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Old 10-09-2010, 06:23 PM   #16
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A nice article about potential MSL landing sites.

National Geographic "Breaking Orbit" Blog: "Mars Science Lab ISO Best-fitting Site".
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Old 10-21-2010, 06:20 PM   #17
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There is a live webcast online with a cam inside the clean room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Now you can see the MSL being build http://www.ustream.tv/nasajpl
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Old 11-09-2010, 11:33 PM   #18
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NASA / NASA JPL:
Sensor on Mars Rover to Measure Radiation Environment


November 09, 2010

About eight months before the NASA rover Curiosity touches down on Mars in August 2012, the mission's science measurements will begin much closer to Earth.

The Mars Science Laboratory mission's Radiation Assessment Detector, or RAD, will monitor naturally occurring radiation that can be unhealthful if absorbed by living organisms. It will do so on the surface of Mars, where there has never before been such an instrument, as well as during the trip between Mars and Earth.


RAD's measurements on Mars will help fulfill the mission's key goals of assessing whether Curiosity's landing region on Mars has had conditions favorable for life and for preserving evidence about life. This instrument also will do an additional job. Unlike any of the nine others in this robotic mission's science payload, RAD has a special task and funding from the part of NASA that is planning human exploration beyond Earth orbit. It will aid design of human missions by reducing uncertainty about how much shielding from radiation future astronauts will need. The measurements between Earth and Mars, as well as the measurements on Mars, will serve that purpose.

"No one has fully characterized the radiation environment on the surface of another planet. If we want to send humans there, we need to do that," said RAD Principal Investigator Don Hassler of the Boulder, Colo., branch of the Southwest Research Institute.

Whether the first destination for human exploration beyond the moon is an asteroid or Mars, the travelers will need protection from the radiation environment in interplanetary space. Hassler said, "The measurements we get during the cruise from Earth to Mars will help map the distribution of radiation throughout the solar system and be useful in mission design for wherever we send astronauts."

RAD will monitor high-energy atomic and subatomic particles coming from the sun, from distant supernovas and from other sources. These particles constitute the radiation that could be harmful to any microbes near the surface of Mars or to astronauts on a Mars mission. Galactic cosmic rays, coming from supernova explosions and other events extremely far from our own solar system, are a variable shower of charged particles. In addition, the sun itself spews electrons, protons and heavier ions in "solar particle events" fed by solar flares and ejections of matter from the sun's corona. Astronauts might need to move into havens with extra shielding on an interplanetary spacecraft or on Mars during solar particle events.

Earth's magnetic field and atmosphere provide effective shielding for our home planet against the possible deadly effects of galactic cosmic rays and solar particle events. Mars, though, lacks a global magnetic field and has only about one percent as much atmosphere as Earth. Just to find high-enough radiation levels on Earth for checking and calibrating RAD, the instrument team needed to put it inside major particle-accelerator research facilities in the United States, Europe, Japan and South Africa.

An instrument on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter, which reached Mars in 2001, assessed radiation levels above the Martian atmosphere. Current estimates of the radiation environment at the planet's surface rely on modeling of how the thin atmosphere affects the energetic particles, but uncertainty in the modeling remains large. "A single energetic particle hitting the top of the atmosphere can break up into many particles -- a cascade of lower-energy particles that might be more damaging to life than a single high-energy particle," Hassler noted.

The 1.7-kilogram (3.8-pound) RAD instrument has an upward-pointing, wide-angle telescope with detectors for charged particles with masses up to that of iron. It can also detect secondary neutrons coming from both the Mars atmosphere above and Mars surface material below. Hassler's international RAD team includes experts in instrument design, astronaut safety, atmospheric science, geology and other fields.

Southwest Research Institute, in Boulder and in San Antonio, Texas, and Christian Albrechts University, in Kiel, Germany, built RAD with funding from the NASA Exploration Systems Mission Directorate and Germany's national aerospace research center: Deutschen Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt. The team assembling and testing the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., installed RAD onto Curiosity last month for the late-2011 launch.

RAD measurements during the trip from Earth to Mars will enable correlations with instruments on other spacecraft that monitor solar particle events and galactic cosmic rays in Earth's neighborhood, then will yield data about the radiation environment farther from Earth.

Once on Mars, the rover's prime mission will last a full Martian year -- nearly two Earth years. A one-time set of measurements by RAD would not suffice for determining the radiation environment on the surface, because radiation levels vary on time frames both longer than a year and shorter than an hour. Operational planning for Curiosity anticipates that RAD will record measurements for 15 minutes of every hour throughout the prime mission.

