January 6, 2021

Sols 2994-2995: Scuff the Scuff

Written by Fred Calef, Planetary Geologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Close-up view of a ripple crest

A close-up MAHLI view of a ripple crest at the edge of the "Sands of Forvie." Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. Full image and caption ›

The "Sands of Forvie" campaign continues on with further exploration of the ripples and sand disturbed by a previous wheel scuff. On sol 2994, ChemCam targets include "Tiroran" and "Trearne Quarry" looking at sand grain chemistry with respective Mastcam color documentation. A new MAHLI image of "Traquair" will provide another close-in view of sand grain color and morphology. Interestingly, on sol 2995, we'll turn the rover in place to re-scuff a ripple to provide a three dimensional view into how the sand grains built up over time. During the turn, we'll take a mid-drive Mastcam mosaic of the new scuff area. Afterwards, the rover will take Mastcam images for ripple change detection, a clast survey, a MARDI image, and a Navcam dust devil survey.

January 5, 2021

Sol 2993: Taken With a Grain of 'Sand'

Written by Lucy Thompson, Planetary Geologist at University of New Brunswick
surface of Mars

Front Hazcam image of the APXS on the “Ratharsair,” trough target after overnight analysis in the previous plan. The ripple crest, along which the “Airor” crest target is situated, to the left of the arm. The disturbed scuff can also be seen between the two front wheels. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

We are in the midst of a mini-campaign to further examine eolian (wind erosion, transport and depositional) processes on Mars. Curiosity is parked on a dark sand sheet investigating the composition and texture of the sand grains from different regions of the sand sheet, as well as any current motion of sand grains. Yesterday, Curiosity imaged a coarser grained, darker ripple crest (“Airor”) and a finer grained, redder trough area (“Ratharsair”) with MAHLI, and investigated the composition of the trough target with APXS. In the plan today, those images will be utilized to take even closer-up, higher resolution images of the crest and trough targets with MAHLI. These will facilitate detailed analysis of grain size, shape and colour. The APXS will analyze the composition of the trough target in this plan, and differences in the chemistry between the trough and crest can then hopefully be linked to grain texture and eolian processes. We also planned ChemCam LIBS measurements and accompanying Mastcam documentation imaging of the “Kames Bay” sand target. In order to look for motion of sand grains, Mastcam and MARDI change detection images will be taken at approximately the same time of day as they have been in the previous few plans.

As the APXS strategic planner, not only was I involved in helping to oversee today’s APXS activities, but also in the pre-planning of upcoming APXS observations for the next plan. We will try to get APXS compositional data on an area disturbed and scuffed with the rover wheels before driving away. This should allow us to compare the composition of the surface of the sand sheet with the subsurface, perhaps providing further insights into eolian processes.

The environmental group planned standard observations to monitor the atmosphere including Navcam suprahorizon and dust devil movies. Standard REMS, RAD, DAN passive and active measurements will also be acquired.

January 4, 2021

Sol 2992: New Year's Resolution

Written by Mariah Baker, Planetary Geologist at Center for Earth & Planetary Studies, Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum
dust on mars

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity acquired this image using its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), located on the turret at the end of the rover's robotic arm, on January 2, 2021, Sol 2989 of the Mars Science Laboratory Mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. Download image ›

Here on Earth, people often use the start of a new year as an opportunity to adopt new resolutions for themselves. In planetary exploration, we often talk about a different kind of resolution, namely the spatial resolution of the cameras carried by a spacecraft. The Curiosity rover has a large suite of cameras with a range of spatial resolutions, one of which is the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera. Located at the end of the rover’s robotic arm, MAHLI can be placed in close proximity to the surface to acquire incredibly high-resolution images of the grains within loose soil and rocks. And in the rover’s first plan of 2021, MAHLI’s imaging capabilities took center stage.

Right before the holiday break, Curiosity had been making her way across rubbly terrain towards a set of large sand ripples located within the Sands of Forvie. One of our primary motivations for visiting these ripples was to acquire high-resolution MAHLI images of the sand comprising them. When wind blows sand around, it naturally sorts it based on properties such as particle size, so close-up images of sand grains on different parts of a ripple can provide a means to study natural sorting processes and the winds controlling them. As seen in the image above (acquired at our current location on Sol 2989), MAHLI is able to resolve the size, shape, and color of individual grains of sand that are no larger than those you would find at a beach here on Earth.

