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NASA Science. Mars Exploration Program. Curiosity's Mission Updates. In the News...

Sols 4023-4024: Farewell, Solar Conjunction 2023
Posted on Tuesday November 28, 2023

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Earth planning date: Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Mars has just emerged from its solar conjunction period, when sending commands to all Mars spacecraft was not safe for three weeks since the Red Planet was behind the Sun as seen from Earth. During that time, Curiosity followed a long plan of instructions covering Sols 4004-4022 which were uploaded to the rover during the week of October 30. The early word on is that the rover weathered the long blackout period just fine. Still parked at the Sequoia 2 drill site, the rover performed atmospheric imaging with its engineering cameras and took argon measurements with APXS during conjunction. Data is still trickling in from the conjunction period. While Mars was on the far side of the Sun, Curiosity had been relaying its science and engineering data to satellites in orbit around Mars. However, while Mars was still close to the Sun last weekend, some of the data reaching Earth from those relay satellites was 'spotty,' or missing some packets of information, due to radio interference from the Sun. For image data, this looks like gaps in the images. As Mars moves away from the Sun, we will get retransmissions of the data and fill in the gaps.

For the next two sols, Curiosity will do more observations of the ground and sky near the Sequoia drill site. Many atmospheric observations have been planned, including an afternoon Navcam phase function sky survey, Navcam cloud altitude movie on the afternoon and early morning, and a Navcam dust devil survey, suprahorizon images, and measurements of atmospheric dust opacity by Navcam and Mastcam on the afternoon of Sol 4024. Mastcam will be expanding its photography of the workspace near the rover with a 19x3 mosaic. There will also be another set of diagnostics performed on the Mastcam filter wheel. Mastcam will be returning to both the Sequoia drill hole and the 'Aspendell' target on each sol to look for changes over time. APXS will join in the change detection observations as with a proximity mode 'hover' over the Sequoia drill hole. ChemCam will be looking at new targets this plan. The long distance RMI camera will look back at the stratigraphic transition between the upper and lower levels of the Gedis Vallis Ridge. ChemCam will turn its laser to a target named for the 'Cobra Turret' in Kings Canyon National Park. The 'Cobra Turret' 5x1 observation samples a bedrock face riddled with dark colored nodules. Its namesake is a peak with vertical rock walls on the South wall of Tehipite Valley along the Middle Fork Kings River. Like the earlier 'Fang Turret' ChemCam target from sol 3991, 'Cobra Turret' is a feature of 'Gorge of Despair.' Mastcam will take also an image of 'Cobra Turret' to document the ChemCam observation. A ChemCam 10x1 passive observation will be taken of the "Brittle Bush" target, an area of bedrock broken by the rover as it rolled by. The 'Brittle Bush' target is the notch and broken piece of rock shown in the upper right of the attached Mastcam image from Sol 4001. Brittlebush is one of the most common and lovely plant species that make up the sagebrush biome covering the Owens Valley near Bishop, CA. All geologic targets in this area of Mount Sharp have been designated names from the Bishop geologic quadrangle.

Wednesday's plan will complete Drill Sol 6 with the 'RAGE' procedure to remove remaining material from the drill. Going forward, Curiosity will finish up the campaign with Drill Sol 7 on Friday and do targeted science over the weekend. We expect to finally drive away from Sequoia on Monday. Hopefully, we will have caught up with the downlink of all conjunction data by the time Curiosity moves on in its journey.

Written by Deborah Padgett

Sols 3998-4000: Four Thousand Sols of Exploration
Posted on Sunday November 05, 2023

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Earth planning date: Friday, November 3, 2023

Today we reached an exciting milestone on Mars, with the planning of our 4000th sol of exploration with the Curiosity rover (covering almost 11 years and 3 months)! In addition to the milestone, Curiosity has had a very busy and productive week on Mars as we wrap up the drill campaign at Sequoia and prepare for solar conjunction next week. During solar conjunction, Mars will be on the opposite side of the Sun from the Earth, meaning that after Monday we won't be able to communicate with the rover for the next few weeks.

I was on shift as LTP today, and at first I thought our 3-sol plan might be relatively light because we're starting to limit the use of different instruments to ensure everything is in a safe state for conjunction. However, we had a lot of power available for science activities in this plan, so the team planned a jam-packed weekend of observations, including nearly 6 hours of remote sensing! On the first sol, Curiosity will acquire a ChemCam LIBS observation on a target named "Ionian Basin" and a ChemCam passive observation on "Inconsolable Range" to investigate the chemical diversity of rocks near the drill hole. Mastcam will also take a large mosaic to provide additional context and to document the layering and diagenetic features in the area. The plan also includes multiple Mastcam change detection activities to monitor the movement of fines near the drill hole and in the surrounding sand. The ENV theme group planned several Navcam activities to search for dust devils and monitor dust in the atmosphere. On the second sol Curiosity will acquire another ChemCam LIBS observation on a target named "Sphinx Crest" to assess the chemistry of a dark block among the lighter toned bedrock. Two long distance ChemCam RMI mosaics are planned to assess a dark resistant bed in the Kukenan butte, and to look back in the direction of Peace Vallis to assess the distant stratigraphy and geomorphology. The third sol includes a Navcam cloud altitude observation, Navcam zenith movie to monitor clouds, and Mastcam tau to assess atmospheric opacity. Throughout the plan there are also numerous twilight cloud observations.

It makes me smile to think of Curiosity sitting there on sol 4000, peacefully watching the clouds roll by in Gale crater, and reflecting on an impressive record of exploration. The Navcam image above looks back towards the northern crater rim, across the plains of Aeolis Palus that we traversed many years ago. From our vantage point on Mount Sharp, we have quite a lot to look back on, and a lot of exciting discoveries that lie ahead. Happy sol 4000!

