The most powerful “eyes” above Mars sailing aboard one of NASA’s Red Planet orbiters has captured a majestic new view of NASA’s car-sized Curiosity rover at work below in the region where she is currently surveying spectacular other worldly terrain and drilling into sedimentary rock outcrops altered by ancient Martian water.
The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) caught Curiosity at the “Pahrump Hills” area of the Gale Crater landing site.
See Mars today from above and below in the lead image combining the orbital view of Curiosity from MRO with our composite surface mosaic view of Curiosity conducting her latest sample drill campaign at the “Mojave 2” rock target at the “Pahrump Hills” rock outcrop.
The complete MRO orbital image from NASA and the composite Curiosity photo mosaic exclusively created by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo are also shown separately below.
The location of the rover in the MRO image is easily seen inside the inscribed rectangle. The one-ton rover’s shadow extends toward the upper right.
The HiRISE team periodically images Curiosity, as well as sister rover Opportunity, to assist in selecting the most efficient, safe, and scientifically productive routes as they continue to explore the Red Planet. MRO is equipped with six science instruments, including HiRISE, and arrived at Mars in 2006.
Pahrump Hills is an outcrop region at the base of Mount Sharp belonging to an exposure of the Murray formation that is the basal geological unit of Mount Sharp. See the location in further detail in the annotated NASA surface scene and another NASA MRO overhead map below.
Mount Sharp is comprised of sedimentary rock layers that record the history of ancient Martian environments and is the primary destination of the mission.
The mountain towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky and dominates the center of the Gale Crater where Curiosity safely touched down some 30 months ago, in August 2012.
Curiosity has been surveying the Pahrump Hills at base of Mount Sharp for the past five months, since arriving there last fall in search of scientifically interesting candidates for drilling to elucidate the history of habitability.
The six-wheeled rover carried out what geologists call a “walkabout” to scout out the area for the best places to drill.
The region is of interest to researchers because it contains sedimentary rocks that scientists believe formed in the presence of water over a period ranging from millions to billions of years ago.
To fully assess the habitability of targets of interest, the team downselects a few choice locations for sample collection and drilling.
The first “bite” taken from the mountain base was at a nearby target called “Confidence Hills” during September 2014.
The second “bite” was just completed at a crystal-rich rock target named “Mojave 2” that lies in the “Pink Cliffs” portion of the “Pahrump Hills” outcrop.
Our composite photo mosaic shows Curiosity with the 7-foot-long (2.1-meter-long) hi-tech robotic arm deployed at the “Mojave 2” sample-collection hole and examining it on Sol 889, Feb. 5, 2015.
Mojave 2 counts as the robot’s fifth complete drilling campaign and was bored on Sol 882 (Jan. 29) to a full depth of about 2.6 inches (6.5 centimeters). The rotary-percussive drill successfully cut a hole about 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter.
The bored rock was first processed by the rover’s CHIMRA (the Collection and Handling for in-Situ Martian Rock Analysis) sample handling system where it was pulverized, vibrated, transferred, and sieved. Portions were then delivered to both of the onboard miniaturized chemistry labs in the rover’s belly—first to CheMin and then to SAM.
Another unused portion was dumped into a pile on the ground beside the drill hole and mini-drill test holes (see the Sol 889 mosaic) for further analysis of the drill tailings by the mast-mounted ChemCam laser and arm-mounted APXS spectrometer and MAHLI high-resolution color camera. The data will reveal more about the composition and grain size of the Mojave 2 sample. The Mastcam cameras will also be used to document the dump pile with all of the camera filters.
Results so far from the powder delivered first to the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument indicate that “Mojave 2” was formed in more acidic water compared to “Confidence Hills.”
“The Mojave 2 sample shows a significant amount of jarosite, an oxidized mineral containing iron and sulfur that forms in acidic environments,” according to NASA.
“Our initial assessment of the newest sample indicates that it has much more jarosite than Confidence Hills,” said CheMin Deputy Principal Investigator David Vaniman, of the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Ariz., in a statement. This data stands in contrast to the minerals in the Confidence Hills sample which indicate less acidic conditions of formation.
“Open questions include whether the more acidic water evident at Mojave 2 was part of environmental conditions when sediments building the mountain were first deposited, or fluid that soaked the site later.”
“Mojave may have formed with more evaporating water, in acid conditions rather than the more neutral conditions that we studied in the underlying horizons like Yellowknife Bay,” adds MSL team member John Bridges John Bridges of the University of Leicester, in a mission update.
Curiosity also examined what may be a mineral vein at the Mojave 2 site.
The rover carried out “ChemCam and Mastcam observations of an interesting vein target named ‘San Francisquito’ to assess its chemistry and test ChemCam autofocusing in low light conditions,” according to MSL scientist team member Lauren Edgar of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in an update.
“MAHLI will carry out some nighttime imaging of the drill hole and CheMin inlet port.”
Having spent a month of stationary research at “Pink Hills” the rover has just moved on to her next nearby drill target and is heading back by the “Whale Rock” site where she was photographed from orbit by the HiRISE MRO camera.
And as expected, the team is searching for a target that’s “chemically very different” in order to broaden the chemical and geological context of knowledge of the water and habitability inside Gale Crater.
“After completing our drilling activities at the Pink Cliffs outcrop, Curiosity is ready to move on to the next location,” says Edgar in the most recent mission update this week.
“But where to drill? We’re searching for something that is chemically very different from the last drill target (Mojave2). After much discussion, we decided to try for a recessive rock near the Whale Rock outcrop.”
Curiosity’s instruments and cameras are now characterizing and imaging the Whale Rock area to pick the best rock target for the next drill campaign.
Today, Feb. 14, is Valentine’s Day and marks the rovers 898th Sol on Mars.
ESA’s Rosetta also successfully swooped in for a cosmic Valentine’s kiss today with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Read the preview story here, and watch for the detailed synopsis when the pictures show up soon.
So far Curiosity’s odometer totals over 6 miles (10 kilometers) since landing inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012. She has taken some 216,900 images during almost 900 Sols of exploration.
Stay tuned here for continuing updates from Mars and throughout our Solar System!
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