As today provided our first opportunity to study the Sands of Forvie ripples after our New Year’s scuff, a major focus of our planning was to obtain a preliminary set of MAHLI images of the crest and trough of a prominent ripple in our workspace. These images will allow the team to plan a second set of even higher-resolution MAHLI images tomorrow. Other scientific measurements planned today included an APXS measurement to accompany MAHLI images of the ripple trough, ChemCam observations on sand targets “Carsaig East” and “Carsaig Arches," and Mastcam “change detection” images for tracking sand motion. Special morning and evening change detection images were also scheduled to help us better constrain the timing and direction of the winds responsible for shaping the Sands of Forvie ripples. A Mastcam stereo mosaic and Mastcam multispectral observation will provide additional data on the ripples in our immediate workspace. DAN and REMS measurements, as well as a small set of Navcam and Mastcam observations will also allow us to probe the current environmental conditions. The team is excited to be ringing in the new year at this interesting – and sandy – spot, and we are looking forward to exploring many more new terrains in 2021 as we continue our traverse up Mount Sharp.

December 23, 2020

Sols 2989-2991: Wrapping up 2020 at the 'Sands of Forvie'

Written by Abigail Fraeman, Planetary Geologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Dunes on Mars

This image was taken by Left Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 2979. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

We made it. After a quick jaunt across the “rubbly” unit, Curiosity has reached the “Sands of Forvie” in time for the holidays. This sand sheet is approximately 400 meters across and a kilometer wide, and the views looking out over it are spectacularly scenic.

On Monday we made a mega, 10-sol plan to cover the holiday period, and the drive that took Curiosity to the edge of the sand sheet was in the first sol of that plan. Today, we planned 3 more sols that will happen at the end of that mega-plan. In other words, the activities we planned today won’t execute on Mars until next Earth calendar year!

The star of today’s 3-sol plan is a scuff where we will use the rover’s wheel to cut across one of the large ripples in the Sands of Forvie and allow us to observe its interior structure. We’ll also collect some ChemCam observations of two sand targets named “Corryhabbie Hill” and “Mill Loch,” and a small rock named “Fethaland.” We’ll additionally acquire MAHLI and APXS data on a ripple crest at a target named “Braewick Beach” and a different small rock in the workspace named “Ronas Hill.” These observations will be complemented by several Mastcam and RMI mosaics of the area, including a 360˚ Mastcam mosaic. Observations to monitor the environment and change detection images are also sprinkled throughout the plan.

As 2020 comes to a close, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on everything Curiosity has accomplished this (Earth) year. In March, we climbed the Greenheugh pediment, setting mission records for steepest contact science (26.9˚) and steepest climb (32˚) along the way. We also set a mission record for largest elevation change on our way back when we descended 11 meters in a single drive, which project scientist Ashwin Vasavada pointed out to me is the height of a three-story building! We drilled and analyzed six samples of Martian rock, ranking 2020 with 2016 as “Earth year where Curiosity drilled the most.” Over the summer, we performed special wet chemistry experiments on two of those drilled samples, including the first use of tetramethylammonium hydroxide (TMAH), to better understand their composition. Finally, we completed collection of our fourth full meteorological record of Mars when we celebrated our fourth Martian year on the surface. The science team has been working remotely for years, but Curiosity’s engineering team at JPL went fully remote starting in March. I am truly astonished by how much we’ve accomplished operating the rover from our dining room tables and makeshift home offices over the last 41 weeks, and I am so proud of this team.

Wishing health and happiness to everyone in this holiday season, and we’ll see you again in 2021!

December 22, 2020

Sols 2979-2988: Headed to the Beach!

Written by Michelle Minitti, Planetary Geologist at Framework
Image of bedrocks on Mars.

This image was taken by Left Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 2977. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

Today’s plan covers the ten sols that span the holidays here on Earth, enabling Curiosity to keep exploring Gale crater while the scientists and engineers that guide her every move get a well-deserved break. Most of those sols contain only REMS weather and RAD radiation monitoring activities, as these regular measurements are easy to plan and relatively low risk to the rover operating for many sols without the team checking in regularly. Three of the sols of the holiday contain more extensive activities, including a drive to the edge of the “Sands of Forvie” sand sheet that Curiosity will study more extensively to start the new year. So while the sand and ripples that cap the Sands of Forvie evoke a beach vacation, the holiday will not be all relaxation for Curiosity. At least she will have a lovely view...

