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Curiosity Sol 2 & 3 Image Roundup!

Curiosity is still doing very well on the surface of Mars, and some full resolution images have arrived back here on Earth over the past couple of days!

First there’s this overview of Curiosity and all its associated landing paraphernalia, taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HIRISE camera in orbit around the red planet – the heatshield, skycrane, parachute and backshell are all accounted for, as is Curiosity itself (labelled as “MSL” – Mars Science Laboratory). The dark patch around Curiosity itself was caused by the backblast if the skycrane’s rocket motors as it was being lowered to the ground – brighter dust was blown away, leaving darker material behind. To get a sense of scale, the skycrane is located at a distance of 650 metres from Curiosity. There are no plans to go and visit any of the wreckage, however.

Curiosity landing site (image credits: NASA/JPL/MSSS)

Curiosity’s Cameras

Before I go on, I should explain the cameras that Curiosity uses to take pictures – there are 17 of them in total, so it can be difficult to keep track of them all! The sensor mast (Curiosity’s Wall-E like “head”) containing the cameras was successfully raised on Sol 2 and seems to be working fine.

The cameras on Curiosity’s sensor mast
(image credits: NASA/JPL/Constantine Thomas (labels))

The CHEMCAM (not used yet) is the round opening at the top. This shoots a laser at distant rocks (!) – CHEMCAM’s spectrometers and telescope can then determine the composition of the rock by analysing the puff of material blown off by the laser (which is pretty darn clever, really).

The NAVCAMs are the two little cylindrical things on the left and right of the “head”, below the CHEMCAM. There are two on each side, but only one left/right pair is used at a time – the other is a backup. This allows Curiosity to take stereo images, which can be used to make 3D anaglyph images.

The MASTCAMs are the two trumpet-like things mounted below the CHEMCAM. The one with the wider opening directly below CHEMCAM is the wide angle camera, and the one on its right is the telephoto camera. These won’t be able to take stereo images because they aren’t the same kind of camera, but they’ll be taking the bulk of the high resolution images of the landscape.

There are also the front and rear HAZCAMs (there are actually eight of these, mounted on all four corners of the rover), which take low resolution images of what’s immediately in front of and behind the rover in order to avoid obstacles – we’ve already seen pictures from those that were taken shortly after Curiosity landed. MARDI is the MARs Descent Imager, which is on the bottom of Curiosity and was used to take the Descent video. Last I heard on one of the press conferences, the team were hoping to get some further use out of this camera by taking pictures of the ground directly under the rover, since some light can still get through underneath the rover. And then there’s MAHLI (MArs Hand Lens Imager), which is the hand-lens imager mounted on a robotic arm that will be used to take closeup shots of the rocks that Curiosity examines (and can also apparently be used to image more distant objects too).

If you want a more complete roundup of what these instruments (and others) do, wikipedia explains all!

OK. Now you know what’s taking all the pictures, let’s go back to the images!

Next up is the first view from the NAVCAMs. While these can be used to take 3D stereo images if they are taken in pairs (you’ll need red-blue glasses to view them – apparently comic shops may be a good place to find these!), they can of course also be viewed as individual images too – this is the first high resolution scene returned from Curiosity through the left NAVCAM, and the scenery looks pretty astounding. I love the hazy mountains of the crater rim in the distance, and the detail in all the rocks and pebbles in the foreground!:

The view from Curiosity (left NAVCAM) – Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The NAVCAMs managed to get a good look around the whole rover, and the images were stitched together to make this amazing 360° view of the rover’s surroundings. Mount Sharp (the central peak of Gale crater) is at the bottom/left of the image (the rover’s pointing in its general direction), the crater rim is visible to the right, and I think the sun’s washing out the horizon at the top of the image. I love how you can actually see the rover here (I would have expected some distortion because of the 360° view, but it looks nicely rover-shaped!) – also note the bits of gravel on the top surface of Curiosity, which were kicked up by the skycrane’s rockets as it was landing!

