Science Scope

Curiosity's first three weeks on Mars

Posting in Energy

Curiosity has been preparing for its two-year-long mission, and most everything, such as its first drive and first rock zappings, are going well.

Curiosity has been on Mars for a little over three weeks, and it's been busy.

Then again, busy is a relative word after the NASA rover's 352-million mile trip.

The rover has been doing little discrete tasks every day as it prepares for its two-year exploration of the Red Planet to search for signs that Mars might have been or is friendly to microbial life.

Here is a little recap of what it's been up to:

  • On Sunday, August 19th, the rover fired a laser 30 times in 10 seconds at a rock in order to assess its atomic makeup.
  • The next day, it flexed its seven-foot robotic arm, which maneuvers a number of tools including a camera, a drill, a spectrometer, a scoop, and mechanisms for handling rock and soil samples.
  • The day after that, it wiggled its four corner wheels side to side, in order to test the steering in preparation for its first drive.
  • Then, last Wednesday, Curiosity took a mini test drive moving forward about 15 feet, rotating 120 degrees, and then backing up 8 feet. As The New York Times reports, "The entire trip took about 16 minutes, with most of the time spent stopped as cameras took photographs of the progress."
  • Additionally, the rover has been shooting neutrons into the ground in order to determine the amount of hydrogen in the soil; hydrogen on Mars is an indicator of water.

The one little bit of bad news is that one of Curiosity's wind sensors is not providing data. Curiosity Deputy Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., said:

“One possibility is that pebbles lofted during the landing hit the delicate circuit boards .... We will have to be more clever about using the remaining wind sensor to get wind speed and direction.”

Curiosity has been sending back weather reports, however. Air temperatures swing from a freezing 28 degrees to a frigid minus-103 degrees Fahrenheit, while ground temperatures range from a relatively balmy 37 degrees to a scary minus-132 degrees Fahrenheit.

The rover has also been zapping rocks with a powerful instrument called a ChemCam to find out their composition. Los Alamos National Laboratory planetary scientist Roger Wiens, Principal Investigator of the ChemCam Team:

“The spectrum we have received back from Curiosity is as good as anything we looked at on Earth. The entire MSL team was very excited about this and we popped a little champagne.”

The ChemCam is extremely powerful: Its laser pulse takes the energy of a million light bulbs to zap a spot the size of a pinhead. The colors in the resultant flash of glowing plasma are recorded and sent to Earth for analysis. The first rock to be zapped, dubbed Coronation, showed a composition similar to basalt.

After all these preliminary tests, Curiosity will head off to Glenelg, a point on Mars where three types of terrain intersect. At first, engineers will only move Curiosity about 30 feet at a time in order to gain experience, but eventually, the drives will exceed the length of a football field.

Curiosity isn't all work and no play: On Tuesday, Curiosity played a song"Reach for the Stars" by musician will.i.am, from Mars to Earth. It was the first time a song had been beamed from another planet back to ours.

To follow more of Curiosity's future exploits, follow its Twtitter feed. And, check out @SarcasticRover, a humorous (unaffiliated) counterpoint, which tweets out gems like, "TODAY'S INVENTORY stands at: 3,239 rocks and 1 Cadbury's Creme Egg… which is a far more unsettling a discovery than you'd imagine."

Related on SmartPlanet:

via: New York Times, NASA press releases

photo: Top: This panorama shows Mount Sharp and the landing site. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS); Middle: This photo of the base of Mount Sharp has been enhanced to show the Martian scene under the lighting conditions we have on Earth. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS); Bottom: a closeup of the track marks. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Share this

Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure