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curiosity rover

It was expected to be just another lump of dull basalt, but the first rock examined up close by NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars proved to be a little more interesting.

The pyramidal object, nicknamed “Jake Matijevic” after a recently deceased mission engineer, had a composition not seen on the planet before.

Scientists have likened it to some unusual but well known rocks on Earth.

These form from relatively water-rich magmas that have cooled slowly at raised pressures, said Edward Stolper.

“[The rock is] widespread on Earth, on oceanic islands such as Hawaii, and St Helena, and the Azores; and also in rift zones like the Rio Grande and so forth. So, again, it’s not common, but it’s very well known,” the mission co-investigator from the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, told reporters.

The Curiosity rover examined Jake Matijevic three weeks ago. At the time, the dark rock was not anticipated to have high science value; it was merely an early opportunity to use the robot’s survey instruments in unison.

Jake Matijevic rock found on Mars by Curiosity rover

Jake Matijevic rock found on Mars by Curiosity rover

Jake Matijevic also had an interesting, weathered appearance that drew attention.

The rover first zapped the rock from a distance with its ChemCam laser, and then moved in close to study it with its X-ray spectrometer known as APXS. The latter device is held on the end of the rover’s robotic arm; the laser is mounted on its mast.

Jake Matijevic was found to be high in elements consistent with the mineral feldspar, such as sodium and potassium, and low in elements such as magnesium and iron.

Prof. Edward Stolper compared the signatures with a catalogue containing thousands of Earth rocks, and determined the nearest match to be an igneous type, the formation of which he likened to the production of colonial apple jack liquor.

This saw barrels of cider left outside in winter to partially freeze. As the barrels iced up, they would concentrate the apple-flavored liquor.

A similar process was occurring in the liquid magma several kilometres underground that gave rise to alkalic rocks like Jake Matijevic, said Prof. Edward Stolper.

“In the case of the apple jack, you take out water and concentrate alcohol; in this case you take out particular minerals – olivines, pyroxenes and some feldspars – and you generate a liquid that is very different to what you started with,” he explained.

“So, the composition of Jake Matijevic is a very close match to highly crystallized or fractionated magmas that occur in particular places on Earth.”

Curiosity landed in Mars’ equatorial Gale Crater in August, and has driven eastwards almost 500 m since then.

It is currently stationed just short of a point called Glenelg, where satellite images have revealed a juxtaposition of three different types of terrain.

Scientists expect this location to be a good starting point to begin characterizing the geology of Gale.

The mission is going through something of a lull presently while the rover spends a few days preparing its sample handling system.

It is running dirt through this equipment to scrub surfaces free of any residual contamination from Earth.

This is necessary to avoid skewing the analyses of rock and soil samples delivered to the rover’s onboard laboratories later in the mission.

Curiosity’s goal is to try to determine if Gale ever supported environments that might have allowed microbial life to flourish.

In the short time it has been on the ground, it has already identified rocks that were clearly deposited in fast running water. The theory is that the rover is sitting at the head of an ancient alluvial fan where a network of streams cut across the crater floor billions of years ago.


NASA’s Curiosity rover is preparing to scoop its first sample of Martian soil.

The vehicle, which landed on the Red Planet in August, has driven up to a pile of sandy material that mission scientists have dubbed “Rocknest”.

This weekend, the robot will dig into the ground with its clamshell-shaped trowel, with the aim first of cleaning the mechanism of earthly contamination.

Later, it will repeat the task and deliver an aspirin-sized measure of sand to onboard labs for analysis.

NASA engineers have cautioned that the whole process will be long and drawn out. The machinery involved is complex and the team says it needs time to learn how best to operate it.

Curiosity, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), will very likely be stationary at Rocknest for a couple of weeks while the scoop tests are carried out.

And, as with some of the earlier science experiments conducted by the rover, the scoop results – when they come – are expected to be fairly mundane. The sand is very probably just the product of weathered basalt, the ubiquitous volcanic rock on Mars’ surface.

The team is more concerned about getting its sample handling procedures right than making significant new discoveries.