Radiation levels probably make the surface of modern Mars inhospitable for microbial life. The measurements from RAD will feed calculations of how deeply a possible future robot on a life-detection mission might need to dig or drill to reach a microbial safe zone. For assessing whether the surface radiation environment could have been hospitable for microbes in Mars' distant past, researchers will combine RAD's measurements with estimates of how the activity of the sun and the atmosphere of Mars have changed in the past few billion years.

"The primary science goal of Curiosity is to determine whether its landing site is, or ever was, a habitable environment, a place friendly to life," said JPL's Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory. "That involves looking both for conditions that would support life as well as for those that would be hazardous to life or its chemical predecessors. Natural, high-energy radiation is just such a hazard, and RAD will give us the first look at the present level of this radiation and help us to better estimate radiation levels throughout Mars' history."

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. For more information about the mission, see http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/.
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Old 11-16-2010, 11:23 PM   #19
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NASA JPL:
Camera on Curiosity's Arm will Magnify Clues in Rocks


November 16, 2010

NASA's next Mars rover, Curiosity, will wield an arm-mounted magnifying camera similar to one on the Mars Rover Opportunity, which promptly demonstrated its importance for reading environmental history from rocks at its landing site in 2004.

Within a few weeks after the landing, that camera at the end of Opportunity's arm revealed details of small spheres embedded in the rocks, hollows where crystals had dissolved, and fine layering shaped like smiles. These details all provided information about the site's wet past.


Color Camera for Curiosity's Robotic Arm - The Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI)
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems


The camera installed on the end of Curiosity's arm this month is the Mars Hand Lens Imager, or MAHLI. Its work will include the same type of close-up inspections accomplished by the comparable camera on Opportunity, but MAHLI has significantly greater capabilities: full-color photography, adjustable focus, lights, and even video. Also, it sits on a longer arm, one that can hold MAHLI up higher than the cameras on the rover's mast. MAHLI will use those capabilities as one of 10 science instruments to study the area of Mars where NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission lands Curiosity in August 2012.

The Mars Hand Lens Imager takes its name from the magnifying tool that every field geologist carries. Ken Edgett of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, is the principal investigator for the instrument. He said, "When you’re out in the field and you want to get a quick idea what minerals are in a rock, you pick up the rock in one hand and hold your hand lens in the other hand. You look through the lens at the colors, the crystals, the cleavage planes: features that help you diagnose what minerals you see.

"If it's a sedimentary rock, such as the sandstone you see at Arches National Park in Utah, or shale -- which is basically petrified mud -- like in the Painted Desert in Arizona, you use the hand lens not just to see what minerals are in it but also the sizes and shapes of the grains in the rock. You also look at the fine-scale layering in the rock to get an idea of the sequence of events. Sedimentary rocks record past events and environments."

While other instruments on Curiosity will provide more information about what minerals are in rocks, the Mars Hand Lens Imager will play an important role in reading the environmental history recorded in sedimentary rocks. The mission's science team will use the instruments to assess whether the selected landing area has had environmental conditions favorable for life and for preserving evidence about whether life existed.

The team currently assembling and testing Curiosity and other parts of the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., is continuing tests of MAHLI this month, now that the camera is mounted beside other tools on the robotic arm. The spacecraft will launch from Florida between Nov. 25 and Dec. 18, 2011.

Edgett led the preparation in early 2004 of a proposal to include MAHLI in the Mars Science Laboratory's payload. During those same months, the camera on Opportunity's arm -- that mission's Microscopic Imager -- was demonstrating the potential value of a successor, and generating ideas for improvements. Opportunity's Microscopic Imager has a fixed focus. To get targets in focus, it always needs to be placed the same distance from the target, recording a view of an area 3 centimeters (1.2 inches) across. To view a larger area, the camera takes multiple images, sometimes more than a dozen, each requiring a repositioning of Opportunity's arm.

"When I was writing the proposal, the Microscopic Imager took about 40 images for a mosaic of one rock," Edgett said. "That's where the idea came from to make the focus adjustable. With adjustable focus, the science team has more flexibility for trade-offs among the rover's resources, such as power, time, data storage and data downlink. For example, the camera could take one or two images from farther away to cover a larger area, then go in and sample selected parts in higher resolution from closer up."

MAHLI can focus on targets as close as about 21 millimeters (0.8 inch) and as distant as the horizon or farther. JPL's Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory, said, "MAHLI is really a fully functional camera that happens to be on the end of the arm. The close-up capability is its specialty, but it will also be able to take images or videos from many viewpoints inaccessible to the cameras on the mast, such as up high, down low, under the rover and on the rover deck. Think of it like a hand-held camera with a macro lens, one that you could use for taking pictures of the Grand Canyon, of yourself, or of a bumblebee on a flower."

Edgett is looking forward to what the camera will reveal in rock textures. "Just like larger rocks in a river, grains of sand carried in a stream get rounded from bouncing around and colliding with each other," he said. "If you look at a sandstone with a hand lens and see rounded grains, that tells you they came from a distance. If they are more angular, they didn't come as far before they were deposited in the sediment that became the rock. Where an impact excavated a crater, particles of the material ejected from the crater would be very angular.

"When you're talking about ancient rocks as clues for assessing habitability," he continued, "you're talking about the environments the sediments were deposited in -- whether a lake, a desert, an ice field. Also, what cemented the particles together to become rocks, and what changes have affected the rock after the sediments were deposited? All these things are relevant to whether an environment was favorable for life and also whether it was favorable for preserving the record of that life. Earth is a planet teeming with life, but most rocks have not preserved ancient organisms; Mars will be even more challenging than Earth in this sense."

Edgett says he is eager to see an additional image from this camera besides the details of rock textures. With the arm extended upwards, the camera can look down at the rover for a dramatic self-portrait on Mars. But as for the most important image the Mars Hand Lens Imager will take: "That will be something that surprises us, something we're not expecting."
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Old 12-01-2010, 03:02 AM   #20
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NASA / NASA JPL:
Mars Rover Construction Webcam Tops Million Viewers

November 30, 2010

PASADENA, Calif. -- More than one million people have watched assembly and testing of NASA's next Mars rover via a live webcam since it went online in October.

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, also known as the Curiosity rover, is being tested and assembled in a clean room at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The webcam, affectionately dubbed "Curiosity Cam," shows engineers and technicians clad in head-to-toe white smocks working on the rover.

Metrics from the webcam's hosting platform, Ustream, showed more than one million unique viewers spent more than 400,000 hours watching Curiosity Cam between Oct. 21 and Nov. 23. There have been more than 2.3 million viewer sessions.

The camera is mounted in the viewing gallery of the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at JPL. While the gallery is a regular stop on JPL's public tour, Curiosity Cam allows visitors from around the world to see NASA engineers at work without traveling to Pasadena.

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The Curiosity Cam live video feed allows the public to watch technicians assemble and test NASA's next Mars rover in a clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. Image credit NASA/JPL-CalTech


Viewers from Chile, Japan, Turkey, Spain, Mexico and the United Kingdom have sent good wishes and asked questions in the chat box that accompanies the Curiosity Cam webstream. At scheduled times, viewers can interact with each other and JPL staff. The chat schedule is updated weekdays at http://www.ustream.tv/nasajpl.

Months of assembly and testing remain before the car-sized rover is ready for launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The rover and spacecraft components will ship to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida next spring. The launch will occur between Nov. 25 and Dec. 18, 2011. Curiosity will arrive on Mars in August 2012.

The rover is one of the most technologically challenging interplanetary missions ever designed. Curiosity is engineered to drive longer distances over rougher terrain than previous Mars rovers. It will carry a science payload 10 times the mass of instruments on NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Curiosity will investigate whether the landing region had environments favorable for supporting microbial life. It will also look for environments that have been favorable for preserving evidence about whether life existed.

Continuous live video of rover construction is available at: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/nasajpl, http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/ms...curiosity.html and http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/mission...istherovernow/.

For information and news about Curiosity, visit http://www.nasa.gov/msl.

Social media audiences can learn more about the mission on Twitter at and Facebook at http://www.twitter.com/MarsCuriosity and http://www.facebook.com/MarsCuriosity.
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NASA / NASA JPL:
Spain Supplies Weather Station for Next Mars Rover

November 30, 2010

The first instrument from Spain for a mission to Mars will provide daily weather reports from the Red Planet. Expect extremes.

Major goals for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory include assessing the modern environment in its landing area, as well as clues to environments billions of years ago. The environment station from Spain will fill a central role in studying modern conditions by measuring daily and seasonal changes.

The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station, or REMS, is one of 10 instruments in the mission's science payload. REMS uses sensors on the mast, on the deck and inside the body of the mission's car-size rover, Curiosity. Spain's Ministry of Science and Innovation and Spain's Center for Industrial Technology Development supplied the instrument. Components were installed on Curiosity in September and are being tested at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

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Sensors on two finger-like mini-booms extending horizontally from the mast of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity will monitor wind speed, wind direction and air temperature. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


While most of Curiosity's electronics are sheltered for some protection from the Martian environment, the team that developed and built the environmental station needed to fashion external sensors that could tolerate the temperature extremes that some of them would be monitoring.