360 degree view around Curiosity – Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/James Sorenson

Finally, the MASTCAM was fired up and returned this very nice colour panorama looking towards Mount Sharp. The dark streaks at the base of the mountain are sand dunes – from what I gathered from the press conferences, Curiosity is going to be heading towards them (skirting the left side in this view) once it starts moving in a couple of weeks. There are several very cool things to note here – first, this panorama is actually made up of 130 thumbnail images with a resolution of 144×144 pixels – these aren’t even full resolution images (which are 1200×1200 pixels), so the full resolution panorama will be absolutely enormous and ridiculously detailed! We’ll have to wait a few days for that to come back down though, since updating the rover’s software is a higher priority in the coming days. Second, the grey circular patches on the left and right are where the skycrane’s rockets blew away some of the dust during the landing, which means that bedrock might be exposed there! Third, that line of holes in the treads of the wheels apparently spell out “JPL” in morse code… so Curiosity will be leaving JPL’s name in its tracks in the martian dust as it travels!

Curiosity MASTCAM colour panorama (Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

As always, if you want more info, check out Emily Lakdawalla’s Planetary Society blog!

More images from Curiosity!

There was another press conference at 4pm PDT this afternoon where the MSL team showed off some more awesome images!

This one is from the front HAZCAM, and by good fortune it looks like Curiosity is pointing towards Mt. Sharp, the mountain at the centre of Gale crater that it’s going to be climbing throughout the mission! The dark line in the foreground is actually a field of sand dunes between the rover and the mountain!

Front HAZCAM view, showing Curiosity’s shadow, and Mount Sharp looming in the distance. (Image credits: JPL/NASA/UA)

Another VERY cool thing they released was a low resolution video showing the descent of Curiosity, taken from the MARDI camera (MARs Dscent Imager) – they took 220 frames and stitched them together to make the video. They’ll be sending back higher resolution images over the next few weeks, so this is going to look even more spectacular soon. But meanwhile, feast your eyes on this:

MARDI video of Curiosity’s descent (that’s the heat shield dropping away in the first few frames!) (image credits: NASA/JPL/MSSS)

Again, Emily Lakdawalla has more details so I’ll point you to her article for those rather than repeat it all here :).

Curiosity is on Mars!

Curiosity (more formally known as the Mars Science Laboratory) has landed successfully on Mars! A very complex landing system (The so-called Seven Minutes of Terror) was required to get such a massive (one ton!) rover safely on the ground, but it seems to have worked flawlessly – it landed with a vertical velocity of 0.75 metres per second, and a horizontal velocity of only 4 centimetres per second, and well within its estimated landing ellipse – well done to everyone involved!

Curiosity’s shadow on the surface of Mars! (Image credits: NASA/JPL/UA)

There’s a news conference at 9am PDT today, apparently they’ll be showing images from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera of Curiosity on its way in to landing on Mars! There’ll be another at 4pm PDT possibly with MARDI (Mars Descenmt Imager) images too – You’ll be able to watch a livestream of the news conference (and future ones) here: http://www.nasa.gov/externalflash/mars/curiosity_news3.html.

Meanwhile, here’s a very nice summary of what we have so far from Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society.

And if you want to see the scenes at mission control during the “Seven Minutes of Terror” as Curiosity landed, you can watch them here – it’s pretty tense!

This is going to be an awesome mission. Curiosity has enough power for 2 years of roving, but it’s undoubtedly going to last longer than that (the only real limitation is the life of the mechanisms and motors, but they’ve apparently been tested to at least three times the mission duration). Stay tuned for some amazing images over the coming weeks, months and years!

EDIT: And here’s the MRO picture! The orbiter was almost directly overhead, about 340 km away – even from this distance you can see a lot of detail on the parachute and the backplate (you can read more about it from Emily here).

Curiosity parachuting in, viewed from the HiRISE camera! (Image courtesy: NASA/JPL/UA)

They’ll be spending Sol 1 (a Sol is a day on Mars) checking out the equipment and should be getting the High Gain Antenna up and running later this afternoon – that’ll allow the rover to communicate directly with Earth. Over the next few Sols they’ll be raising the Mastcams, taking some higher resolution pictures, and getting the onboard equipment up and running, and then hopefully in a couple of weeks once they’ve made sure everything is working properly they’ll take Curiosity on her first drive. There’s no rush though 🙂

The Journey Home

Whatever you’re doing today, find some time to watch this – it’s astronaut Ron Garan’s amazing timelapse video of the Earth seen from the International Space Station as it hurtles around our world every 90 minutes. There are all sorts of wonders in here – lightning, cities, aurorae, stars, and even the moon makes an appearance – plus it has an awesome soundtrack! 🙂

Time Lapse From Space – Literally. The Journey Home. from Fragile Oasis on Vimeo.

