Curiosity Celebrates Christmas On Mars: Wheels, Rims and Mountains on the Red Planet - A 2017 Look Back Travel Mosaic Gallery
Ken Kremer -- Space UpClose -- 22 Dec 2017NASA’s Curiosity rover is celebrating Christmas 2017 on Mars by doggedly carrying out an exciting science campaign to unveil billions of years of chemical mysteries of the mineral rich rocky layers and bright veins of Vera Rubin Ridge – having recently reached a stunning new location dubbed ‘Torridon’ while climbing up Mount Sharp on the alien Red Planet.
Check out Curiosity’s travel pursuits throughout the past year with our exclusive Space UpClose 2017 Look Back Gallery of Curiosity rover mosaics. All the mosaic were created by our image processing team of Ken Kremer & Marco Di Lorenzo.
As you can see in our exclusive new Space UpClose panoramic mosaic the six wheeledrobot is doglegging her way across Mars – snapping selfies of her eye-popping surroundings that include dramatic views of her wheel tracks and the distant rim of the Gale Crater landing site along the route, while ascending the missions primary destination of towering Mount Sharp along the nominal Mt. Sharp Ascent Route (MSAR).
The Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover recently snapped a panoramic selfie mosaic at the ‘Torridon’ quadrangle on Sol 1896 in early December while making long stretches of wheel tracks exploring assorted rock layers, bedrock outcrops and mineral exposures on the trek around Vera Rubin Ridge - a prominent feature inside Gale crater.
The Sol 1896 mosaic includes an exquisitely sharp view of the distant rim of Gale Craterlanding site in the background on the Red Planet. This navcam camera mosaic was stitched and colorized by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo using raw images taken onSol 1896, Dec. 6, 2017.
“Welcome to Torridon!’ wrote MSL team member Rachel Kronyak.
“The new quadrangle is named after Torridon, a village in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland that is near the Torridonian Supergroup, a geological formation that contains some of the oldest evidence of life of any rocks in the United Kingdom. We hope that this life-inspired Torridon quadrangle will give us good luck as we explore the ancient (and potentially habitable) environments along our trek up Mount Sharp!” Kronyak explained in a mission update.
5 years after a heart throbbing Martian touchdown, Curiosity is climbing Vera Rubin Ridge in search of “aqueous minerals” and “clays” for clues to possible past life while capturing “truly breathtaking” vistas of humongous Mount Sharp – her primary destination – and the stark eroded rim of the Gale Crater landing zone from ever higher elevations, NASA scientists tell Space UpClose.
“Curiosity is doing well, over five years into the mission,” Michael Meyer, NASA Lead Scientist, Mars Exploration Program, NASA Headquarters told Space UpClose.
“A key finding is the discovery of an extended period of habitability on ancient Mars.”
The car-sized rover soft landed on Mars inside Gale Crater on August 6, 2012 using the ingenious and never before tried “sky crane” system.
A rare glimpse of Curiosity’s arm and turret mounted skyward pointing drill is illustrated with our mosaic from Sol 1833 of the robot’s life on Mars – showing a panoramic view around the alien terrain from her location in October 2017 while actively at work analyzing soil samples.
“Your mosaic is absolutely gorgeous!’ Jim Green, NASA Director Planetary Science Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington D.C., told Space UpClose.
“We are at such a height on Mt Sharp to see the rim of Gale Crater and the top of the mountain. Truly breathtaking.”
The rover has ascended more than 300 meters in elevation over the past 5 years of exploration and discovery from the crater floor to the mountain ridge.
She is currently exploring and driving to the top of Vera Rubin Ridge which exhibits large vertical exposures of rock layers and extensive bright mineral veins and team members are always on the lookout for research worthy targets of opportunity.
Additionally, our Sol 1833 Vera Rubin Ridge mosaic, shows portions of the trek ahead tothe priceless scientific bounty of aqueous mineral signatures detected years earlier fromorbit by spectrometers aboard NASA’s fleet of Red Planet orbiters.
“Curiosity is on Vera Rubin Ridge (aka Hematite Ridge) – it is the first aqueous mineral signature that we have seen from space, a driver for selecting Gale Crater,” NASA HQ Mars Lead Scientist Meyer elaborated.
“And now we have access to it.”
Telephoto observations of the ridge taken by Curiosity from just beneath it show fine layering with extensive bright veins of varying widths cutting through the layers.
The Sol 1833 photomosaic illustrates Curiosity maneuvering her 7-foot-long (2-meter-long) robotic arm during a period when she was processing and delivering a sample of “Ogunquit Beach” for drop off to the inlet of the CheMin instrument earlier in October.
The “Ogunquit Beach” sample is dune material that was collected at Bagnold Dune II this past spring.
The sample drop is significant because the drill has not been operational for some time.
“Ogunquit Beach” sediment materials were successfully delivered to the CheMin and SAM instruments over the following sols and multiple analyses are in progress.
To date several CheMin and SAM integrations and analyses of “Ogunquit Beach” have been completed. Each one brings the mineralogy into sharper focus.
