August 2016 sees NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity rack up four (terrestrial) years of operations on the surface of Mars.
The rover marked this anniversary rather quietly, by preparing to take further rock samples, this time from a target dubbed “Marimba”. Once gathered, the samples will be subjected to on-board analysis by Curiosity using the compact laboratory systems contained the rover’s body.
The sampling take place as the rover is engaged in a multi-month ascent of a mudstone geological unit as it continues its climb towards higher and progressively younger geological areas on “Mount Sharp” (more correctly, Aeolis Mons), which will include some rock types not yet explored.
In the meantime, examining the samples gathered from “Marimba” will allow a direct comparison with mudstone samples gathered further down the slopes of “Mount Sharp” and from the flatlands of Gale Crater. This will enable scientists to build a more complete picture of the mineral and chemical environment the rover is travelling through, and so further understand the general conditions which may have once have existed within the crater.
Goodnight from a Lunar Jade Rabbit
China has finally bid farewell to Yutu (“Jade Rabbit”, named for the companion to the Moon goddess Chang’e), its first lunar robotic explorer, after 31 months of surface operations.
The little solar-powered rover arrived on the lunar surface as part of Chain’s Chang’e 3 lander / rover mission on December 13, 2013, and was deployed from the lander some 7.5 hours after touch-down.
However, due to the vast temperature differential experienced between the sunlit and shadowed parts of the rover at the time of the landing, operations didn’t commence until December 21st, when the rover was uniformly lit by the Sun. It’s first activity was to drive part-way around its parent lander and photograph it. After this, the rover travelled some 40 metres (130 ft) from the lander to commence independent science operations studying the lunar surface.
Yutu was designed to operate for just three months and travel up to 10 km (6.2 mi) within an area of 3 square kilometres (1.2 sq mi). Following its expose to the first 14-day long lunar “night”, the rover resumed operations in January 2014. However, as the second lunar night period approached (lasting 14 terrestrial days), the rover suffered a glitch in its drive mechanisms, leaving it susceptible to the harsh cold of the night-time, and on February 12th, following its second Lunar night, the rover was declared lost … only to resume communications with Earth within 24 hours.
Since that time, although immobilised, the little rover has maintained almost regular contact with Earth, but with each night period taking an increasing tolls on its systems. Even so, its continued survival gained it a huge and loyal following on the Chinese micro-blogging site, Weibo, where in a leaf firmly pulled from NASA’s book of social media engagement, Yutu had a first-person account.
It was via that social media account that Yutu’s final demise was announced, as if from the rover itself, on August 2nd 2016:
This time it really is goodnight. There are still many questions I would like answers to, but I’m the rabbit that has seen the most stars. The Moon has prepared a long dream for me, I don’t know what it will be like – will I be a Mars explorer, or be sent back to Earth?
The message gained a huge response from the rover’s 600,000 followers, and the Chinese space agency officially confirmed the rover had “died”, on Wednesday, August 3rd.
Continue reading “Space Sunday: of Martian and lunar robots, distant worlds and ET”