(more info at http://www.universetoday.com/91170/ron-garans-incredible-iss-timelapse-coming-back-home/ )

Dawn arrives at Vesta!

(I was going to call this post “Dawn breaks at Vesta” but that might have given the false impression that Dawn literally broke in orbit and isn’t working anymore 😉 )

Dawn successfully entered Vesta orbit in the weekend, and has returned the first pictures from Vesta orbit!

Vesta! (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

The big lump in the middle of the asteroid is actually the central peak of a massive crater caused by an impact that literally blew away most of the protoplanet’s southern hemisphere! There are all sorts of interesting things to see here – lots of bowl-shaped craters, grooved/scallopped terrain in the big crater floor, and what looks like a huge cliff marking part of the rim of the big crater!

There’s also a very nice image showing another view of Vesta’s ‘south pole crater’, along with other asteroids that we’ve sent spacecraft to shown to the same scale:

Vesta, with other asteroids (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/JAXA/ESA)

Vesta is about 530 km in diameter, so it’s pretty large for an asteroid – it’s the third largest in the asteroid belt – and is far bigger than Lutetia, which was previously the record holder for ‘largest asteroid visited by a spacecraft’. Dawn will move on to visit Ceres next year, which is the largest asteroid in the asteroid belt and (unlike Vesta) is actually spherical too.

We’ll see more of Vesta as Dawn maps it from orbit over the next year – this only the beginning, and I’m very excited to see what else will be revealed! (You can find out more about the Dawn mission at its official website)

Approaching Vesta!

Vesta! Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

On July 15th, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will be entering orbit around the asteroid Vesta – and I’m really looking forward to it! This is a new frontier – while we’ve seen a few small asteroids (e.g. Ida, Gaspra), we’ve never seen a big asteroid up close, and Vesta is the third largest asteroid in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter (it’s also the second most-massive after Ceres, which will be visited later by Dawn). We’ve also found several meteorites on Earth that we think were blasted off from Vesta’s surface by impacts on the asteroid – these indicate that Vesta should have differentiated into a rocky mantle and metallic core, and I’m curious to see if there is evidence of volcanic activity on its surface (my Ph.D. supervisor published some papers about Vesta’s early history, and some of his interest and enthusiasm about it has rubbed off on me!).

Asteroids are interesting beasts – they’re mostly found in the space between Mars and Jupiter, and are remnants from the formation of the solar system. The rocky planets in the solar system formed by accretion in the solar nebula about 4.6 billion years ago – put very simply, dust grains clumped together due to gravity to form planetesimals, which themselves clumped together to form protoplanets, which then clumped together to form larger planets. However, Jupiter’s gravity affected (and still affects) the orbits of nearby objects, which prevented the asteroids from accreting into planets. As a result of this, we now have a band of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter – it’s essentially debris that was never allowed to form into a planet. What’s more, if you could combine all the asteroids currently in the asteroid belt, the resulting object would be smaller than our own moon (part of this is due to the fact that many asteroids have been ejected from the belt by gravitational interactions or destroyed by collisions)! Since we’ve not seen a large one up close before, a lot of planetary scientists will be interested to see what Dawn reveals at Vesta (and later when it moves on to orbit Ceres, which is the largest asteroid and also a dwarf planet).

As Dawn has been approaching Vesta over the past few weeks, features have been slowly coming into view that we couldn’t see from Earth. The latest picture (shown above) hints at interesting features – for one thing, there don’t appear to be an awful lot of large craters visible, which would imply that its surface may be young (possibly evidence for volcanic resurfacing?). Some curvilinear features are also visible in the southern hemisphere – maybe they’re tectonic in origin, or perhaps they’re something else (crater-chains? flow fronts?). Right now it’s all very tantalising, but we’ll find out more when Dawn goes into orbit in a few days!

NASA-themed Lego sets on the way!

Oooo. NASA and Lego are going to be teaming up to produce some NASA-themed lego sets! They’ll be making four apparently – I guess one is going to be a lego space shuttle (since they’re apparently sending up a lego space shuttle on the next real shuttle!), I really hope that one of them will be a Mars Rover (that’d be really cool if done Technic-style). Wonder what the other two might be?

Full info here: http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2010/nov/HQ_10-285_NASA_LEGO_Team.html