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Mars: sharp image of Mount Sharp

MSL image of Mount Sharp

This mosaic of images from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity shows Mount Sharp in a white-balanced colour adjustment that makes the sky look overly blue but shows the terrain as if under Earth-like lighting.

RISING ABOVE THE PRESENT location of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, higher than any mountain in the 48 contiguous states of the United States, Mount Sharp is featured in new imagery from the rover.

A pair of mosaics assembled from dozens of telephoto images shows Mount Sharp in dramatic detail. The component images were taken by the 100-millimetre-focal-length telephoto lens camera mounted on the right side of Curiosity’s remote sensing mast, during the 45th Martian day of the rover’s mission on Mars (September 20, 2012).

The image above is only a small part of the whole panorama – you can see the full panorama here.

This layered mound, also called Aeolis Mons, in the centre of Gale Crater rises more than five kilometres above the crater floor location of Curiosity. Lower slopes of Mount Sharp remain a destination for the mission, though the rover will first spend many more weeks around a location called ‘Yellowknife Bay,’ where it has found evidence of a past environment favourable for microbial life.

A version of the mosaic that has been white-balanced to show the terrain as if under Earthlike lighting, which makes the sky look overly blue, can be seen here.

White-balanced versions help scientists recognise rock materials based on their terrestrial experience. The Martian sky would look like more of a butterscotch colour to the human eye. A version of the mosaic with raw colour, as a typical smart-phone camera would show the scene, is here.

In both versions, the sky has been filled out by extrapolating colour and brightness information from the portions of the sky that were captured in images of the terrain.

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory project is using Curiosity and the rover’s 10 science instruments to investigate environmental history within Gale Crater, a location where the project has found that conditions were long ago favourable for microbial life.

More information:

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory page

JPL’s Mars Science Laboratory page

Curiosity’s Twitter page

Adapted from information issued by JPL.

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Curiosity spotted from above

Curiosity Spotted on Parachute by Orbiter

NASA's Curiosity rover and its parachute were spotted by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as Curiosity descended to the surface.

AN IMAGE FROM THE High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance orbiter (MRO) captured the Curiosity rover still connected to its almost 16-metre-wide parachute as it descended towards its landing site at Gale Crater.

“If HiRISE took the image one second before or one second after, we probably would be looking at an empty Martian landscape,” said Sarah Milkovich, HiRISE investigation scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“When you consider that we have been working on this sequence since March and had to upload commands to the spacecraft about 72 hours prior to the image being taken, you begin to realise how challenging this picture was to obtain.”

The image was taken while MRO was 340 kilometres away from the parachuting rover. Curiosity and its rocket-propelled backpack, contained within the conical-shaped back shell, had yet to be deployed. At the time, Curiosity was about three kilometres above the Martian surface.

“Guess you could consider us the closest thing to paparazzi on Mars,” said Milkovich. “We definitely caught NASA’s newest celebrity in the act.”

Map showing Curiosity's landing site

The green diamond shows approximately where NASA's Curiosity rover landed on Mars, a region about 2 kilometres northeast of its target in the centre of the estimated landing region (blue ellipse).

Curiosity’s parachute performed perfectly

HiRISE captured the image while the orbiter was listening to transmissions from the rover. Curiosity and its parachute are in the centre of the white box; the inset image is an enlargement, adjusted to avoid brightness saturation.

The rover was seen descending toward the etched plains just north of the sand dunes that fringe “Mt. Sharp”. From the perspective of the orbiter, the parachute and Curiosity were flying at an angle relative to the surface, so the landing site does not appear directly below the rover.

The parachute appeared fully inflated and performing perfectly. Details in the parachute, such as the band gap at the edges and the central hole, are clearly seen. The cords connecting the parachute to the back shell cannot be seen. The bright spot on the back shell containing Curiosity might be a specular reflection off of a shiny area. Curiosity was released from the back shell sometime after this image was acquired.

Rover’s second day on Mars

In other Curiosity news, one part of the rover team at the JPL continues to analyse the data from yesterday’s landing while another continues to prepare the one-tonne mobile laboratory for its future explorations of Gale Crater.

One key assignment given to Curiosity for its first full day on Mars is to raise its high-gain antenna. Using this antenna will increase the data rate at which the rover can communicate directly with Earth. The mission will use relays to orbiters as the primary method for sending data home, because that method is much more energy-efficient for the rover.

