A peek through the scraped and dinged up wheels of the Curiosity Rover taken with the close-up Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera Nov. 30, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
I enjoy kicking back and looking over photos taken from other planets. There’s no better way to leave the Earth behind – if only for an hour – than digging through the archives. One of my favorite hangouts is the Mars Curiosity Rover raw image page. If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you already know how much I like sharing my favorite finds.
A field of little rocks embedded in soil photographed on Nov. 30. It’s currently mid-autumn in Mars’ southern hemisphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Curiosity landed at 4.5 degrees south latitude inside Gale Crater, placing it firmly in planet’s equatorial zone. Since the tilt of Mars’ axis is 25.2 degrees, nearly the same as Earth’s, the noonday sun is always high in the sky at Curiosity’s location just as it is for folks living near Earth’s equator. Would that the temperature would follow suit. Average daily temperatures in Gale Crater have ranged from -20 F (-29 C) during the day to -120 F (-85 C) at night in recent weeks.
View of nearby ridge with either the rim of Gale Crater or the foothills of the crater’s central peak Mt. Sharp on Nov. 29. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Mars’ atmosphere is too thin and its surface too dry to hold onto heat very long. Once the sun is up, the air temperature warms rapidly but then plummets after sunset. Still, -120 F isn’t all that bad. It’s still a tad warmer, at least for the moment, than -128.6 F (-89.2 C), the lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth at the (then) Soviet station at Vostok, Antarctica on July 20, 1983.
The wheels of the rover nudged a rock from its ancient resting place on Nov. 30, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
It’s great to see Curiosity back up and running after engineers suspended science activities in mid-November when what appeared to be an internal shortin its power source was discovered. Luckily the minor electrical problem didn’t affect the rover’s capabilities. Curiosity continues its trek to Mt. Sharp, the layered mountain at Gale Crater’s center, while at the same time examining powdered rock sample gathered six months ago.
Click on any image to see a much-enlarged version perfect for at-home exploring.
Image showing the foothills of Mt. Sharp in Gale Crater on Nov. 29, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Eroded rock layers photographed on Nov. 1, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Fang-like rock feature photographed on Nov. 2, 2013. Credit: Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Nice! Watching Comet ISON rise along with Mercury and Saturn, outside the Isaac Newton Telescope, Observatorio del Roque de Los Muchachos on a mountaintop in La Palma Saturday Nov. 23 at 6:45 Greenwich Time. Details: Canon 7D, 70mm f/4, 10 seconds at ISO 400. Credit: Alan Fitzsimmons
Another beauty. This one taken from a mountaintop observatory with a 300mm lens by Juan Carlos Casado of Spain on Sunday Nov. 24. He “stacked” or composited four photos to enhance the brightness of the comet against twilight. Click to enlarge.
Comet ISON is now next to impossible for many of us to see as it competes with morning twilight and horizon haze. Some of you tried for the comet Saturday morning without success, but those in more tropical latitudes had the edge. Two contributors combined the best of two worlds: low latitude and a view from a mountaintop! The pictures they took show ISON with a pinpoint head and thin tail glowing at about magnitude 3.
Comet ISON will now be under constant view by NASA’s sunwatching spacecraft. This picture was taken on Nov. 23 at 3 a.m. CST by a coronagraph on the STEREO A (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) and shows the comet, Mercury and Earth. The sun is hidden off to the right; gases expelled from its corona spread to the left. Click to see more photos. Credit: NASA
NASA’s STEREO Ahead spacecraft has also been shooting high resolution images of the comet as it tracks across the same field of view as Earth and Mercury. We should be able to follow ISON in good resolution via space telescopes and coronagraphs (instruments designed to block the glaring solar disk) all the way through the end of the month, when it finally return to view at dawn.
Venus in a blue sky just 5 minutes after sunset on Nov. 23, 2013. Credit: Bob King
As we await ISON’s next move, five bright planets await your eyes the next clear night. We’ll begin with Venus. Yesterday it took little effort to spot this sapphire just five minutes after sunset a fist and a half high in the southwestern sky. A half hour later even those who pay little attention to the sky couldn’t have missed it. On Dec. 10 Venus reaches its greatest brilliancy for the year.
Jupiter comes up around 9 p.m. local time in Gemini the Twins. Because we see it against a dark sky, the planet appears almost as bright as Venus but it’s really about 6 times fainter.