"That was our biggest engineering challenge," said REMS Principal Investigator Javier Gómez-Elvira, an aeronautical engineer with the Centro de Astrobiología, Madrid, Spain. "The sensors will get very cold and go through great changes in temperature every day." The Center for Astrobiology is affiliated with the Spanish National Research Council and the National Institute for Aerospace Technology.

The air temperature around the rover mast will likely drop to about minus 130 degrees Celsius (about minus 202 degrees Fahrenheit) some winter nights and climb to about minus 50 C (about minus 60 F) by 12 hours later. On warmer days, afternoon air temperatures could reach a balmy 10 to 30 C (50 to 86 F), depending on which landing site is selected.

Other challenges have included accounting for how the rover itself perturbs air movement, and keeping the entire weather station's mass to just 1.3 kilograms (2.9 pounds).

The instrument will record wind speed, wind direction, air pressure, relative humidity, air temperature and ground temperature, plus one variable that has not been measured by any previous weather station on the surface of Mars: ultraviolet radiation. Operational plans call for taking measurements for five minutes every hour of the 23-month-long mission. Twenty-three months is equal to approximately one Martian year.

Monitoring ground temperature and ultraviolet radiation along with other weather data will contribute to understanding the Martian climate and will aid the mission's assessment of whether the current environment around the rover has conditions favorable for microbial life.

"It is important to know the temperature and humidity right at ground level," said Gómez-Elvira. Humidity at the landing sites will be extremely low, but knowing daily humidity cycles at ground level could help researchers understand the interaction of water vapor between the soil and the atmosphere. If the environment supports, or ever supported, any underground microbes, that interaction could be key.

Ultraviolet radiation can also affect habitability. For example, germ-killing ultraviolet lamps are commonly used to help maintain sterile conditions for medical and research equipment. The ultraviolet sensor Curiosity's deck measures six different wavelength bands in the ultraviolet portion of the spectrum, including wavelengths also monitored from above by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The weather station will help extend years of synergy between missions that study Mars from orbit and missions on the surface.

"We will gain information about whether local conditions are favorable for habitability, and we will also contribute to understanding the global atmosphere of Mars," said Gómez-Elvira. "The circulation models of the Mars atmosphere are based mainly on observations by orbiters. Our measurements will provide a way to verify and improve the models."

For example, significant fractions of the Martian atmosphere freeze onto the ground as a south polar carbon-dioxide ice cap during southern winter and as a north polar carbon-dioxide ice cap in northern winter, returning to the atmosphere in each hemisphere's spring. At Curiosity's landing site far from either pole, REMS will check whether seasonal patterns of changing air pressure fit the existing models for effects of the coming and going of polar carbon-dioxide ice.

The sensor for air pressure, developed for REMS by the Finnish Meteorological Institute, uses a dust-shielded opening on Curiosity's deck. The most conspicuous components of the weather station are two fingers extending horizontally from partway up the rover's remote-sensing mast. Each of these two REMS mini-booms holds three electronic sensors for detecting air movement in three dimensions. Placement of the booms at an angle of 120 degrees from each other enables calculating the velocity of wind without worrying about the main mast blocking the wind. One mini-boom also holds the humidity sensor; the other a set of directional infrared sensors for measuring ground temperature.

To develop REMS and prepare for analyzing the data it will provide, Spain has assembled a team of about 40 researchers -- engineers and scientists. The team plans to post daily Mars weather reports online.
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Florida Today: NASA aims Curiosity for Mars
Over budget and behind schedule, largest rover poised for 2011 launch to red planet
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Old 12-23-2010, 03:10 AM   #22
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NASA / NASA JPL:
NASA's Next Mars Rover to Zap Rocks With Laser

December 22, 2010

A rock-zapping laser instrument on NASA's next Mars rover has roots in a demonstration that Roger Wiens saw 13 years ago in a colleague's room at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

The Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument on the rover Curiosity can hit rocks with a laser powerful enough to excite a pinhead-size spot into a glowing, ionized gas. ChemCam then observes the flash through a telescope and analyzes the spectrum of light to identify the chemical elements in the target.

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Researchers prepare for a test of the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument that will fly on NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission. Image credit NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL


That information about rocks or patches of soil up to about 7 meters (23 feet) away will help the rover team survey the rover's surroundings and choose which targets to drill into, or scoop up, for additional analysis by other instruments on Curiosity. With the 10 science instruments on the rover, the team will assess whether any environments in the landing area have been favorable for microbial life and for preserving evidence about whether life existed. In late 2011, NASA will launch Curiosity and the other parts of the flight system, delivering the rover to the surface of Mars in August 2012.

