Curiosity thrills with first eye-level photos of distant mountains

The mountainous rim of Gale Crater photographed by Curiosity’s navigational camera this morning. They look “misty” possibly because of dust haze. The scoured patch in the foreground might be from the sky crane’s rocket exhaust. Click for large version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The trickle of Mars photos is fast becoming a torrent.  Curiosity’s mast, the pole-like affair sticking out of the rover that holds the high resolution color cameras and navigational cameras (NavCams), went up this morning. We’re finally getting clear, high resolution pictures taken at eye level. Check out those mountains! Want to browse more images? Click HERE and HERE.

Another view of the distant hills in Gale Crater. Click for large version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Navcam on the mast looked down to photograph Curiosity’s mast and instrument platform. Click to for large version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Oh, OK – how about another fresh pic:

High-resolution picture of the heat shield falling to the Martian surface by Curiosity’s descent camera shortly after separation. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech with toning by Emily Lakdawalla and myself

Not only has Curiosity been busy shooting pictures but the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) took a spectacular scene of the rover delivery stages strewn about the Martian landscape yesterday.

The heat shield was the first piece of hardware to hit the ground followed by the back shell attached to the parachute. The rover touched down next and the sky crane last. After the cables connecting it to the rover were cut, the crane flew off to the northwest and crashed. The darker areas around each object are where the dust was disturbed by rockets or impact revealing darker material beneath. Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech/U. of A.

The first picture shows the wide scene that serves to locate the pieces. Click on the photo for a much higher resolution view. I then took the hi-res images and zoomed in for a clearer view in the panels below:

Closeup views from the high resolution picture taken by MRO of the rover and its parachute and back shell. Credit: NASA/JPLl-Caltech-U. of Ariz.

Closeups of the sky crane and heat shield crashes. The sky crane hit Mars at a very shallow or oblique angle, creating a jet-like blast pattern. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/U. of Ariz.

Meanwhile, mission controllers at JPL have been snapping more pictures with those Hazcams mounted on Curiosity’s chassis including a 3-D shot of the rover’s shadow and distant hills. I hope you have a pair of those red-blue glasses to try out on this pic – the view is amazing!

3-D look at Curiosity’s shadow and the distant hills including the 3.4 mile high Mt. Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Here’s today’s status report on the rover from JPL: 
Curiosity is healthy as it continues to familiarize itself with its new home in Gale Crater and check out its systems. The team’s plans for Curiosity checkout today included raising the rover’s mast and continued testing of its high-gain antenna. Science data were collected from Curiosity’s Radiation Assessment Detector, and activities were performed with the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station instrument.

Auroras possible tonight Aug. 7 through Thursday morning


A filament of hot gas connecting two sunspots group erupted and sent a pulse of plasma  into space the morning of August 4 (CDT). Earth is expected to receive at least a glancing blow from the material in the next couple days.

The Kp index, a fairly reliable indicator of geomagnetic (aurora) activity has crept up to just below minor storm level tonight. We’re clouded out in Duluth, Minn. but observers with clear skies living in the northern U.S. and southern Canada may want to keep an eye out tonight for northern lights. Truth in advertising: this is not expected to be a major storm.

The coronal mass ejection (CME) caught leaving the sun around 11 a.m. August 4, 2012 (CDT) by the coronagraph on the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. Credit: NASA/ ESA

Skies in our region are expected to clear tomorrow evening when auroras are again likely. The cause goes back to a coronal mass ejection (CME) on August 4.  when a filament – a long arching garland of incandescent hydrogen gas – became unstable and erupted. You can see it fly away in the video; it’s the dark streak in the early images.

The aurora often starts early in the evening very low in the northern sky as a pale, arc-shaped glow. Peak activity is usually around midnight-1 a.m.

Cool video of Curiosity’s exciting ride into Gale Crater


Curiosity on the way down!

Wouldn’t you know it. I just finished posting and 10 minutes later got wind of the video of the Curiosity Rover descending to the surface of Mars. So here you go. While the resolution’s low, I suspect you’ll still enjoy the ride. These are thumbnails; full resolution pictures/video will be sent in the coming months. 297 of the approximately 1,504 color photos taken by the descent camera were put together to create the short sequence. They cover the final 2 1/2 minutes of the rover’s wild ride.

Color thumbnail image taken by Curiosity 2.5 minutes before touchdown showing the 15-foot-diameter heat shield after separation from the spacecraft. It was about 50 feet away at the time. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The video’s not just cool to look at; the pictures have a purpose, too.

“These images will help the mission scientists interpret the rover’s surroundings, the rover drivers in planning for future drives across the surface, as well as assist engineers in their design of forthcoming landing systems for Mars or other worlds,” said Mike Malin, imaging
scientist for the Mars Science Lab mission.

Mars on the move; space station back in the evening sky

Mars forms rapidly changing patterns with Saturn and the star Spica in the coming two weeks. These maps show the sky facing low in the southwest about an hour after sunset. Created with Stellarium

Mars is unstoppable. Maybe you’ve already noticed that it’s trying its best to evade the setting sun in the western sky. Mars moves much faster than any of the other outer because it’s considerably closer to Earth. Its eastward orbital motion is obvious in a matter of just a few nights if the planet happens to be near a bright star or much slower moving planet.

The north wall and rim of Gale Crater taken by Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). The haziness is from dust deposited on the camera’s clear dust cover during descent. I toned the image for better contrast. Click photo to see the original. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

That’s exactly where it is right now –  next door to Saturn and Spica in evening twilight. Mars threads the needle between the pair on the nights of August 13 and 14. As you watch the planet, consider that it carries its new robotic guest along for the ride at 15 miles per second or 3 miles per second slower that Earth. Being closer to the sun, our planet moves faster.

Today NASA shared what I believe is the first color photo from Curiosity. It was taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) mounted on Curiosity’s robotic arm. The camera’s main purpose is to shoot closeups of soil and rocks. When it’s ready for that job, the lens cover will be removed and we’ll get much sharper, contrastier images similar to yesterday’s picture of Mt. Sharp. This is the best color for now.

The full moon on August 1, 2012 captured by an astronaut on the International Space Station. Because the moon was so close to the horizon, the thicker (denser) air greatly distorted its shape.  Credit: NASA

While you’re out Mars-gazing, keep watch for the brightest satellite in the sky. The International Space Station (ISS) is back to making passes during evening hours. The times below are when you can see it in the Duluth, Minn. region. For times for your town, log in to Heavens Above or simply key in your zip code over at Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys page. The ISS is a brilliant, steady light moving from west to east. A typical pass takes about five minutes.

* Tonight starting at 9:36 p.m. Pass across the south-southeastern sky. Second pass at 11:12 p.m. in the west; fades out as it enters Earth’s shadow not far from the North Star.
* Wednesday Aug. 8 at 10:19 p.m. straight across the top of the sky. Brilliant show!
* Thursday Aug. 9 at 9:26 p.m. high across the south and again at 11:03 p.m. in the northern sky.
* Friday Aug. 10 at 10:09 p.m. halfway up in the northern sky.
* Saturday Aug. 10 at 10:10 p.m. Nice pass across the north

Mt. Sharp beckons in Curiosity’s eyes

Hazcam image showing Mt. Sharp, which rises 3.4 miles high from the floor of Gale Crater. The Rover team plans to drive the probe to the mountain’s lower layers to sample and study soil and minerals. In the foreground are the rover’s shadow and two of its wheels. The dark bands in the near distance are dunes. Click for bigger version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Just a quick update this evening in case you haven’t checked out the latest pictures in NASA’s Curiosity gallery. Mt. Sharp looks very impressive! The tall peak was named for geologist Robert P. Sharp (1911-2004), a founder of planetary science, influential teacher of many current leaders in the field, and team member for NASA’s early Mars missions.

The green diamond shows approximately where Curiosity landed – nearly at the center of the estimated landing region shown in blue. At right is a picture taken by the descent camera as Curiosity was being lowered by sky crane to the ground. Circular plumes of dust were created by the rocket exhaust. The rover was about 70 feet above the surface at the time. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Whoa! Mars orbiter snaps photo of Curiosity dangling from parachute

Curiosity Rover, packed inside its protective back shell, floats to its destination inside Gale Crater earlier this morning. The air on Mars is more than 100 times thinner than on Earth. The parachute had to be large – 51 feet across – to make the most of it.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Come on NASA, you’re killing me! Will wonders never cease? The agency just released this photo of Curiosity descending by parachute to its destination on Mars. The image was made by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) as the probe flew 211 miles away. You can’t see the rover directly because it’s tucked inside a conical shell along with the rocket-propelled backpack that would tether it down to the surface just a minute later. Curiosity was two miles above the etched plains north of the sand dunes that fringe Mt. Sharp inside Gale Crater when the picture was snapped.

MRO is shown at the time it took the photo of Curiosity on descent. MSL stands for Mars Science Laboratory, the rover’s alternate name. Credit: NASA-TV

MRO has been circling Mars for six years and shot a similar photo of the Phoenix lander floating down to the surface by parachute in May 2008. Nothing like having another set of eyes looking out when your baby’s 154 million miles from home.

A “straight” view of Curiosity and its chute without cropping and toning. From the perspective of the orbiter, the parachute and Curiosity are flying at an angle relative to the surface, so the landing site does not appear directly below the rover. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

The photo reminds us that anything is possible if we focus our energy and wits to make it happen. I may be dazed and confused today after staying up half the night with the rover, but this vibe of inspiration keeps me smiling.

Curiosity makes flawless touchdown on Mars

The first two pictures taken on Mars by the fisheye lenses on the Curiosity Rover Hazcams. Both show splotches of dust kicked up during the landing. The left image shows the shadow of the rover; one of its wheels is seen in the right photo at lower right. Credit: NASA-TV

Unbelievable. I just finished watching the landing on NASA-TV and I’m brimming with pride over the space agency’s magnificent accomplishment. We did it … again! The entire landing, from the moment when the cruise shell separated to parachute deployment and the final, rocket-powered descent via sky crane – flawless.

Mission controllers break into hugs at news of the safe touchdown of Curiosity at 12:39 a.m. (CDT) Monday. The joy was incredible … and catching. Credit: NASA-TV

NASA was able to get the orbiting Mars Odyssey craft into position to receive data from Curiosity almost immediately after touchdown. It couldn’t have been more than a minute or two after touchdown when the first picture was beamed over the big monitor at the Jet Propulsion Lab. As expected these were low resolution, black and white image taken by the small Hazard-Avoidance cameras mounted on the rover’s platform, but oh, how sweet they were!

The pictures show that the rover rests on nearly level ground strongly resembling my gravel driveway.  Open, flat terrain is exactly what the mission’s planners hoped for. The fewer rocks, the safer the landing. It also means they can deploy the mast, which holds the high-resolution cameras, on schedule. We should see color pix from those later this week. I managed to grab a few screen shots of the scene I hope you’ll enjoy! To see the latest images arriving from the rover, click HERE.

Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) are shown at the time Curiosity, also called the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), was landing. Credit: NASA-TV

While Odyssey received data and photos from Curiosity and sent them on to Earth, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter got in for an even closer view to photograph the rover as it descended by parachute and sky crane. We should see those photos soon.

With the first picture of Mars taken by Curiosity in the background, mission controllers high-five and hug in celebration Monday morning. Credit: NASA-TV

A later, higher-resolution image from Curiosity after the clear dust cover protecting the lens was jettisoned. Part of the spring that released the cover is at lower right. At upper right, foothills or mountains are seen. Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech

JPL mission controllers break out jars of peanuts shortly before the landing. It’s a tradition before critical mission events that started with the first successful Ranger mission to the moon in the 1960s. A JPL staffer was eating peanuts at the time, so the staff figured the peanuts brought good luck. Credit: NASA-TV

Ready … set … Mars!

Mars (right), Saturn (top) and the star Spica form a striking triangle in the western sky yesterday evening. Our attention  will be riveted on Mars when Curiosity lands tonight. Photo: Bob King

Tonight’s the night. If all goes right with the most audacious plan ever conceived to land a probe on another planet, Curiosity Rover’s wheels will crunch into Martian soil at 12:31 a.m. (Central time) Monday morning. One of the first things the probe will do on arrival is take a picture, get on the phone and e-mail it to its best friends back on Earth. You’d do the same, right?

The first pictures will be taken within minutes of landing by the Hazard-Avoidance cameras (Hazcams) attached to the back and front of the rover.  These feature wide-angle fisheye lenses capped with clear lens covers to protect the glass from Martian dust on landing. The covers are designed to pop off, but if they don’t, the lenses will still provide a clear view. Lots of us use similar transparent filters to protect our camera lenses from Earth dust.

The first photos from Curiosity will look something like this Hazcam image taken by the Mars Opportunity Rover. The rover is still going strong after 8 1/2 years of operation on Mars. Credit: NASA

“A set of low-resolution gray scale Hazcam images (thumbnails) will be acquired within minutes of landing on the surface,” said Justin Maki of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Once all of the critical systems have been checked out by the engineering team and the mast is deployed, the rover will image the landing site with higher-resolution cameras.”

The low-res Hazcam images will give engineers a look around Curiosity’s immediate environment as well as determine if the robot is upright or tilted; stable ground is required before the mast holding the high resolution cameras is raised into position.

This graphic shows the locations of the cameras on NASA’s Curiosity rover. The rover’s mast features seven cameras: the Remote Micro Imager, part of the Chemistry and Camera suite; four black-and-white Navigation Cameras (two on the left and two on the right) and two color Mast Cameras (Mastcams). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’ll take about two hours for the first pictures to arrive as Curiosity waits for the Mars Odyssey orbiter to fly by and relay the data back to Earth.  Color photos from the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) taken as the probe descended to the surface will be released later Monday. On Tuesday the 7th, we’ll see the first photos taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). Though designed to shoot closeups of soil and rocks, it will grab and send an initial wide view of the landing area in Gale Crater.

