October 20, 2014

Events Archive

2013 events

December 2013: Curious Results from Mars

NASA's Curiosity rover touched down on Mars with dramatic style in August, 2012. Now that the rover has spent more than a year exploring the martian surface, scientific data from the mission is starting to make its way into journals and popular news here on Earth.

In fact, there is so much data coming back from the rover that it is sometimes hard to understand what all of the different findings mean - both in terms of the fine details of Curiosity's landing site and their greater application to the planet as a whole.

In September, five articles were published as a special collection, "Curiosity at Gale Crater," in the journal Science. The articles present results from the first four months of Curiosity's studies in Gale Crater, during which time the rover covered 500 meters driving across the surface. Narrowing the focus even further, the majority of results come from two specific sites from Curiosity's journey. The first is a rock dubbed Jake Matijevic (or Jake_M). The second is a patch of sand known as Rocknest, which sits on a downhill slope below a group of dark rocks. The papers also include measurements taken from martian soil along the length of the 500 meter traverse.

Mosaic of images from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) instrument on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows a series of sedimentary deposits in the Glenelg area of Gale Crater, from a perspective in Yellowknife Bay looking toward west-northwest. © NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Mosaic of images from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) instrument on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows a series of sedimentary deposits in the Glenelg area of Gale Crater, from a perspective in Yellowknife Bay looking toward west-northwest.

Astrobiology Magazine recently spoke with some of the researchers behind the Science articles in order to better understand how these findings relate to the study of life's potential on ancient Mars.

Pierre-Yves Meslin, ChemCam

Pierre-Yves Meslin is a member of the team behind the Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam), a package that consists of two remote sensing instruments. Curiosity uses ChemCam to study the elemental composition of targets. In simple terms, it tells us what the rocks and soil on Mars are made of. This has a practical application in helping mission planners decide which targets Curiosity should stop at and spend time analyzing with its other instruments.

Data from ChemCam is also directly useful for astrobiologists. Rocks and soil are formed and altered by physical and chemical processes at the surface. Studying the exact composition of Mars rocks can help astrobiologists determine if water played a role in shaping the structure of the martian surface at Curiosity's landing site, Gale Crater. This information helps scientists reconstruct what the ancient environment of Mars was like, and whether or not it could have been habitable for life as we know it.

"[ChemCam] is not the first instrument to measure chemical composition at the surface," Meslin noted. "On past missions scientists could use an instrument called APXS (Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer), a version of which is also onboard Curiosity. What is new about ChemCam is that it is much more simple to operate because we don't have to deploy the robotic arm. It's not easy to deploy the arm. It takes time, so it slows down the rover." ChemCam uses a laser to collect its data remotely, which is more simple than other instruments on Curiosity that need to scratch, dig and drill to collect information. Curiosity can basically just drive along, stop and zap things in its path in order to determine whether or not targets are of particular interest.

"One good thing about ChemCam is its operability. We can shoot many targets every day on Mars," Meslin continued. "The second new thing about ChemCam is the scale of the analysis. This is the first time that we have an insight into the chemical composition at the sub millimeter scale. With ChemCam we measure at a very small scale, so we can identify the different grains or minerals. This fine-scale analysis allows us to find and decipher some heterogeneous compositions, and it is important to know the relationship between grain sizes and composition."

The ChemCam team is an international effort with responsibilities mixed between the United States and France. Meslin is a scientist based at the University Paul Sabatier in Toulouse, France, and he also has an operational role as part of the ChemCam uplink team that selects the ChemCam targets.

Read the complete news on Astrobiology Magazine website

November 14, 2013: ChemCam topped 100,000 zaps on Mars

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has passed the milestone of 100,000 shots fired by its laser. It uses the laser as one way to check which chemical elements are in rocks and soils.

The 100,000th shot was one of a series of 300 to investigate 10 locations on a rock called "Ithaca" in late October, at a distance of 13 feet, 3 inches (4.04 meters) from the laser and telescope on rover's mast.

Ithaca rock, target for 100,000th Laser Shot by Curiosity on Mars
"Ithaca" rock, target for 100,000th Laser Shot by Curiosity on Mars
ChemCam spectrum from Martian rock Ithaca
ChemCam spectrum from Martian rock "Ithaca"

Read the complete news on ChemCam website

September 27, 2013: Curiosity identifies the nature of the hydratation of the Martian soil

During the first 100 days spent on Mars, ChemCam instrument on board Curiosity rover analyzed from a distance a great number of Martian soil samples, with an unprecedente spatial precisione. These first analyses performed by IRAP scientists (OMP - Toulouse III - Paul Sabatier University / CNRS) in collaboration in collaboration with French-American ChemCam teams, revealed a great chemical diversity of the Martian soil grains, but above all the fact that the grains richer in iron and magnesium are hydrated. For the authors, this hydratation could constitute an important part of the water reservoir at the surface of Mars and observed during the previous missions. The origin of this reservoir is one of the keys to understand the evolution of Mars climate. These studies are published in Science review on September 27, 2013, in a series of five articles dedicated to the first results of Curiosity.

Images of the Martian soil before and after laser shots by ChemCam. 1: Mastcam image;
2: RMI ChemCam images. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/IAS/CNRS

Read the complete news on INSU website (in French)

August 6, 2013: Curiosity celebrates one year on Mars

On 6 August 2012, we followed Curiosity's Mars landing live on our website. One year on, the rover is in great shape and on course for its primary target, Mount Sharp.

80 000 laser firings

Self-portrait of Curiosity on Mars. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Just one year ago, NASA's Curiosity rover landed on the surface of the Red Planet after "7 minutes of terror". Six months later, the U.S. space agency was able to announce with satisfaction that it had found evidence that conditions on ancient Mars could have been conducive to life. In February 2013, analyses from Curiosity also showed that the planet's atmosphere is being stripped away by the solar wind.

During the first year of its mission, Curiosity, supported by relay satellites, has beamed back to Earth more than 190 Gbits of data-the equivalent of 45,600 mp3 music tracks. The ChemCam instrument has fired its laser at rocks 80,000 times to probe their chemical composition.

Mount Sharp in its sights

 CNES/S. Girard
The FIMOC at CNES in Toulouse uplinks part of the commands
to operate Curiosity. Credits: CNES/S. Girard

Some of the laser firing commands were sent from the FIMOC (French Instruments Mars Operations Center) facility at CNES in Toulouse, notes its chief Eric Lorigny with satisfaction. "These kinds of results are just what we'd hoped for before the mission got underway," he says. "Now we're set to continue amassing data all the way to Mount Sharp."

Indeed, Curiosity's exploration of the Red Planet is far from over. The six-wheel rover recently resumed the trek towards Mount Sharp, its primary target 8 km from the landing site. After a journey of several months, during which it will analyse more rocks along the way, Curiosity will pore over the exposed sedimentary layers at the base of the 5,000-m-high mountain that scientists hope to read like an open book into the planet's history.

April 8, 2013: Remaining Martian Atmosphere Still Dynamic

Mars has lost much of its original atmosphere, but what's left remains quite active, recent findings from NASA's Mars rover Curiosity indicate. Rover team members reported diverse findings today at the European Geosciences Union 2013 General Assembly, in Vienna.
Evidence has strengthened this month that Mars lost much of its original atmosphere by a process of gas escaping from the top of the atmosphere.

Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument analyzed an atmosphere sample last week using a process that concentrates selected gases. The results provided the most precise measurements ever made of isotopes of argon in the Martian atmosphere. Isotopes are variants of the same element with different atomic weights. "We found arguably the clearest and most robust signature of atmospheric loss on Mars," said Sushil Atreya, a SAM co-investigator at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

SAM found that the Martian atmosphere has about four times as much of a lighter stable isotope (argon-36) compared to a heavier one (argon-38). This removes previous uncertainty about the ratio in the Martian atmosphere from 1976 measurements from NASA's Viking project and from small volumes of argon extracted from Martian meteorites. The ratio is much lower than the solar system's original ratio, as estimated from argon-isotope measurements of the sun and Jupiter. This points to a process at Mars that favored preferential loss of the lighter isotope over the heavier one.

Curiosity measures several variables in today's Martian atmosphere with the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS), provided by Spain. While daily air temperature has climbed steadily since the measurements began eight months ago and is not strongly tied to the rover's location, humidity has differed significantly at different places along the rover's route. These are the first systematic measurements of humidity on Mars.

Trails of dust devils have not been seen inside Gale Crater, but REMS sensors detected many whirlwind patterns during the first hundred Martian days of the mission, though not as many as detected in the same length of time by earlier missions. "A whirlwind is a very quick event that happens in a few seconds and should be verified by a combination of pressure, temperature and wind oscillations and, in some cases, a decrease is ultraviolet radiation," said REMS Principal Investigator Javier Gómez-Elvira of the Centro de Astrobiología, Madrid.

Dust distributed by the wind has been examined by Curiosity's laser-firing Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument. Initial laser pulses on each target hit dust. The laser's energy removes the dust to expose underlying material, but those initial pulses also provide information about the dust.

"We knew that Mars is red because of iron oxides in the dust," said ChemCam Deputy Principal Investigator Sylvestre Maurice of the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie in Toulouse, France. "ChemCam reveals a complex chemical composition of the dust that includes hydrogen, which could be in the form of hydroxyl groups or water molecules."

Possible interchange of water molecules between the atmosphere and the ground is studied by a combination of instruments on the rover, including the Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN), provided by Russia under the leadership of DAN Principal Investigator Igor Mitrofanov.