Wiens, a geochemist with the U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory, serves as ChemCam's principal investigator. An American and French team that he leads proposed the instrument during NASA's 2004 open competition for participation in the Mars Science Laboratory project, whose rover has since been named Curiosity.

In 1997, while working on an idea for using lasers to investigate the moon, Wiens visited a chemistry laboratory building where a colleague, Dave Cremers, had been experimenting with a different laser technique. Cremers set up a cigar-size laser powered by a little 9-volt radio battery and pointed at a rock across the room.

"The room was well used. Every flat surface was covered with instruments, lenses or optical mounts," Wiens recalls. "The filing cabinets looked like they had a bad case of acne. I found out later that they were used for laser target practice."

Cremers pressed a button. An invisible beam from the laser set off a flash on a rock across the room. The flash was ionized gas, or plasma, generated by the energy from the laser exciting atoms in the rock. A spectrometer pointed at the glowing plasma recorded the intensity of light at different wavelengths for determining the rock's atomic ingredients.

Researchers have used lasers for inducing plasmas for decades. What impressed Wiens in this demonstration was the capability to do it with such a low-voltage power source and compact hardware. Using this technology for a robot on another planet seemed feasible. From that point, more than a decade of international development and testing resulted in ChemCam being installed on Curiosity in September 2010.

The international collaboration came about in 2001 when Wiens introduced a former Los Alamos post-doctoral researcher, Sylvestre Maurice, to the project. The core technology of ChemCam, laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, had been used for years in France as well as in America, but it was still unknown to space scientists there. "The technique is both flashy and very compelling scientifically, and the reviewers in France really liked that combination," Maurice said. A French team was formed, and work on a new laser began.

"The trick is very short bursts of the laser," Wiens said. "You really dump a lot of energy onto a small spot -- megawatts per square millimeter -- but just for a few nanoseconds."

The pinhead-size spot hit by ChemCam's laser gets as much power focused on it as a million light bulbs, for five one-billionths of a second. Light from the resulting flash comes back to ChemCam through the instrument's telescope, mounted beside the laser high on the rover's camera mast. The telescope directs the light down an optical fiber to three spectrometers inside the rover. The spectrometers record intensity at 6,144 different wavelengths of ultraviolet, visible and infrared light. Different chemical elements in the target emit light at different wavelengths.

If the rock has a coating of dust or a weathered rind, multiple shots from the laser can remove those layers to provide a clear shot to the rock's interior composition. "We can see what the progression of composition looks like as we get a little bit deeper with each shot," Wiens said.

Earlier Mars rover missions have lacked a way to identify some of the lighter elements, such as carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, lithium and boron, which can be clues to past environmental conditions in which the rock was formed or altered. After NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit examined an outcrop called "Comanche" in 2005, it took years of analyzing indirect evidence before the team could confidently infer the presence of carbon in the rock. A single observation with ChemCam could detect carbon directly.

ChemCam will be able to interrogate multiple targets the same day, gaining information for the rover team's careful selection of where to drill or scoop samples for laboratory investigations that will take multiple days per target. It can also check the composition of targets inaccessible to the rover's other instruments, such as rock faces beyond the reach of Curiosity's arm.

The instrument's telescope doubles as the optics for the camera part of ChemCam, which records images on a one-megapixel detector. The telescopic camera will show context of the spots hit with the laser and can also be used independently of the laser.

The French half of the ChemCam team, headed by Maurice and funded by France's national space agency, provided the instrument's laser and telescope. Maurice is a spectroscopy expert with the Centre d'Étude Spatiale des Rayonnements, in Toulouse, France. Los Alamos National Laboratory supplied the spectrometers and data processor inside the rover. The optical design of the spectrometers came from Ocean Optics, Dunedin, Fla.

The ChemCam team includes experts in mineralogy, geology, astrobiology and other fields, with some members also on other Curiosity instrument teams.

With the instrument now installed on Curiosity, testing continues at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, is assembling the rover and other components of the Mars Science Laboratory flight system for launch from Florida between Nov. 25 and Dec. 18, 2011.
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NASA / NASA JPL:
NASA Mars Rover Will Check for Ingredients of Life

January 18, 2011

PASADENA, Calif. -- Paul Mahaffy, the scientist in charge of the largest instrument on NASA's next Mars rover, watched through glass as clean-room workers installed it into the rover.

The specific work planned for this instrument on Mars requires more all-covering protective garb for these specialized workers than was needed for the building of NASA's earlier Mars rovers.