What’s the status of the rover health at 5 years, the wheels and the drill?
“All the instruments are doing great and the wheels are holding up,” Meyer explained.
“When 3 grousers break, 60% life has been used – this has not happened yet and they are being periodically monitored. The one exception is the drill feed (see detailed update below).”
NASA’s 1 ton Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover is now closer than ever to the mineral signatures that were the key reason why Mount Sharp was chosen as the robots landing site years ago by the scientists leading the unprecedented mission.
Along the way from the ‘Bradbury Landing’ zone to Mount Sharp, six wheeled Curiosity has often been climbing. To date she has gained over 313 meters (1027 feet) in elevation – from minus 4490 meters to minus 4177 meters in mid-October, said Meyer.
The low point was inside Yellowknife Bay at approx. minus 4521 meters.
VRR alone stands about 20 stories tall and gains Curiosity approx. 65 meters (213 feet) of elevation to the top of the ridge. Overall the VRR traverse is estimated by NASA to take drives totaling more than a third of a mile (570 m).
“Vera Rubin Ridge” or VRR is also called “Hematite Ridge.” It’s a narrow and winding ridge located on the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. It was informally named earlier this year in honor of pioneering astrophysicist Vera Rubin.
The intrepid robot reached the base of the ridge in early September.
The ridge possesses steep cliffs exposing stratifications of large vertical sedimentary rock layers and fracture filling mineral deposits, including the iron-oxide mineral hematite, with extensive bright veins.
VRR resists erosion better than the less-steep portions of the mountain below and above it, say mission scientists.
What’s ahead for Curiosity in the coming weeks and months exploring VRR before moving onward and upwards to higher elevation?
“Over the next several months, Curiosity will explore Vera Rubin Ridge,” Meyer replied.
“This will be a big opportunity to ground-truth orbital observations. Of interest, so far, thehematite of VRR does not look that different from what we have been seeing all along the Murray formation. So, big question is why?”
“The view from VRR also provides better access to what’s ahead in exploring the next aqueous mineral feature – the clay, or phyllosilicates, which can be indicators of specificenvironments, putting constraints on variables such as pH and temperature,” Meyer explained.
The clay minerals or phyllosilicates form in more neutral water, and are thus extremely scientifically interesting since pH neutral water is more conducive to the origin and evolution of Martian microbial life forms, if they ever existed.
How far away are the clays ahead and when might Curiosity reach them?
“As the crow flies, the clays are about 0.5 km,” Meyer replied. “However, the actual odometer distance and whether the clays are where we think they are – area vs. a particular location – can add a fair degree of variability.”
The clay rich area is located beyond the ridge.
Over the past few months Curiosity made rapid progress towards the hematite-bearing location of Vera Rubin Ridge after conducting in-depth exploration of the Bagnold Dunes earlier this year.
“Vera Rubin Ridge is a high-standing unit that runs parallel to and along the eastern side of the Bagnold Dunes,” said Mark Salvatore, an MSL Participating Scientist and a faculty member at Northern Arizona University, in a mission update.
“From orbit, Vera Rubin Ridge has been shown to exhibit signatures of hematite, an oxidized iron phase whose presence can help us to better understand the environmental conditions present when this mineral assemblage formed.”
Curiosity is using the science instruments on the mast, deck and robotic arm turret to gather detailed research measurements with the cameras and spectrometers. The pair of miniaturized chemistry lab instruments inside the belly – CheMin and SAM – are usedto analyze the chemical and elemental composition of pulverized rock and soil gathered by drilling and scooping selected targets during the traverse.
A key instrument is the drill which has not been operational. I asked Meyer for a drill update.
“The drill feed developed problems retracting (two stabilizer prongs on either side of the drill retract, controlling the rate of drill penetration),” Meyer replied.
“Because the root cause has not been found (think FOD) and the concern about the situation getting worse, the drill feed has been retracted and the engineers are working on drilling without the stabilizing prongs.”
“Note, a consequence is that you can still drill and collect sample but a) there is added concern about getting the drill stuck and b) a new method of delivering sample needs to be developed and tested (the drill feed normally needs to be moved to move the sample into the chimera). One option that looks viable is reversing the drill – it does work and they are working on the scripts and how to control sample size.”
Ascending and diligently exploring the sedimentary lower layers of Mount Sharp, which towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky, is the primary destination and goal of the rover’s long term scientific expedition on the Red Planet.
“Lower Mount Sharp was chosen as a destination for the Curiosity mission because the layers of the mountain offer exposures of rocks that record environmental conditions from different times in the early history of the Red Planet. Curiosity has found evidence for ancient wet environments that offered conditions favorable for microbial life, if Mars has ever hosted life,” says NASA.
As of today, Sol 1913, Dec. 24, 2017, Curiosity has driven over 11.13 miles (17.90 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater from the landing site to the ridge, and taken over 457,000 amazing images.
Stay tuned here for Ken's continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.