You can use Jupiter to help you connect the “dots” to Gemini the Twins, a constellation with two bright stars representing the brothers Castor and Pollux. The pair lies just to the upper left of Jupiter. Once you’ve spotted them, follow the trickles of fainter stars to the right of each star fill in the rest of the constellation.
Jupiter clears the trees and buildings around 9 p.m. local time. Watch for it in the dual stick-figure constellation Gemini the Twins across from Orion. Stellarium
Next up is Mars which rises in the constellation Virgo around 1 a.m. My recommendation? Don’t bother with it until an hour before sunrise when the planet’s high in the southeastern sky above Mercury and Saturn. That way you get to see all three morning planets at the somewhat reasonable hour of 6 a.m.
To find Mercury, Saturn and Mars at dawn, look high in the southeast for Mars. Reach your balled fist to the sky and slide 3 fists down to Spica and another two fists to Mercury and Saturn. Stellarium
Find a place with a wide view to the southeast. Mars is easy to see by color and brightness, but Mercury may require binoculars at first until you know just where to look. Saturn will appear dimmest in part because it’s so low in twilight.
On Tuesday morning Nov. 26, the two planets will have switched positions and still be close.
Tomorrow morning the two will be very close together and nearly in conjunction. The time of closest separation is 7 p.m. CST Monday when neither is visible from the western hemisphere. Skywatchers in the eastern hemisphere will see them at dawn on the 26th separated by only 1/3 of one degree.
The MAVEN spacecraft, an acronym for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, sits atop an Atlas rocket at Florida’s Cape Canaveral ready for launch this afternoon. Click to watch live NASA TV broadcast. Credit: NASA/Jim Grossman
At 12:28 p.m. CST today NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft successfully lifted off on a 10-month journey to Mars. Next September it will enter orbit and study the planet’s atmosphere over the course of at least a year.
Artist’s view of MAVEN in orbit come next September. Credit: NASA/GSFC
The key question the probe will attempt to answer is how the Red Planet became so inhospitable. We know from our landers and orbiters that water once flowed in streams and great floods across the now barren landscape.
All the evidence is there: winding river courses, islands eroded into teardrop shapes by powerful currents and water-deposited mineral veins lining cracks inside rocks. Layered clay sediments have been found in Gale Crater, and the Curiosity Rover ran across rocks rounded and tumbled into pebbles by the action of flowing water.
Cool video simulation showing Mars evolving from a wet planet to the current cold desert
I could go on and on. So what happened to all the water? In order for water to flow across a planet’s surface you need air or more specifically, atmospheric pressure. If the air’s too thin, there’s not enough pressure pushing down on it to prevent it from simply boiling away. Thin air also means colder temperatures.
Water once flowed in this ancient riverbed on Mars. Credit: NASA
Next time you’re flying in a plane at a typical cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, consider that just outside the door, the temperature is close to 70 below F (-55 C) even on a summer day. That’s because the air thins and pressure drops the higher you go. With fewer molecules bouncing around to create what we feel as heat, it’s darn cold up there. Air at the surface is not only denser (holds heat better) but it’s also warmed by its contact with the ground.
When Mars’ atmosphere went from thick to thin perhaps 2-3 billion years ago, some of the water holed up in the polar ice caps, dust-covered glaciers and underneath the soil. But much of it, along with the Martian air, took another route. Some of the original carbon dioxide became incorporated in the crust as carbonate rocks, but scientists theorize that most of it was stripped away by a steady blast of particles from the sun called the solar wind.
The present atmosphere of Mars is less than 1% the thickness of Earth’s atmosphere. Our blanket of air has protection from a planetary magnetic field that sloughs most of those solar blizzards away. Not so with Mars. The planet possesses no overall magnetic field, so the sun’s flow of high speed electrons and protons can pluck precious atmospheric gases away a molecule at a time until there’s too little left to warm the planet and provide the pressure needed for water to flow.
It’s hypothesized that without a global magnetic field, the solar wind stripped Mars of much of its atmosphere. Credit: NASA
Mars may have lost its magnetic armor when its core cooled down. Within Earth’s core, molten iron rises, cools, sinks and rises again in a process called convection. This movement, coupled with our planet’s spin, generates a magnetic field. Mars likely had a similar field early in its history, but somehow convection stopped in its core. Did the core cool and solidify or was it disrupted by an asteroid impact? We don’t know. For whatever reason, once the air supply dwindled, the water froze or vaporized, water stopped flowing and planet got the chills. The average temperature on Mars today is 81 below zero F (-63 C). Compare that to Earth’s 61 degrees F (16 C).