Written by Lauren Edgar, Planetary Geologist at USGS Astrogeology Science Center

Sols 3996-3997: Conjunction Countdown
Posted on Sunday November 05, 2023

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Earth planning date: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Today we begin the final countdown into Mars solar conjunction (when Mars is effectively on the other side of the sun and we can't reliably communicate with Curiosity) – only two more planning sessions after today. In these final days before conjunction, we begin reducing the types of activities we allow in our plans because we do not want to risk having a fault that we do not have time to address. This plan would be our last chance to do full contact science, but since we have sample in the drill we actually can't point other instruments at the ground. We also don't have a lot of power to play with, as Curiosity is still recovering from the SAM analysis we did in the prior plan. As a result, our drill campaign is now on hold and we are focusing on imaging today.

On the first sol of our two-sol plan we have about an hour of imaging, beginning with a Navcam image of the open SAM inlet cover. We do this after each sample drop-off to make sure we don't see a lot of spilled sample around the inlet. We couldn't do this after the drop-off in the last plan because it was too late to get good lighting. After that, Mastcam is doing some additional testing on the filter wheel and taking a 10x6 mosaic of the Sequoia workspace. Next, ChemCam is taking a 5-spot mosaic of "Aperture Peak," which is a ridge that appears to be made of vein material. After a nap, we kick of a SAM monthly maintenance activity.

The next morning, Curiosity wakes up for some additional imaging. The morning activities include several atmospheric observations, looking for dust and clouds that might for this time of year. This includes a Mastcam solar tau, Navcam suprahorizon movie and a large Navcam dust devil survey. ChemCam also takes two long-distance mosaics, a 10-frame one looking up hill at the upper Gediz Vallis Ridge and a 7-frame one looking across the crater at the Peace Vallis channel near the crater wall. Mastcam finishes up the morning block by imaging "Bench Lake," which is a bedrock feature with a distinctive texture and taking a post-ChemCam look at Aperture Peak. After a long nap, Curiosity wakes up for some late afternoon observations including a set of Navcam sky flats (looking for dust features on the lenses) and a set of twilight movies looking for clouds. While we did not get any new images from the last plan, this image of the crater rim is similar to the one in today's plan and we'll be able to compare to see how the dust in the atmosphere is changing.

Written by Ashley Stroupe, Mission Operations Engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Sols 3994-3995: "Bewitched Battery"
Posted on Monday October 30, 2023

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Earth planning date: Monday, October 30, 2023

Mondays are scary enough, so the team was extra spooked when the morning's downlink showed our incoming power state as lower than what we planned. Ghosts of Mars? (A movie I recommend, by the way) Maybe… but if our rover was in a scary movie she'd be the last one standing. And so our team began a willowy plan this Hallows' Eve to continue on our Drill Sol path and recharge our batteries before any other unearthly forces could strike again.

We're starting this plan with another Mastcam Left filter wheel recovery attempt, this time trying to drive the motor in the opposite direction as Friday. The curse on our filter wheel motor has persisted for over a month but we still have some tricks and treats up our sleeves. Then, like the monster under your bed, our rover will sleep all day and wake up at night to begin preparing for the power-hungry SAM analysis of the Sequoia drill sample later this plan. Preparation includes a SAM 'column clean' to burn up any contaminants, and another long nap most of the next sol. On the second sol, the arm will drop off the Sequoia sample to SAM in the afternoon and begin the SAM GCMS (Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer, used to detect C-bearing molecules) around midnight. We're not including any remote science activities this plan for power purposes, but the team is well prepared for Wednesday and Friday when more resources may be available. Stay alive, friends, and don't take candy from haunted houses!

Written by Natalie Moore

Sols 3991-3993: Ascending Fang Turret
Posted on Thursday October 26, 2023

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Earth planning date: Friday, October 27, 2023

The Curiosity rover team has been preparing for the start of the Solar Conjunction in November, when contact with all Mars spacecraft will be impossible for three weeks since Mars will be behind the Sun as seen from Earth. During that time, Curiosity will be following a long plan of instructions which were confirmed to have been successfully uploaded to the rover earlier this week. For now, Curiosity is finishing up its Sequoia drill campaign. A top science priority for the sol 3991 to 3993 weekend plan is for the CheMin instrument to dump its sample on sol 3991. Fine rock powder will leave the sampling tube more cleanly now than if we wait until after the conjunction when it might have adhered to the glass during the many temperature cycles in the intervening weeks. The team would like to reuse this tube. In addition, Curiosity will also be returning the data from its second CheMin analysis. There will also be another set of diagnostics performed on the Mastcam filter wheel.

Also on tap this weekend are five science blocks chock full of observations of the terrain and sky around the Sequoia drill site. Many atmospheric observations have been planned, including multiple Navcam dust devil movies, measurements of atmospheric dust opacity by Navcam and Mastcam, Navcam cloud altitude movies, ChemCam passive sky observation, and both evening and morning Navcam phase function sky surveys. Some of the cloud movies taken recently have been spectacular, so we hope to catch some more clouds and/or dust in action. APXS will join in as well with a measurement of atmospheric argon. Mastcam will be expanding its photography of the workspace near the rover with an 11x5 mosaic. Mastcam is also returning to both the Sequoia drill hole and the "Aspendell" target to look for changes over time, and it will be revisiting the "Brainard Lake" target in the morning to sample different lighting of the rocks. ChemCam will be especially busy this plan. Its long distance RMI camera will complete a large mosaic on the Peace Vallis ancient river valley far across Gale Crater, taking advantage of our current clear weather on Mars. Another RMI telescopic pointing will map layers in the cliffs of Kukenan high above the rover. ChemCam will turn its laser to analyze three targets named for features in Kings Canyon National Park: "Cedar Grove," "Dusy Basin," and "Fang Turret." All geologic targets in this area of Mount Sharp have been designated names from the Bishop geologic quadrangle located in the Sierra Nevada of California, especially beloved by Caltech geologists. "Cedar Grove" is an area of local bedrock with many nodular concretions formed in water and named for the famous campground area along the South Fork of the Kings River. "Dusy Basin" will sample a highly layered bedrock with a name honoring a magnificent high alpine lake basin just east of Bishop Pass in the Sierra. Finally, the "Fang Turret" observation will punch a line of laser pits across the face of a vertically projecting dark colored fin, as seen in the attached Mastcam image from Sol 3979. Its namesake is an immensely difficult to climb "Class 6" rock tower on the South wall of Tehipite Valley in the spectacular roadless canyon of the Middle Fork Kings River. This tower rises 100 vertical feet above the 10,000 ft ridgeline of "Gorge of Despair". Rock climbers give great names to their favorite features!

