lunedì 1 giugno 2015

The Martian Curiosity Looks Back on 1000 Sols of Exploration on the Red Planet by KEN KREMER on JUNE 1, 2015

The Martian Curiosity celebrates 1000 Sols on Mars! Marking the occasion with utter glee, the car sized robot snapped a cool mosaic view (above) looking back to 1000 Sols of high impact exploration and discovery on the Red Planet, showing her wheel tracks leading back through valley dunes from the foothills of humongous Mount Sharp and across the alien surface floor and out to the distant rim of the Gale Crater landing site she descended to nearly three years ago in August 2012. “A thousand thanks to the best team a rover could have. Celebrating 1,000 sols. Here’s to the Martian days ahead!” the robot tweeted. But at 1K sols she’s not content to just bask in the Martian sunshine during the history making event. Rather, she is as always hard at work, reaching out with the high tech robotic arm and inspecting intriguing rock outcrops spread out all around her. Check out Curiosity’s current workspace, looking back and hard at work in our new photo mosaics herein created by the imaging team of Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer. The Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover officially celebrated 1000 Martian Sols on May 31, 2015 since she safely touched down on the crater floor on August 5, 2012 following the nail-biting and unprecedented sky crane maneuver that delivered her with pinpoint precision to a landing site nearby Mount Sharp. “An MSL landmark day. We have reached 1000 sols on Mars. Looking back the remarkable thing is how few serious problems there have been,” says team member Professor John Bridges of the University of Leicester, England, in an update. Exploring the sedimentary layers of Mount Sharp, which towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky, form the primary destination and goal of her scientific expedition. The six wheeled robot and her team of handlers back on Earth, are eeking out every last drop of science before she and all of Earth’s entire Martian invasion fleet enter solar conjunction, when Mars is behind the sun and little or no communications will be possible for most of the month of June. Activities will be limited per safety protocols. “However, there is one issue even Curiosity can’t avoid – Conjunction. For much of June, Mars will be obscured from Earth by the Sun. Few science operations,” explains Bridges. NASA’s long-lived Opportunity rover labors on the opposite side of Mars. After a short drive Curiosity arrived at her current location at “Marias Pass” on Sol 997, where she will stay stationary during the conjunction period out of an abundance of caution. “A short bump on Sol 997 put Curiosity in a great position to investigate a few different rock units in Marias Pass, using the instruments on the rover’s arm,” wrote MSL and USGS mission scientist Ken Herkenhoff in an update. She also reached within an eyelash of 10.6 kilometers (6.6 mi) of total driving. “The 2.5 m drive brings our total odometry to 10,599 m,” noted Herkenoff. Along the way she discovered the chemical ingredient minerals necessary to support life, as well as low levels of some organic molecules and some traces of methane, and and ample evidence for lakes and streams of liquid water. “Curiosity is now parked for the next few weeks. But we are parked in front of a beautiful outcrop that shows the contact between the underlying Pahrump unit and the overlying Stimson unit.” Our arm photo mosaic herein shows the seven foot (2 m) long robotic arm and its APXS spectrometer deployed at the target called “Ronan”, which is part of the overlying Stimson outcrop unit. The rover is also using the ChemCam, MastCam and MAHLI cameras and spectrometers and other instruments to characterize the outcrop and its texture and composition in detail. The robotic arm will be stowed during the June conjunction period. Curiosity arrived at the Pahrump Hills at the base of Mount Sharp back in September 2014. Since then she has conducted an intensive investigation of the rocks and a trio of drilling operations to elucidate how this area fits in context with Mount Sharp and the habitable region discovered on the crater floor at Yellowknife Bay back in the spring of 2013. In recent weeks, Curiosity has been driving up hills with slopes of as much as 21 degrees, higher than ever before, on an exciting journey endeavoring to slowly ascend up to the lower layers of Mount Sharp. The current Martian outcrop area under investigation is a place where two distinctive geologic types of bedrock meet and where pale rock meets darker overlying rock. “Such contacts can reveal clues about how the environmental conditions that produced one type of rock were related to the conditions that produced the other,” says NASA. “The rover science team wants to examine an outcrop that contains the contact between the pale rock unit the mission analyzed lower on Mount Sharp and a darker, bedded rock unit that the mission has not yet examined up close.” The team is also scouting around for the presence of mineral veins, like those recently discovered at the “Garden City” outcrop, that formed in the past during periods of flowing liquid water that could be favorable for microbial life forms if they ever existed. Because there’s a plethora of treacherous dunes, the team has had to monitor operations carefully and alter the route on occasion to maintain safe operations. Curiosity has already accomplished her primary objective of discovering a habitable zone on the Red Planet that contains the minerals necessary to support microbial life in the ancient past when Mars was far wetter and warmer billions of years ago. To date, Curiosity’s odometer totals over 5.1 miles (8.4 kilometers) since landing inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012. As of today, Sol 1001, June 1, 2015, she has taken over 246,000 amazing images. Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.