The instrument is Sample Analysis at Mars, or SAM, built by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. At the carefully selected landing site for the Mars rover named Curiosity, one of SAM's key jobs will be to check for carbon-containing compounds called organic molecules, which are among the building blocks of life on Earth. The clean-room suits worn by Curiosity's builders at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., are just part of the care being taken to keep biological material from Earth from showing up in results from SAM.

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Technicians and engineers inside a clean room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., prepare to install SAM into the mission's Mars rover, Curiosity. Image credit NASA/JPL-Caltech
This schematic illustration shows major components of the microwave-oven-size instrument, which was installed into the mission's rover, Curiosity, in January 2011. Image credit NASA
Technicians and engineers position SAM above the mission's Mars rover, Curiosity, for installing the instrument. Image credit NASA/JPL-Caltech
Technicians and engineers lower SAM into the mission's Mars rover, Curiosity, for installing the instrument. Image credit NASA/JPL-Caltech


Organic chemicals consist of carbon and hydrogen and, in many cases, additional elements. They can exist without life, but life as we know it cannot exist without them. SAM can detect a fainter trace of organics and identify a wider variety of them than any instrument yet sent to Mars. It also can provide information about other ingredients of life and clues to past environments.

Researchers will use SAM and nine other science instruments on Curiosity to study whether one of the most intriguing areas on Mars has offered environmental conditions favorable for life and favorable for preserving evidence about whether life has ever existed there. NASA will launch Curiosity from Florida between Nov. 25 and Dec. 18, 2011, as part of the Mars Science Laboratory mission's spacecraft. The spacecraft will deliver the rover to the Martian surface in August 2012. The mission plan is to operate Curiosity on Mars for two years.

"If we don't find any organics, that's useful information," said Mahaffy, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "That would mean the best place to look for evidence about life on Mars may not be near the surface. It may push us to look deeper." It would also aid understanding of the environmental conditions that remove organics.

"If we do find detectable organics, that would be an encouraging sign that the immediate environment in the rocks we're sampling is preserving these clues," he said. "Then we would use the tools we have to try to determine where the organics may have come from." Organics delivered by meteorites without involvement of biology come with more random chemical structures than the patterns seen in mixtures of organic chemicals produced by organisms.

Mahaffy paused in describing what SAM will do on Mars while engineers and technicians lowered the instrument into its position inside Curiosity this month. A veteran of using earlier spacecraft instruments to study planetary atmospheres, he has coordinated work of hundreds of people in several states and Europe to develop, build and test SAM after NASA selected his team's proposal for it in 2004.

"It has been a long haul getting to this point," he said. "We've taken a set of experiments that would occupy a good portion of a room on Earth and put them into that box the size of a microwave oven."

SAM has three laboratory tools for analyzing chemistry. The tools will examine gases from the Martian atmosphere, as well as gases that ovens and solvents pull from powdered rock and soil samples. Curiosity's robotic arm will deliver the powdered samples to an inlet funnel. SAM's ovens will heat most samples to about 1,000 degrees Celsius (about 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit).

One tool, a mass spectrometer, identifies gases by the molecular weight and electrical charge of their ionized states. It will check for several elements important for life as we know it, including nitrogen, phosphorous, sulfur, oxygen and carbon.

Another tool, a laser spectrometer, uses absorption of light at specific wavelengths to measure concentrations of selected chemicals, such as methane and water vapor. It also identifies the proportions of different isotopes in those gases. Isotopes are variants of the same element with different atomic weights, such as carbon-13 and carbon-12, or oxygen-18 and oxygen-16. Ratios of isotopes can be signatures of planetary processes. For example, Mars once had a much denser atmosphere than it does today, and if the loss occurred at the top of the atmosphere, the process would favor increased concentration of heavier isotopes in the retained, modern atmosphere.

Methane is an organic molecule. Observations from Mars orbit and from Earth in recent years have suggested transient methane in Mars' atmosphere, which would mean methane is being actively added and subtracted at Mars. With SAM's laser spectrometer, researchers will check to confirm whether methane is present, monitor any changes in concentration, and look for clues about whether Mars methane is produced by biological activity or by processes that do not require life. JPL provided SAM's laser spectrometer.

SAM's third analytical tool, a gas chromatograph, separates different gases from a mixture to aid identification. It does some identification itself and also feeds the separated fractions to the mass spectrometer and the laser spectrometer. France's space agency, Centre National d'Études Spatiales, provided support to the French researchers who developed SAM's gas chromatograph.

