A Martian invasion

CuriosityNo, this isn’t a return to coverage of Wars of the Worlds in  SL. November marks the start of the next round of missions to Mars, with two new orbiters about to depart Earth as a part of our efforts to better understand the Red Planet and its atmosphere. Meanwhile, and despite a lack of headline news, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) continues its own explorations of the Red Planet, as does its little cousin Opportunity, half a world away.

Driving Forward

During the last week of October, the MSL rover Curiosity chalked up another achievement making its first pair of back-to-back autonomous drives using its on-board capabilities rather than relying on assistance from Earth.

I’ve covered the benefits of Curiosity’s ability to “self navigate” and how it works in previous MSL reports. However, up until now the system has only been used after the rover has initially traversed a course carefully plotted by the drive team on Earth using images taken by the rover and from overhead passes of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

This was the case with the rover’s drive on Sunday 27th October, when it completed an autonomous drive after a plotted drive. However, on Monday 28th October Curiosity immediately resumed its autonomous drive without any input from Earth, heading for the next waypoint along the route which will eventually bring it into the lower slopes of “Mount Sharp”.

Next stop “Cooperstown”, the raised outcrop in the centre of this image from Curiosity’s Navcams, captured at the end of the rover’s back-to-back autonomous drives on October 28th, 2013 (Sol 437).

This waypoint, dubbed “Cooperstown”, is a rocky outcrop which had been identified as a candidate for examination by the rover in MRO images of the route to “Mount Sharp”. It is anticipated that Curiosity will spend no more than a day examining the outcrop, which is liable to be done predominantly using the instruments mounted on the turret at the end of the rover’s robot arm.

“What interests us about this site is an intriguing outcrop of layered material visible in the orbital images,” said Kevin Lewis of Princeton University and a participating scientist for the mission responsible for planning the “Cooperstown” activities. “We want to see how the local layered outcrop at ‘Cooperstown’ may help us relate the geology of ‘Yellowknife Bay’ to the geology of ‘Mount Sharp’.”

A high-resolution raw image of part of the “Cooperstown” outcrop captured using Curiosity’s Mastcam on Sol 440 (November 1st, 2013)

“Yellowknife Bay” is an area of Gale Crater which, alongside that of “Glenelg”, the rover spent some 6-months examining various rock formations and gathering samples for analysis.

The planned duration of the “Cooperstown” stop is in marked contrast to the rover’s last waypoint stop, and coupled with the testing of back-to-back autonomous drives, is aimed at accelerating Curiosity’s progress towards the desired destination of “Mount Sharp”. So far, the rover has traversed around one-third of the 8.6 kilometres (5.3 miles) separating the “Yellowknife Bay” area, which it left in July 2013, from the entry point to the lower slopes of “Mount Sharp”.

The ability for the rover to safely store data necessary for it to resume self-navigation in its onboard memory is also vital for future planning for Curiosity’s progress over the upcoming holidays, when it is hoped that multi-day operations for the rover can be planned and uploaded, allowing the rover to continue in a range of activities, including driving, rather than necessarily spending the entire holiday periods parked-up and performing static science.

The next key activity for the rover is the uploading of the third new version of the on-board software. Such uploads are periodically needed in order to both prepare the rover for upcoming aspects of the mission and to improve its capabilities. This next update will see improvements in the information the rover is able to store overnight for the purposes of autonomous driving, updates to the software controlling the robot arm which should further increase the ability to use the arm when the rover is parked on a slope – something which is likely to be needed once Curiosity starts exploring “Mount Sharp”.

India Prepares to send MOM to Mars

Tuesday November 5th should see the launch of India’s first interplanetary mission.  The Mangalyaan (“Mars-craft”), also referred to as the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), is a hugely ambitious project. Not only is it India’s first attempt at an interplanetary mission, it was only approved by the government of India on August 3rd, 2012. This is in marked contrast to India’s first lunar orbiter mission, which was announced in 2003 but not launched until 2008.

India's MOM mission profile (image courtesy of )
India’s MOM mission profile (image courtesy of Antriksh)

As well as forming a bona fide science mission, Mangalyaan is serving as something of a technology demonstrator showcasing India’s technological capabilities; the vehicle  is entirely an Indian, it will be launched atop an uprated version of India’s own Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle and will carry science instruments designed and built in India. Once in orbit around Mars in September 2014, the vehicle will use a high-tech suite of sensors to explore Mars’ surface features, morphology, mineralogy and the Martian atmosphere.


NASA’s Opportunity rover, heading towards the tenth anniversary of its arrival on Mars, is still exploring Endeavour Crater in the planet’s southern hemisphere.

With more than 3,470 Sols on Mars under its belt, the much smaller and slower solar-powered Mars Exploration Rover spent most of October edging its way up the side of a slope on the west side of the crater mission managers have dubbed “Solander Point”.  The protracted, month-long climb up the incline was intentional, allowing the mission team to examine a number of rocky outcrops while also ensuring the rover’s solar panels were angled to maximise energy collection ready for the upcoming winter.

“Solander Point” imaged by the Opportunity MER rover on October 21st, 2013, the rovers 3,463 Sol on Mars. Opportunity spent most of October slowing climbing the rise, using the angle of the climb to maximise the amount of sunlight striking its solar panels in order to help build the vehicle’s power reserves for the upcoming winter period.


November will also see the launch of NASA’s next mission to Mars. The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission is designed, as the name suggests, to carry out an extensive study of the Martian atmosphere, including trying to determine what caused water in the Martian atmosphere to be lost over time.

First announced in 2008 as a part of the Mars Scout programme, MAVEN will be only one of two mission to fly to Mars under that umbrella project, itself cancelled in 2010. The other mission was that of the Phoenix Lander which operated on Mars between May and November 2008.

MAVEN itself was recently threatened with the U.S. Federal government put the slated launch window for the mission (November 18th through December 7th) at risk. If the vehicle failed to launch by December 7th, the window would close and MAVEN would be unable to fly to Mars until the next optimal launch period in 2016. This would have in turn impacted the mission’s objectives, as MAVEN would be operating in orbit around Mars during a low point in the solar cycle, so solar activity would not be interacting with and energizing the Martian atmosphere on the desired scale.

MAVEN is lowered in a Thermal Vacuum (TVAC) chamber where its systems will be tested in an environment simulating interplanetary space (image courtesy of Lockheed Martin)
MAVEN is lowered in a Thermal Vacuum (TVAC) chamber where its systems will be tested in an environment simulating interplanetary space (image courtesy of Lockheed Martin)

Fortunately, NASA was able to demonstrate the MAVEN, with its communications capabilities, is a critical element in ensuring continued communications between Earth and assets already on the surface of Mars, and so secured permission for spacecraft launch preparations to continue through the shutdown and keep the program on track.

Once launched, MAVEN will fly to Mars over a ten-month period, arriving in orbit there in September 2014, around the same time as India’s MOM arrives. Once there, the primary science mission for the vehicle is liable to last one Earth year. during which it will study the Martian atmosphere and its interactions with the solar wind.

I’ll be bringing more on MOM and MAVEN alongside updates on Curiosity.

Related Links

All images courtesy NASA / JPL, unless otherwise stated.


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