Curiosity: putting a hand on Mars

This last week marked Curiosity’s first month on Mars. It’s been a remarkable period, with the rover undergoing an extensive commissioning period (which will continue into next month, most likely), and returning some of the most amazing images from the surface of Mars we’ve ever seen.

Now the trek has begun, and Curiosity is well and truly on her way to Glenelg, a journey of some 400 metres (1300ft) which should be completed in October.

The trek to Glenelg began in earnest on Sol 24, with Curiosity travelling 21 metres (70 feet) – its longest single drive at that time – heading eastward away from Bradbury Landing. The following day, Sol 25 (August 31st), the rover had a “day off” from driving, which was spent  gathering environmental data and sky images using the Navcam system. Mastcam was also used to capture a 360-degree panorama of its new location.

A mosaic of Navcam images from Curiosity, captured on Aug 30th, showing the rover’s tracks back towards Bradbury Landing

Over the next few days, the rover continued to trek eastward, covering 30 metres (98 feet) on September 1st, in a drive to test its “visual odometry” in using images captured by the Navcam system to analyse the distance it has travelled. The day included further tests of CheMin system, while SAM took samples of the Martian air overnight on the 2nd/3rd Sept (Sol 27/28). The drive then resumed, with Curiosity covering over 30 metres (100ft) on Sol 29, including a manoeuvre to skirt sand.

Making tracks: a remarkable image captured by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) showing the discolouration of Bradbury Landing and Curiosity as it heads out from the landing zone to explore Gale Crater

Arm Flexing

Having travelled a little under the quarter of the distance to Glenelg, Curiosity halted progress to commence the first six of ten planned consecutive days checking-out the robot arm and its turret of equipment. These will see the arm extensively tested through a series of “teach points” established during testing on Earth, and will include activities such as moving the turret to the inlet ports on the rover’s body to simulate the delivery of sample material to the on-board analytical instruments. The purpose of the tests is for mission engineers to get a better understanding for how the arm functions after the long cruise to Mars and in the different temperature and gravity environments of Mars when compared to the calibration testing carried out on Earth.

These operations – which form part of the overall arc of “characterisation tests” designed to check-out the rover and its range of science equipment and capabilities – were sequenced into the drive to Glenelg following the rover’s arrival on Mars. They require that Curiosity be parked at a specific angle relative to the sun, and on flat ground, which it reached on its Sol 29 drive.

The turret seen from the Matcam. In this image the Turret has been raised level with the 34mm lens of Mastcam and inverted. The pink colouration seen on the MAHLI instrument is the result of the “glue” used in the camera lens bonding process, which turns the inside of the lens pink-red under certain lighting. The wire brush is a dust removal tool which will clean rock surfaces prior to drilling

During the calibration tests, the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), a camera mounted on the turret, will be tested and calibrated, as will the Alpha X-ray Spectrometer. The arm’s ability to place instruments against rock samples will also be tested as the first steps in preparing the turret for drilling and soil sample collection activities as a part of its science mission.

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