Kevin M. Gill is a software engineer, planetary and climate data wrangler at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He’s been working with digital terrain models and ortho images from the HiRISE imaging system aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to create some stunning computer models and images of Endeavour and Gale craters, where the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers are exploring, as well as other regions of Mars. These have caused a stir on social media this week, and rightly so.
Kevin provides a detailed description of how he produces the images, which involves a range of software tools including ImageMagick, Maya and Photoshop. For those interested in creating computer renderings, his post makes a fascinating read; for those who love images of Mars, his images offer a stunning new perspective on the planet. The images utilise a slight vertical height exaggeration and false colour / lighting adjusted to Earth daylight standards, but the results are undeniably stunning.
Some of the images offer a unique perspective on surface features, such as the one above, showing a volcanic fissure in Cerberus Palas in the north-eastern Elysium quadrangle of Mars.
For those interested in producing vistas of Mars in a platform such as Linden Lab’s Sansar, Kevin’s work and notes could offer a starting point. In turn, Sansar could offer the perfect VR visualisation platform for allowing people to “visit” and learn about Mars.
Meanwhile, the MSL team are moving closer to resuming drilling operations with the Curiosity rover.
These were suspended in December 2016. Prior to that, Curiosity had used the drill system mounted on its robot arm a total of 15 times between 2013 and 2016. On each of those occasions, two contact post, one either side of the bit, were placed on the target rock before the bit was extended by the drill feed mechanism, helping to gauge and support the drill. It was reliability issues with the feed mechanism which led to the suspension of all drilling operations.
Engineers have been investigating ways to use the drill without any reliance on the feed mechanism. This requires the drill to remain extended, the rover’s arm bringing it directly in contact with the rock to be drilled, without any support from the stabilising arms. In order for this to work, it is essential the drill bit – which not only cuts into rocks, but gathers samples from within them – can be placed with minimal downward or side-to-side pressure or motion on it, to ensure it is not damaged or becomes stuck.
The issue here is that when supported by the stabilisers, the drill had only one axis of movement, without them, it could be subject to fix degree freedom of movement as vibrations from the drilling process feed back into the rover’s arm. To minimise this risk, tests are being carried out to determine if sensors in the robot arm are sensitive enough to detect potentially damaging motions in the drill when in use, and shut down the drilling operation.
To this end, on October 17th, 2017, Curiosity was commanded to place the drill bit in contact with a rock for the first time in ten months and without the use of the stabilisers. The bit was then gently pressed downward and moved slightly from side-to-side to see how well the sensors responded, the idea being that when the drill resumes operations, the sensors can be used to automatically detect potentially harmful movements in the drill head which could result in the bit being damage or becoming stuck.
It’s still likely to be several months before Curiosity resumes drilling operations, with further tests in the planning. However, mission managers are optimistic the rover will at some point be able to resume use the drill to gather samples from within rocks for analysis.
Deep Space Gateway Gains Momentum
On November 1st, 2017, NASA awarded contracts to five companies to examine how they can develop a power and propulsion module as the initial element of the agency’s proposed Deep Space Gateway.
As currently envisioned, the power and propulsion module will generate electrical power for the gateway, provide a communications relay and use a solar electric engine for manoeuvring the station in cislunar space. NASA had been examining their own ideas for the module, but it is hoped that the contracts will allow industry the chance to present their own ideas and technologies in support of the module’s development.
Part of the NASA studies involve the use of a 50-kilowatt solar electric propulsion (SEP) motor for the module, the idea being that if successful, the system could be scaled-up for use on missions to Mars. While SEP systems can’t generate much thrust, they can run for long periods and are far more efficient than chemical systems.
NASA had planned to test the SEP concept on the robotic portion of the now-cancelled Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), in which a robotic spacecraft would obtain a boulder-sized sample of a near Earth asteroid and return it to cislunar space for examination by astronauts. With the cancellation of that mission, the SEP programme has been in limbo; so issuing the contracts might both help revive the SEP project and allow commercial organisations weigh-in on the work.
These contracts are separate from those issued in 2016 to examine development of habitat modules for the gateway. However, all five of the companies that received contracts for Power and Propulsion Element studies also either have a habitat award or are partnered with a company that does.
How NASA plans to proceed with development of the station, including how it procures it from industry, will depend on the outcome of the studies as well as NASA’s overall exploration planning. At this point in time – and despite the October 5th, 2017 directive from the inaugural meeting of the re-invoked US National Space Council (NSC) concerning an American return to the Moon – the Deep Space Gateway remains a concept, not a formal NASA programme.
Also interested in participating in the programme is the European Space Agency. They are hoping to have a dedicated module forming part of the station, and are offering to develop a resupply system potentially capable of delivering up to nine tonnes of supplies to the Gateway.
The resupply vehicle would likely use the Ariane 6 launcher and solar electric propulsion system, rated around 60 kilowatts. ESA representatives believe the system could be ready for operation in 2025 or 2026, which fits with the time frame for the station’s development – which could see the power and propulsion module launched in 2022, as part of NASA’s Exploration Mission 2 mission for the Orion / Space Launch System. In the meantime, the first launch of the Ariane 6 booster is currently scheduled for 2020.