Image from one of Curiosity's Hazcams

A better version of yesterday's image taken by a rear Hazard-Avoidance camera on NASA's Curiosity rover. The image shows part of the radioisotope thermoelectric generator (the rover's power source), the rear left wheel and a spring that released the dust cover on the Hazard-Avoidance camera. Part of the rim of Gale Crater, which is a feature the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, can be seen at the upper right of the image.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Arizona.

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Curiosity rover lands on Mars

NASA’S MOST ADVANCED Mars rover, Curiosity, has landed on the Red Planet. The one-ton rover, hanging by ropes from a rocket backpack, touched down onto Mars on August 6 (Australian time) to end a 36-week flight and begin a two-year investigation.

Another image of Mars from Curiosity

A Hazcam image of Mars from Curiosity, showing the shadow of the rover.

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft that carried Curiosity succeeded in every step of the most complex landing ever attempted on Mars, including the final severing of the bridle cords and flyaway manoeuvre of the rocket backpack.

“Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars.  Curiosity, the most sophisticated rover ever built, is now on the surface of the Red Planet, where it will seek to answer age-old questions about whether life ever existed on Mars — or if the planet can sustain life in the future,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “This is an amazing achievement, made possible by a team of scientists and engineers from around the world and led by the extraordinary men and women of NASA and our Jet Propulsion Laboratory. President Obama has laid out a bold vision for sending humans to Mars in the mid-2030’s, and today’s landing marks a significant step toward achieving this goal.”

Rover’s landing a triumph

Curiosity landed at 3:32pm Australian Eastern Standard Time (1:32am US EDT Aug. 6) near the foot of a mountain 5.5 kilometres tall and 154 kilometres in diameter inside Gale Crater. During a nearly two-year prime mission, the rover will investigate whether the region ever offered conditions favourable for microbial life.

“The Seven Minutes of Terror has turned into the Seven Minutes of Triumph,” said NASA Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld. “My immense joy in the success of this mission is matched only by overwhelming pride I feel for the women and men of the mission’s team.”

Curiosity returned its first view of Mars, a wide-angle scene of rocky ground near the front of the rover. More images are anticipated in the next several days as the mission blends observations of the landing site with activities to configure the rover for work and check the performance of its instruments and mechanisms.

Confirmation of Curiosity’s successful landing came in communications relayed by NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter and received by the Canberra, Australia, antenna station of NASA’s Deep Space Network.

Image of Mars from the Curiosity rover

This is one of the first images taken by NASA's Curiosity rover. It was taken through a "fish-eye" wide-angle lens on the left "eye" of a stereo pair of Hazard-Avoidance cameras on the left-rear side of the rover. The image is one-half of full resolution. The clear dust cover that protected the camera during landing has been sprung open. Part of the spring that released the dust cover can be seen at the bottom right, near the rover's wheel. On the top left, part of the rover's power supply is visible. Some dust appears on the lens even with the dust cover off. The cameras are looking directly into the sun, so the top of the image is saturated. Looking straight into the sun does not harm the cameras. The lines across the top are an artifact called "blooming" that occurs in the camera's detector because of the saturation.

First images from Mars

About two hours after landing on Mars and beaming back its first image, NASA’s Curiosity rover transmitted a higher-resolution image (top of this page) of its new Martian home, Gale Crater. Mission Control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, received the image, taken by one of the vehicle’s lower-fidelity, black-and-white Hazard Avoidance Cameras – or Hazcams.

“Curiosity’s landing site is beginning to come into focus,” said John Grotzinger, project manager of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “In the image, we are looking to the northwest. What you see on the horizon is the rim of Gale Crater. In the foreground, you can see a gravel field. The question is, where does this gravel come from?  It is the first of what will be many scientific questions to come from our new home on Mars.”

While the image is twice as big in pixel size as the first images beamed down from the rover, they are only half the size of full-resolution Hazcam images. During future mission operations, these images will be used by the mission’s navigators and rover drivers to help plan the vehicle’s next drive. Other cameras aboard Curiosity, with colour capability and much higher resolution, are expected to be sent back to Earth over the next several days.