In Wednesday's sol 3989 to 3990 plan, SAM received another sample from the drill. Based on what the initial SAM results show, SAM may do a more detailed chemical analysis next week before the team starts restricting activities in preparation for the Solar Conjunction. Our last planning session before the conjunction will be on Monday, November 6, and we will resume communications with Curiosity in time for a planning session on November 29.

Written by Deborah Padgett

Sols 3989-3990: SAM Take Two & Preparing for Conjunction
Posted on Wednesday October 25, 2023

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Today, the MSL team picked back up with our plan to drop off a sample of rock powder drilled from Sequoia to the SAM instrument using our robotic arm. Normally, after drilling when we want to deliver sample to SAM for analysis, we first do "preconditioning" checks; essentially, to ensure SAM is in a good working state to receive the sample. Over the past weekend, when a 3-sol plan was sent to the rover, we planned for the preconditioning to happen on one of the sols. Unfortunately, the preconditioning didn't pass all its checks, so we had to postpone the drop-off that was originally planned for Monday. However, this week we've had a second shot at things. On Monday, we ran SAM preconditioning again, which passed successfully this time! On the first sol of our plan, we'll finally get to deliver our sample to SAM for analysis. The photo above is of the body of the rover – you can see two inlet covers for SAM in front, and one for the CheMin instrument at the back. These covers open and close as we deliver sample to the instruments using the robotic arm.

We're always excited to execute a new solid sample analysis activity. This activity involves a pyrolysis measurement where we heat the sample up to near 1000 degrees Celsius, and the resulting gas is analyzed for composition. On this sol, we'll also have a block of science activities, which include optical depth measurements using Mastcam and LIBS observations of our "Dragon Tooth" target using ChemCam. On the second and final sol of the plan, we will run another science block, which includes NCAM dust devil and cloud movies, multiple Mastcam observations, and another LIBS observation of "The Sphinx" target using ChemCam.

As part of this plan, we are also sending up conjunction plans to the rover. Conjunction is a period of time where Mars, the Sun, and the Earth are all in alignment – but because the Sun is blocking Mars from us, we can't actually communicate with any of our Mars missions at all! This year, conjunction will occur for several weeks during November. Our team builds plans to keep the rover safe and productive by itself while we're waiting for communication to resume, which were uplinked onboard the rover as part of today's plan. Though we aren't quite into conjunction yet, it's always best to be prepared!

Written by Remington Free

Sols 3987-3988: Short but Sweet
Posted on Monday October 23, 2023

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Earth planning date: Monday, October 23, 2023

Over the weekend, the activity to prepare SAM to receive and analyze the 'Sequoia' drill sample did not quite go as planned, so we had to rearrange today's plan, and those of the rest of the week, to retry it. Part of that schedule rearrangement involved moving up a second CheMin analysis of Sequoia and rescheduling the SAM analysis later in the week. The instruments basically swapped their time slots to keep us moving efficiently forward to conjunction, which starts in just over two weeks and over which we cannot command the rover.

The rest of our science activities were short and sweet, to conserve power for SAM and CheMin. We added to our collection of ChemCam analyses around the rover, targeting a bedrock block just to the right of the workspace and a long, thin blade of material sticking out of that bedrock block. It will be interesting to see if the chemistry of the two targets varies and can give us an idea of why the material sticking out of the block is more resistant to erosion. The pair (or should I say 'pear') of targets was named 'Pear Lake' and 'Pearl Lake.' ChemCam also planned a long distance RMI mosaic across tens of kilometers toward Peace Vallis in the Gale Crater rim.

Mastcam kept it simple in today's plan, with documentation of the ChemCam targets and two change detection images looking for wind-induced changes in the sand and fines in and around the workspace. One target was the Sequoia drill hole, with its pile of fine-grained tailings in and around the drill hole, and the other target was a patch of small ripples bordering one of the workspace bedrock slabs, dubbed 'Aspendell.'

Written by Michelle Minitti, Planetary Geologist at Framework

Sols 3984-3986: Sampling Sequoia
Posted on Thursday October 19, 2023

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Earth planning date: Friday, October 20, 2023

The highest priority in this weekend's 3-sol plan is the SAM preconditioning activity. This is in anticipation of a SAM evolved gas analysis (EGA) of the Sequoia drill sample next week. We will review the downlink from our first night of CheMin analysis over the weekend to make a final decision of whether we want to proceed with the EGA on Monday. We are all excited to see what the mineralogy of our 39th drill hole on Mars will be. We are ~60 m higher in elevation than our previous Ubajara drill location. Will the mineralogy of our newest drill sample be the same, or might there be changes as we climb up through the layers of sulfate-bearing rocks exposed on Mount Sharp? Changes in mineralogy could indicate changing conditions during the initial deposition of the sediment that comprises the rock, or perhaps later alteration processes. To support the upcoming, power-hungry, SAM EGA we had to be careful to preserve power in this weekend plan. However, this still permitted us to pack in lots of science observations of both the rocks and terrain around us, as well as atmospheric investigations.

