by Cat Ellen, contributing writer
Science week at Pink Cliffs and Book Cliffs
Life on Mars includes more than just drilling and analyzing rocks. Scientists and engineers also plan extensive photography schedules to take advantage of varying light on the surface of Mars. Different lighting conditions help the staff at NASA study rock textures. Other instruments focus their imaging on atmospheric conditions and the staff have several camera filters at in their arsenal for data analysis.
Beyond photographic studies, NASA’s Curiosity rover also engages in what the team calls “contact science.” Dust removal tools expose fresh surfaces. Then various instruments such as the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) and Alpha-Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) can be used to study sedimentary structures and chemistry.
Having completed one “walkabout” of the first outcrop at the base of Mount Sharp, Curiosity spent the last week studying several key outcrops more detail. The first target, “Pelona,” is close to the September drilling target at the base of Pahrump Hills. Additional photos were taken of the erosion-resistant ledge called “Pink Cliffs.” And researchers even took advantage of the wheels of the rover to expose a cross-section of some of the windblown dust and sand on the surface. Researchers are interested in why some ripples were more difficult to traverse than others.
“We see a diversity of textures in this outcrop — some parts finely layered and fine-grained, others more blocky with erosion-resistant ledges,” said Curiosity Deputy Project Scientist
Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “The variations we’ve seen so far tell us that the environment was changing over time, both as the sediments were laid down and also after they hardened into bedrock,” Vasavada said. “We have selected targets that we think give us the best chance of answering questions about how the sediments were deposited — in standing water? flowing water? sand blowing in the wind? — and about the composition during deposition and later changes.”
Curiosity continues acquiring Mastcam multispectral images and ChemCam passive observations from three brush spots this week. Navcam and ChemCam will monitor the atmosphere and any evidence for clouds. After wrapping up observations and investigations at Book Cliffs, Curiosity will be driving towards Alexander Hills and Carnivore Canyon.
MAVEN now in science mode
The newest tool in Curiosity’s arsenal is not part of the rover. The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter joined forces as the newest node in NASA’s Mars telecommunications network. Earlier this month, MAVEN relayed 550 megabits of real data collected from Curiosity.
After the successful data relay, MAVEN wrapped up its commissioning activities and started the formal first year of its scientific mission. The orbiter will continue adjusting orbit, deploying various instruments, and calibration measurements. MAVEN’s missions include observations of the atmosphere, ionosphere, and interaction with the solar-wind. Scientists hope to use this data to understand changes in Martian climate over time.
Wednesday, the MAVEN orbiter went into safehold mode autonomously, having detected a timing conflict between commands. All the instruments were turned off and verified to be safe as MAVEN remained in data contact with Earth. The Operations team reported that it was brought out of safe mode successfully Saturday, November 22 and is operating nominally.