Hammering things out on Mars

CuriosityIt’s been a while since there have been any formal updates from the mission team responsible for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory. With the focus on preparing for the first set of drilling operations, this is understandable – although this is far from the only activity the Curiosity has been engaged in. “Routine” monitoring of the environment in Gale Crater and particularly around the “Yellowknife Bay” region continues, and the rover has been carrying out a number of other activities as well, including giving itself a once-over with camera systems to give engineers insight into its general condition after five months operation on Mars.

Does it Glow in the Dark?

Not long after my last mission update, Curiosity achieved another first – imaging surface features on Mars at night under white light and ultraviolet conditions. The images were captured using the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), mounted on the rover’s turret at the end of the robot arm.

The MAHLI camera - the LEDs can be seen in the ring surrounding the circular lens, still protected in this image by its dust cover

The MAHLI camera – the LEDs can be seen in the ring surrounding the circular lens, still protected in this image by its dust cover

MAHLI is equipped with a series of light-emitting diodes which enable it to undertake imaging in low-lighting conditions and, in the case of the ultraviolet LEDs, to see if fluorescent minerals are present in rocks, which would reveal more about their chemical composition.

The tests were carried out on Sol 165 (January 22nd), when Curiosity deployed MAHLI after the local sun set to examine a target rock dubbed “Sayunei”. Prior to the image capture option, Curiosity was had been commanded to drive onto the rock and then “scuff” it with a wheel to remove surface dust and debris and provide a suitable area for testing, rather than using the wire brush also mounted on the rover’s turret. MAHLI was then tested against an ultraviolet test target on the “Lincoln Penny” calibration test panel mounted on the rover’s body before being positioned for the image capture process, which saw the target rock imaged under both the white light and the ultra-violet LEDs.

“Sayunei” imaged by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI)  under ultraviolet light (365 nanometre wavelength) cast from LEDs surrounding the camera lens. The image represents an area some 34.cm by 2.5 cm (1.3 by 1 inch), and was captured with a 30-second exposure. The use of ultra-violet light  allows scientists to locate any fluorescent minerals present in the rock. Analysis of the acquired image is still underway, and the bright areas should not be taken as a sign that fluorescent material had been found

While the images returned by MAHLI showed very bright areas in the rock when under the ultraviolet lighting, NASA personnel cautioned against this being indicative of any fluorescent material being present in the rock. Discussing the images, MAHLI Principal Investigator Ken Edgett of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, said,  “The science team is still assessing the observations. If something looked green, yellow, orange or red under the ultraviolet illumination, that’d be a more clear-cut indicator of fluorescence.”

Pre-load Tests

Before drilling could commence, engineers on the mission team wanted to ensure the whether the amount of force applied to the hardware matches predictions for what would result from the commanded motions. This involved positioning the robot arm with the drill bit oriented as if for an actual drilling operation and bringing it into contact with a rock surface. One of four locations identified as the possible initial drilling point in the rock dubbed “John Klein” was used for the test on Sol 170 (January 27th).

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