NASA's investigation of organics on Mars began with the twin Viking landers in 1976. Science goals of more recent Mars missions have tracked a "follow the water" theme, finding multiple lines of evidence for liquid water -- another prerequisite for life -- in Mars' past. The Mars Science Laboratory mission will seek more information about those wet environments, while the capabilities of its SAM instrument add a trailblazing "follow the carbon" aspect and information about how well ancient environments may be preserved.

The original reports from Viking came up negative for organics. How, then, might Curiosity find any? Mahaffy describes three possibilities.

The first is about locations. Mars is diverse, not uniform. Copious information gained from Mars orbiters in recent years is enabling the choice of a landing site with favorable attributes, such as exposures of clay and sulfate minerals good at entrapping organic chemicals. Mobility helps too, especially with the aid of high-resolution geologic mapping generated from orbital observations. The stationary Viking landers could examine only what their arms could reach. Curiosity can use mapped geologic context as a guide in its mobile search for organics and other clues about habitable environments. Additionally, SAM will be able to analyze samples from interiors of rocks drilled into by Curiosity, rather than being restricted to soil samples, as Viking was.

Second, SAM has improved sensitivity, with a capability to detect less than one part-per-billion of an organic compound, over a wider mass range of molecules and after heating samples to a higher temperature.

Third, a lower-heat method using solvents to pull organics from some SAM samples can check a hypothesis that a reactive chemical recently discovered in Martian soil may have masked organics in soil samples baked during Viking tests.

The lower-heat process also allows searching for specific classes of organics with known importance to life on Earth. For example, it can identify amino acids, the chain links of proteins. Other clues from SAM could also be hints about whether organics on Mars -- if detected at all -- come from biological processes or without biology, such as from meteorites. Certain carbon-isotope ratios in organics compared with the ratio in Mars' atmosphere could suggest meteorite origin. Patterns in the number of carbon atoms in organic molecules could be a clue. Researchers will check for a mixture of organics with chains of carbon atoms to see if the mix is predominated either by chains with an even number of carbon atoms or with an odd number. That kind of pattern, rather than a random blend, would be typical of biological assembly of carbon chains from repetitious subunits.

"Even if we see a signature such as mostly even-numbered chains in a mix of organics, we would be hesitant to make any definitive statements about life, but that would certainly indicate that our landing site would be a good place to come back to," Mahaffy said. A future mission could bring a sample back to Earth for more extensive analysis with all the methods available on Earth.

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Old 01-27-2011, 09:29 AM   #24
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Not a big post, but this is a short video of the Skycrane Fullmotion Drop Test
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Old 01-27-2011, 11:53 AM   #25
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The same, but embedded from YouTube:
Building Curiosity: Landing System Drop Test
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Old 01-29-2011, 01:57 PM   #26
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Space News: NASA’s Overbudget Mars Rover in Need of Another Cash Infusion:
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WASHINGTON — NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission needs an $82 million cash infusion to maintain its late November launch date after development of the $2.47 billion rover exhausted program funding reserves last year, according to agency officials.

Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division in the U.S. space agency’s Science Mission Directorate here, attributed the 3 percent cost increase to problems developing the truck-sized rover’s mobility systems, avionics, radar and drill, as well as delays in completing the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite, which is designed to sniff the surrounding air for carbon-containing compounds.

“Our problem right now is MSL,” Green told members of the NASA Advisory Council’s planetary sciences subcommittee during a public meeting here Jan. 26. “It has virtually no unencumbered reserves left.”

With MSL slated for delivery to Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in June, Green said it is imperative that the program’s funding reserves be restored in order to gird against any further development or test problems that could cause the rover to miss an unforgiving three-week launch window that opens Nov. 25.

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Old 03-19-2011, 01:06 AM   #27
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NASA / NASA JPL:
Madrid Event Marks Spain's Role in Next Mars Mission

March 17, 2011

Spain is providing a key science instrument and the high-gain antenna communication subsystem for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, on track for launch this year.

At a small ceremony held March 17, 2011, in Madrid, representatives of the United States and Spain signed an agreement for cooperation on the mission. Signers included Alan D. Solomont, U.S. ambassador to Spain; Arturo Azcorra, director general of Spain's Center for the Development of Industrial Technology; and Jaime Denis, director general of Spain's National Institute for Aerospace Technology. Spain's Minister of Defense Carme Chacon Piqueras and Minister of Science and Innovation Cristina Garmendia Mendizabal were also present.

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Sensors on two finger-like mini-booms extending horizontally from the mast of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity will monitor wind speed, wind direction and air temperature. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


The Mars Science Laboratory instrument provided by Spain is the Remote Environmental Monitoring Station, which will measure daily and seasonal changes in weather using sensors on the mast, on the deck and inside the mission's rover. The rover's high-gain antenna will send and receive communications directly between the rover and Earth, using X-band radio transmissions.

