NASA’s Red Planet Patrol: A Status Check
Mars is a busy place!
NASA’s Curiosity rover, the most technologically advanced rover ever built, landed in Mars’ Gale Crater the evening of Aug. 5, 2012 Pacific Daylight Time using a series of complicated landing maneuvers never before attempted.
Curiosity has been busy assessing ancient habitable environments and major changes in Martian environmental conditions.
During its surveying of the Red Planet for over a year, the nuclear-powered Curiosity and its onboard science instruments have determined the age of a Martian rock, found evidence the planet could have sustained microbial life, taken the first readings of radiation on the surface, and shown how natural erosion could reveal the building blocks of life.
Curiosity’s recent driving has crossed an area that has numerous sharp rocks embedded in the ground. Routes to future destinations for the mission may be charted to lessen the amount of travel over such rough terrain, compared to smoother ground nearby.
From its touchdown site, near the foot of a layered mountain, Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons), the robot is on a southwestward trek expected to last many months toward an entry point to the lower layers of Mount Sharp. There, at the main destination for the mission, researchers anticipate finding further evidence about habitable past environments and about how the ancient Martian environment evolved to become much drier.
Decade of duty
In other Red Planet happenings, NASA’s Opportunity rover is approaching its 10th anniversary of Mars duties.
Landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan. 24, 2004 (Pacific Standard Time), the robot has wheeled its way to the rim of Endeavour Crater within the Meridiani Planum region of equatorial Mars.
Opportunity is now at the northern tip of the tallest hill it has encountered in the mission’s nearly 10 Earth years on Mars.
In Mars’ southern hemisphere, a north-facing slope tilts the rover’s solar panels toward the sun during the Martian winter, providing an important boost in available power – with plenty of energy-safe ground for the rover to remain mobile.
In the coming Martian winter, daily sunshine will reach a minimum in February 2014. The Opportunity rover team plans a “lily pad” strategy to make use of patches of ground with especially favorable slopes as places to recharge the rover’s batteries between drives.