The first sol of the plan starts with surveying the bedrock and sand in the rover workspace with both ChemCam and Mastcam. ChemCam will shoot representative bedrock at “Buness,” bedrock and a prominent white vein at “Aithsting,” and a small sand ripple among the bedrock blocks at “Trodra.” These analyses will help us keep track of how rock and sand chemistry change as we approach the “Sands of Forvie” sand sheet that looms just off in the distance of the above image. Mastcam will acquire a large mosaic covering the blocks around the rover to get a detailed look at the structures and alteration features in the bedrock, in addition to imaging two other bedrock blocks, “Quothquan” and “Elishader,” that each exhibit interesting textures. ChemCam then turns its eyes upward to acquire a long distance RMI mosaic of sulfate-bearing layers found within the portion of Mount Sharp that makes up the next major phase of Curiosity’s exploration.

Next, Curiosity will drive toward the Sands of Forvie, where she will spend the majority of the holiday. ChemCam will acquire two autonomously-targeted rasters off to the starboard side of the rover. Mastcam and MARDI will watch for wind-induced changes in the sand around and under the rover, respectively. DAN will search for hydrogen in the subsurface under the rover in active mode right after the drive, and in passive mode later during our beach stay. The rest of the observations Curiosity acquires will be pointed skyward. Both early morning and near midday, Navcam and Mastcam will measure the amount of dust in the atmosphere, and Navcam will shoot dust devil movies. Early and mid-morning, Navcam will acquire movies to look for clouds overhead. ChemCam will collect a passive spectral observation of the atmosphere, and APXS will analyze atmospheric argon.

December 21, 2020

Curiosity's "Spyglass" Megamosaic of Mount Sharp

Stéphane Le Mouélic, Remote Sensing specialist at LPG/CNRS, Nantes, France

Housedon_Hill ChemCam/RMI mosaic, with selected zooms on areas of interest.
Housedon_Hill ChemCam/RMI mosaic, with selected zooms on areas of interest. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/CNRS/ IRAP/IAS/LPG. Full image and caption ›

A quick introduction, since I'm not a regular author of Curiosity's blog: since the rover's landing, I’ve been involved in the processing of ChemCam’s images at France's University of Nantes. I'm always eager when new data come down, and the images we've collected here as a video are a real treat.

The recent “Housedon Hill” imaging campaign planned by the team during a two-month period while staying at the “Mary Anning” drill site broke a record, being the largest mosaic obtained so far with ChemCam’s Remote Micro-Imager (RMI). RMI was originally designed to document the tiny areas analyzed by ChemCam’s laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) technique on rocks only a few meters from the rover. During Curiosity’s first year on Mars, it was recognized that, thanks to its powerful optics, RMI could also go from a microscope to a telescope and play a significant role as a long-distance reconnaissance tool. It gives a typical circular “spyglass” black and white picture of a small region. So RMI complements other cameras quite nicely, thanks to its very long focal length. When stitched together, RMI mosaics reveal details of the landscape several kilometers from the rover, and provides pictures that are very complementary to orbital observations, giving a more human-like, ground-based perspective.

From July to October of 2020, Curiosity stayed parked at the same place to perform various rock sampling analyses. This rare opportunity of staying at the same location for a long time was used by the team to target very distant areas of interest, building an ever-growing RMI mosaic between September 9 and October 23 (sols 2878 and 2921) that eventually became 216 overlapping images. When stitched into a 46947x7260 pixel panorama, it covers over 50 degrees of azimuth along the horizon, from the bottom layers of “Mount Sharp” on the right to the edge of “Vera Rubin Ridge” on the left. The insets show how the high resolution achieved by RMI reveals various geologic landforms, such as a field of sand ripples near Vera Rubin Ridge, and an impressive variety of layered units. These features all highlight Gale crater’s complex geologic history. Mount Sharp has a prominent “marker bed," a distinct single layer that can be traced almost all along its base, extending over tens of kilometers. It appears in this mosaic as a dark layer that marks a key change in the formation of the mountain’s slopes.

