sols 3803-3804: Making Tracks up Marker Band Valley

Written by Sharon Wilson, Planetary Geologist at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
This image of smooth Martian rock formations was taken by Left Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3802.

This image was taken by Left Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3802. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

Curiosity is carefully and patiently driving up a local canyon, named Marker Band valley, across a variably tilting surface that is scattered with horizontally banded bedrock and patches of sand. Can you imagine how fun and challenging it would be to scramble up the pass over this bumpy, uneven, and sandy terrain? As the rover continues her ascent up Marker Band valley, the rocks continue to vary subtly. Several targets in this two-sol plan aim to characterize the texture and chemistry of the rocks to document changes that may help unravel the environment in which they formed.

The plan on sol 3803 includes a ChemCam LIBS analysis (plus Mastcam documentation) of a thinly layered bedrock at “Cambrouze” to capture compositional changes between the layers. ChemCam will also take a long-distance image of a rock ledge with interesting structures that may mark a contact between local rock units. Mastcam stereo mosaics are planned at “La Venta” to investigate a rock with a vertical gray colored stripe that may be a sandstone-filled vein or fracture, and “Pequia,” a rock with an interesting texture and subtle horizontal banding. A Mastcam multispectral image will characterize “Ile Portal,” a dark gray rock that looks very out of place resting on the light-toned surface – perhaps it came from further upslope on Mt. Sharp?

After this set of remote observations, the rover will complete a relatively short drive toward a small dark-toned rock that is visible ahead. A few untargeted science activities are in the plan on sol 3804 including a ChemCam AEGIS activity that will give us information about our new workspace as well as Mastcam deck monitoring.

I’m excited to see the view from the next plateau in Marker Band valley! Drive safely, Curiosity!

April 17, 2023

Sols 3800-3802: Clouds Above, Contact Science Below

Written by Alex Innanen, Atmospheric Scientist at York University
This image shows a rocky Martian terrain of multiple hills, and was taken by Curiosity on Sol 3799.

This image was taken by Left Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3799. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

Here in Toronto, the weather feels like summer. But in Gale Crater it’s coming towards the end of Autumn. At this time of year, we enter Aphelion Cloud Belt season, when we see regular formation of water-ice clouds. While not as striking as the twilight clouds earlier in the year, these clouds form every Mars year at around the same time and last for many months, making this the perfect opportunity to learn about martian clouds. To accomplish that, the ENV team supplements our year-round cloud observations, the zenith and suprahorizon movies (which point directly overhead, and near the horizon), and two seasonal observations, the Phase Function Sky Survey and the Cloud Altitude Observation. These can tell us about how the clouds themselves and the water-ice crystals within them behave, and all four of these observations are in this weekend’s plan.

It's not just about the clouds though this weekend. We’re still climbing through the canyon, so the plan starts out with contact science followed by another short drive, and then some remote science.

More specifically, we start with a Mastcam mosaic of the inverted channel and a ChemCam LIBS observation of ‘Kourou,’ a nearby dark float rock. After this, MAHLI is getting up close with ‘Terre Firme’, and then we’ll brush the dust off of ‘Lorenco’ and get APXS and MAHLI contact science on it. After a nap, we’ll wake up for some night time imaging of the CheMin inlet with MAHLI.

The next sol, Mastcam will have a field day imaging ‘Lorenco,’ ‘Kourou,’ ‘Owenteik,’ ‘Teotonio,’ ‘Rizere de Mana’ and a nearby vein network. Then ChemCam will take a LIBS observation of ‘Rizere de Mana’ and a mosaic of the buttes ‘Alto Alegre.’ We’ll then make our brief drive uphill.

The next sol of the plan has a small untargeted science block, where ENV will look for dust devils and characterise the amount of dust between us and the distant crater rim and ChemCam AEGIS will autonomously select a target. After that, we’ll go back to sleep but that’s not it for the weekend – we wake up early the next morning for our weekly morning ENV activities to finish up the plan.

April 13, 2023

Sols 3798-3799: Digging in to the Details

Written by Lauren Edgar, Planetary Geologist at USGS Astrogeology Science Center
This image of the Martian rock Cupixi and a rock with a "shark's teeth" formation nearby, with the Curiosity rover visible at the edge of the image, was taken by the Curiosity rover on Sol 3797.

This image was taken by Right Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3797. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

After a short bump in yesterday’s plan to get to a better workspace, Curiosity is poised to get a detailed look at the next stratigraphic unit in this small canyon. Since leaving the Amapari Marker Band, we’ve been acquiring a lot of great contact science targets to look for changes in the chemistry. This requires sweeping away the dust with the Dust Removal Tool, and then using APXS, MAHLI, ChemCam, and Mastcam multispectral to get a detailed look at the grain size and composition of different units as we climb through the valley.

