Tracking a lonely journey and marking a decade

CuriosityCuriosity, the NASA rover carrying the Mars Science Laboratory is continuing towards its rendezvous with the foothills of “Mount Sharp” (Aeolis Mons) in Gale Crater, Mars. As such, there is little coming out of NASA in terms of updates on progress (which would likely sound the robotic equivalent of “Are we there yet?” “No!” cycles).

However, on January 9th, NASA released several images captured by the  High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Taken in both black-and-white and colour, these show Curiosity’s long and lonely drive across the “magnificent desolation” of Gale Crater.

Tracking Curiosity's progress towards "Mount Sharp" - the arrows point towards to tracks left by the rover as it heads southwest towards a gap in the dune field (seen lower right) sitting between it and the foothills of it's primary destination (click to enlarge)

Tracking Curiosity’s progress towards “Mount Sharp” – the arrows point towards to tracks left by the rover as it heads southwest towards a gap in the dune field (seen lower right) sitting between it and the foothills of its primary destination. For scale, the wheel tracks are about 3 metres (10 feet) apart (click to enlarge)

The images show the rover’s tracks as it manoeuvred around obstacles on its route toward the lower slopes of “Mount Sharp”, and were captured in early December 2013 as the MRO, which acts the and primary communications relay between Earth and Curiosity, passed over the rover’s location at an altitude  of some 250-316 kilometres (160-196 miles).

HiRISE first imaged the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft while it was descending on a parachute to place Curiosity on Mars 17 months ago. Since then, it has provided updated views of the rover’s traverse, as seen from orbit.

A rover’s progress: a large image of Curiosity’s journey, as captured by the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in December 11th, 2013. The rover itself is just out of frame to the lower left of the image. The orientation is so that north is to the top (click to enlarge)

At the time the images were captured, Curiosity had clocked-up some 4.61 kilometres (2.86 miles) since its arrival in Gale Crater in August 2012. The long trek in a generally southwest direction commenced in the latter half of 2013, after the rover had spent some six months within the “Glenelg” and “Yellowknife Bay” areas of the crater studying a range of rock and surface conditions which allowed Curiosity to meet criteria relevant to its primary mission objective – to determine whether Mars may have once harboured conditions in which life might have arisen.

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover and tracks left by its driving appear in this portion of a Dec. 11, 2013, observation by the The rover is near the lower-left corner of this view. For scale, the two parallel lines of the wheel tracks are about 3 metres (10 feet) apart.

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover and tracks left by its driving appear in this portion of a Dec. 11, 2013, observation by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The rover is near the lower-left corner of this view. For scale, the two parallel lines of the wheel tracks are about 3 metres (10 feet) apart (click to enlarge)

 Ten Years

January 24th 2014 will mark a very special anniversary. It was on January 24th, 2004, that the second of NASA’s solar-powered Mars Exploration Rovers (MERs), Opportunity, arrived on Mars. Its robotic sibling, Spirit, arrived a little earlier in the month – January 3rd. Sadly, Spirit is no longer active, its official status having been declared as “ended” as of March 2010, after almost a year stuck in soft soil and operating as a stationary research station.

At the time of their arrival, both Spirit (officially designated MER-A) and Opportunity (officially MER-B) were given a primary mission time of just 90 days on the surface of Mars, engineers believing that a combination of the harsh environmental conditions and things like dust accumulation on the rovers’ solar panels would limit their ability to function / draw energy from the sun.

A "selfie" by Opportunity, showing the pristine solar panels as seen from the rover's mast-mounted Panoramic Camera

A “selfie” by Opportunity, showing the pristine solar panels as seen from the rover’s mast-mounted Panoramic Camera (click to enlarge)

As it turned out, Spirit remained functional for some 2,269 days (2208 Sols) from arrival through to the last contact date of March 22nd, 2010, (although attempts to re-establish communications with the rover continued through until May 2011). Opportunity,  still actively exploring, has now been operating for some 3,640 days (3,543 Sols).

To celebrate the achievements of both of these remarkable rovers, NASA has and is holding a series of lectures and presentation through January 2014, and has issued a number of commemorative slide shows, calendars and more through the MER-10 website, which offers a fascinating means of catching-up with this remarkable mission.  There is also a large-format slide show available featuring highlights of the MER mission.

Another "selfie" showing the acculation of dust on the solar panels. It had been thought this would interrupt the rover's ability to harness solar energy and thus limit its life span. However, seasonal wind vortices - dust devils - have been shown to periodically "clean" the panels and return them to a near-pristine look (see image above). This allowed both Opportunity and Spirit to massively exceed their anticipated operational lifetimes (click to enlarge)

Another “selfie” showing the accumulation of dust on the solar panels. It had been thought this would interrupt the rover’s ability to harness solar energy and thus limit its life span. However, seasonal wind vortices – dust devils – have been shown to periodically “clean” the panels and return them to a near-pristine look (see image above). This allowed both Opportunity and Spirit to massively exceed their anticipated operational lifetimes (click to enlarge)

Congratulations To Steve Squyres and the entire MER science and engineering teams on reaching the mission’s 10th anniversary – and best wishes to “Oppy” as it continues to explore Mars in the shadow of it’s bigger cousin.

MSL coverage in this blog

All images courtesy of NASA / JPL

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