Thursday, 4 October 2012

Curiosity's journey of discovery

The ‘promised land’ beckons for the Curiosity Mars rover but it is likely to be around six months before the car-sized craft arrives in the foothills of Mt Sharpe whose rocks may have preserved a geological record of the ancient Martian environment.

Just two months into its mission on the red planet, delegates at the 63rd International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Naples, Italy, were treated to a first-hand update on the progress of the Curiosity Mars on Thursday, 4 October during the second ‘breaking news' session.

Richard Cook, Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Project Manager, described the mission as making a "great start" to a deeply interesting mission.

Reviewing the ‘seven minutes of terror landing', he said that what Curiosity is going to achieve on the surface will be equally inspiring as its spectacular landing.

He explained that the Gale Crater objective was chosen after a labourious process spread over several years - selected on the basis that it is most likely to offer a glimpse into the ancient history of Mars based on its rock records.

He likened Gale Crater - 150 km across with the central peak of Mt Sharpe rising to 4,000 metres - as similar in size and elevation to the ‘big' island of Hawaii.

"It gives you an idea of the scale and the challenge of trying to explore that - for the first two years, we will essentially be driving in the foothills."

He said that from a landing site safety perspective, mission planners couldn't have picked a better spot and that Curiosity would now be moving away from the direction of Mt Sharpe in order to explore a close by alluvial fan area in the opposite direction of originally planned travel.

Cook explained that the basic mission concept was to use either the onboard scoop or drill to acquire samples of rock or soil for testing.

In order to select which part or area of a rock to sample, Curiosity will use its ChemCam laser to vaporise a small portion of a potential target rock and analyse its spectral composition. This will help scientists determine which rocks or areas are of most interest to sample with the scoop or drill.

"We intend to use ChemCam repeatedly in any given area to help identify rocks that will be of the most interest," he explained.

Curiosity is capable of travelling around 200 metres a day but is unlikely to proceed at that kind of rate to the prime target area in the foothills of Mt Sharpe because scientists will want to "stop off on the way" to look at interesting features in closer detail.

Cook estimated that the journey to the lower reaches of Mt Sharpe would likely take around six months once extra stopping time for science work is factored in.

He showed a number of stunning Mars images, including one of the latest Curiosity releases of a conglomerate rock which has already given scientists their strongest indication yet that water once flowed in the landing area.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter images will be used to track the progress of Curiosity across the surface and he described a view showing the rover's first short traverse with its tracks in the Martian soil as a "gee wiz" image.

He said that cross-contamination from Earth had been a big area of concern during mission planning and in a pre-planned exercise, the rover team had already been using Mars' soil to clean through the sampling system prior to feeding in a collected sample for the first time.

Cook announced that they were preparing for the first scoop sample within the next 24 hours and that it would be about a month longer before the first drill sample is taken.

"The difference with this mission compared to the Spirit and Opportunity rovers is that you have to think about chunks of time rather than one day at a time - it is that much more complicated," he said.

"In a way the mission is still in 'cruise' phase," Cook added. "Curiosity is going to continue to surprise us and show us new things. This kind of mission doesn't get boring and the promised land is yet to come."




The above is one of a series of daily reports from the International Astronautical Congress 2012 held in Naples, Italy, written by Clive Simpson for the Paris-based International Astronautical Association (IAF) and first appearing on the IAF website