By stretching the contrast of the image in the middle of the panorama above the foreground, one can even recognize features corresponding to blocky rocks that rolled partway down from Gale’s crater wall way off in the distance. When measured using imagery from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Context Camera (CTX), these blocks are 59 kilometers from the rover – a record distance for a ChemCam/RMI observation. This is the equivalent of seeing Baltimore’s downtown buildings from Washington DC’s city center. This indicates that despite the dust in the atmosphere, which varies significantly across seasons, the sky at this time was clear enough to perform such very distant imaging.

Image taken with the CTX camera
View from Space and From the Ground: These two images compare images taken from space (by the Context Camera, or CTX, aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) and the Martian surface (from the Remote Mico-Imager camera aboard ChemCam, an instrument aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ LANL/CNES/CNRS/ IRAP/IAS/LPG/MSSS

December 18, 2020

Sols 2976-2978: Dun Dun Dun…

Written by Catherine O'Connell-Cooper, Planetary Geologist at University of New Brunswick
MAHLI image, taken from 25 cm standoff, showing the nodular target “An Dun” in the centre of the image.

This image was taken by Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 2974. MAHLI image, taken from 25 cm standoff, showing the nodular target “An Dun” in the centre of the image. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. Download image ›

We have not moved since our last plan, to allow us to determine the geochemical composition of some small, resistant, nodular features (“An Dun”) in this workspace, shown in the image above. Although the nodules are not quite as large as the fort they were named after (Dun is Gaelic for “fort”), their height (7 mm) combined with morphology meant that we needed to do our due diligence and ensure that they did not pose a danger to the APXS instrument. Accordingly, MAHLI took some images in the last plan, which were used today to refine placement over the nodules. APXS will do a three-point raster (3 separate placements, separated by 1-2 cms) across An Dun, ensuring that we will have as much of the nodular material in our Field of View (FOV). MAHLI will take some further images of An Dun. To complete the compositional investigation, ChemCam will target An Dun the following day. This ordering, with APXS preceding ChemCam, was important today as it was not possible to use the DRT brush to remove the dust around these protruding features. The active ChemCam LIBS laser can move the dust around, so APXS needed to go first so that we did not inadvertently analyze some dust piled up around the main target! ChemCam is analyzing three bedrock targets in this workspace, “Corserine,” “Pundsar,” and “Tjorn,” all of which will also be documented by Mastcam images.

On the second sol (day) of the plan, we will drive further onto this rubbly material. This short drive (25 meters) will bring us closer to our next science goal – a mini-campaign on a large sand sheet called “Sands of Forvie.” We are eagerly looking forward to getting there, in time for the return to planning in the New Year.

In addition to contact science and driving, Curiosity will be busy monitoring environmental conditions, from dust in the atmosphere to capturing images of active dust devils. APXS will also take overnight measurements to monitor seasonal changes in argon levels, continuing work started with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers.

December 17, 2020

Sols 2974-2975: Double TRubble

Written by Mariah Baker, Planetary Geologist at Center for Earth & Planetary Studies, Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum
Black and white image of Mars

This image was taken by Left Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 2972. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

With the successful completion of Monday’s drive, Curiosity has entered a new geologic unit that is characterized by a particularly rubbly surface texture, as seen the Navcam image above. From orbit, this distinct geomorphology is also accompanied by a unique spectral signature, which piqued the team’s interest and motivated a short contact science stop within this unit. The ground truth data acquired during this stop will be crucial in determining why the rocks here look so different from others we have encountered along the traverse. Luckily, today's plan included two hefty 2-hour-long science blocks and no drive, which will allow us to collect double the data at this unusual stop before the rover drives away.

Full contact science with APXS and MAHLI was planned for a pair of targets, “Cod Baa” and “Carn Mor” (with a bonus MAHLI observation on “An Dun”), and the dual science blocks were filled to the brim with remote science activities. ChemCam LIBS measurements and Mastcam documentation images will be acquired on bedrock targets “Cod Baa,” “Northmavine,” and “St Abbs,” as well as soil target “Houster.” Four Mastcam mosaics will provide extended coverage of nearby rock surfaces and sand ripples, and two long distance ChemCam RMI observations will allow a closer look at distant rock outcrops. Two Mastcam multispectral observations will also provide additional data on the rubbly surface around the rover. Along with acquiring data on the local geology, the team also planned a large set of observations aimed at studying current environmental conditions. The first science block will include Navcam zenith and suprahorizon movies, a Mastcam tau image to measure atmospheric dust levels, and a Navcam image of the rover deck to monitor wind. The second science block will include two Navcam line-of-sight observations, a Navcam dust devil survey, and a Mastcam image of the crater rim, all of which will help assess ongoing dust activity. After two busy sols of science, the rover will continue to drive even further into the rubbly terrain on her way to a large sand sheet just south of our current location (seen in the background of the Navcam image above).

