NASA Curiosity Rover Preparing for Additional Martian Science Experiments

 
 
By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2012-08-12
 
 
 

Since its successful landing on the surface of Mars Aug. 6, NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has been busy taking spectacular photographs, checking its internal systems after its 354 million mile voyage from Earth and preparing itself for its exploratory missions to come on the red planet.

"Curiosity awoke from her 'beauty sleep' today to the toe-tapping tune 'Good Morning' from the musical 'Singing in the Rain,' feeling healthy and refreshed and ready for a busy day of continued health checks and imagery," according to an Aug. 9 report on NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Website. "The rover continues to perform very well."

So far, Curiosity has taken more than 130 low-resolution thumbnail images from its color Mast Camera and transmitted them back to Earth, according to the report. The images are now being evaluated by scientists and engineers who are getting their first color panorama glimpse of Gale Crater, where the rover landed.

As the rover started its solar day on Mars-known as a sol-it sent a "beep" back to Earth from its low-gain antenna, which let mission workers know that systems were working as designed. It was the beginning of a busy day of preparations.

"The flight team then uploaded files to the rover's remote electronics unit memory in preparation for the upcoming Sol 5 upgrade of Curiosity's software to optimize Curiosity for surface operations," outlined the report. "Curiosity's backup computer was then powered on and successfully checked out. The Radiation Assessment Detector instrument is operating as planned and collected additional data on surface radiation. The Mastcam is operating as planned and successfully executed its 360-degree and calibration target observations. In addition, early checkouts of the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS), Chemistry & Mineralogy Analyzer (CheMin), Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Dynamic Albedo Neutrons (DAN) instruments were all successful. The mission's science team began creating a geological map of about 150 square miles (about 390 square kilometers) within Gale Crater, including the landing area."

The start of the mission is a whirlwind of self-testing procedures to ensure that the Curiosity rover is working as designed and wasn't damaged on its long 354 million mile, eight-month trip from Earth, said Guy Webster, a NASA spokesman.

"They're building up to the science as they are doing the testing," said Webster. The first steps are to check out the rover's robotic arm, its propulsion system, its cameras and other equipment before the major science experiments really get under way.

"It could be weeks or a month or so before the rover's scientific tools are drilling into rock" on the Mars surface, said Webster. "The first drive of the rover on the surface could be in a couple of weeks or so. The first drive will just basically be a few yards to test it and then to do some tests of the robotic arm. Scientists will see how the arm moves in the lighter gravity on the surface of Mars."

Two days ago, the rover took its first photos using a camera mounted on the robotic arm, but the arm is still fastened to its mountings, said Webster. "The arm won't deploy or be moved until after the first drive of the rover on Mars in a few weeks. The first arm movements will be 'characterizing movements' just so that [its operator] gets a feel for how it moves in the Mars atmosphere," which is much thinner than on Earth.

The schedule for the science experiments to be conducted on Mars by the rover is flexible, according to NASA.

"The first experiment will be an atmospheric sample to see if there is methane present in the Mars atmosphere," said Webster. That experiment could be conducted within the next few weeks.

Other experiments, which will collect and analyze samples inside the rover will be conducted in the weeks and months to follow.

Curiosity was launched Nov. 26, from Earth aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and landed on the Mars surface at 1:32 a.m. EDT Aug. 6 near the foot of a mountain that is 3 miles tall and 96 miles in diameter inside Gale Crater. During a nearly two-year prime mission, the rover will investigate whether the region ever offered conditions favorable for microbial life.

Millions of viewers around the world tuned in on television and over the Internet to watch animated video of the landing as it happened.

Editor's note: This article was updated to reflect the correct length of time it took for Curiosity to travel from Earth to Mars. It took Curiosity eight months to reach Mars.

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