Mars this past March with north polar cap. Credit: Damian Peach

Images from the medium resolution Navcams mounted on the mast will arrive three days after the landing. As this set of pictures races back to Earth at light speed, the high-resolution Mastcams – one equipped with a 100mm telephoto lens, the other a medium wide 34mm lens – will start clicking away. Yes, that’s the juicy stuff.

I’ll be updating my site tonight with landing news and more. If you’re in Duluth, Minn. or planning to visit today, check out the Marshall Alworth Planetarium’s Curiosity Landing Party. It starts at 4 p.m. and continues till 1 a.m. Monday. The event features live streaming video of the Planetary Society’s Planetfest in the star domeKids activities include an alien art competition, build your own spacecraft and dress up like an alien. Martians preferred.

Here are a couple links you’ll find handy tonight and in the coming days:

* Watch the whole shebang online on NASA-TV.  The live broadcast begins at 10:30 p.m. (CDT)
* Lots of cities like Duluth are having live events to mark the landing. Click HERE to find one near you.
*  See the raw images as soon as mission control makes them available. Curiosity’s first pictures will be posted at that link.
* NASA image gallery to view finished photos and photo compilations along with caption information.
* Follow the mission on Curiosity’s Facebook and Twitter pages.

See ya’ later tonight!

Meteor activity ticks up, helps spawn extraterrestrial clouds on Earth

Bright fireball meteor captured from Dayton, Ohio on video camera by John Chumack on August 1.

Meteor activity’s been picking up in recent days as we approach the maximum of the Perseid shower, one of the year’s best. Astrophotographer John Chumack of Ohio has recorded plenty of bright meteors, even fireballs, on his nighttime video camera this past week.

Earth bumped into its first Perseids starting the last week of July with the peak of the shower expected next Saturday night-Sunday morning August 11-12. Expect to see at least one a minute under dark skies.

Lots of other minor showers are active in early August including the Northern Delta Aquarids, Alpha Capricornids, Kappa Cygnids and Iota Aquarids. Individually each amounts to little, but taken together they make the sky busier than normal with shooting stars.

The fuzzy streak to the left of the meteor is an expanding cloud of meteoric dust. Credit: John Chumack

Meteors come from meteoroids, small bits of dust and rock ranging carrot seed size to small pebbles.  When a meteoroid strikes Earth’s atmosphere 50-70 miles overhead it burns in a flash to create a meteor. It also leaves behind a trail of minute dust particles or soot called meteoric smoke.

In a recent article published in the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics, researcher Dr. Mark Hervig used data from NASA’s orbiting AIM spacecraft to discover that meteoric smoke is responsible for seeding noctilucent clouds, those wispy blue curls that appear low in the northern sky during twilight.

AIM or Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere is the first mission dedicated to study noctilucent clouds (also called Polar Mesospheric Clouds) to figure out why they form and whether they might be connected to climate change.

Noctilucent clouds glow pale blue during evening and morning twilight at northerly latitudes during the summer months. They’re about 50 miles high and made of ice crystals and a smidge of meteor smoke. Photo: Bob King

To build a cloud, whether mesospheric or a puffy summertime cumulus, you need dust, soot or some type of particle for water or ice to condense around. The dust forms the nucleus of each raindrop or ice crystal; molecules of water latch onto it and assemble into a crystal in a process called nucleation.

Using data from AIM’s Solar Occultation For Ice Experiment (SOFIE) and comparing it to simulated mixtures of ice and meteoric smoke, Hervig found that up to 3 percent of the material in the ice crystals in noctilucent clouds was dust deposited by meteors. This makes perfect sense when you consider that meteors burn up at the same altitude the cloud form.

Looking down from above, AIM captured this composite image of the noctilucent cloud cover above the south pole on December 31, 2009. Credit: NASA/HU/VT/CU LASP

AIM found the ice crystals were only 20 to 70 billionths of a meter or 20 to 70 nanometers across. That’s tiny! A sheet of paper is 100,000 nanometers thick, and the ice crystals in a typical cirrus cloud are 250,000 nanometers long. Their small size makes them very good at scattering the short-wavelength blue portion of sunlight back to our eyes. That’s how noctilucent clouds  get their distinctive color.

