Curiosity Makes Tracks on Mars

Posted: September 13, 2012 - 10:44 , by royal
Natural History, Earth and Space, Research | Comments () | Comment

Posting by Brendt Hyde, Mineralogy Techncian

NASA's MRO captured this image of Curiosity parachuting to the martian surface (Image: NASA et al.) Image taken by NASA's Curiosity rover showing tracks made as it starts its journey across the surface of Mars.  In the background the distant crater wall can be seen (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech) Curiosity takes a look at the distant layered rocks at the base of Mount Sharp (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)


By 1:30 A.M. on August 6th, 2012 1000 people had filled Time Square and 205 000 computers had tuned in to watch a car-sized rover land (or crash) on Mars.  The 2.5 billion dollar (USD) Curiosity rover is NASA’s latest engineering marvel.  It is the most sophisticated rover that has ever been sent to another planet.  Unfortunately, greater sophistication also means greater size.  The rover is so large that engineers had to create a new complex landing sequence in order to get the rover on the ground in one piece.  The sequence was so complex that people started to refer to the landing as the “7 minutes of terror”.  Seven minutes is roughly the time for the rover to go from the top of the martian atmosphere to a successful landing on the surface.


At 1:32 A.M. the terror was over and Curiosity said hello from the martian surface!  Within minutes the first pictures came in from Curiosity’s new home Gale Crater.  Later that same day more images arrived including an image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), in orbit around Mars, showing the rover safely parachuting down to the planets surface.


The science goals of this mission have been discussed in previous blogs in November and December 2011, so we won’t go into the details here.  Instead we are going to get up to date on Curiosity’s progress and take a look at some great images.  So far, most of the rover’s time has been used to check out the area surrounding its landing site and to check up on itself.  As you can probably imagine, travelling to Mars and landing on its surface is not a quiet, uneventful trip.  There is always the possibility that something is going to get damaged along the way.  However, so far Curiosity seems to be in great shape.  One minor problem was discovered on a device that measures properties of the martian wind, but this issue is more of a minor inconvenience than a serious problem.  Early images have revealed a relatively smooth landing area littered with small pebble sized rocks.  Off in the distance the crater wall can be seen in many images.  Also present in some of the images is the tantalizing Mount Sharp a mountain in the centre of Gale Crater and the mission’s primary science target.


Recently, Curiosity has also been spending some of its time driving.  The second image shown here was taken after one of Curiosity’s first drives across the martian surface.  The rover is currently on its way to a site called Glenelg.  This site is the intersection of three distinct terrains that likely formed by different geologic processes.  As Curiosity examines the three areas, scientists back on Earth will be interpreting the data and figuring out a little more about Gale Crater.  Once finished at Glenelg, Curiosity will be heading for its primary target Mount Sharp.  Don’t expect this trip to happen quickly.  This destination is kilometres away.  No one knows exactly what route the rover will take and how long the trip will end up being, but be prepared to contain your excitement for a few months… at least.


As further images and data come in from Curiosity, you will likely find another blog posted here.  In the meantime, feel free to post questions.  The ROM has scientists busily researching Mars and we are happy to answer questions about both Curiosity and Mars.