ChemCam will analyze the "Fridays Folly," "Guitar Lake" and "Wolverton" bedrock targets to investigate compositional variation across the layering present in the same block as the Sequoia drill hole. The layers could represent some of the material sampled during drilling, thus the chemistry of the different layers can aid in the interpretation of the CheMin and SAM results. We will also image these targets with Mastcam for colour documentation. As well as firing its laser, ChemCam will also utilize its remote imaging capabilities to acquire RMI mosaics of the base of the nearby Kukenan butte, and the crater rim. To complement the RMI of the crater rim, a Mastcam mosaic will be pointed in the same direction. We are also imaging some nearby rocks with interesting curvilinear features ("Brainard Lake") as well as the drill hole and drill fines with Mastcam. The drill hole observation can help to determine whether wind is moving the fines around, and with targeting of the fines for contact science, once we have finished supplying sample to our internal CheMin and SAM instruments. As an APXS team member, I am particularly eager to use the robotic arm to place APXS on the drill fines and compare their chemistry with what we measured at the surface. To capture the full context of our 39th drill hole on Mars, a Navcam 360 mosaic of Sequoia and the surrounding terrain will also be acquired. The terrain beneath the rover will be imaged with MARDI to look for changes as Curiosity is parked in this location during the drill campaign (e.g., movement of windblown sand).

A plethora of environmental observations are also scattered throughout the plan on different sols and at different times to monitor changes in atmospheric conditions. These include a Navcam cloud altitude observation, a zenith movie, two suprahorizon movies, a line of sight scan and single line of sight image. We will also acquire two Mascam tau observations in this plan. Standard REMS, DAN and RAD activities round out this 3-sol, weekend plan.

The MSL science team are all eagerly anticipating our first peek at the mineralogy of Sequoia, which we should receive later today!

Written by Lucy Thompson, Planetary Geologist at University of New Brunswick

Sols 3982-3983: Welcome to the Drillhole Family, 'Sequoia'!
Posted on Wednesday October 18, 2023

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Earth planning date: Wednesday, October 18, 2023

The target 'Sequoia' has been successfully drilled! The image today is one of my favourites – the shadow of the rover mast, and the perfectly drilled target in the background... it doesn't get much better than that! Curiosity stays in place for a little while longer for CheMin analysis of the drilled material, and no drive meant we had more power than expected. And wow, the science team stepped up - we managed to get 1 hour of observations on the first sol, and 1.5 hours on the second sol!

Today in planning, I undertook the role of 'Keeper Of the Plan' for the geology and mineralogy science theme group, and the role is abbreviated to GKOP. It was my job to make sure the geology-focused science requests from instrument teams made it successfully into the plan to be sent to the rover. For the first sol of this midweek plan, we start off with a Navcam dust devil survey. Then, ChemCam takes over for two LIBS observations of the drillhole and the tailings to determine the chemical composition here. Mastcam comes in at the end of the first block of activities to document the ChemCam activities on Sequoia and to again attempt to identify any change by wind activity. On the afternoon of the first sol, and morning of the second sol, we also planned photometry observations. Using Navcam and Mastcam images taken at different times of the day, we can measure the reflectivity of the surface and can use this in working out the physical properties of the surface.

A couple of hours after the early morning photometry, the second sol contains 1.5 hours of science observations. First, a Mastcam tau observation is used to measure atmospheric opacity. We then turn to ChemCam for a LIBS target on the same block as the drillhole, named 'Angel Wings.' This observation is paired once again with a Mastcam documentation image. We then turn to a nearby butte named 'Kukenan' for a ChemCam Long Distance RMI, as well as a beautiful, big Mastcam mosaic of the entire butte face! One of the great things about drill campaigns is that we stay put for a while, and are able to get large observations of the beautiful surroundings.

Written by Emma Harris

Sols 3980-3981: Cliffhangers Go by the Name of 'Stand By' in Mission Operations
Posted on Sunday October 15, 2023

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Earth planning date: Monday, October 16, 2023.

We are just at the first steps of the next drilling campaign, as regular readers of this blog will certainly have spotted already. The last plan had the preload test, that little dent we make into the rocks to gauge how both the rock and the rover's arm will react to the pressures and stresses of the drilling. It's a good forecast, but rocks are natural materials, and sometimes they just decide to break. Remember that Groken drill hole? I don't blame you, if not, because the blog about it is just three days short of three years old! You can find it here if you want to go down memory lane! Fred Calef decided to use the image of the broken off rock piece (which also got additional attention with the analytical instruments) for his title image!

I have picked the ‘arm on the rock' image above, because I simply love to see instruments on the rocks. But what became of our preload test? Well, it's a little more complex as engineers weren't quite sure we'd passed all tests for quite a while into planning. That's not to say that there was any specific problem, just that the numbers were complex enough to analyse that the time between when our engineers got them and the start of planning wasn't quite enough. So, we were told to ‘stand by' … that was at 4 pm in the UK, which is where this blogger is located. While the engineers looked at the downlink, the scientists made the most of that ‘stand by' situation, assumed success and we started the planning process for the science observations we'd like in the plan.

The plan has the actual drill of the Sequoia drill site and the cadence of observations to characterise the drill hole and the fines, starting with Mastcam and ChemCam imaging. ChemCam also targets ‘Sharktooth' with a LIBS measurement, a target that was chosen to be in the same layer as the drill to compare chemistry. Finally, Mastcam looks – again – at the change detection location to see if we can make out any wind action.

The science activities in the plan are short today as the drilling is very power intense and of course the main focus in the plan. About an hour into planning, when we had completed our work, the mission scientist came back to give us an update and told us to … you guess it: ‘stand by'. He could give us a green light for submission of our desired science activities as the analysis showed that chances were getting higher and higher that all the numbers would be looking good at the end of the analysis. So, we submitted our plan, although it was not yet totally clear if we could actually drill. That said, our optimism had been upgraded to a 95 % confidence level that we could actually drill. What else? Well, to continue to ‘stand by' of course! We went into the next meeting to go over the entire plan, still on ‘stand by' for the final verdict on the ‘go' for drilling. At that point, it was 7 pm over here. Some assessments are just a little more complex than others… and ‘Better be safe than sorry' as we say here in the UK. So, even after that meeting had finished, we were still on ‘stand by' for the final go/no go decision on the drill.

Now, go or no go? Did we send the drill command? Well, at 19.47 pm UK the final verdict was delivered and the decision was made that we are go for drilling! So, with the numbers all analysed, we got the go for drilling and our plan was sent to Curiosity. We are all awaiting to see the new kid of the drill hole family soon! If you want to see what the first 36 of them look like… here you go!

Written by Susanne Schwenzer, Planetary Geologist at The Open University

Sols 3977-3979: Taking a Rain Check
Posted on Sunday October 15, 2023

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Earth planning date: Friday, October 13, 2023

It's been an exciting week in space – Conor already mentioned the news from OSIRIS-REX on Wednesday and just before I logged on for my shift this morning the Psyche spacecraft launched. But the week isn't over and weekends on Mars have lots of room for excitement.

Wednesday's pre-drilling tests on target 'Sequoia' (shown in the image above) mostly went smoothly, but the preload test failed. That meant we needed to make a slight adjustment, moving the drill target a couple centimetres. Even such a slight change meant we had to redo drill sol 1 – no drilling for us this weekend. Instead we'll be trying again on Monday on a slightly new target, 'Sequoia 2.'

This reminded me a bit of the Psyche launch. It was originally planned for the 12th, but weather conditions meant the launch was delayed. It's not weather delaying us, but we're still taking a rain check on drilling. We're no strangers to things getting shuffled around and moved back – Curiosity just had to readjust its position to reach our current drill target. I even started writing this blog all ready to talk about drilling this weekend! Of the many things I've learned from Curiosity over the years, it's how to react to changes. Ultimately, taking the weekend to redo drill sol 1 will mean that we're in an even better position to drill next week.

The weekend isn't entirely given over to evaluating our new drill target though. That will be done on the second sol, which is more or less a repeat of Wednesday's drill target characterisation with APXS and MAHLI (but no DRT). The other two sols have plenty to occupy our rover as well. Navcam and Mastcam are starting photometry experiments, which look at how light scatters off the surface at different times of sol. Four of these experiments are planned for the weekend, with more to come in the following sols. The first sol also sees ChemCam and Mastcam examining a nearby block, 'Grey Pass,' as well as a Mastcam solar tau.

The third sol sees a nice long science block, with a 360 degree dust devil survey and a suprahorizon cloud movie as well as ChemCam LIBS on another block 'Bubbs Creek' and a long distance mosaic on Kukenan. A bit later in the afternoon we're also getting a cloud altitude observation, which lets us use cloud shadows to estimate cloud altitudes. We're quickly approaching the end of the cloudy season on Mars, so it's always great when we can get some cloud watching in. We wake up early on our final morning for our weekly morning ENV block, where we do some more cloud watching (zenith and suprahorizon movies and a phase function sky survey) as well as some dust characterisation with another Mastcam tau and a 4x1 Navcam line of sight observation.

Written by Alex Innanen

Sols 3975-3976: Preparing To Drill
Posted on Wednesday October 11, 2023

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Earth planning date: Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Planning today started 90 minutes later than usual thanks to the data downlink containing the information we needed to assemble the plan not arriving on Earth until just before 9:30 PDT. The late start meant that I was able to watch the reveal of the initial results from the OSIRIS-REx mission, which delivered a sample of the asteroid Bennu to Earth several weeks ago.

On Mars, Curiosity is prepping to take a sample of its own, albeit one that won't be returned to Earth (that honour belongs to Curiosity's twin Perseverance over in Jezero Crater). After we weren't able to start our next drilling campaign on Monday, we received word today that our bump to a better position was successful, allowing us to begin our preparations to drill as early as this weekend.

Drilling and the activities that accompany it can be quite power-intensive, which means that we have less flexibility in planning other observations. This was definitely the case today, as we had just over an hour and a half of available science time instead of the two hours that we usually have on two sol plans. Both ENV and GEO had to prioritize their observation requests, downscoping or deferring activities as necessary to fit everything into the available time.

Because today's plan is 'drill sol 1,' we begin by unstowing the rover's arm to do some pre-drilling investigation of our drill target 'Sequoia.' This includes use of APXS as well as MAHLI imaging before and after clearing away the dust on Sequoia with DRT. We will then perform what's known as a 'preload test' where we will place the drill down on Sequoia (without activating the drill) to see how the rock responds to that force. The results of the preload test will be documented by MAHLI. Later in the sol, we will use LIBS to investigate the target 'Saddlehorn,' take some Mastcam images of the future site of the Sequoia drill hole, and image the SAM inlet covers with Mastcam and Navcam. The first sol of this plan finishes off with some evening APXS integrations.

When the rover wakes up on the second sol, we'll begin with some more ChemCam activities, including a LIBS observation of 'Kern River,' some passive (no LIBS) observations with RMI imaging of Sequoia, and RMI imaging of the upper Gediz Vallis ridge. Mastcam will then document the aftermath of the two LIBS activities in this plan. We will finish off with a 4x1 Navcam mosaic of the north crater rim to measure the amount of dust in the atmosphere between the rover and the edge of Gale Crater.

Routine observations from REMS, RAD, and DAN round out this plan as we look forward to drilling another hole in the Martian surface in the coming sols.

Written by Conor W. Hayes

Sols 3973-3974: Bumping to a Better Position
Posted on Sunday October 08, 2023

Read article: Sols 3973-3974: Bumping to a Better Position

Earth planning date: Monday, October 9, 2023

After the drive this weekend, Curiosity has arrived at another light-toned band that we hope to evaluate for drilling before solar conjunction begins next month. We have some light-toned, slightly nodular rocks in our workspace serving as potential drill target candidates. The goal today at the start of planning was to do contact science with APXS and MAHLI and assess targets for drilling and subsequently investigation with CheMin and SAM. We unfortunately determined that the positioning of the rover's front left wheel precluded drilling, so we will be bumping to a better position to set us up for success if we decide to proceed with our drill campaign later this week.

There is no use of the arm in this plan, so there are no MAHLI or APXS observations. The first sol of our plan has a morning science block with a Navcam line-of-sight observation to assess dust in the atmosphere, Mastcam extension of our current workspace, and ChemCam LIBS observation of light-toned bedrock target "Three Sirens" with Mastcam documentation. The afternoon science block includes a Navcam cloud shadow movie, Navcam cloud zenith movie, and Mastcam solar tau.

The second sol of the plan has another morning science block, including a Navcam suprahorizon movie to characterize the atmosphere, Navcam dust devil movie, ChemCam LIBS observation of dark and flaky bedrock target "Yokuts," ChemCam long-distance mosaic to continue the documentation of Peace Vallis, and Mastcam documentation of "Yokuts." We then have our mobility backbone, where we hope to reposition Curiosity to enable an option to drill later in the week, followed by post-drive imaging. Later, we have another science block including a Navcam dust devil survey, Navcam cloud zenith movie, and Navcam suprahorizon movie. Finally, we have a MARDI observation to round out this two-sol plan.

Written by Abigail Knight

Sols 3970-3972: Driving Along the Rocky Road
Posted on Sunday October 08, 2023

Read article: Sols 3970-3972: Driving Along the Rocky Road

Earth planning date: Friday, October 6, 2023

Unfortunately the drive we'd hoped to complete on sol 3969 didn't execute due to a well understood issue, so we're going to try again today. The drive will take us just a few meters to the south to reach a rock the team is considering as a possible drill target. In the meantime, we're taking advantage of the fact that we have additional data of this location's workspace from the sol 2968-2969 plan to build on the contact science observations we collected previously in the week. Using the high resolution MAHLI images from Wednesday, our intrepid rover planners were able to figure out how to safely brush the "Helen Lake" target, which we'll be doing in today's plan. We'll collect APXS and additional MAHLI images of Helen Lake after that event, plus MAHLI images of "Heart Lake" and MAHLI and APXS of "Feather Peak."

Curiosity will be doing more than contact science too! We'll continue to document the area around us with Mastcam, collecting a 21x3 M100 mosaic to complement previous coverage of the areas. We'll also take some Mastcam documentation images of three ChemCam LIBS targets named "Black Kaweah," Heart Lake, and "Sonora," and some long distance ChemCam RMI mosaics of the Gale Crater rim and Kukenan butte. Additional environmental science monitoring activities, including observations to image dust in the sky and search for dust devils, will round out the weekend plan.

Written by Abigail Fraeman, Planetary Geologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Sols 3968-3969: Dreaming of a Drill Campaign
Posted on Sunday October 08, 2023

Read article: Sols 3968-3969: Dreaming of a Drill Campaign

Earth planning date: Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Winter is almost half over in Gale, but this rover doesn't hibernate! The last time we stopped for more than a few sols was at the Ubajara drill site back in early May, almost 1 kilometer and 150 sols ago. Now, five months later, we're approaching our next drill site in this area of alternating banded layers dispersed across lithified sand. The scientist jury is still out on which block is their favorite, but the operations team is already preparing to begin a two-to-three week drill campaign in the near future. With solar conjunction fast approaching, it'll be interesting to see how much of a drill campaign we can fit between now and November 11th.

For this two-sol, unrestricted plan, we're waking up with a remote science block containing two Navcam activities to measure the atmospheric opacity and search for dust devils (we've seen some large ones recently!). Mastcam will follow up with a mono, Mastcam Right-only mosaic of the upper Gediz Vallis ridge we've been driving parallel to since our crater cluster campaign. ChemCam will finish off the block with a 5x1 LIBS raster on a nodular bedrock target named "Black Giant,' with Mastcam Right documenting the effort afterwards.

On sol 3953 (September 20th, 2023) the Mastcam-34mm (Mastcam Left) filter wheel stalled between filters L0 (clear) and L1 (green) while running a multispectral atmospheric opacity (tau) imaging sequence. Since then, the Mastcam team has been sending a series of diagnostic commands with varying motor drive parameters, in an effort to characterize the problem and get the filter wheel back to the L0 position where it is most often used. To date, some progress has been made, and the team is hopeful that the L0 position will be reached soon. Analysis will then continue to determine if the filter wheel can be safely returned to normal service. Remember, this rover has been outside Earth's protection since late 2011! This isn't the first time our engineering team fixed something remotely and it won't be the last.

After another Mastcam Left diagnostic activity completes, our first arm backbone will kick off and includes two contact science targets: "Helen Lake" (a less dusty dark-toned layer) and "Marion Peak" (a slightly dustier dark-toned layer). Here's an example of a dark-toned layer fragment (where Blackcap Mountain was!) sitting atop the light-toned layer from sol 3962. MAHLI will take a full-suite of images on Helen Lake from 25cm, 5cm, and 2cm away and another mini-suite of images on Marion Peak from 25cm and 5cm away. After the imaging, our arm turret will spin to the APXS frame for their evening integrations on the two targets. The first orbiter to pass over our rover will be the Trace Gas Orbiter, which should send our remote and arm data back to Earth by ~3:30am Pacific tomorrow (Thursday) morning.

We mostly nap the night away, and on the second sol we'll wake up with another remote sensing block starting again with a Navcam dust devil movie. Mastcam will follow up this time with some near-field mosaics of sand troughs between blocks (I like this example from sol 3966), and ChemCam will shoot their second LIBS target named "Bridgeport" on a smoother piece of bedrock. With all our arm activities done, we'll be ready to drive and potentially end up near our next drill site. Our post-drive data will start coming down to Earth at ~5am Pacific on Friday, and from that we'll begin our weekend planning while our rover rests her wheels for the night.

Written by Natalie Moore

Sols 3966-3697: Light Rocks on Deck, Gray Rocks in the Hole
Posted on Monday October 02, 2023

Read article: Sols 3966-3697: Light Rocks on Deck, Gray Rocks in the Hole

Earth planning date: Wednesday, October 2, 2023

HiRISE images of Gale crater show that Curiosity is driving through a section of layered rocks on Mt. Sharp, and the layers consist of alternating bands of light and gray/dark rocks. What causes the color variation of these rocks that makes this terrain look banded from orbit? It may relate to differences in the composition or chemistry of the rocks; alteration that occurred after they formed; how the rocks within each band are eroding; or varying amounts of sand cover. As she drives uphill, Curiosity uses her suite of instruments to study the chemistry and texture of the bedrock to determine the nature and origin of this banding.

The plan for sols 3966 and 3967 included further analysis of light rocks, a drive, and post-drive imaging. Curiosity will use the dust removal tool (DRT), MAHLI, and ChemCam to characterize the bedrock at 'Burnt Mountain,' and the adjacent 'Bearpaw Meadow' target will be analyzed with DRT, APXS, and MAHLI. ChemCam LIBS will assess the chemistry of 'The Watchtower' target, a smooth layer on the larger 'Coyote Flat' bedrock, in addition to a resistant layer at the 'Sky Meadows' target. ChemCam also planned two long-distance RMI images: one will capture the Peace Vallis fan-shaped deposit on the distant crater rim and the other will take a closer look at the boulders and bedrock within the upper Gediz Vallis ridge.

Mastcam also has a full slate of activities in this 2-sol plan. Not only will Mastcam document the two ChemCam LIBS targets, Mastcam will also image the disturbed terrain and residual layers on a nearby bedrock target called 'Slim Lake,' and a fragmented rock to assess mechanical weathering. Looking uphill, a Mastcam mosaic will document the bedrock in front of us to characterize the gray/darker rocks that make up the next interval band. After Curiosity completes her short drive on sol 3967, Mastcam will document the workspace and the future drive direction, and during the drive we planned a 'clast survey' to assess the accumulations of pebble-sized rocks covering the ground.

Finally, ENV included a large dust devil survey and a Mastcam 'tau' observation that images the Sun to measure the amount of dust in the air. I am looking forward to seeing our workspace on Wednesday as the rover continues her climb along the Mt. Sharp ascent route!

Written by Sharon Wilson

Sols 3964-3965: "Double DRT for a Soliday"
Posted on Thursday September 28, 2023

Read article: Sols 3964-3965:

Earth planning date: Friday, September 29, 2023

Welcome to another weekend in Gale crater, Mars! As Abigail Knight described in Wednesday's blog, we elected not to drive last plan while we waited for the workspace imaging from Navcam and Mastcam to arrive on Earth. All went as expected and we received the necessary imaging to assess the terrain well enough for using our DRT on the beautiful light-toned slab of rock in front of us. With that image open, I just want to point out our remote and contact science targets we analyzed from Wednesday: The sol 3962 ChemCam LIBS target, Pants Pass, was in the mid-right region of the slab with the sedimentary layers. Here you can see the LIBS spots on the Pants Pass layers from the ChemCam RMI. The contact science targets, Blackcap Mountain and Burnt Mountain, are the dark-toned raised layers on the lower-middle and upper-middle of the slab respectively (you can't miss em!).

It's critical to characterize the bedrock between the light-toned blocks and the dark-toned blocks up ahead, so for today's plan we decided on two (!) DRT targets to double up the contact science while we're in a stable position to unstow the arm. The first DRT target, "Cloudripper," is located on a super flat spot to the left of Blackcap Mountain. The Second DRT target, "White Pass," is located on another flat spot below Burnt Mountain and above Pants Pass. MAHLI will go down to ~3cm distance from each of those targets for a full suite of images, which means we can get ~0.017 mm/pixel resolution - the grain size of siltstone!

For remote science, ChemCam is shooting their LIBS on Wednesday's Burnt Mountain contact science target and a nearby block named "Sky Pilot" (vertically-layered block in the lower-center of this Navcam image). We're staying at this location for further bedrock analysis on Monday's plan, so Mastcam will document the LIBS targets from today but defer any mosaics until Monday.

In other news, we have a soliday this weekend (I think I explained this term pretty well in one of my blogs last year) so next week we'll be able to plan in "unrestricted" sols, which are days where the Earth and Mars time zones align. During unrestricted planning periods, we get information about how the activities we planned on one Earth day actually executed on Mars in time for the start of planning the next Earth day. This will be our first unrestricted planning cycle without sufficient budget for Tuesday ops, so we'll still need to plan two sols at a time on Monday. However, we can save the drive for sol two and keep our APXS evening integrations on the first sol. Hope you have a great soliday weekend!

Written by Natalie Moore

Sols 3962-3963: Dust Removal Delayed
Posted on Wednesday September 27, 2023

Read article: Sols 3962-3963: Dust Removal Delayed

Earth planning date: Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Our exploration of the light-and-dark-toned bands continues today as Curiosity has completed another successful drive and now has a promising block of light-toned bedrock in its latest workspace. With a thorough investigation of the compositions and textures within this region, we hope to identify what factors cause the differences between the light and dark bands as well as obtain more context for planning Curiosity's next drill target.

We learned at the start of planning today that Mastcam did not acquire the standard post-drive color imaging of the new workspace due to an issue with the placement of a thermal heating sequence in the previous plan. This precludes Curiosity from brushing any potential contact science targets with the Dust Removal Tool (DRT). We were then faced with the decision to either stay put and do contact science (without the DRT) on the nice block of light-toned bedrock in front of us or to drive on to a dark-toned band instead. After some discussion, we decided to remain at our current workspace, get the prerequisite imagery for using the DRT in the upcoming weekend plan, and take the opportunity to do some additional contact science activities on the unbrushed block in our workspace.

The first sol of this two-sol plan includes a ChemCam LIBS observation of target "Pants Pass" (a layered portion of a block of bedrock) and a long-distance RMI of "Kukenan." Next, Navcam will execute a line-of-sight activity and Mastcam will acquire drive direction imagery. We then have a couple of diagnostic activities for Mastcam's filter wheel. Prior to our evening contact science on Sol 3962, Mastcam will also document the workspace to support future contact science with DRT. Then, MAHLI will image the two contact science targets as well as the MAHLI and APXS calibration targets. The first sol ends with APXS integrations on targets "Blackcap Mountain" and "Burnt Mountain," two dark-toned portions of the block of bedrock.

