Curiosity spent the Christmas and New Year period parked in at “Grandma’s House”, a point of geological interest within the “Yellowknife Bay” area of Gale Crater. With most of the mission team on Earth taking a break over the holiday period, the rover was left largely to its own devices for an 11-day period. This was not only to accommodate the holidays – which saw some NASA / JPL personnel available to step-in should problems be reported – but also to test the rover’s capabilities for upcoming times when it will be completely out-of-communication with Earth.
The times occur during what is known as periods of solar conjunction, which place Earth and Mars on opposite sides of the Sun. During these periods, which can last some two weeks, communications between Earth and vehicles operating on and around Mars are severely disrupted / curtailed due to interference from the Sun.
As a result, vehicles like Curiosity need to have sufficient instructions stored onboard so that they can continue to operate when it is impossible to upload commands on a daily basis, and to ensure their safety systems / processes are properly primed should anything untoward happen and the vehicle is forced to “safe” itself. The Christmas / New Year break was an ideal time for NASA / JPL to test Curiosity’s ability to operate in an effectively autonomous mode in preparation for the first such conjunction, which will occur in April 2013.
In all, two days were spent uploading 11 days’ worth of instructions and mission activities to the rover. These included instructions for Curiosity to record panoramic images of its surroundings and also images of potential targets of interest for the next phase of the mission. With “full” mission operations resuming on the 3rd January, 2013, mission project manager Richard Cook of JPL said of Curiosity’s first extended period of autonomous operation, “We had no surprises over the holidays,” before turning attention to the next immediate step in the mission: to commission the rover’s onboard drill.