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NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover captured this 360-degree panorama using its black-and-white navigation cameras, or Navcams, at a location where it collected a sample from a rock nicknamed “Sequoia.” The panorama was captured on Oct. 21 and 26, 2023.NASA/JPL-Caltech The mission team is making sure the robotic scientist, now in its fourth extended mission, is staying strong, despite wear and tear from its 11-year journey.
Four thousand Martian days after setting its wheels in Gale Crater on Aug. 5, 2012, NASA’s Curiosity rover remains busy conducting exciting science. The rover recently drilled its 39th sample then dropped the pulverized rock into its belly for detailed analysis.
To study whether ancient Mars had the conditions to support microbial life, the rover has been gradually ascending the base of 3-mile-tall (5-kilometer-tall) Mount Sharp, whose layers formed in different periods of Martian history and offer a record of how the planet’s climate changed over time.
The latest sample was collected from a target nicknamed “Sequoia” (all of the mission’s current science targets are named after locations in California’s Sierra Nevada). Scientists hope the sample will reveal more about how the climate and habitability of Mars evolved as this region became enriched in sulfates –minerals that likely formed in salty water that was evaporating as Mars first began drying up billions of years ago. Eventually, Mars’ liquid water disappeared for good.
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used the drill on the end of its robotic arm to collect a sample from a rock nicknamed “Sequoia” on Oct. 17, 2023, the 3,980th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. The rover’s Mastcam captured this image.NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS “The types of sulfate and carbonate minerals that Curiosity’s instruments have identified in the last year help us understand what Mars was like so long ago. We’ve been anticipating these results for decades, and now Sequoia will tell us even more,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which leads the mission.
Deciphering the clues to Mars’ ancient climate requires detective work. In a recent paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, team members used data from Curiosity’s Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument to discover a magnesium sulfate mineral called starkeyite, which is associated with especially dry climates like Mars’ modern climate.
The team believes that after sulfate minerals first formed in salty water that was evaporating billions of years ago, these minerals transformed into starkeyite as the climate continued drying to its present state. Findings like this refine scientists’ understanding of how the Mars of today came to be.
Despite having driven almost 20 miles (32 kilometers) through a punishingly cold environment bathed in dust and radiation since 2012, Curiosity remains strong. Engineers are currently working to resolve an issue with one of the rover’s main “eyes” – the 34 mm focal length left camera of the Mast Camera, or Mastcam, instrument. In addition to providing color images of the rover’s surroundings, each of Mastcam’s two cameras helps scientists determine from afar the composition of rocks by the wavelengths of light, or spectra, they reflect in different colors.
This anaglyph version of Curiosity’s panorama taken at “Sequoia” can be viewed in 3D using red-blue glasses.NASA/JPL-Caltech To do that, Mastcam relies on filters arranged on a wheel that rotates under each camera’s lens. Since Sept. 19, the left camera’s filter wheel has been stuck between filter positions, the effects of which can be seen on the mission’s raw, or unprocessed, images. The mission continues to gradually nudge the filter wheel back toward its standard setting.
If unable to nudge it back all the way, the mission would rely on the higher resolution 100 mm focal length right Mastcam as the primary color-imaging system. As a result, how the team scouts for science targets and rover routes would be affected: The right camera needs to take nine times more images than the left to cover the same area. The teams also would have a degraded ability to observe the detailed color spectra of rocks from afar.
Along with efforts to nudge the filter back, mission engineers continue to closely monitor the performance of the rover’s nuclear power source and expect it will provide enough energy to operate for many more years. They have also found ways to overcome challenges from wear on the rover’s drill system and robotic-arm joints. Software updates have fixed bugs and added new capabilities to Curiosity, too, making long drives easier for the rover and reducing wheel wear that comes from steering (an earlier addition of a traction-control algorithm also helps reduce wheel wear from driving over sharp rocks).
Meanwhile, the team is preparing for a break of several weeks in November. Mars is about to disappear behind the Sun, a phenomenon known as solar conjunction. Plasma from the Sun can interact with radio waves, potentially interfering with commands during this time. Engineers are leaving Curiosity with a to-do list from Nov. 6 to 28, after which period communications can safely resume.
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Curiosity was built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is managed by Caltech in Pasadena, California. JPL leads the mission on behalf of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego built and operates Mastcam.
For more about Curiosity, visit:
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Last Updated Nov 06, 2023 Related Terms
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Engineers assemble and test NASA’s first robotic Moon rover in a clean room at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. NASA/Robert Markowitz The public now has a live, front row seat to see NASA’s first robotic Moon rover take shape in the Surface Segment Integration and Testing Facility clean room at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Members of VIPER — short for the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover — and the Office of Communications at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, will host watch parties and answer questions from the public about the mission in both English and Spanish.
These webchats and watch parties will occur as the rover is assembled and tested, approximately once a month from November 2023 through January 2024 . In late 2024, VIPER will embark on a mission to the lunar South Pole to trek into permanently shadowed areas and unravel the mysteries of the Moon’s water.
“We’re really excited for people to see the VIPER rover hardware coming together,” said Daniel Andrews, the VIPER mission project manager at NASA Ames. “All of our planning and ideas are now going into building this first-of-its-kind Moon rover.”
Individual components such as the rover’s science instruments, lights, and wheels, have already been assembled and tested. Once delivered to the testing facility, other components will be integrated together to become the approximately 1,000-pound VIPER.