The mission's rover, named Curiosity, is currently in vacuum-chamber testing at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., where it is being built and tested. This is part of preparation for launch during the period Nov. 25 to Dec. 18, 2011, and landing on Mars in August 2012. Its 10 science investigations will assess the modern environment of the landing area and clues about environments billions of years ago.

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NASA / NASA JPL:
Next Mars Rover Gets a Test Taste of Mars Conditions

March 18, 2011

A space-simulation chamber at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., is temporary home this month for the Curiosity rover, which will land on Mars next year.

Tests inside the 25-foot-diameter chamber (7.6-meters) are putting the rover through various sequences in environmental conditions resembling Martian surface conditions. After the chamber's large door was sealed last week, air was pumped out to near-vacuum pressure, liquid nitrogen in the walls dropped the temperature to minus 130 degrees Celsius (minus 202 degrees Fahrenheit), and a bank of powerful lamps simulated the intensity of sunshine on Mars.

Images of Curiosity in the chamber just before the door was sealed are at: http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA13805 and http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA13806.

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This image shows preparation for one phase of testing of the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This image shows preparation for March 2011 testing of the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, in a 25-foot-diameter (7.6-meter-diameter) space-simulation chamber. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


Other portions of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft, including the cruise stage, descent stage and backshell, remain in JPL's Spacecraft Assembly Facility, where Curiosity was assembled and where the rover will return after the simulation-chamber tests. In coming months, those flight system components and the rover will be shipped to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for final preparations before the launch period of Nov. 25 to Dec. 18, 2011.

The mission will use Curiosity to study one of the most intriguing places on Mars -- still to be selected from among four finalist landing-site candidates. It will study whether a selected area of Mars has offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life and for preserving evidence about whether Martian life has existed.

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Old 03-19-2011, 04:50 AM   #28
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Future autonomous surface probes should have legs to help get them out of sand traps and over rough terrain. Or perhaps the ability to brake the wheels stuck and use them as legs for a while. Does anyone know about any estimates of how much more likely is it to get its wheels dug deep in the sand compared to previous rovers?
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Old 03-25-2011, 09:41 PM   #30
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NASA / NASA JPL:
Work Stopped on Alternative Cameras for Mars Rover

March 25, 2011

The NASA rover to be launched to Mars this year will carry the Mast Camera (Mastcam) instrument already on the vehicle, providing the capability to meet the mission's science goals.

Work has stopped on an alternative version of the instrument, with a pair of zoom-lens cameras, which would have provided additional capabilities for improved three-dimensional video. The installed Mastcam on the Mars Science Laboratory mission's Curiosity rover uses two fixed-focal-length cameras: a telephoto for one eye and wider angle for the other. Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, built the Mastcam and was funded by NASA last year to see whether a zoom version could be developed in time for testing on Curiosity.

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The image shows Curiosity on a tilt table in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


"With the Mastcam that was installed last year and the rover's other instruments, Curiosity can accomplish its ambitious research goals," said Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. "Malin Space Science Systems has provided excellent, unprecedented science cameras for this mission. The possibility for a zoom-camera upgrade was very much worth pursuing, but time became too short for the levels of testing that would be needed for them to confidently replace the existing cameras. We applaud Malin Space Science Systems for their tremendous effort to deliver the zooms, and also the Mars Science Laboratory Project's investment in supporting this effort."

Malin Space Science Systems has also provided the Mars Hand Lens Imager and the Mars Descent Imager instruments on Curiosity. The company will continue to pursue development of the zoom system, both to prove out the design and to make the hardware available for possible use on future missions.

"While Curiosity won't benefit from the 3D motion imaging that the zooms enable, I'm certain that this technology will play an important role in future missions," said Mastcam Co-Investigator James Cameron. "In the meantime, we're certainly going to make the most of our cameras that are working so well on Curiosity right now."

Mastcam Principal Investigator Michael Malin said, "Although we are very disappointed that the zoom cameras will not fly, we expect the fixed-focal-length cameras to achieve all of the primary science objectives of the Mastcam investigation."

The rover and other parts of the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft are in testing at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., which manages the project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The spacecraft will be delivered to NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida in coming months for launch late this year. In August 2012, Curiosity will land on Mars for a two-year mission to examine whether conditions in the landing area have been favorable for microbial life and for preserving evidence about whether life has existed there.

For more information about work on the zoom version of Mastcam, see http://www.msss.com/news/index.php?id=22. For more information about the mission, see http://www.nasa.gov/msl.

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