NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity is one month into a two year mission on the surface of the red planet, and will spend the next several days testing its 7-foot robotic arm in preparation for conducting scientific activities to analyze samples collected from rock and soil targets.
“We will be putting the arm through a range of motions and placing it at important ‘teach points’ that were established during Earth testing, such as the positions for putting sample material into the inlet ports for analytical instruments,” said Daniel Limonadi of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., lead systems engineer for Curiosity’s surface sampling and science system. “These activities are important to get a better understanding for how the arm functions after the long cruise to Mars and in the different temperature and gravity of Mars, compared to earlier testing on Earth.”
Curiosity has already started to drive from its landing site, named Bradbury Landing, to its first major science destination – Glenelg. The car-size rover has already driven one-fourth of the distance to Glenelg, 358 feet – longer than the length of a football field. Glenelg was selected by the science team as an area likely to offer a good target for Curiosity’s first analysis of powder collected by drilling into a rock, and will take several weeks to reach after the arm characterization activities at the current site are complete.
“We knew at some point we were going to need to stop and take a week or so for these characterization activities,” said JPL’s Michael Watkins, Curiosity mission manager. “For these checkouts, we need to turn to a particular angle in relation to the sun and on flat ground. We could see before the latest drive that this looked like a perfect spot to start these activities.”
The checkouts currently being performed on Curiosity’s arm represent the first steps in preparing to scoop soil, drill into rocks, process collected samples and deliver samples into analytical instruments – all in an effort to answer whether or not Mars has ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. Curiosity will also perform checkouts of the Mars Hand Lens Imager and Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer instruments, both of which will work together to observe and read the chemical makeup present in whatever target sample the science team chooses to investigate.
“We’re still learning how to use the rover. It’s such a complex machine — the learning curve is steep,” said JPL’s Joy Crisp, deputy project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory Project, which built and operates Curiosity. “We’re getting through a big set of characterization activities that will allow us to give more decision-making authority to the science team,” said Richard Cook, Mars Science Laboratory project manager at JPL.
Curiosity’s cousin, Opportunity, is some 5,200 miles away on the edge of the 14-mile-wide Endeavour Crater, still going strong over eight years after it landed at Meridiani Planum on January 25, 2004. Opportunity’s mission was expected to last 90 days. Its twin rover Spirit, which landed three weeks earlier on the other side of the planet, operated for more than six years – 24 times longer than its original 90-day mission. Spirit became immobile in 2009 and ceased communications in 2010, ending its life on Mars.
The Mars Exploration Team in charge of Spirit and Opportunity’s missions will be awarded the Haley Space Flight Award September 12 during the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Space 2012 Conference and Exposition in Pasadena, Calif. The award is presented for outstanding contributions by an astronaut or flight test personnel to the advancement of the art, science or technology of astronautics.
“On behalf of the many hundreds of scientists and engineers who designed, built and operate these rovers, it is a great honor to accept this most prestigious award,” said Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory – who will accept the award for the team. “It is especially gratifying that this comes right as Opportunity is conducting one of the most significant campaigns in the eight-and-a-half years since landing. We still are going strong, with perhaps the most exciting exploration still ahead.”