That’s why MAVEN’s on it way to Mars – to sniff out clues from the atmosphere so we can find out “the rest of the story”.
Going along for the ride is a DVD attached to one of the spacecraft’s solar panels. It contains over 100,000 names of people who signed up for the ride and over 1,000 Japanese haiku verses. The number one haiku vote getter was submitted by Benedict Smith of Great Britain:
“It’s funny, they named/Mars after the God of War/Have a look at Earth.”
The four-stage Polar Launch Satellite Vehicle carrying India’s Mars Craft takes off earlier today 60 miles north of Chennai in southeastern India. Credit: ISRO
In a feat showcasing both technology and a taste for deep space exploration, India launched its first-ever probe to Mars earlier today. Named Mangalyaan (Hindi for “Mars Craft”), it shot into space atop a four-stage, 350-ton rocket at the Satish Dhawan Space Center at 2:38 p.m. local time.
Images of Mars taken earlier this fall by Damian Peach. The north polar cap is visible at bottom; the large African-shaped feature is an ancient shield volcano called Syrtis Major. Mars has always fired the human imagination with its similarities to Earth.
Getting to Mars has always been a tricky business. Of 51 missions to the Red Planet only 21 have been successful. Some probes have missed the planet entirely; others have crash landed. Should India succeed, in placing it Mars Craft into orbit, it would be the 4th country to do so after the U.S., Russia and the European Space Agency.
Mission control at the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) will command the probe to fire its onboard thrusters in the coming weeks will raise its orbit around Earth before finally “kicking it out of the nest” on its flight to Mars on December 1. The probe will arrive at its destination on September 24, 2014.
The payload shroud, which encapsulates the Mars Craft, is open to show the probe. Credit: ISRO
Once in orbit, the Mars Craft will survey the planet and its atmosphere with a variety of instruments: a medium-resolution camera for surface photos, an infrared (heat-sensing) spectrometer to study the chemical composition of the surface, an Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyzer to study the makeup of the planet high, thin atmosphere and a methane detector.
The probe’s current elliptical orbit around Earth before it’s sent off to Mars on Dec. 1. Credit: ISRO
Bacteria, cows and other living things release methane; it’s considered one of the key indicators for potential microbial life on other planets. While Curiosity has not detected any methane, other orbiting probes have, so the presence and origin of methane on Mars remains an open question.
“One of the important objectives of the scientific part of this mission is to see the presence of methane or otherwise,” said K. Radhakrishnan, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, on India’s NDTV network earlier today.
NASA will be helping India track the Mars Craft with navigation and communication support as well as tracking with the agency’s Deep Space Network.
The Mars Craft unwrapped and ready to rock in roll come next September. Credit: ISRO
Mars is becoming a hot destination. On Nov. 18 NASA will launch the MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) spacecraft, expected to arrive at the planet just two days before India’s Mars Craft. MAVEN’s designed to study the Martian atmosphere with the hope of finding out how it evolved from being relatively wet and dense into the thin gruel we see today.
The more we learn about Mars, the better we’ll understand our own place in space. Heck, I’m just excited about any Mars mission. Our good wishes for a safe voyage to the Indian people and their emissary Mangalyaan!
A grand alignment! From left: Comet ISON, Mars and Regulus on Oct. 14. The image has been tipped a quarter turn to the left from the naked eye view. Click to enlarge. Credit: Chris Schur
Chris Schur of Payson, Arizona got up at 4 a.m. Monday to capture a special moment. His photo of Comet ISON in a triple conjunction with the star Regulus and planet Mars is stunning – one of the coolest ISON photos I’ve seen yet.
Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on in the image. Mars is in conjunction with Regulus and also with the comet, the comet’s in conjunction with Mars and Regulus and if you look closely, you’ll notice a little blurry spot immediately to the left of Regulus. That’s the dwarf galaxy Leo I located some 820,000 light years from Earth. We’ll throw that in too and call it a quadruple conjunction. Like a good stew, the alignment contains a diverse assortment of deep space ingredients: comet, planet, star and galaxy.
All three are still bunched up tomorrow morning. This map shows the sky around 5:30 – 6 a.m. local time Oct. 16 or about 1 1/2 to 2 hours before sunrise when they’ll be around 30 degrees high. Regulus and Mars are nearly the same brightness. Created with Stellarium
Chris made the photo shortly before dawn on Oct. 14 using a 3.1-inch (80mm) refracting telescope and Canon XTi set at ISO 800. His exposure time was 10 minutes on a guided mount. The striking color differences between each object are very apparent. ISON glows green from fluorescing cyanogen and diatomic carbon gases; Mars orange from iron oxide in its soil and Regulus, a star 150 times brighter than the sun and a good deal hotter, shines pale blue-white.
Mars and Regulus are now just a day past conjunction and still only about a degree apart. I’ve included a map to help you find them at the start of dawn. See if you can tell their colors apart with the naked eye.
A heads-up for amateurs with telescopes. Tomorrow morning is the last dark, moon-free time to observe Comet ISON from mid-northern latitudes for the next couple weeks. The comet is now about mag. 10-10.5 and should be visible in 6-inch and larger scopes under good conditions.
After 14 months on Mars, Curiosity 1909 Lincoln cent is covered in a fine patina Martian dust and bits of soil. Photo taken on Oct. 2, 2013. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech
When the Curiosity rover landed on Mars more than a year ago it brought with it an earthly artifact more than a century old – a 1909 Lincoln penny. For good luck? Maybe, but JPL engineers affixed the penny to the roving robot as a calibration target for its mobile, closeup camera named MAHLI (Mars Hand Lens Imager). While Abe’s looking a little dusty, his weathered face tells the story of 14 months on another planet.
The calibration target used by MAHLI to correct color casts in photos. The penny serves as a size reference. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech
For MAHLI’s closeup pictures to accurately portray colors and brightness of the Martian landscape it needs a reference. The colored patches allow MAHLI to “white balance” or neutralize color casts common in digital images. The penny is a nod to the common practice by geologists of placing an object of known size in the frame to give the viewer a sense of scale.
Without something familiar in a picture as a reference, it’s hard to know the dimensions of things like soil grains and Mars pebbles.
Ken Edgett, principal investigator for MAHLI, bought the penny with his own money (coins in similar condition go for around $20 on eBay). Sure, mission planners could have used a standard ruler scale but opted instead for Edgett’s more poetic penny. NASA’s willingness to bend standard procedure to better connect with the public is a good thing.
The Mars penny all shiny before launch (left) and on Oct. 2. The coin is a 1909 VDB cent. The initials “VDB” of the coin’s designer, Victor David Brenner, are etched onto the reverse side. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
But why a 1909 penny in particular? The Lincoln cent was first minted in 1909 to commemorate the centennial of President Lincoln’s birth. Curiosity was originally scheduled to launch in 2009, which happened to be the penny’s 100th anniversary. The connections across 200 years of time have an irresistible appeal to our romantic side.
Location of the calibration target and penny on the Curiosity rover. Credit: NASA
Delays pushed Curiosity’s launch date to 2011, but Lincoln kept his seat and now looks out across new territory every day.
The penny’s shine has disappeared beneath a fine coating of dust and bits of soil. I imagine NASA scientists wringing crucial data about the Martian atmosphere, winds and soil particle size as they study of the deposition of material on the coin’s face now and in the years ahead. Lincoln’s legacy reaches even to the Red Planet.
As Juno speeds past Earth next week it will pick up an extra 16,000 mph to boost it on its way to the planet Jupiter. The probe arrives at the solar system’s largest planet in July 2016. Credit: Bob King
Next Wednesday Oct. 9, the Juno spacecraft will make an extremely close approach to Earth as part of a gravity assist maneuver to boost to it to Jupiter. The probe was launched on Aug. 5, 2011 on a mission to look deep inside the planet below the swirling clouds that make Jupiter a favorite target for beginning astronomers.
Jupiter is covered in clouds that reach thousands of miles down into its atmosphere. In this artistic view, we’re looking up from between clouds into a clearing. Credit: Ron Miller
Juno will focus on the composition of Jupiter’s core, how much water saturates its lower level clouds, clock wind speeds at great depth and examine the planet’s vast magnetosphere, a bubble of magnetism spun to high speed by Jupiter’s rotation and laced with subatomic particles that buzz like angry bees. Most of particles are spewed by volcanic eruptions from the moon Io and spawn powerful auroras.
