Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Curiosity Rover Report (Dec. 21, 2012): Curiosity's Martian Holiday

My dear readers, I wish this could be a happy time for me to write another report reflecting on Curiosity's work over the holidays instead of posting JPL's video update but I have lost my first ever reader. My Dad, Doctor Bashir Samma, passed away five days ago on what was supposed to be the end of the world. The irony couldn't have been any bitter for me. He'll be sorely missed by me, my mom, my thirteen year old brother, our family and his many grateful patients and colleagues. MY take home message for you this holiday; cherish each other dearly. His message would be; never stop being curious. RIP Dad!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Mars in a Minute: How Do Rovers Drive on Mars?

Yet addition to JPL's 'Mars in a Minute' series. This one talks about how the rover is actually driven on Mars. Very simple and informative (subtly wacky at times in fact).


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Scoping out Yellowknife bay

Curiosity has had a busy week of driving around Yellowknife bay, looking for a nice place drill. That would be yet another mission first and another historical first for interplanetary exploration which, by the way, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary 2 days ago with the flyby of Venus by the American spacecraft Mariner 2. You can check out the Jet Propulsion Lab's awesome video about Mariner 2's adventure. Go check it out here.

Now back to Curiosity, its now sol 129 as of this writing and has traversed more than 600m since landing day. Since leaving that outcrop last week (see this last post) called 'Shaler', Curiosity has ventured deeper into the bay which is actually a depression exposing about a metres worth of Martian layered bedrock. Here's a map of the recent traverses up to sol 123.
Sol 123 map. The inset shows the excursion at Yellowknife bay in detail
Right now the rover is parked near a ledge to the North of it's sol 123 position which you can see in the map as a dark, straight line north of the area demarcated by the white box. The ledge is pretty flat and that is one of the factors the team has in mind for a place to drill. It also has to be pretty stable and not collapse under the weight and force of the driller itself. Some information on the unmanned space flight forum (see the sites list to your right for a link to the forum) indicates that we won't be seeing any drilling until after the holidays and and the whole thing may take many more than a month to complete. We can't rush history I guess!

Here is a navigation mosaic showing the view near the Ledge as I'll call it for now:
Sol 127 navigation view of the Ledge (NASA/JPL/mosaic by me)
The mosaic shows only part the ledge, its north-eastern part that is. The rest of it can be seen in this 360 degree panorama shot by Curiosity when it was farther away on sol 125:
Sol 125 navigation panorama. The Ledge is the dark line to the right in the distance where a mound can
be seen (NASA/JPL/panorama by me)
Its always nice to correlate what you see on the ground with high-resolution maps. Sort of adds more depth and regional context to the scene. A colour mosaic was also shot of the future sol 127 site on sol 125:
Sol 125 colour mosaic with the 34mm focal length (left eye) lens (NASA/JPL/MSSS/mosaic by me)
Good times! Now here, dear readers, I stop. But I'm leaving you with a surprise this time seeing that the holiday season is almost upon us and I'm feeling jovial myself. While on Google + I found a referral to a web-series (like a TV series except its on the web) that is absolutely brilliant! For all you hard sci-fi lovers, H+: the Digital series is the series for you. Checkout the first episode here. Hurry up, you've got 42 episodes to catch up with (each episode is less than 10 minutes long)! Plus don't forget to follow me on Google + while you're at it by clicking the 'add to circle' button in the upper right column of this page.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Pages of Natural History

It's now sol 121 midnight at Gale crater and Curiosity has been returning some excellent vistas from its new location besides a layered outcrop.
Curiosity's current position is marked 'Sol 120 position'. Also marked are recent stops and Yellowknife bay.
The red route ends at Rocknest. This view looks southwards (Google)
Before, Curiosity spent more than two weeks (sol 102 up to 119) at Bell Island, conducting contact studies of the rock with it's APXS instrument.
Bell Island, sol 117 (NASA/JPL)
Here is a gorgeous colour mosaic of the scene at Bell Island shot on sol 118 looking towards the south of the rover (towards Mount Sharp). 
View from sol 118 looking south, south west (NASA/JPL/MSSS/mosaic by me)
Then on sol 120, Curiosity drove towards the cool looking outcrops of layered rocks that you can see to the extreme left in the mosaic above. 
Sol 120 navigation mosaic shows the layered outcrop targeted by the sol's drive (NASA/JPL/mosaic by me)
Why is the team so interested in layers? These rocks are layered and therefore indicates their sedimentary origins. Each layer represents a period of past environmental conditions, like pages of a book. And each page might reveal a different part of Gale's past. And Curiosity is all about past natural history. Something tells me we're going to be here for a while.

