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.



More information:
For more details about Curiosity, visit: https://mars.nasa.gov/msl/home/

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Curiosity Mars Rover reroutes away from ‘gator-back’ rocks (2022, April 7)
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Perseverance rover hightails it to Martian delta

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NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover looks back at its wheel tracks on March 17, 2022, the 381th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover is trying to cover more distance in a single month than any rover before it—and it’s doing so using artificial intelligence. On the path ahead are sandpits, craters, and fields of sharp rocks that the rover will have to navigate around on its own. At the end of the 3-mile (5-kilometer) journey, which began March 14, 2022, Perseverance will reach an ancient river delta within Jezero Crater, where a lake existed billions of years ago.

This delta is one of the best locations on Mars for the rover to look for signs of past microscopic life. Using a drill on the end of its robotic arm and a complex sample collection system in its belly, Perseverance is collecting rock cores for return to Earth—the first part of the Mars Sample Return campaign.

“The delta is so important that we’ve actually decided to minimize science activities and focus on driving to get there more quickly,” said Ken Farley of Caltech, Perseverance’s project scientist. “We’ll be taking lots of images of the delta during that drive. The closer we get, the more impressive those images will be.”

The science team will be searching these images for the rocks they’ll eventually want to study in closer detail using the instruments on Perseverance’s arm. They’ll also hunt for the best routes the rover can take to ascend the 130-foot-high (40-meter-high) delta.

But first, Perseverance needs to get there. The rover will do this by relying on its self-driving AutoNav system, which has already set impressive distance records. While all of NASA’s Mars rovers have had self-driving abilities, Perseverance has the most advanced one yet.

“Self-driving processes that took minutes on a rover like Opportunity happen in less than a second on Perseverance,” said veteran rover planner and flight software developer Mark Maimone of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which leads the mission. “Because autonomous driving is now faster, we can cover more ground than if humans programmed every drive.”






NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover will follow the proposed route to Jezero Crater’s delta shown in this animation. The delta is one the most important locations the rover will visit as it seeks signs of ancient life on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS/University of Arizona

How rover planning works

Before the rover rolls, a team of mobility planning experts (Perseverance has 14 who trade off shifts) writes the driving commands the robotic explorer will carry out. The commands reach Mars via NASA’s Deep Space Network, and Perseverance sends back data so the planners can confirm the rover’s progress. Multiple days are required to complete some plans, as with a recent drive that spanned about 1,673 feet (510 meters) and included thousands of individual rover commands.

Some drives require more human input than others. AutoNav is useful for drives over flat terrain with simple potential hazards—for instance, large rocks and slopes—that are easy for the rover to detect and work around.

Thinking while driving

AutoNav reflects an evolution of self-driving tools previously developed for NASA’s Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity rovers. What’s different for AutoNav is “thinking while driving”—allowing Perseverance to take and process images while on the move. The rover then navigates based on those images. Is that boulder too close? Will its belly be able to clear that rock? What if the rover wheels were to slip?

Upgraded hardware allows “thinking while driving” to happen. Faster cameras mean Perseverance can take images quickly enough to process its route in real-time. And unlike its predecessors, Perseverance has an additional computer dedicated entirely to image processing. The computer relies on a single-purpose, super-efficient microchip called a field-programmable gate array that is great for computer vision processing.

“On past rovers, autonomy meant slowing down because data had to be processed on a single computer,” Maimone said. “This extra computer is insanely fast compared to what we had in the past, and having it dedicated for driving means you don’t have to share computing resources with over 100 other tasks.”

Of course, humans aren’t completely out of the picture during AutoNav drives. They still plan the basic route using images taken from space by missions like NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Then, they mark obstacles such as potential sand traps for Perseverance to avoid, drawing “keep out” and “keep in” zones that help it navigate.

Another big difference is Perseverance’s sense of space.

Curiosity’s autonomous navigation program keeps the rover in a safety bubble that is 16 feet (5 meters) wide. If Curiosity spots two rocks that are, say, 15 feet (4.5 meters) apart—a gap it could easily navigate—it will still stop or travel around them rather than risk passing through.