After its flyby of Earth, Juno continues cruising toward Jupiter, entering orbit there in the summer of 2016. Credit: NASA
Most spacecraft launched these days are not sent directly to their targets but loop by planets like Earth and Venus to pick up additional speed free of charge. Well, not exactly free. As Juno slingshots by Earth it will gain energy and velocity from the encounter but rob Earth of a tiny bit of its orbital energy. A gravitational assist both changes the direction of a spacecraft and pumps up its speed, saving time and propellant.
Video of Juno’s flyby of Earth on Oct. 9
A gravity assist can speed up a spacecraft if it flies with the movement of the planet or decelerate if it flies against the direction of its movement.
Will we see it? Probably not. The spacecraft’s closest approach occurs while in Earth’s shadow off the southern coast of Africa. The ground-track then heads northeast toward India before turning west to cross southern Europe. Observers there might catch it in binoculars if they know exactly where to look.
The spacecraft buzzes over North America the night of Oct. 9-10. It will be departing Earth’s vicinity at that time and probably be too faint for small telescopes but not for astrophotographers and amateurs with larger scopes.
The Mars MAVEN mission will continue as planned unaffected by the U.S. government shutdown. Credit: Bob King
NASA’s next Mars mission called MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) had been put on hold during the U.S. government shutdown. This raised the possibility that it might have missed its launch window (Nov. 18 – Dec. 7) depending on how long it the impasse might continue. But earlier this week it was determined that the mission provided a crucial communications link to help relay signals from Earth to the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, making the spacecraft available for emergency funding. We’re back in business!
MAVENwill begin orbiting Mars next September to study its current climate to shed light out how the planet evolved into its current cold, dry state. Nice to get some good news.
Two of four images released today of Comet ISON photographed by the orbiting MRO from Mars on Sept. 29. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
The first pictures of Comet ISON taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) are finally here. That’s it? OK, they’re probably not what we were expecting, but they do give astronomers information about the comet’s size from a different perspective than Earth. Keep in mind that the spacecraft’s cameras were optimized to stare down at the sunlit surface of Mars, not poke around the sky looking for comets.
Two more images of the comet taken by MRO. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Even though ISON was only 8 million miles (12.9 million km) when the pix were shot on Sept. 29, the comet is very faint. According to predictions this puts ISON at the low end of brightness expectations. It also constrains the size of the comet’s nucleus, a key indicator of whether it will survive it fiery brush with the sun late next month. Bigger is better of course!
“The image has a scale of approximately 8 miles (13.3 km) per pixel, larger than the comet, but the size of the nucleus can be estimated based on the typical brightness
of other comet nuclei,” according to today’s press release.
Three more observations of Comet ISON are planned for today and tomorrow.
Jupiter and the moon will be in conjunction in the northeastern sky around 1:30 a.m. tomorrow morning Sept. 28. Stellarijum
As a passionate comet observer I never tire of these fuzzballs faint or bright, but with every single one of them faint and requiring a telescope to see right now (except maybe C/2012 V2 LINEAR, visible only in the southern hemisphere), you might be weary hearing about all the wonderful views you’re missing.
Have patience. Comet ISON steps it up late next month, waxing bright enough to follow in binoculars and with the naked eye by the third week of November. Comets Encke and Lovejoy will never crack the naked eye limit but should be visible in binoculars under dark sky in late Oct. and Nov. respectively.
Right now we’ve got planets on the menu. Jupiter and Mars are rising a little earlier with each passing night and easily visible with the naked eye. Tonight the thick waning lunar crescent will slide to Jupiter’s lower right. Watch for the pair to clear your skyline around 1-1:30 a.m. local time. Late, I know, but if you’re returning from a Friday night party, it’s worth a minute of your time for some out-of-this-world eye candy before heading in.
Jupiter and moons tomorrow morning around 1:30 a.m. The shadow of Europa is on the far left (west) side of the planet. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software
Binoculars will show at least two of Jupiter’s four bright moons tomorrow morning. Small telescope users will see all four and may even get a look at the shadow of Europa at magnifications of 80x or higher. Look for a black pinprick way off to the west side of the planet around 1:30 a.m. CDT; the shadow departs the disk around 2.