December 15, 2020

Sols 2972-2973: Rubble Bump

Written by Scott Guzewich, Atmospheric Scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
Black and white image of Mars with part of Curiosity rover showing

This image was taken by Left Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 2970. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

Curiosity currently is sitting at the edge of two geologic units, and today’s plan was focused on helping find that boundary and begin to determine the differences between them. As you can see in the Navcam image, the ground under our wheels now has small pebbles and is generally smooth. But right ahead of us is a different unit with much larger blocks of rock that has a distinct “rubbly” texture in images from orbit. After a quick touch-and-go in today’s plan on one of the pebbles nearby (“Torness”), Mastcam will take a large stereo mosaic of the boundary between these two geologic units and ChemCam will target three nearby rocks for LIBS analysis. Then we’ll perform a short drive (a “bump” in rover-speak) onto this rubbly unit where we’ll plan more contact science in Wednesday’s plan.

Meanwhile, farther ahead is a large sand sheet that we’ll investigate after the New Year. ENV is keeping an eye on dust devil activity over the sand sheet with two Navcam dust devil searches.

December 11, 2020

Sols 2969-2971: More Rubble, Toil and Trouble?

Written by Lucy Thompson, Planetary Geologist at University of New Brunswick
A part of the Curiosity rover is visible in this Mars image

The tosol’s rubbly workspace as seen by the Left Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 2967. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

The last time I contributed to this blog (Sols 2933-2934), we were on rubbly terrain, and here we are again. Curiosity has had no trouble traversing rubbly Glen Torridon material, and our current terrain is no exception. We have made good progress since leaving the resistant bedrock benches and Curiosity is currently driving along the transition between what appears to be smoother material from orbital imagery and blockier, more resistant material to the south (see Where is Curiosity?). The workspace tosol is in the smoother material, ~25 m from the blocky terrain. The science team is interested in documenting any changes in chemistry and texture as we drive from the smoother material, up on to the blockier material and as we near the sulfate unit higher up on Mount Sharp, so this is an important pit stop along our traverse.

As the APXS Payload Uplink-Downlink Lead (PUDL) today, I was responsible for checking the APXS downlink from our previous plan, and then helping to plan and uplink the APXS measurements on two slightly different textured rock targets “Auchnafree Hill” and “Coupar Angus” in our current workspace. MAHLI will take close-up images of both targets and ChemCam will also investigate the Coupar Angus target. We will be able to compare the composition and texture with other rocks from previous rubbly terrains within Glen Torridon, as well as with the upcoming blockier terrain. We also planned ChemCam LIBS measurements and accompanying Mastcam documentation imaging of the “Ayre of Tonga” and “Ocraquoy” rock targets. The Ayre of Tonga target appears to be equivalent to the Auchnafree Hill APXS and MAHLI target, and the Ocraquoy has a similar dark, nodular texture to recent ChemCam/APXS targets “Ben Hee” and “Achnasheen.”

The science team also planned three Mastcam mosaics. The first is to document the transition between the smoother and blockier, more resistant terrains ahead of us. The second is to continue the investigation of periodic bedrock ridges that we have observed throughout the Glen Torridon region. The third is to document sedimentary textures in the near field of the rover. A Mastcam image will also be acquired of the rover deck.

The planned drive tosol should take us right to the contact between the smoother and blockier terrains, and the ramp that we are going to drive up in order to access the blocky material. To give us a hint at the chemistry of the rocks at the end of the drive, a post-drive ChemCam AEGIS observation will be acquired. A planned post-drive MARDI image will also give us a sense of what the ground beneath our wheels looks like.

The environmental group was also busy planning observations of the atmosphere. These include a Mastcam basic tau mosaic pointed towards the sun, Navcam suprahorizon and dust devil movies, and Navcam line of sight observation and dust devil survey images. Standard REMS, RAD, DAN passive and active measurements are also planned. A SAM atmospheric QMS-TLS run is also included, and CheMin are downlinking full frames from their analysis of the “Groken” drill fines, in order to refine their interpretation.