Noctilucents used to be visible only at high northern and southern latitudes. Not only have they been on the increase since the 20th century but they’ve occasionally spread as far south as Colorado and Utah. Scientists think these changes are due to an increase of methane gas from human activities like coal mining, agriculture and natural gas plants. The methane rises into the upper atmosphere, where it’s transformed by chemical reactions into water vapor. The extra water available provides the raw material for creating more noctilucent clouds.

I feel torn. Watching meteors slingshot across the sky this month, we can relish the knowledge that the dust they drop goes to build clouds in part extraterrestrial. At the same time it’s unsettling that their lushness may have much to do with us.

Mars — only 14 minutes away and open for business

Look for the Mars triangle low in the southwest starting an hour after sunset. Created with Stellarium

If you could travel there at the speed of light that is. Curiosity Rover has been on its way since last November and will finally arrive late this weekend.

Mars is nearly 153 million miles from Earth today. You’ll find the planet low in the southwestern sky beginning about an hour after sunset. It’s joined by Spica and Saturn in a nifty triangle, and all three are within a few tenths of a magnitude of each other. For the record, Saturn is brightest at magnitude 0.7, Spica 0.9 and Mars 1.1. Can you distinguish these slight differences in brightness?

I just think it’s cool to be able to see the real planet, the place where our attention will be focused Sunday night, as we await confirmation of the Mars mission touchdown. The real Mars, that spark of orange-pink in the fading sky, will soon be host to another emissary from Earth. Let’s hope the planet welcomes our curious robot with open arms. No crash landings please!

A plutonium pellet glowing under its own energy. Plutonium decays into uranium as it releases heat than can be converted into electricity. Credit: Dept. of Energy

The Curiosity rover bristles with instruments for exploring everything from Martian weather to taking pictures to determining the chemical composition of the soil.

Unlike all earlier rovers, Curiosity won’t be dependent on sunlight for its energy. Instead it uses a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) powered by 32 marshmallow-sized plutonium-238 pellets weighing all of 11 lbs.

Lots of instruments and Curiosity’s expected 2-year lifetime requires plenty of energy. Plutonium-238 is ideal for the job. The rover, also called the Mars Science Laboratory, measures 9.8 feet across. Credit: NASA

The heat released by plutonium as it decays into uranium is converted into electricity to power the rover day and night through all seasons. Because the other rovers were powered by solar energy, they were laid up during the Martian winter when the sun was too low to provide the energy to run it around and perform experiments. Dust also occasionally covered their solar panels, causing the power flow to drop. NASA mission controllers would have to temporarily scale back the rovers’ progress in response until a lucky dust devil would vacuum the panels clean again.

The rover landing we’re putting the ground Sunday is like one of those self-contained food trucks you see on city streets nowadays only it does science instead of food service. Let’s briefly check out the purpose of each instrument, so you’ll have a handle on terminology as the story of discovery unfolds.

* Mast cam – Contains two color cameras for narrow-angle and medium-angle imaging. Can also shoot video up to 10 frames per second. There are also 8 “Hazcams” or Hazard-Avoidance cameras at the front and back of the rover and 4 Navigation cameras on the mast. They take fisheye photos in stereo of the near terrain.

* Mare descent imager (MARDI) – This camera will take images of the ground during the rover’s descent at the rate of 5 frames per second starting at 2.3 miles all the way down to 16 feet. Total shooting time: 2 minutes

* Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) – Camera mounted on a robotic arm to snap microscopic images of Mars rocks and soil.

* Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) – Instrument to measure the radiation inside the rover en route to Mars and while on the surface. The data will help determine how much shielding a manned expedition to Mars would require.

* Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) – Blasts soil samples with alpha particles and measures the X-rays emitted to determine what elements they’re made of.

* Rover environmental monitoring station (REMS) – A weather station to measure pressure, humidity, wind speed and air temperature.

* ChemCam – Will shoot a infrared (invisible) laser at a rock or soil sample up to 23 feet away, vaporize it and analyze the resulting puff  with a spectrograph to determine the soil composition.

* Dynamic albedo of neutrons (DAN) – Instrument to bombard the soil with neutrons (subatomic particles) to detect hydrogen from possible water or ice at or just beneath the surface.

* Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) – Located inside the rover, these instruments will analyze organic compounds and gases from soil sample and the atmosphere.

* Chemistry and Mineralogy (ChemMin) - Using the Sample Acquisition and Processing unit, the rover will drill into rocks, collect the fine powder and then deliver it to ChemMin. As a beam of X-rays irradiates the soil, individual minerals diffract or scatter the X-rays in characteristic patterns. Using a spectrograph to measure those patterns, scientists will learn the composition of the minerals.

The whole works is a Chemistry 101 lab on wheels with more sophisticated Bunsen burners.