Icy Europa (far left) casts its shadow on Jupiter’s cloud tops on Sept. 24. The Great Red Spot is at lower left. Click to find other times when the Spot is visible. Credit: John Chumack
The Great Red Spot, which blushes redder this fall than in recent years, will make a great presentation Sunday morning Sept. 29 for much of the Americas. Jupiter’s rotation will turn the Spot to face us square-on around 6 a.m. CDT (7 a.m. Eastern, 5 a.m. Mountain and 4 a.m. Pacific). You’ll still get a good look an hour before and after those times. Look for a ruddy oval in the planet’s southern hemisphere about 1/3 of the way between the equator and south pole.
Mars is visible in the eastern sky at dawn well below and left of brilliant Jupiter. Look for its red color. In the coming week, the planet will approach the bright star Regulus in Leo. Stellarium
Mars hovers in the eastern sky near the star Regulus in Leo; it’s best from around the start of dawn until it disappears in the glare of the impending sunrise. The later you watch, the higher the planet rises and the sharper it will look in a telescope. Thicker, more turbulent near the horizon both blurs and dims celestial objects.
Despite Mars’ teeny disk, astrophotographer Damian Peach shot a couple excellent photos of Mars on Sept. 20. The prominent Africa-shaped feature is a large, low shield volcano called Syrtis Major. Since the photo has south up, the north polar cap is at bottom.
Even in a telescope Mars is very tiny because it’s still so far away – 200.5 million miles (323 million km). The gap between Earth and Mars shrinks a little bit every day until the two planets pull up alongside each other on April 8, 2014. On that day, just 58 million miles (93 million km) will separate them and Mars will shine as brightly as Sirius, the brightest star.
Illustration of Mars tomorrow morning around 6 a.m. CDT. The north polar cap and Syrtis Major present themselves. Created with Meridian
If the air is steady, boost your magnification to 200x or higher and you might see a few of the dark markings in the illustration at left.
The easiest Martian feature to spot right now is the north polar cap. With spring underway in Mars’ northern hemisphere, the cap, composed of both water and carbon dioxide ice, is out in the clear. Look for a tiny, bright, white patch at the planet’s northern limb.
While things like polar caps and moon shadows do require a telescope, finding and following the planets is easy. Throw in a few choice moon alignments (tomorrow for Jupiter, Sept. 30 for Mars) and it’s a show.
Curiosity spies the layered flanks of Mt. Sharp in this photo taken on Sept. 7. Click for larger version. Contrast has been increased to show the layering more clearly. Credit: NASA
I enjoy dropping in on the Curiosity Rover’s raw image archive to see what’s up. Since NASA’s only updates now once every week or two, I like to know what the rover’s been eyeballing on Mars.
Oblique view of Mount Sharp made with images and elevation data from three Mars orbiters. Gale Crater is 96 miles (154 kilometers) in diameter. The landing location (ellipse) and possible path (in blue) to Mt. Sharp are seen in the foreground. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS
The past couple weeks have seen Curiosity making steady progress toward its ultimate destination, the 3.4-mile-high (5.5 km) Mt. Sharp in the center of Gale Crater. The mountain is really a layer cake of deposits that were laid down in the crater after it was gouged out by an asteroid impact billions of years ago. Likely sources for the deposits are volcanic ash falls, windblown sand and dust and of course silts and sands settled out from ancient lakes and seas. Each layer is a page in the story of Mars’ climate and geological history.
A dark strip of potentially hazardous sand dunes lies between Curiosity and the base of Mt. Sharp. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA
After the longest one-day drive in the mission – 464 feet (141.5 meters) – the rover stopped on a crest with a vista called Panoramic Point on Sept. 8. From there it examined a section of exposed bedrock in detail and photographed its next destination, “Waypoint 1″. This more distant rock outcrop lies one-fifth of the way along the approximately 5.3-mile (8.6-kilometer) route to Mt. Sharp.
The rock formation informally called Darwin in the Waypoint 1 area photographed on Sept. 10. Darwin appears to expose layers of rock that could reveal the inner makeup and history of the plains on the floor of Gale Crater, including any flows of water that laid these materials down in the past. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems
Five miles sounds like pleasant morning hike on the trail for you and I, but it’s a journey that will last almost a year for the rover. Hazards along the way include the dark strip of potentially dangerous sand dunes at the base of the mountains. The Spirit Rover got stuck in soft soil in May 2009 and despite mission controllers’ many attempts to free it, it remained trapped until the end. No one wants to see that happen to Curiosity.
A curious shallow trench photographed by Curiosity on Sept. 9. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech