Curiosity Mars Rover reroutes away from ‘gator-back’ rocks

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used its Mast Camera, or Mastcam, to take this 360-degree panorama on March 23, 2022, the 3,423th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. The team has informally described the wind-sharpened rocks seen here as “gator-back” rocks because of their scaly appearance. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover spent most of March climbing the “Greenheugh Pediment”—a gentle slope capped by rubbly sandstone. The rover briefly summited this feature’s north face two years ago; now on the pediment’s southern side, Curiosity has navigated back onto the pediment to explore it more fully.

But on March 18, the mission team saw an unexpected terrain change ahead and realized they would have to turn around: The path before Curiosity was carpeted with more wind-sharpened rocks, or ventifacts, than they have ever seen in the rover’s nearly 10 years on the Red Planet.

Ventifacts chewed up Curiosity’s wheels earlier in the mission. Since then, rover engineers have found ways to slow wheel wear, including a traction control algorithm, to reduce how frequently they need to assess the wheels. And they also plan rover routes that avoid driving over such rocks, including these latest ventifacts, which are made of —the hardest type of rock Curiosity has encountered on Mars.

The team nicknamed their scalelike appearance “gator-back” terrain. Although the mission had scouted the area using orbital imagery, it took seeing these rocks close-up to reveal the ventifacts.

“It was obvious from Curiosity’s photos that this would not be good for our wheels,” said Curiosity Project Manager Megan Lin of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which leads the mission. “It would be slow going, and we wouldn’t have been able to implement rover-driving best practices.”

The gator-back rocks aren’t impassable—they just wouldn’t have been worth crossing, considering how difficult the path would be and how much they would age the rover’s wheels.

So the mission is mapping out a new course for the rover as it continues to explore Mount Sharp, a 3.4-mile-tall (5.5-kilometer-tall) mountain that Curiosity has been ascending since 2014. As it climbs, Curiosity is able to study different sedimentary layers that were shaped by water billions of years ago. These layers help scientists understand whether microscopic life could have survived in the ancient Martian environment.

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used its Mast Camera, or Mastcam, to survey these wind-sharpened rocks, called ventifacts, on March 15, 2022, the 3,415th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. The team has informally described these patches of ventifacts as “gator-back” rocks because of their scaly appearance. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Why Greenheugh?

The Greenheugh Pediment is a broad, sloping plain near the base of Mount Sharp that extends about 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) across. Curiosity’s scientists first noticed it in orbital imagery before the rover’s landing in 2012. The pediment sticks out as a standalone feature on this part of Mount Sharp, and scientists wanted to understand how it formed.

It also sits nearby the Gediz Vallis Ridge, which may have been created as debris flowed down the mountain. Curiosity will always remain in the lower foothills of Mount Sharp, where there’s evidence of ancient water and environments that would have been habitable in the past. Driving across about a mile (1.5 kilometers) of the pediment to gather images of Gediz Vallis Ridge would have been a way to study material from the mountain’s uppermost reaches.

“From a distance, we can see car-sized boulders that were transported down from higher levels of Mount Sharp—maybe by water relatively late in Mars’ wet era,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientist at JPL. “We don’t really know what they are, so we wanted to see them up close.”

The road less traveled

Over the next couple weeks, Curiosity will climb down from the pediment to a place it had previously been exploring: a between a clay-rich area and one with larger amounts of salt minerals called sulfates. The clay minerals formed when the mountain was wetter, dappled with streams and ponds; the salts may have formed as Mars’ climate dried out over time.

“It was really cool to see rocks that preserved a time when lakes were drying up and being replaced by streams and dry sand dunes,” said Abigail Fraeman, Curiosity’s deputy project scientist at JPL. “I’m really curious to see what we find as we continue to climb on this alternate route.”

Curiosity’s wheels will be on safer ground as it leaves the gator-back terrain behind, but engineers are focused on other signs of wear on the rover’s robotic arm, which carries its rock drill. Braking mechanisms on two of the arm’s joints have stopped working in the past year. However, each joint has redundant parts to ensure the arm can keep drilling rock samples. The team is studying the best ways to use the arm to ensure these redundant parts keep working as long as possible.

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Curiosity Mars Rover reroutes away from ‘gator-back’ rocks (2022, April 7)
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Hexbyte Glen Cove Curiosity rover captures shining clouds on Mars thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove Curiosity rover captures shining clouds on Mars

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Curiosity Spots Iridescent (Mother of Pearl) Clouds. Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Cloudy days are rare in the thin, dry atmosphere of Mars. Clouds are typically found at the planet’s equator in the coldest time of year, when Mars is the farthest from the Sun in its oval-shaped orbit. But one full Martian year ago—two Earth years—scientists noticed clouds forming over NASA’s Curiosity rover earlier than expected.

This year, they were ready to start documenting these “early” from the moment they first appeared in late January. What resulted are images of wispy puffs filled with that scattered light from the setting Sun, some of them shimmering with color. More than just spectacular displays, such images help scientists understand how clouds form on Mars and why these recent ones are different.

In fact, Curiosity’s team has already made one new discovery: The early-arrival clouds are actually at higher altitudes than is typical. Most Martian clouds hover no more than about 37 miles (60 kilometers) in the sky and are composed of water ice. But the clouds Curiosity has imaged are at a , where it’s very cold, indicating that they are likely made of frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice. Scientists look for subtle clues to establish a cloud’s altitude, and it will take more analysis to say for sure which of Curiosity’s recent images show water-ice clouds and which show dry-ice ones.

Curiosity Shows Drifting Clouds Over Mount Sharp. Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The fine, rippling structures of these clouds are easier to see with images from Curiosity’s black-and-white navigation cameras. But it’s the color images from the rover’s Mast Camera, or Mastcam, that really shine—literally. Viewed just after sunset, their ice crystals catch the fading light, causing them to appear to glow against the darkening sky. These twilight clouds, also known as “noctilucent” (Latin for “night shining”) clouds, grow brighter as they fill with crystals, then darken after the Sun’s position in the sky drops below their altitude. This is just one useful clue scientists use to determine how high they are.

Curiosity Navigation Cameras Spot Twilight Clouds on Sol 3072. Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech

Even more stunning are iridescent, or “mother of pearl” clouds. “If you see a cloud with a shimmery pastel set of colors in it, that’s because the cloud particles are all nearly identical in size,” said Mark Lemmon, an atmospheric scientist with the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “That’s usually happening just after the clouds have formed and have all grown at the same rate.”

These clouds are among the more colorful things on the Red Planet, he added. If you were skygazing next to Curiosity, you could see the colors with the , although they’d be faint.

“I always marvel at the colors that show up: reds and greens and blues and purples,” Lemmon said. “It’s really cool to see something shining with lots of color on Mars.”

Curiosity rover captures shining clouds on Mars (2021, May 28)
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Hexbyte Glen Cove NASA's Curiosity team names Martian hill that serves as mission 'gateway' thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove NASA’s Curiosity team names Martian hill that serves as mission ‘gateway’

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Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

The team of scientists and engineers behind NASA’s Curiosity rover named a hill along the rover’s path on Mars in honor of a recently deceased mission scientist. A craggy hump that stretches 450 feet (120 meters) tall, “Rafael Navarro mountain” is located on Mount Sharp in northwest Gale Crater.

The inspiration for the name is award-winning scientist Rafael Navarro-González; he died on Jan. 28, 2021, from complications related to COVID-19. A leading astrobiologist in Mexico, Navarro-González was a co-investigator on the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), a portable chemistry lab aboard Curiosity that has been sniffing out the chemical makeup of Martian soil, rocks, and air. As such, he helped lead the team that identified ancient organic compounds on Mars; his many accomplishments also included identifying the role of volcanic lightning in the origin of life on Earth. Navarro-González was a researcher at Nuclear Sciences Institute at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City.

“We are truly honored to have a prominent hill named after our dad; it’s his and our dream come true to see this happen,” wrote Navarro-González’s children, Rafael and Karina Navarro Aceves, in a statement to NASA. “Ever since our parents met, their dreams merged together and they became a beautiful team, working very hard for 36 years. Our dad was an accomplished scientist, but above all, a great human being who managed to balance work and family. Our mom, Faby, would always tell him that his name one day would be on Mars, and now that is coming true. We all believe that there must be a party in heaven.”

Rafael Navarro mountain sits at a major geological transition in Gale Crater from a clay-rich region to one that’s rich in sulfate minerals. Analyzing sulfate minerals may help scientists better understand the major shift in the Martian climate from wetter to drier conditions, according to Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientist based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

“We think of this hill as a gateway,” Vasavada said. “Rafael Navarro mountain will be constantly in our sights for the next year as Curiosity winds around it.”

This panorama, made up of multiple 100-millimeter Mastcam images stitched together, was taken by NASA’s Curiosity rover on Feb. 13, 2021, the 3,030th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. The white balance has been adjusted to approximate Earth-like illumination and the sky has been filled in for aesthetic reasons. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The new hill name is informal and meant for the use of Curiosity’s global team members. The team unofficially has named thousands of features in Gale Crater, from drill holes to rocks to dunes. “Team members agree on a name for a particular feature of interest, so that people don’t get confused if we observe it with multiple instruments,” Vasavada said.

Before Rafael Navarro mountain, the Curiosity team has named four other features after deceased mission scientists: “Jake Matijevic” is the first boulder Curiosity studied and is named after a rover engineer who died in 2012. Curiosity’s first drill hole, “John Klein,” honors the mission’s deputy project manager who died in 2011. “Nathan Bridges dune” gets its name from a co-investigator on Curiosity’s ChemCam instrument who died in 2017. And “Heinrich Wänke” is a rock target that commemorates Wänke’s contributions to the development of a rover instrument, APXS, which analyzes the chemical makeup of Martian rocks.

While a few other names of notable scientists not involved with Curiosity, such as astronomer Vera Rubin, and even writers, such as Ray Bradbury, grace the features of Gale Crater (which was named after Australian astronomer Walter F. Gale), the rover team’s general strategy is to name regions, and features within them, after areas of geological significance on Earth. For example, the region where Curiosity landed, the site of an ancient lake, was named “Yellowknife” after a city in northwest Canada where scientists gather to kick off geologic expeditions. The features in Martian Yellowknife were named after towns (“Bathurst Inlet”), mountains (“Sayunei”), or lakes (“Knob Lake”) in northern Canada.

In late March, Curiosity left “Nontron,” a region that takes the name of a village in southwestern France where the mineral nontronite was first described by scientists. Nontronite is part of a group of the most common types of clays on Mars. Now, Curiosity will navigate around Rafael Navarro mountain, stopping in different regions of scientific interest to drill samples.

“We won’t have Rafael with us for this next stretch, but we will bring his considerable expertise, creativity, and great enthusiasm for astrobiology studies to bear on our investigation of the ancient habitable environments in Gale Crater,” said Paul Mahaffy, principal investigator of Curiosity’s SAM experiment who’s based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Rafael was a good friend and dedicated scientist, and it has been a privilege and honor for our Mars exploration team to work with him over the years.”

NASA’s Curiosity team names Martian hill that serves as mission ‘gateway’ (2021, April 5)
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