But Perseverance’s bubble is much smaller: A virtual box is centered on each of the rover’s six wheels. Mars’ newest rover has a more sensitive understanding of the terrain and can get around boulders on its own.

“When we first looked at Jezero Crater as a landing site, we were concerned about the dense fields of rocks we saw scattered across the crater floor,” Maimone said. “Now we’re able to skirt or even straddle rocks that we couldn’t have approached before.”

While previous missions took a slower pace exploring along their path, AutoNav provides the science team with the ability to zip to the locations they prioritize the most. That means the mission is more focused on its primary objective: finding the samples that scientists will eventually want to return to Earth.



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Perseverance rover hightails it to Martian delta (2022, March 18)
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Hexbyte Glen Cove NASA Mars rover begins collecting rock in search of alien life thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove NASA Mars rover begins collecting rock in search of alien life

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In this image acquired on August 6, 2021 and released by NASA, the shadow of the Perseverance Mars rover is cast next to its first hole drilled in a rock.

NASA’s Perseverance rover has begun drilling into the surface of Mars and will collect rock samples to be picked up by future missions for analysis by scientists on Earth.

The US space agency published images Friday of a small mound with a hole in its center next to the rover—the first ever dug into the Red Planet by a robot.

“Sample collection has begun!” tweeted Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s .

The drill hole is the first step of a sampling process that is expected to take about 11 days, with the aim of looking for signs of ancient microbial life that may have been preserved in ancient lakebed deposits.

Scientists also hope to better understand the Martian geology.

The mission took off from Florida a little over a year ago and Perseverance, which is the size of a large family car, landed on February 18 in the Jezero Crater.

Scientists believe the crater contained a deep lake 3.5 billion years ago, where the conditions may have been able to support extraterrestrial life.

NASA plans a mission to bring around 30 samples back to Earth in the 2030s, to be analyzed by instruments that are much more sophisticated than those that can be brought to Mars at present.



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NASA Mars rover begins collecting rock in search of alien life (2021, August 6)
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Hexbyte Glen Cove Perseverance Mars Rover to acquire first sample thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove Perseverance Mars Rover to acquire first sample

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A light-colored “paver stone” like the ones seen in this mosaic will be the likely target for first sampling by the Perseverance rover. The image was taken on July 8, 2021 in the “Cratered Floor Fractured Rough” geologic unit at Jezero Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

NASA is making final preparations for its Perseverance Mars rover to collect its first-ever sample of Martian rock, which future planned missions will transport to Earth. The six-wheeled geologist is searching for a scientifically interesting target in a part of Jezero Crater called the “Cratered Floor Fractured Rough.”

This important mission milestone is expected to begin within the next two weeks. Perseverance landed in Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, and NASA kicked off the rover mission’s science phase June 1, exploring a 1.5-square-mile (4-square-kilometer) patch of crater floor that may contain Jezero’s deepest and most ancient layers of exposed bedrock.

“When Neil Armstrong took the first sample from the Sea of Tranquility 52 years ago, he began a process that would rewrite what humanity knew about the Moon,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters. “I have every expectation that Perseverance’s first sample from Jezero Crater, and those that come after, will do the same for Mars. We are on the threshold of a new era of planetary science and discovery.”

It took Armstrong 3 minutes and 35 seconds to collect that first Moon sample. Perseverance will require about 11 days to complete its first sampling, as it must receive its instructions from hundreds of millions of miles away while relying on the most complex and capable, as well as the cleanest, mechanism ever to be sent into space—the Sampling and Caching System.






Watch as NASA-JPL engineers test the Sample Caching System on the Perseverance Mars rover. Described as one of the most complex robotic systems ever built, the Sample and Caching System will collect core samples from the rocky surface of Mars, seal them in tubes and leave them for a future mission to retrieve and bring back to Earth. Credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech

Precision instruments working together

The sampling sequence begins with the rover placing everything necessary for sampling within reach of its 7-foot-long (2-meter-long) robotic arm. It will then perform an imagery survey, so NASA’s science team can determine the exact location for taking the first sample and a separate target site in the same area for “proximity science.”