Months of final assembly and testing lie ahead before VIPER is ready to ship to the Astrobotic Payload Processing Facility in Florida in mid-2024. VIPER’s lunar landing atop Mons Mouton is scheduled for late-2024, where it will get a close-up view of the lunar surface and measure the location and concentration of water ice and other resources. Using its drill and three science instruments, researchers will gain a better understanding of how frozen water and other volatiles are distributed on the Moon, their cosmic origin, and what has kept them preserved in the lunar soil for billions of years. VIPER will also inform future Artemis missions by helping to characterize the lunar environment and help determine locations where water and other resources could be harvested to sustain humans for extended missions.
NASA Ames manages the VIPER mission and also leads the mission’s science, systems engineering, real-time rover surface operations, and the rover’s flight software. The rover vehicle is being designed and built by NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, while the instruments are provided by Ames, Kennedy Space Center in Florida and commercial partner Honeybee Robotics in Altadena, California. The spacecraft, lander, and launch vehicle that will deliver VIPER to the surface of the Moon will be provided through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative, delivering science and technology payloads to and near the Moon.
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A team of engineers from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and Honeybee Robotics in Altadena, California inspect TRIDENT – short for The Regolith Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain – shortly after its arrival at the integration and test facility.NASA/Robert Markowitz A team of engineers from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and Honeybee Robotics in Altadena, California, inspect TRIDENT – short for The Regolith Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain – shortly after its arrival at the integration and test facility. In the coming months, the team will integrate the drill into NASA’s first robotic Moon rover, VIPER – short for the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover.
TRIDENT is the fourth and final science instrument for VIPER to arrive at the clean room, where the vehicle is being built. NASA engineers have already successfully integrated VIPER’s three other science instruments into the rover. These include: the MSOLO (Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations), which was integrated in July, and the NSS (Neutron Spectrometer System) and NIRVSS (Near-Infrared Volatiles Spectrometer System) instruments, which were integrated in August.
TRIDENT will dig up soil cuttings from as much as three feet below the lunar surface using a rotary percussive drill – meaning it both spins to cut into the ground and hammers to fragment hard material for more energy-efficient drilling. In addition to being able to measure the strength and compactedness of the lunar soil, the drill features a tip that carries a temperature sensor to take readings below the surface.
MSOLO is a commercial off-the-shelf mass spectrometer modified to withstand the harsh lunar environment by engineers and technicians at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. MSOLO will help NASA analyze the chemical makeup of the lunar soil and study water on the surface of the Moon.
NIRVSS will detect which types of minerals and ices are present, if any, and identify the composition of the lunar soil.
NSS will help scientists study the distribution of water and other potential resources on the Moon, by targeting its search for hydrogen – the element that’s the telltale sign of water, or H2O.
Over the past few months, engineers and technicians from the agency’s Johnson, Kennedy, and Ames Research Center, performed pre-integration operations, such as installing external heaters, harnesses, instrumentation sensors, and multi-layer insulation onto the instruments. This critical hardware will help monitor and control how hot or cold the instruments get as the rover encounters different temperature conditions on the Moon; depending on whether the rover is in sunlight or shade, temperatures can vary by as many as 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
VIPER will launch to the Moon aboard Astrobotic’s Griffin lunar lander on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative. It will reach its destination at Mons Mouton near the Moon’s South Pole in November 2024. During VIPER’s approximately 100-day mission, these four instruments will work together to better understand the origin of water and other resources on the Moon, which could support human exploration as part of NASA’s Artemis program.
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Students from Alabama A&M University near Huntsville, Alabama, pilot their vehicle through the obstacle course at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center during NASA’s Human Exploration Rover Challenge event on April 22, 2023. Credits: NASA NASA has selected 72 student teams to begin an engineering design challenge to build human-powered rovers that will compete next April at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, near the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
Celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2024, the Human Exploration Rover Challenge tasks high school, college, and university students to design, build, and test lightweight, human-powered rovers on an obstacle course simulating lunar and Martian terrain, all while completing mission-focused science tasks.
Participating teams represent 42 colleges and universities and 30 high schools from 24 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and 13 other nations from around the world. NASA’s handbook has complete proposal guidelines and task challenges.
“Throughout this authentic learning challenge, NASA encourages students to improve their understanding of collaboration, inquiry, and problem-solving strategies,” said Vemitra Alexander, rover challenge activity lead, Office of STEM Engagement at NASA Marshall. “Improving these critical real-world skills will benefit our students throughout their academic and professional careers.”
Throughout the nine-month challenge, students will complete design and safety reviews to mirror the process used by NASA engineers and scientists. The agency also incorporates vehicle weight and size requirements encouraging students to consider lightweight construction materials and stowage efficiency to be replicate similar payload restrictions of NASA launch operations.
Teams earn points throughout the year by successfully completing design reviews and fabricating a rover capable of meeting all criteria while completing course obstacles and mission tasks. The teams with the highest number of points accumulated throughout the project year will win their respective divisions. The challenge will conclude with an event April 19 and April 20, 2024, at the U.S. Rocket and Space Center.
This competition is one of nine Artemis Student Challenges and reflects the goals of NASA’s Artemis program, which includes landing the first woman and first person of color on the Moon. It is managed by NASA’s Southeast Regional Office of STEM Engagement at Marshall. NASA uses challenges and competitions to further the agency’s goal of encouraging students to pursue degrees and careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
For more information about the challenge, visit:
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.
Last Updated Oct 12, 2023 Location Marshall Space Flight Center Related Terms
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Students interested in designing, developing, building, and testing rovers for Moon and Mars exploration are invited to submit their proposals to NASA through Monday, Sept. 21.View the full article
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