By Charlene Porter
Washington — A day and a half after a new rover vehicle landed on the surface of Mars, the excitement level remains high at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the California-based agency managing the mission for NASA.
The surface team is preparing the rover Curiosity for the scientific work to come, checking equipment status and staking out the surrounding terrain. It is not yet the work of great discovery, but mission manager Mike Watkins said at an August 7 briefing in California that members of the surface team have been learning and practicing to operate Curiosity for years now.
“It’s great to actually put our rover through the motions,” Watkins said. “These are the days that people worked five and 10 years for, going on right now.”
Watkins said his favorite images are always the first to be taken on a landing mission, because they give the ground crew the first inkling of “the neighborhood,” as he calls it.
Curiosity’s new neighborhood was carefully selected in early mission planning. Scientists named the spot Gale Crater, choosing it for touchdown because land contours in the area are thought to have been formed by surface water that once flowed on the now-dry planet.
JPL scientists have determined that the rover came down about 20 kilometers from the rim of the crater and about 12 kilometers from the base of Mount Sharp. The stratified layers of this mountain — about five kilometers high — are expected to reveal a lot about the planet’s history, just as soil layers help Earth-bound geologists understand the history of our planet.
Other tasks Curiosity will perform in the days ahead include taking measurements of radiation levels and other environmental conditions on Mars. More than a dozen cameras are mounted at different points on the rover, and they’ll all undergo operational tests and collect more imagery.
Ken Edgett is the principal investigator for one camera system mounted on a two-meter arm that will provide an array of vantage points.
“We can go straight up, we can go all the way down to the ground,” Edgett said. “We can get within an inch of the rock or an inch of the soil and get an image about twice the resolution” of those taken by previous rovers.
Curiosity landed on Mars in the early hours of August 6 (August 5 in the Pacific time zone, where JPL is located) after an eight-month, 570-million-kilometer voyage. The craft descended to the Martian surface using a specially designed landing system that scientists are calling “a miracle of engineering.”
Curiosity carries 10 science instruments that comprise an actual laboratory, the first ever landed on another planet, with far greater capabilities than the two rovers on the planet since 2004, Spirit and Opportunity. Later in the mission, Curiosity will use a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and rock samples for analysis of their composition and origins by its laboratory instruments.