A key objective of the first excavations will be to thoroughly clean the internal mechanisms of the robotic arm tool that does the digging.

It is called Chimra, or Collection and Handling for Interior Martian Rock Analysis.

Although assembled in ultra-sterile conditions at NASA, this tool will still have acquired an oily film deposit in Earth air that would contaminate the rover’s lab analysis results if left in place. By running several scoops through the handling system, Curiosity can scrub the film from Chimra.

“We effectively use it to rinse our mouth three times and then spit out,” explained Daniel Limonadi, the Curiosity surface sampling phase lead at the US space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

“We will take a scoop bite, we will vibrate that sand on all the different surfaces inside Chimra to effectively sand blast those surfaces, and then we dump all that material out; and we rinse and repeat three times to finish cleaning everything out.”

Once this procedure is complete, a tiny sample will be delivered to the onboard labs, Sam and CheMin, to run chemical and mineralogical analyses.

The sand will be severely shaken and sieved to make sure only fine-grained material, less than the width of a human hair in diameter, reaches the instruments.

The team will be mindful of the extreme difficulty a previous Mars mission, the Phoenix probe of 2008, had in getting material to go through its sample handling system.

“Phoenix had a relatively uncontrolled drop off capability; they had just the one scoop and that scoop had to do everything,” said Daniel Limonadi.

“We use gravity and vibration to get things into little parts of Chimra that make very controlled volumes of portions for us to drop off.”

The rover has now driven at total of 484 m (of about 1,590 ft) since its 6 August landing on the floor of Gale Crater, a huge depression on Mars’ equator.

It still has about 176 m to travel to get to a location dubbed Glenelg, a place satellite images have indicated is a junction between three different geological terrains.

It is at Glenelg where Curiosity will really get down to the business of investigating past environments in Gale.

Last week, scientists announced the robot had taken pictures of rocks that were clearly deposited in fast running water. The theory is that the rover is sitting at the head of an ancient alluvial fan where a network of streams cut across the crater floor billions of years ago.


Curiosity rover has only been on the surface of Mars seven weeks but it has already turned up evidence of past flowing water on the planet.

The robot has returned pictures of classic conglomerates – rocks that are made up of gravels and sand.

Scientists on the mission team say the size and rounded shape of the pebbles in the rock indicate they had been transported and eroded in water.

Researchers think the rover has found a network of ancient streams.

The rocks, which were described in a media briefing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, were likely laid down “several billion years ago”. But the actual streams themselves may have persisted on the surface for long periods, said Curiosity science co-investigator Bill Dietrich of the University of California, Berkeley.

“We would anticipate that it could easily be thousands to millions of years,” he told reporters.

Curiosity rover has already turned up evidence of past flowing water on Mars

Curiosity rover has already turned up evidence of past flowing water on Mars

Satellites at Mars have long captured images of channels on the planet’s surface that were cut by some kind of flow, assumed to be liquid water. Curiosity’s discovery at its landing site in the equatorial Gale Crater provides the first real ground truth for those observations.

By luck, the rover just happened to roll past a spectacular example of the conglomerate. A large slab, 10-15 cm thick, was lifted out of the ground at an angle.

“We’ve named it Hottah,” said rover project scientist John Grotzinger. The name refers to a lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The team is using names from this region to catalogue objects at Gale.

“To us it just looked like somebody came along the surface of Mars with a jackhammer and lifted up the sidewalk that you might see in downtown LA at a construction site,” he joked.

Scientists are now studying the images of the pebbles in the rock. The sizes and shapes will give them clues to the speed and distance of the ancient water flow.

The discovery site lies between the northern rim of the crater and the huge mountain that rises up from its central plain.

Previous orbital imagery of the region had hinted there might have been a water feature there. Curiosity’s conglomerates support that hypothesis.

The current interpretation is that the rover is sitting at the head of an alluvial fan of material that washed down through the crater wall and across the plain, cutting many individual streams. Researchers even think they can identify the particular valley at the rim where the water entered the crater, and they have named it Peace Vallis.

There is an eagerness also to study the chemistry of the conglomerates because that will give an indication of the nature of the water – its pH value, for example – and that will provide some clues as to what the environment at the time might have looked like.

At the moment, the rover is heading towards a location dubbed Glenelg. Scientists think this will give them the best access to the rocks of interest.

NASA’s $2.6 billion mission touched down on the Red Planet on 6 August (GMT).

Much of the time since then has been spent commissioning the immensely complex, six-wheeled machine and its suite of 10 instruments.

Curiosity is funded for one Martian year (two Earth years) of study. It will try to determine in that time whether past environments at Gale Crater could ever have supported microbial life.


Curiosity rover has completed its first close-contact science on Mars.

The robot pushed its arm instruments up against a pyramidal rock to assess the atomic elements that were present.

The rock – dubbed “Jake Matijevic” after a late rover engineer – was not expected to have high research value. Rather, it was regarded as an early opportunity to demonstrate the performance of the arm’s “hand lens” and X-ray spectrometer.

Curiosity has now continued driving.

Curiosity rover has completed its first close-contact science on Mars

Curiosity rover has completed its first close-contact science on Mars

On Monday, it moved some 42 m (138 ft), the single biggest roll for the robot since landing seven weeks ago in Mars’ equatorial Gale Crater.

The vehicle is endeavoring to get to location that scientists have nicknamed Glenelg, which satellite images have indicated is a junction between three types of geological terrain.

It is at Glenelg that Curiosity will likely use one of its key arm tools – its drill – for the first time.

Even before the rover gets to the junction, it will look for some suitable soil to scoop and deliver to its onboard laboratories for analysis.

NASA’s $2.6 billion mission touched down on the Red Planet on 6 August (GMT).

Much of the time since then has been spent commissioning the immensely complex, six-wheeled machine and its suite of 10 instruments.

The Jake Matijevic investigation allowed the science team to use the X-ray spectrometer (APXS) and the hand lens (Mahli) in unison with the rover’s infrared laser instrument (ChemCam).

The laser, which sits atop the rover’s mast, also determines the chemical composition of targets, and the rock experiment meant researchers could do some cross-calibration of APXS and ChemCam.

Little information has been released by NASA about what it saw, but then the pyramidal rock was not expected to be anything more than a standard lump of Martian basalt.

As the mission progresses, APXS and ChemCam, along with the keen eye of Mahli, will be used to survey the crater’s surface for more interesting rocks. When they identify a fascinating target, it is at that point that the drill will be commanded to acquire a sample for detailed scrutiny in the onboard laboratories.

Curiosity’s mission has been funded for one Martian year (two Earth years) of study. It will try to determine in that time whether past environments at Gale Crater could ever have supported microbial life.

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Curiosity rover has measured the Red Planet’s atmospheric composition.

NASA’s robot sucked the air into its big Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument to reveal the concentration of different gases.

It is the first time that the chemistry of the atmosphere has been tested from the surface of the planet since the Viking landers in the 1970s.

The SAM analysis is ongoing but no major surprises are expected at this stage – carbon dioxide will dominate.

CO2 is the chief component of the Martian air, as the Viking probes found. Of keener interest will be whether a signal for methane has been detected by Curiosity.

The gas has recently been observed by satellite and by Earth telescopes, and its presence on the Red Planet is intriguing.

Methane should be short-lived and its persistence suggests a replenishing source of some kind – either biological or geochemical. It is hoped SAM can shed light on the issue.

Curiosity rover has measured the Red Planet's atmospheric composition

Curiosity rover has measured the Red Planet's atmospheric composition

The results from this first test could be announced next week, said Curiosity deputy principal scientist Joy Crisp, but she cautioned that it would be some time before definitive statements could be made about the status of methane on Mars.

“When SAM is at its best it can measure various parts per trillion of methane, and the expected amounts based on measurements taken from orbit around Mars and from Earth telescopes should be in the 10 to a few 10s of parts per billion,” she told reporters.

“But it’s so early in the use of Sam, which is a complicated instrument, and we have to sort through the data.”

Curiosity – also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, MSL – has now driven more than 100 m from the location on the floor of Gale Crater where it landed a month ago.

A new picture from the overflying Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft shows its progress.

“You can see the rover with the white deck on top and the black wheels, and you can see our tracks behind us,” explained mission manager Mike Watkins.

“We’re about a football field or so away from the touch-down point – from Bradbury Landing.”

Curiosity is heading to a point dubbed Glenelg by scientists.

This is about 300 m further to the east from its current position. Satellite pictures point to Glenelg being an intersection of three distinct types of rock terrain. Researchers think it will be a good place to start to characterize the geology of Gale Crater.

The rover’s arrival at the junction is still some weeks away, however.

Engineers have parked the vehicle for a few days to practice using the 2 m-long robotic arm. This carries a 30 kg tool turret on its end and the mission team needs to learn how to move the device in the weaker gravity conditions that exist on Mars.

“Mars has about 38% of Earth gravity,” said Matt Robinson, the lead engineer on Curiosity’s arm.

“Under Earth gravity, the arm sags to a certain position. On Mars, if you were to command the arm to the exact same joint angles, the turret would be at a higher position than it was on Earth.

“To compensate, we have flight software that does the mathematics to position the arm lower to recreate the exact same pose of the turret with respect to the hardware on the rover.

“So a big part of this exercise is to verify that flight software is doing that compensation properly,” he said.

Once the arm check-out is done, Curiosity will pick up the pace to get to Glenelg.

En route, the rover will watch for an early opportunity to test its turret instruments on a rock.

This will involve putting the “hand lens” known as Mahli (Mars Hand Lens Imager) close to the test object.

Mahli is essentially a close-up camera that can resolve rock minerals down to the size of a grain of talcum powder.

The other turret instrument engineers want to see in action is APXS, an X-ray spectrometer that can determine the abundance of chemical elements in rocks.

Also in line to make its debut soon is the turret’s scoop mechanism (Collection and Handling for Interior Martian Rock Analysis, or Chimra). The robot arm will pick up a sample of soil and deliver it to the labs inside the rover body for analysis.

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NASA has released the first spectacular images taken by the Mars rover Curiosity, detailing a mound of layered rock where scientists plan to focus their search for the chemical ingredients of life on the Red Planet.

The stunning photographs reveal distinct tiers of near the base of the 3-mile-tall mountain that rises from the floor of the vast, ancient impact basin known as Gale Crater, where Curiosity landed on August 6 to begin its two-year mission.

Scientists estimate it will be a year before the six-wheeled, nuclear-powered rover, about the size of a small car, physically reaches the layers of interest at the foot of the mountain, known as Mount Sharp, 6.2 miles away from the landing site.

From earlier orbital imagery, the layers appear to contain clays and other hydrated minerals that form in the presence of water.

NASA has released the first spectacular images taken by the Mars rover Curiosity

NASA has released the first spectacular images taken by the Mars rover Curiosity

While previous missions to Mars have uncovered strong evidence for vast amounts of water flowing over its surface in the past, Curiosity was dispatched to hunt for organic materials and other chemistry considered necessary for microbial life to evolve.

The $2.5 billion Curiosity project, NASA’s first astrobiology mission since the 1970s-era Viking probes to Mars, is the first to bring all the tools of a state-of-the-art geochemistry laboratory to the surface of a distant planet.

But the latest images from Curiosity, taken at a distance from its primary target of exploration, already have given scientists a new view of the formation’s structure.

The layers above where scientists expect to find hydrated minerals show sharp tilts, offering a strong hint of dramatic changes in Gale Crater, located in the planet’s southern hemisphere near its equator.

Mount Sharp, the name given to the towering formation at the center of the crater, is believed to be the remains of sediment that once completely filled the 96-mile-wide basin.

“This is a spectacular feature that we’re seeing very early,” project scientist John Grotzinger, with the California Institute of Technology, said as the images were released on Monday.

“We can sense that there is a big change on Mount Sharp.”

The higher layers are steeply slanted relative to the layers of underlying rock, the reverse of similar features found in Earth’s Grand Canyon.

“The layers are tilted in the Grand Canyon due to plate tectonics, so it’s typical to see older layers be more deformed and more rotated than the ones above them,” John Grotzinger said.

“In this case, you have flat-line layers on Mars overlaid by tilted layers. The science team, of course, is deliberating over what this means.”

He added: “This thing just kind of jumped out at us as being something very different from what we ever expected.”

Absent plate tectonics, the most likely explanation for the angled layers has to do with the physical manner in which they were built up, such as being deposited by wind or by water.

“On Earth, there’s a whole host of mechanisms that can generate inclined strata,” John Grotzinger said.

“Probably we’re going to have to drive up there to see what those strata are made of.”

NASA said it used the rover to broadcast a message of congratulations to the Curiosity team from NASA chief Charles Bolden, a demonstration of the high bandwidth available through a pair of U.S. science satellites orbiting Mars.

“This is the first time that we’ve had a human voice transmitted back from another planet’ beyond the moon,” said Chad Edwards, chief telecommunications engineer for NASA’s Mars missions at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“We aren’t quite yet at the point where we actually have a human present on the surface of Mars … it is a small step,” Chad Edwards said.

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NASA has reported its first setback in its Curiosity rover mission to Mars.

A sensor on the robot’s weather station that takes wind readings has sustained damage.

The mission team stresses this is not a major problem and will merely degrade some measurements – not prevent them.

It is not certain how the damage occurred but engineers suspect surface stones thrown up during Curiosity’s rocket-powered landing may have struck sensor circuits and broken the wiring.

NASA is describing the news as an isolated “disappointment” in what has otherwise been a spectacular start to the mission.

Javier Gomez-Elvira, the principal investigator on the broken instrumentation – the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) – said he was hopeful of finding a good way to get past the issue.

NASA has reported its first setback in its Curiosity rover mission to Mars

NASA has reported its first setback in its Curiosity rover mission to Mars

“We are working to recover as much functionality as possible,” he told reporters.

Curiosity – also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, MSL – touched down in the equatorial Gale Crater two weeks ago.

It will operate on Mars for at least two Earth years, looking for evidence that the planet may once have had the conditions suitable to host microbial life.

Engineers are close to completing their programme of post-landing check-outs on Curiosity.

This has involved powering up all of the machine’s instruments, and it was during this testing that the problem was found on REMS.

The weather station is a Spanish contribution to the rover project.

It records air and ground temperature, air pressure and humidity, wind speed and direction, as well the amount of ultraviolet radiation falling on the surface.

These parameters are measured from sensors distributed around the rover, but a number are held on two finger-like mini-booms positioned halfway up the vehicle’s camera mast. This is where the wind sensors are located.

The REMS team first noticed there was something wrong when readings from the side-facing boom were being returned saturated at high and low values.

Further investigation suggested small wires exposed on the sensor circuits were open, probably severed. It is permanent damage.

No-one can say for sure how this happened, but engineers are working on the theory that grit thrown on to the rover by the descent crane’s exhaust plume cut the small wires.

The wind sensor on the forward-facing mini-boom is unaffected. With just the one sensor, it makes it difficult to fully understand wind behavior.

“It degrades our ability to detect wind speed and direction when the wind is blowing from a particular direction, but we think we can work around that,” said Curiosity’s deputy project scientist, Ashwin Vasavada.

All the other REMS measurements look good.

Air temperatures in Gale Crater have been up to about minus 2C in the Martian afternoon, and down to minus 75C in the middle of the Martian night.

In general, the rover is in rude health. On Monday, it wiggled its front and back wheels to check its steering capability.

Commands will now be sent up to initiate the first drive.

“We’re going to drive forward a few metres, turn in place about 90 degrees and then back up,” said mission manager Mike Watkins.

“We should make tracks.”

Another major engineering milestone passed this week has been the unpacking of Curiosity’s robotic arm.

It was flexed to exercise its joints. The arm holds a 30 kg tool turret on its end that includes a drill to take powered samples from rocks.