687 days on

CuriosityMonday June 23rd was notable in two worlds as a special occasion.

For the virtual world of Second Life, it marked the 11th anniversary of opening the doors to the public. On Mars, it marked the completion of Curiosity’s first Martian year on the planet (687 days).

To mark the event, NASA released a “selfie” of the rover as it sat next to a rock called “Windjana”, which was the site of the rover’s third drilling / sample gathering operation, in the region dubbed “The Kimberley”.

The images used in the picture were captured using the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), located on the turret mounted on the rover’s robot arm, were captured on 613th Martian day, or Sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars (April 27th, 2014, PDT) and Sol 627 (May 12th, 2014, PDT). Combined, they show the rover in a parked configuration together with the sample gathering hole cut into “Windjana”, the drilling operation having taken place on Sol 621 (Monday May 5th, 2014, PDT).

Curiosity's selfie: all of the rover except the robot arm is visible in this composite image made up of shots taken before and after the "Windjana" sample drilling - the hole from which is visible, lower left
Curiosity’s selfie: all of the rover except the robot arm is visible in this composite image made up of shots taken before and after the “Windjana” sample drilling – the hole from which is visible, lower left

Since that time, the rover has resumed the drive down towards “Murray Buttes”, the point where it is hoped Curiosity will be able to bypass a line of sand dunes and make its way onto the lower slopes of “Mount Sharp”, more properly called Aeolis Mons, the large mound occupying the central area of Gale Crater and the missions’ primary target for investigation.

Curiosity is now over half-way to “Murray Buttes”, with no further major waypoints to be examined on the route. however, due to the wear-and-tear on the rover’s wheels while traversing a part of “The Kimberley” and “Cooperstown” before it, the route southwards has been revised somewhat to offer smoother driving terrain for the rover.

The added wear-and-tear of the wheel first became something of a concern in February of this year, and later prompted a revision to in the planned route to reach the desired waypoint at “The Kimberley” and also in the rover driving team perfecting new techniques for driving the rover – such as by taking it backwards over some terrain.

The (Martian) year to date: from Bradbury Landing in august 2012, through “Glenelg” and “Yellowknife Bay” and onwards to “The Kimberley”, Curiosity’s travels in Gale Crater and, in white, the planned route to “Murray Buttes”.

Following its departure from “The Kimberley” on Sol 630 (May 15th, 2014, PDT), the rover drove almost continuously for a month, covering a further 1.2 kilometres 0.75 miles), and is still continuing onwards.

Although Curiosity’s route will carry it past the majority of the sand dunes between it and “Mount Sharp”, it will have to traverse an area of sand in order to reach its major target. To help with this, the rover’s Earthbound “stunt double”, dubbed the Scarecrow, was taken out to the Dumont Dunes in California’s Mojave Desert, near Death Valley, where it was put through a series of test drives over real and artificially constructed sand dunes and various terrains. This allowed engineers to examine the rover’s behaviour over softer terrain types, enabling them to better understand how the rover might react when encountering similar surfaces on Mars.

Orion Progress

The next generation space vehicle, called the Orion MPCV, which NASA plans to use to send crews on deep space missions achieved two key milstones over the last week. In the first, the Crew Module of the first Orion test flight vehicle was attached to its Service Module in readiness for its maiden flight at the end of 2014.

The Orion MPCV: the Crew Module and Service Module with solar panels deployed for electrical power (image: Lockheed Martin)

Orion’s heritage is similar to that of Apollo from the 1960/70s. The basic vehicle comprises two parts: the Crew Module (CM), being built by Lockheed Martin, and a Service Module (SM), holding the spacecraft’s propulsion system and expendable supplies, being supplied by  Astrium as an evolution of ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle, Europe’s uncrewed vehicle capable of lifting up to 8 tonnes of supplies and cargo to the ISS.

The vehicle’s launch abort system will now be added to the vehicle, in readiness for transfer and mating to its Delta IV launch vehicle. The launch abort system is a shroud which covers the Cree Module and which has a set of rockets mounted on a truss extending from its tip. Should an Orion launch vehicle experience a malfunction which threatens the crew, the rockets on the system will automatically fire and haul the Crew Module free of the launch vehicle and to an altitude where the Orion vehicle can detach and its parachute system deploy safely during descent, bringing the crew securely back to Earth.

And it was the parachute system which marked Orion achieving its second milestone for the week as the 14th and most complex in a series of 17 parachute drop tests took place on Wednesday June 25th. In the test, an Orion test vehicle was lifted to 10,670 metres (35,000 ft) and then dropped out the back of an aircraft to enter free fall for a 10-second period prior to the parachutes being deployed.

The Orions parachute test just after all three parachute have deployed (via live NASA broadcast)
The Orion parachute test just after all three parachute have deployed (via live NASA broadcast)

The test was deigned to put the maximum aerodynamic stress on the parachutes as they deployed, testing them and the “reefing” technique which allows them to be deployed and then slowly open in sequence, greatly reduced the shock of deceleration on both vehicle and crew.

The first planned flight of Orion will be uncrewed, and should take place on or about December 4th, 2014. It is a planned 4.5 hour mission to test the vehicle’s launch and EDL (entry, descent and landing) systems. There will then be a three-year wait while the purpose-built launcher, called the Space launch System, or SLS, for the vehicle completes construction.

At the end of 2017, another uncrewed Orion vehicle will be launched on a circumlunar flight which will test both the SLS and Orion’s EDL systems when returning to Earth at lunar mission velocities (e.g. 48,000 kph or 25,000 mph as opposed to Earth-orbital 28,000 kph / 17,500 mph). Currently, the first crewed mission for Orion is slated for 2021 as a part of a 2-part mission to recover and examine a near-Earth asteroid.