On the second sol, Curiosity has a morning science block with a ChemCam LIBS observation of target "Charybdis" (layered bedrock) and a long-distance RMI mosaic of Peace Vallis. Mastcam will also document "Charybdis" and Navcam will obtain a dust devil movie. (Note for Greek mythology enthusiasts: We have investigated a target named "Scylla" in the past, but the Rover Planners will continue to drive Curiosity along the MSAR (Mount Sharp Ascent Route), so fortunately Curiosity should not find itself between Scylla and Charybdis in the future.)

With the additional workspace imagery planned today, we will hopefully be able to utilize the DRT in the weekend plan and acquire some compositional data and imagery of dust-free bedrock!

Written by Abigail Knight

Sols 3960-3961: Big Fan of Rock Bands
Posted on Sunday September 24, 2023

Read article: Sols 3960-3961: Big Fan of Rock Bands

Earth planning date: Monday, September 25, 2023

Despite a few bumps in the road, Curiosity tenaciously pushed on and has finally arrived at the intriguing light- and dark-toned bands. I am sure that I can speak for many of those planning today when I say that I was eager to investigate new targets- especially in preparation for our next drill. Rocks immediately in front of the rover, known as the "workspace,' are primarily light-toned and rough. Too rough, in fact, to employ the Dust Removal Tool, much to the dismay of the team who had been hoping to include a brushed bedrock target since we haven't been able to perform contact science in seven sols. It is important to consistently acquire brushed bedrock measurements so that we can assess any changes along Curiosity's traverse without that pesky dust in the way.

Given that the alternating light- and dark-toned bands are (1) so visually distinct, (2) show Mg-sulfate signatures from orbit, and (3) are our next drill target, Curiosity is set to be busy characterizing these rocks as much as power allows. On sol 3960, Curiosity will unstow its arm to use the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) and Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) to investigate "Silver Spur,' a bedrock target (albeit unbrushed). Then ChemCam will fire a laser at a rock named "Larkspur" to reveal its composition. ChemCam team member Dr. William Rapin and I advocated for Larkspur given the ambiguous grey splotches. Thanks to some sharp shooting by the ChemCam team, we are able to plan for the laser to shoot across both the grey splotches and the lighter-toned bedrock, hopefully giving insight on how this feature formed. Before ChemCam turns off on sol 3960, it will also acquire a long-distance remote micro-image (RMI) of Peace Vallis, a valley on the northern rim of Gale crater. Mastcam will then boot up to document the spot on Larkspur that ChemCam shot and a flaky-looking rock, named "Jigsaw Pass," right next to the front right wheel (seen in this blog's image). "Coyote Flats," which encompasses an area in a light-toned band that we hope to reach after our next drive, will also be documented by Mastcam; and the Navigation Camera (Navcam) will acquire a cloud movie.

Following our relatively short drive on sol 3690, Curiosity will proceed with Post-Drive Imaging (PDI) which includes Navcam and Mastcam mosaics to inform our next day of planning. With such a busy sol, this hardworking rover needs a good night's rest to recharge. Once Curiosity wakes up on sol 3961, it will engage in autonomous activities to select targets and fire ChemCam's laser so that we have data on the new workspace upon the next planning day. Lastly, Curiosity will close this shift by capturing another cloud movie with Navcam.

Written by Alivia Eng

Sols 3957-3959: Curiosity the Cautious Rover!
Posted on Sunday September 24, 2023

Read article: Sols 3957-3959: Curiosity the Cautious Rover!

Earth planning day: Friday, September 22, 2023

When I opened the workspace imagery this morning, I was happy to see some nice big rock outcrops in reach of the rover and started to pick some nice targets for contact science with APXS, before realizing that one of the rear wheels is perched on a rock. Sure enough, the drive had cut short when the rover detected it had driven over an unexpectedly large rock. The terrain here is tough, lots of boulders to clamber over. Sometimes the rover detects that the boulders are a problem and cuts the drive short, to await further instructions from Earth and avoid any damage. We are all eager to get onto the next workspace, and these unexpected stops can be frustrating, but stops like these have helped keep Curiosity safe and roving for over 11 years now.

Fortunately, this is nearly always an excess of caution on the part of Curiosity and doesn't involve any fancy footwork (wheelwork?!) to get going again. This was the case today, and we were able to plan to recover the rest of the 28 metre drive. We will get there eventually, and thanks to our cautious Martian rover, in one piece!

Unfortunately, having the rear wheel perched on a boulder meant that getting the arm out for contact science was considered to be an unnecessary risk, so the APXS and MAHLI teams got to stand down and start their weekend early. As ChemCam does not need to move the arm to analyze, the ChemCam team planned two LIBS activities (using the laser) looking at some small features in the rocks. We have been seeing lots of thin platy resistant features in recent workspaces, such as this one "Little Pothole Lake" from sol 3955. The ChemCam team members were happy to be close enough to get LIBS on "Hammil Valley," a thin fin or edge of a platy layer on the left-hand side of the workspace. In contrast, the second LIBS target ("Thor Valley") analyses some remnants of what appears to be a thicker resistant layer. You can see these on the large light toned block on the left-hand side of the Navcam image for this blog. These will also be imaged by Mastcam to provide colour images of the two targets. ChemCam will take an RMI (remote image) of some amazing sedimentary layering in "Whaleback," about seven metres away from the rover. Mastcam will image the upper Gediz Vallis ridge, looking at the path ahead along the MSAR (Mount Sharp Ascent Route) and as part of the ongoing campaign to characterise this ridge. Mastcam will then take a nearfield (i.e., close to the workspace) mosaic of a trough, looking at its geometry and the way the sand is distributed across the trough.

Keeping the arm stowed does not limit environmental monitoring activities - it can actually allow the environmental theme group (ENV) to add even more activities, so today ENV have a very busy plan. There are several Navcam activities, including suprahorizon and zenith movies, a "sky survey" and a large dust devil survey. In addition to these (plus more routine DAN and REMS activities), there is a special SAM methane experiment at dawn of the third sol.

Hopefully, our 28 metre drive will execute successfully, and when I open Monday's workspace, I will see a fantastic new workspace!

Written by Catherine O'Connell-Cooper, Planetary Geologist at University of New Brunswick Cooper






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