Curiosity’s mission begins in earnest

Curiosity carries 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science payloads on the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Some of the tools are the first of their kind on Mars, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking elemental composition of rocks from a distance. The rover will use a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover.

To handle this science toolkit, Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as Spirit or Opportunity. The Gale Crater landing site places the rover within driving distance of layers of the crater’s interior mountain. Observations from orbit have identified clay and sulphate minerals in the lower layers, indicating a wet history

For more information on the mission, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/mars

http://marsprogram.jpl.nasa.gov/msl

Follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at:

http://www.facebook.com/marscuriosity

http://www.twitter.com/marscuriosity

Adapted from information issued by NASA/JPL-Caltech.

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Mars landing today

Artist's impression of Curiosity about to land on Mars

Artist's impression of Curiosity about to land on Mars.

THE GRAVITATIONAL TUG Mars is now pulling NASA’s car-size geochemistry laboratory, Curiosity, in for a suspenseful landing in just hours.

“After flying more than eight months and 367 million kilometres [350 million miles] since launch, the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is now right on target to fly through the eye of the needle that is our target at the top of the Mars atmosphere,” said Mission Manager Arthur Amador of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

The spacecraft is healthy and on course for delivering the mission’s Curiosity rover close to a Martian mountain at 3:31pm Australian Eastern Standard time on Monday, August 6 (10:31pm Sunday, Aug. 5 US PDT, or 1:31am Monday, Aug. 6 US EDT). That’s the time a signal confirming safe landing could reach Earth, give or take about a minute for the spacecraft’s adjustments to sense changeable atmospheric conditions.

The only way a safe-landing confirmation can arrive during that first opportunity is via a relay by NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter. Curiosity will not be communicating directly with Earth as it lands, because Earth will set beneath the Martian horizon from Curiosity’s perspective about two minutes before the landing.

“We are expecting Odyssey to relay good news,” said Steve Sell of the JPL engineering team that developed and tested the mission’s complicated “sky crane” landing system. “That moment has been more than eight years in the making.”

WATCH THE LANDING LIVE

The following sites will be streaming live coverage of Curiosity’s landing:

NASA.gov

NASA’s YouTube channel

NASA UStream

All systems go

A dust storm in southern Mars being monitored by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter appears to be dissipating. “Mars is cooperating by providing good weather for landing,” said JPL’s Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for Curiosity.

Curiosity was approaching Mars at about 12,800 km/h, Saturday morning. By the time the spacecraft hits the top of Mars’ atmosphere, about seven minutes before touchdown, gravity will accelerate it to about 21,000 km/h.

NASA plans to use Curiosity to investigate whether the study area has ever offered environmental conditions favourable for microbial life, including chemical ingredients for life.

“In the first few weeks after landing, we will be ramping up science activities gradually as we complete a series of checkouts and we gain practice at operating this complex robot in Martian conditions,” said JPL’s Richard Cook, deputy project manager for Curiosity.

First pictures

The first Mars pictures expected from Curiosity are reduced-resolution fisheye black-and-white images received either in the first few minutes after touchdown or more than two hours later. Higher resolution and colour images from other cameras could come later in the first week. Plans call for Curiosity to deploy a directional antenna on the first day after landing and raise the camera mast on the second day.

The big hurdle is landing. Under some possible scenarios, Curiosity could land safely, but temporary communication difficulties could delay for hours or even days any confirmation that the rover has survived landing.

The prime mission lasts a full Martian year, which is nearly two Earth years. During that period, researchers plan to drive Curiosity partway up a mountain informally called Mount Sharp. Observations from orbit have identified exposures there of clay and sulphate minerals that formed in wet environments.

Information about the mission and about ways to participate in challenges of the landing, including a new video game:

http://www.nasa.gov/mars

http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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The year ahead in space

Artist's impression of the Curiosity rover on Mars.

Artist's impression of the Curiosity rover on Mars. The craft is due to arrive on Mars on August 6, 2012.

THIS YEAR IS GOING TO BE A BIG ONE in terms of space activity, and will include some events you’ll be able to experience firsthand. Let’s count down the top five.

At number five we have NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, carrying the Curiosity rover to the Red Planet. Scheduled to arrive on August 6, it will land in Gale Crater (named after a 19th-20th century Australian astronomer, Walter Frederick Gale) and look for signs of organic chemicals. The 900-kilogram, nuclear-powered rover has a primary mission of two years but is expected to last for much longer than that.

At number four we have the total eclipse of the Sun on November 14. The path of totality runs along a narrow west-east strip of far northern Queensland, taking in Cairns and surrounding areas. The thousands of people who are expected to flock to the area will experience two minutes of totality shortly after sunrise—observers elsewhere in Australia will witness a partial eclipse.

After this, the next total solar eclipse to be visible from Australia will be in 2028, when the path of totality will run straight through Sydney.

Transit of Venus

The transit of Venus will be seen on the morning of June 6 in Australia. There won't be another one until the year 2117.

Coming in at number three is an event you won’t want to miss, as you’ll never get a chance to see another one. It’s the transit of Venus, which will happen on the morning of June 6. A transit occurs when one of the inner planets, in this case Venus, moves between Earth and the Sun and we see it as a small black dot slowly crawling across the solar face. It was to observe a transit of Venus that Captain Cook travelled to the South Pacific in the 18th century … and on his way home bumped into a certain large, dry continent, girt by sea.

Transits of Venus are very rare. They happen in pairs eight years apart (so the last one was in 2004), but between pairs there is a gap of over 100 years. So the 20th century totally missed out, and after June there won’t be another one until the year 2117. So don’t miss it!

Number two on our list is the decision on where the Square Kilometre Array, or SKA, will be built. The SKA will be an enormous network of radio dishes and antennae spread over an area the size of a continent. It will enable astronomers to look back towards the beginning of time, and study the evolution of stars and galaxies throughout cosmic history.

Artist's impression of part of the Square Kilometre Array.

Artist's impression of part of the Square Kilometre Array.

In a situation reminiscent of the Olympics, two regions have put in bids to host the facility and are eagerly awaiting the decision of the international panel. A joint bid by Australia and New Zealand is up against a consortium of southern African countries. The decision could be announced next month. If Australasia gets it, the core of the network will be located in a remote region of Western Australia, but with many other dishes spread out across the nation and into New Zealand.

And so after all of these fantastic events, what could we possibly have in the number one spot on our countdown? What will be this year’s biggest cosmic event? Why, the very survival of Planet Earth of course! In case you haven’t heard, a lot of people seem to be very worried about two things—the apparent end of the Mayan Long Count calendar in December (and the implied end of civilisation as we know it), and a collision between Earth and a planet called Nibiru.

Well, as far as the Mayan calendar is concerned, there is no cause for alarm. Like the Gregorian calendar we use every day, it will simply tick over to a new Long Count and we’ll all live happily every after.

That is, unless we get wiped out by that collision with Nibiru. Frightened? Don’t be. For you see, there’s a basic flaw in the Nibiru hypothesis, and it’s simply this … Nibiru doesn’t exist. It’s a fiction invented by some loopy, cosmic conspiracy nutters. There is no evidence for such a planet, and no evidence that Earth is in any danger from a collision with any other planet, known or unknown. Phew!

UPDATE, February 6: BTW, I misspoke on the Today Show this morning, saying that the next total solar eclipse after this year’s one will occur in the year 2128. I should have said 2028 of course.

Story by Jonathan Nally

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VIDEO: The road to Mars

WHAT DOES IT TAKE to get a spacecraft from Earth all the way to Mars? There are a few key things to consider, as explained in this 60-second video from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL / Caltech.

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Road to Mars – Six minutes of terror!

Artist's impression of Mar Science Laboratory about to enter Mars' atmosphere.

Artist's impression of Mar Science Laboratory about to enter Mars' atmosphere.

THE MARS SCIENCE LABORATORY (MSL) team is calling it the “six minutes of terror”—the time between entering the Red Planet’s atmosphere and landing on its surface.

The NASA probe, carrying the Curiosity rover, will be using a totally new landing technique called the “sky crane”, whereby the six-wheeled vehicle will be lowered by cable down to the surface from an altitude of about 20 metres…courtesy of a rocket powered descent stage.

This graphic shows us the different parts of MSL: the cruise stage (which looks after the whole ensemble on the way to Mars); the backshell (which protects the rover during the cruise to Mars and initial atmosphere entry); the parachute (contained within the backshell); the descent stage (which will handle the final part of the descent); the rover itself; and the heatshield.

Breakout graphic showing the parts of MSL

The Curiosity rover is kept safe by several layers of protection on the cruise to Mars, and during atmospheric entry and landing.

Doing most of the work during the atmospheric entry will be the huge heatshield. At 14 metres wide, it is the largest heatshield ever sent to another planet, and about half a metre wider than that used by the Apollo spacecraft in the 1960s and 1970s. It will need to withstand temperatures up to 2,100 degrees Celsius. These couple of photos will give you an idea of the size:

MSL heatshield

The space shuttle aside, Mars Science Laboratory's heatshield is the largest ever to be flown in space.

View of the MSL heatshield

Here's another view, showing the craft upside down in a cradle.

Packed inside the backshell is the parachute, the largest ever sent to another planet. It’s also the largest “disc-cap-band” of any kind ever made. It is 16 metres wide and has 80 suspension lines that are 20 metres long. When deployed during the descent through Mars’ thin air, it will need to withstand a wind speed of Mach 2.2.

Here’s a photo of it, with some people standing nearby to give a sense of scale:

MSL parachute

The huge parachute that Mars Science Laboratory will use to slow its descent through the Martian atmosphere.

And here’s a video of it being tested at AEDC’s National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex 40-metre wind tunnel—the largest in the world—at NASA’s Ames Research Laboratory in California. The action starts about 53 seconds in:

Quite impressive isn’t it? The parachute will deploy just over four minutes after atmospheric entry, and about two-and-a-half minutes before landing. At this stage the craft will be travelling at about 1,450 kilometres per hour! Twenty-four seconds after the parachute unfurls, with the speed down to about 500 kilometres per hour, the heatshield will drop away.

Another 70 seconds (approximately) and the parachute and backshell will detach, and the descent stage rockets will fire up for the final, powered descent stage.

The following video animation takes us through the interplanetary cruise phase, and the whole entry, descent and landing. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that everyone works as planned on August 6 next year!

Story by Jonathan Nally. Images and videos courtesy NASA.

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Aussie video shows Curiosity leaving Earth

THIS AMAZING VIDEO was taken by Australian amateur astronomer Duncan Waldron with assistance from Mark Rigby of the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium in Brisbane, Australia.

It shows the departing Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), which was launched from Cape Canaveral early on Sunday morning, Australian Eastern Daylight time.

The fuzzy triangular shape is likely to be gas venting from the Centaur rocket upper stage which boosted the probe out of Earth orbit.

Plumes that look similar to this one can sometimes be seen by skywatchers if they’re in the right place at the right time to catch a satellite being boosted into its final orbit by what’s called an “apogee kick motor”…and often lead to UFO reports, as the sight is very unusual.

Below is a photograph of the plume (lower left corner) taken by Duncan Waldron from the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium.

Plume from MSL's Centaur as it departed Earth

As NASA's Mars Science Laboratory departed Earth, astronomer Duncan Waldron at the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium snapped this photo of what is apparently gas venting from the probe's spent Centaur booster rocket.

Story by Jonathan Nally.

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Mars mission on its way!

A HISTORIC VOYAGE to Mars has begun with the launch of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, which carries a car-sized rover named Curiosity.

The mission will pioneer precision landing technology and a sky-crane touchdown to place Curiosity near the foot of a mountain inside Gale Crater on August 6, 2012.

During a nearly two-year prime mission after landing, the rover will investigate whether the region has ever offered conditions favourable for microbial life, including the chemical ingredients for life.

The Atlas V rocket initially lofted the spacecraft into Earth orbit and then, with a second burst from the vehicle’s upper stage, pushed it out of Earth orbit into a 567-million-kilometre journey to Mars.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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Mars rover to launch this week

NASA’S MARS SCIENCE LABORATORY mission, carrying the car-sized Curiosity rover, is only days away from launch. The video above explains what scientists hope to achieve with the mission.

The ambitious mission will see the nuclear-powered rover spend at least two years investigating the geology of Gale Crater, a 154-kilometre-wide crater just south of Mars crater.

Gale is named after Walter Frederick Gale, an Australian astronomer of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Mars Science Laboratory is set for lift-off at 2:02am, Sydney time, on Sunday, November 27.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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