Today’s two-sol plan kicks off with several Mastcam mosaics to investigate the local stratigraphy, as well as the resistant nodules in these rocks. Some of these ventifacted nodules (shaped by the wind) are sticking out in positive relief with morphologies that have jokingly been compared to fins or “shark’s teeth” (seen in the lower right corner of the above Navcam image). We would love to take a bite out of these rocks to see what they’re made of! But we’ll have to rely on our instruments for that. So we’ll clear away a fresh patch of bedrock with the DRT at a target named “Cupixi” (the block on the left in the above image), followed by MAHLI imaging, and then use APXS and ChemCam to look at the composition. Mastcam will also acquire a multispectral observation at “Cupixi.” In addition to the observations at Cupixi, ChemCam will investigate a target named “Pico do Trocoa” to look at these nodules in more detail, and MAHLI will acquire a dog’s eye mosaic to assess the grain size and stratification in a layer forming the “sharks’s teeth.” The plan also includes several environmental monitoring observations to assess dust in the atmosphere and to search for clouds and dust devils. On the second sol Curiosity will complete a drive to climb higher in this canyon and figure out what other fascinating units lie above.

April 12, 2023

Sol 3797: Slip and Pivot

Written by Michelle Minitti, Planetary Geologist at Framework
This image showing large rock formations and part of the Curiosity rover on Mars was taken by the Curiosity rover's Rear Hazcam on Sol 3796.

This image was taken by Rear Hazard Avoidance Camera (Rear Hazcam) onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3796. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

As you can see in the above image, the terrain our rover drivers is navigating is challenging - slippery sand surrounding big, wheel-unfriendly rocks. These contrasting regimes contributed to us not-quite-arriving at our planned workspace with all six wheels confidently on known terrain. Thus, we had to pivot from a combined contact and remote science day, to one with remote science and a drive. But the interesting textures in the workspace and the surrounding terrain motivated the science team to not want to stray too far from this area. So the rover drivers planned a short bump toward another intriguing rock that gives us a bit more confidence that we can arrive at it to enable arm work in the next plan.

With no arm work in the plan, our GEO and ENV planning groups ably filled up our pre-drive science time with ChemCam, Navcam, and Mastcam observations. Navcam will start things off with a dust devil survey. Mastcam planned a series of stereo images and mosaics at targets that all shared regularly-spaced, resistant features paralleling the layering of this area; despite being geographically dispersed, their similarities earned them the same name, “Teotonio.” Layering patterns on another target, “La Macarena” (pause to sing it to yourself…), earned another Mastcam mosaic, as did one of the blocks in the area (“La Vueltosa”) exhibiting a scalloped fracture pattern that we have not seen for quite awhile. This pattern is also present on the block we are bumping toward, “Regina.” The Mastcam images we planned on Regina should be returned to Earth in time to help us plan our analysis of it tomorrow. ChemCam targeted yet another scalloped fracture block, “Chiles,” with its lone LIBS analysis in the plan. Farther afield, Mastcam will capture the west side of “Owenteik” butte, and ChemCam will collect an RMI mosaic of a hypothesized inverted channel structure on Gediz Vallis Ridge.

In parallel with all the pre-drive science and the drive, DAN passive will run for four hours, adding an active measurement post-drive, as well. Post-drive, Navcam will acquire a cloud altitude observation, and MARDI will give us a view of the ground beneath our left front wheel. RAD and REMS will keep their regular watch on the weather and radiation conditions in Gale.

April 10, 2023

Sol 3796: Software Upgrade Complete!

Written by Scott VanBommel, Planetary Scientist at Washington University
This image of Martian pebbles was taken by Curiosity's Mast Camera on Sol 3786.

This image was taken by Mast Camera (Mastcam) onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3786. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. Download image ›

As Ken noted in his recent blog, our beloved rover spent much of the last week completing a software upgrade while the science team met virtually to synthesize and discuss results. That upgrade has been completed successfully, and Curiosity was back to work characterizing a local canyon in an effort to study the composition and sedimentology of the geologic units above "Tapo Caparo." While continually on the lookout for its next drill location, Curiosity will maintain a regular cadence of chemical and textural analyses of rocks along its canyon-transecting traverse.

Chemical analysis and imaging efforts were central to tosol's plan which focused on APXS and MAHLI on a brushed rock face, "Tarilandia," before the rover executed a planned drive of ~30 m. As APXS prefers colder temperatures and MAHLI benefits from midday illumination, a one-hour science block between these two arm activities rounded out the geologic science planned before the drive. The science block included a Mastcam crater rim extinction image and an extension of the "Tutu Kampu" mosaic. Mastcam also documented the targets "Loulouie" and Tarilandia. Lastly, ChemCam imaged and conducted laser analyses on the target "Bem Querer," the strikingly round stone captured in this blog's image, before a Mastcam image was acquired of the same target.

Towards the end of the drive Curiosity will acquire imaging that will support targeting in tomorrow's one-sol plan. The data will be relayed to Earth via the MAVEN spacecraft and should arrive around 09:00 PDT tomorrow. Tomorrow's shift will start later than usual as we wait for these data to arrive and take advantage of a favourable (for those of us located in North America) "Gale crater night shift."