Monday, December 3, 2012

On the scientific process: SAM's findings

Today's press briefing at the American Geophysical Union's Fall meeting in San Francisco was all about the SAM instrument's findings at Rocknest that, despite being not what the popular press had us believe, are nevertheless extremely interesting but before I delve into a summary of the findings, I'd like to reiterate what Grotzinger, the lead scientist for the mission who was on the panel today, said to illustrate for the over excited general public how exactly science works; repeatability is key to your results and that's why even us doctors send patients back to the labs for a second one because we HAVE TO BE ABSOLUTELY SURE about what we are seeing.
Curiosity has been busy at Rocknest, digging 6 times(NASA/JPL/MSSS)
In this case what was Curiosity's team trying to verify? Plenty it turns out. SAM has so far done 3 rounds of analysis on the sample and has a lot to show for it. Remember that SAM consists three main instruments, each of which can work on the same sample. These are the 1. Gas Chromatograph (GC), 2. a Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) and 3. the Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer (QMS) which can work together with the Gas Chromatograph or as a stand alone for atmospheric analyses. For a complete SAM lecture go here. All these instruments in SAM help to further chemical analyses on Mars especially with regard to carbon-containing compounds i.e. organics.

In a nutshell, SAM found:

  • A variety of gases released after heating the samples to high temperatures and pumping them to the TLS and GC for analysis. Water detected was detected which isn't unusual. The water is chemically locked into the crystal lattice of the sample grains though it was higher than expected. Carbon dioxide was formed and may have come from carbonates.
  • Other gases detected include chlorine and oxygen which brought up the possibility of perchlorate (kind of like your peroxides but with chlorine instead of oxygen; highly oxidizing stuff). Perchlorate were first detected in the northern arctic regions of Mars by the Phoenix lander back in 2008 and some scientists believe that perchlorate may actually be oxidising the organics before we had a chance to detect them in previous missions. These are tentative results however. Sulphur was also found indicating the presence of sulphates or suphides in the soil.
  • There were some 'carbon-containingcompounds detected. Chloromethane (methane molecule containing a chlorine atom) was found in the soil at Rocknest although the team was quick to stress that although the chlorine was decidedly Martian in nativity, the origin of the carbon is an open question and is being investigated further. The panel member for SAM, Paul Mahaffy, said that most likely the carbon in this case is simply Earth-based carbon that happened to be on the rover that recombined with the heated chlorine atoms during the experiment. Hence the team's declaration; no organic compounds have been definitively found at Rocknest. But they'll keep looking.
  • Apart from the question of organics, there was an extremely interesting find of what appears to be high deuterium to hydrogen ratio (deuterium is a heavier variety or 'isotope' for hydrogen). The value is higher than that on Earth which illustrates the purpose of the ratio; its used to determine the extent of planetary atmospheric loss. The more the loss, the higher the ratio because the heavier deuterium is lost at a slower rate than the lighter hydrogen. Remember that Mars' atmosphere lacks proper protection from the solar winds erosive influence unlike on Earth where we have a powerful magnetic field that does just that.
With regard to future plans, the team said they plan to drill before the holidays at Yellowknife bay! So we have a flurry of activities to expect. Here is the latest map showing our progress up to November 30.
And that's your update in a nutshell. Stay curious!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Curiosity Saturday Fiesta

After a weekend of medicine I always like to just be a browser once again and browse the social media channels for bits of news on other learning fronts of life. Today 2 things complemented each other so well on Curiosity's mission so far that I decided to dub this post as your Saturday Curiosity Fiesta. Our first treat is yet another of the Jet Propulsion Lab's awesome video updates on Curiosity's progress this past week.

Here is a Mastcam left eye colour image of the contact science target 'Bell Island' mentioned in the video above.
Bell Island, sol 112 (NASA/JPL/MSSS)
Now as I recall I had hoped to write a summary on the workings of the SAM instrument aboard the rover. Considering the recent hullabaloo on the instrument's 'history-making' but 'secret' discovery which turned out to be not so sensational as some of us imagined, this is more than relevant to today's fiesta. 
The 2 sample inlets leading into SAM (NASA/JPL/MSSS)
But Emily Lakdawalla over at the Planetary Society's blog has I think an even better and more thorough account on SAM (its over 4000 words, yikes!). You can read her excellent post here. That's the second Saturday treat.

Don't forget folks that we have an update on the rover's scientific work coming soon from the AGU's Fall meeting in San Francisco on December 3 at 5pm GMT. You'll be able to listen in via ustream. And that's your last treat for today.