NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity continues to climb Aeolis Mons (“Mount Sharp”), and in doing so, it has been once again imaged from orbit by the HiRISE camera system on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The image was captured on June 5th, 2017 (Curiosity’s 1717th Martian Sol), at the same time the rover was engaged in taking colour images of its surrounding using its mast-mounted Navcam system.
MRO has actually been imaging Curiosity roughly once every three months, as the orbiter’s track around Mars carries it over “Mount Sharp” and the rover’s route up the mound’s flank. However, these aren’t simply happy snaps of the rover’s progress: MRO is actively monitoring the terrain around the rover to allow scientists to check for changes – such as movement among sand dunes – and to help plan the rover’s route up the slopes.
The June 5th image, released by NASA on June 20th, has been colour enhanced to better reveal Curiosity as a bright blue feature. To give an idea of scale and resolution, the rover is some 3 metres (10ft) in length and 2.8 metres (9 ft) wide.
Curiosity is currently traversing ground between two points of scientific interest: the “Bagnold Dunes”, an area of sand dunes which are slowly progressing down the side of “Mount Sharp” as a result of both wind action and gravity; and a high-standing ridge which runs parallel to the eastward side of the dune field. Dubbed the “Vera Rubin Ridge” after the American astronomer who pioneered work on galaxy rotation rates, this ridge line is of interest to scientists because it has been shown to exhibit signatures of hematite, an oxidized iron mineral which can provide clues to the environmental conditions on this region of “Mount Sharp” when it formed.
The route to the ridge is slightly circuitous. At the moment the rover is heading east-north-east around a small set of dunes. Once clear of them it will turn south-east and drive to where a potential safe route up onto the ridge has been identified. The drive is further slowed as Curiosity periodically pauses to capture images of the feature to help scientists characterize any observed layers, fractures, or geologic contacts and better understand determine how the ridge formed, and its relationship to the other geologic units found within Gale Crater.
At the same time NASA released the image of Curiosity seen from orbit, half a world away, attempts to correct a wheel problem the solar-powered Opportunity Mars Exploration Rover (MER) had been experiencing appeared to end in partial success.
“Oppy” had suffered a failure with its left-front wheel steering actuator on June 4th, leaving the wheel angled and unable to straighten. After numerous attempts to correct the issue, a new approach tested on June 20th resulted in the wheel turning correctly and resuming its proper alignment with the other wheels. However, what originally caused the actuator to fail remains unknown, and there is concern that it might recur.
To limit the risk of this happening and possibly stranding “Oppy”, the rover will avoid all use of its front wheel steering, and will only use its rear wheel steering when absolutely necessary. To maintain manoeuvrability, it will instead rely on “tank steering” – effectively running the drive motors for the wheels on one side of the rover in opposition to those on the other, allowing Opportunity to turn left or right more-or-less on the spot, a technique the rover is designed to use. This should allow the rover to continue its current survey of “Perseverance Valley” in preparation for a descent into Endeavour Crater.
“Planet Nine” Set to Become “Planet Ten”?
I’ve written extensively in these pages about the hunt for “Planet Nine” (or “Planet X” or “George”, “Jehoshaphat” or “Planet of the Apes” as some would have it): the Neptune-sized world believed to be orbiting the sun at a distance of at least 200 astronomical units (AUs – one AU being the average distance of the Earth from the Sun) in a highly eccentric orbit. The search for that world is still continuing, but if a new study is confirmed, that mystery world may well have to give up its “Planet Nine” title for another.
Kat Volk and Renu Malhotra of the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, offer compelling evidence of a yet-to-be-discovered planetary body with a mass somewhere between that of Mars and Earth, orbiting the Sun much closer than the mysterious “Planet Nine”, at around 50 AU distance.
Whilst carrying out a detailed studying of Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) – the disk of rocky asteroids and comets surrounding the Sun from a distance of around 30 AU to about 50-60 AU, Volk and Malhotra discovered a consistent anomaly. Whilst most KBOs surround the sun with orbital inclinations that average out to what planetary scientists call the “invariable plane of the solar system”, they discovered that the more distance KBOs – those around 50 AU or over from the Sun are tilted away from the invariable plane by about eight degrees.
The pair surveyed around 600 of the 2,000 observed KBOs, and found all of those on the outer reaches of the Kuiper Belt to be inclined from the invariable plane by roughly the same amount and in numbers that tend to preclude a statistical fluke. In modelling possible causes for this, they discovered that an object with a mass of Mars, orbiting about 50-60 AU would cause just such a disruption, as would a Earth-sized body slightly further away.
However, Volk and Malhotra carefully avoid any suggestion there is a Mars- or Earth-sized body is awaiting discovery, noting that the disruption might also be the result of several large (but not planet-sized) masses lying within the outer fringes of the Kuiper belt. Even so, a single body would seem more likely, and given it is effectively sitting within the galactic plane – an area so densely packed with stars that solar system surveys tend to avoid it – could explain why it has been able to remain undetected.
But it might not remain hidden for much longer. 2020 should see the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) come on-line. This 8.4 metre (27.6 ft) primary mirror telescope is due to commence a 10-year sky survey in 2022. Among other things, it is expected to increase the number of KBOs so far observed from 2000 – to over 40,000 as it carries out real-time surveys of the sky, night after night. In doing so, it could well find any planet-sized body lurking near them.