“The idea is to get valuable data on the rock we are about to sample by finding its geologic twin and performing detailed in-situ analysis,” said science campaign co-lead Vivian Sun, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “On the geologic double, first we use an abrading bit to scrape off the top layers of rock and dust to expose fresh, unweathered surfaces, blow it clean with our Gas Dust Removal Tool, and then get up close and personal with our turret-mounted proximity science instruments SHERLOC, PIXL, and WATSON.”

SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals), PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry), and the WATSON (Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering) camera will provide mineral and chemical analysis of the abraded target.

Perseverance’s SuperCam and Mastcam-Z instruments, both located on the rover’s mast, will also participate. While SuperCam fires its laser at the abraded surface, spectroscopically measuring the resulting plume and collecting other data, Mastcam-Z will capture high-resolution imagery.

Working together, these five instruments will enable unprecedented analysis of geological materials at the worksite.

“After our pre-coring science is complete, we will limit rover tasks for a sol, or a Martian day,” said Sun. “This will allow the rover to fully charge its battery for the events of the following day.”

Sampling day kicks off with the sample-handling arm within the Adaptive Caching Assembly retrieving a sample tube, heating it, and then inserting it into a coring bit. A device called the bit carousel transports the tube and bit to a rotary-percussive drill on Perseverance’s robotic arm, which will then drill the untouched geologic “twin” of the studied the previous sol, filling the tube with a core sample roughly the size of a piece of chalk.

Perseverance’s arm will then move the bit-and-tube combination back into bit carousel, which will transfer it back into the Adaptive Caching Assembly, where the sample will be measured for volume, photographed, hermetically sealed, and stored. The next time the sample tube contents are seen, they will be in a clean room facility on Earth, for analysis using scientific instruments much too large to send to Mars.

“Not every sample Perseverance is collecting will be done in the quest for ancient life, and we don’t expect this first sample to provide definitive proof one way or the other,” said Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley, of Caltech. “While the rocks located in this geologic unit are not great time capsules for organics, we believe they have been around since the formation of Jezero Crater and incredibly valuable to fill gaps in our geologic understanding of this region—things we’ll desperately need to know if we find life once existed on Mars.”



More information:
To learn more about Perseverance, visit: nasa.gov/perseverance and mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/

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Perseverance Mars Rover to acquire first sample (2021, July 21)
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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.”



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Curiosity rover captures shining clouds on Mars (2021, May 28)
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Hexbyte Glen Cove Chinese Mars rover beams back first photos thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove Chinese Mars rover beams back first photos

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Solar panels against an alien landscape, ramps and rods pointing at the Martian horizon—China’s first probe on the Red Planet has beamed back its first “selfies” after its history-making landing last week.

The Zhurong rover was carried into the Martian atmosphere in a lander on Saturday, in the first ever successful probe landing by any country on its first Mars mission.

Zhurong, named after a mythical Chinese fire god, arrived a few months behind the United States’ latest probe to Mars—Perseverance—and has been celebrated in China as a milestone in its ascent to space superpower status.

The China National Space Administration on Wednesday published the images taken by cameras attached to the rover, which showed the obstacle-avoidance equipment and on the vehicle, as well as the texture of the Martian surface.

“People of the internet, the Mars images you’ve been longing for are here,” the said in a social media post containing the images.

The rover’s landing was a nail-biter for Chinese space engineers, with describing the process of using a parachute to slow descent and buffer legs as “the most challenging part of the mission”.

It is expected to spend around three months there taking photos and harvesting geographical data.

China has come a long way in its race to catch up with the United States and Russia, whose astronauts and cosmonauts have decades of experience in .

It successfully launched the first module of its new space station last month with hopes of having it crewed by 2022 and eventually sending humans to the Moon.



© 2021 AFP

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Chinese Mars rover beams back first photos (2021, May 19)
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