For the rest of April, Curiosity will carry out daily activities for which commands were sent in March, using DAN, REMS and the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD). No new commands are being sent during a four-week period while Mars is passing nearly behind the sun, from Earth's perspective. This geometry occurs about every 26 months and is called Mars solar conjunction.

"After conjunction, Curiosity will be drilling into another rock where the rover is now, but that target has not yet been selected. The science team will discuss this over the conjunction period." said Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Project is using Curiosity to investigate the environmental history within Gale Crater, a location where the project has found that conditions were long ago favorable for microbial life. Curiosity, carrying 10 science instruments, landed in August 2012 to begin its two-year prime mission. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington

Read the complete news on Nasa's web site

January 2013: Gypsum identified on Mars by ChemCam

Thanks to the recent analyses of the French-American instrument ChemCam, performed with the participation of Toulouse and Nantes Planetology laboratories, the rover Curiosity is now pacing an area made of sediments crossed by whitish veins a few millimeters thick, to proceed with the first drilling.

ChemCam focuses a laser on a rock which enables to analyze its elemental chemical composition. At the same time, a camera takes an image to determine the laser contact point. ChemCam resulting spectra on the veins are very different from the usual Martian composition (basaltic).

"These veins are likely composed of hydrated calcium sulfate, such as bassinite or gypsum," said ChemCam team member Nicolas Mangold of the Laboratoire de Planétologie et Géodynamique de Nantes in France. "On Earth, forming veins like these requires water circulating in fractures."

This discovery by ChemCam could be the first mineralogical proof of the presence of water found by the rover on the Gale crater site. In this instance it is water in the underground during past aqueous periods. This discovery highly influenced the project decision to realize the first drilling in this unit with gypsum veins.

The veins riche in sulfate seen on Mars by the rover Curiosity have a pronounced similarity with those present on Earth. Credit: NASA / JPL

Read the complete news on Nasa's web site

2012 events

November 2012: MSL mission, good news from the instrument SAM

SAM team is happy to share excellent news with you.
The first technical measurement sequence data from SAM on Mars, in solid sample analysis mode, arrived a few days ago.
The scientific signals were excellent, standard and close to those obtained on Earth during the calibration campaigns, and all the SAM on board data are nominal (currents, temperatures, tensions, pressures, mechanisms...).
Then, SAM took its first sample with some Martian sand.
The Chromatographic analysis by SAM-GC went very well, the scientific analysis of this sand is under way but already the quality of the scientific results is very good.
The exploitation phase is fully launched for SAM, and MSL mission can pursue its 2 years of nominal Martian exploration in the best conditions.

After the first 90 days phase at JPL, SAM-GC team will continueto follow SAM and Curiosity activities from Toulouse , at FIMOC (French Instrument Mars Operation Centre).

For memory, SAM is an instrument suite developed by Scientists from Cnes, which objectives are the in situ analysis of the ground and near underground of Mars.
The 3 scientific instruments composing SAM are:

  • the laser spectrometer TLS (Tunable Laser Spectrometer) which is an infrared spectrometer, supplied by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • the mass spectrometer QMS (Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer) which is aquadrupole mass spectrometer, supplied by NASA.
  • The chromatograph GC (Gas Chromatograph) which is a gas chromatograph, supplied by the LATMOS.

October 2012: The first rock analysed by ChemCam unusual on Mars

The first Martian rock NASA's Curiosity rover has reached out to touch presents a more varied composition than expected from previous missions. The rock also resembles some unusual rocks from Earth's interior.

The rover team used two instruments on Curiosity to study the chemical makeup of the football-size rock called "Jake Matijevic" (matt-EE-oh-vick) The results support some surprising recent measurements and provide an example of why identifying rocks' composition is such a major emphasis of the mission. Rock compositions tell stories about unseen environments and planetary processes.

"This rock is a close match in chemical composition to an unusual but well-known type of igneous rock found in many volcanic provinces on Earth," said Edward Stolper of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who is a Curiosity co-investigator. "With only one Martian rock of this type, it is difficult to know whether the same processes were involved, but it is a reasonable place to start thinking about its origin."

This image shows where NASA's Curiosity rover aimed two different instruments to study a rock known as 'Jake Matijevic'.
Jake Matijevic Rock This image shows where NASA's Curiosity rover aimed two different instruments to study a rock known as "Jake Matijevic". The red dots are where the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument zapped it with its laser on Sept. 21, 2012, and Sept. 24, 2012, which were the 45th and 48th sol, or Martian day of operations. The circular black and white images were taken by ChemCam to look for the pits produced by the laser. The purple circles indicate where the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer trained its view.
This image was obtained by Curiosity's Mast Camera on Sept. 21, 2012 PDT (Sept. 22 UTC), or sol 46.
Scientists white-balanced the color in this view to increase the inherent differences visible within the rock.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Read the complete news on NASA's website

August 20, 2012: ChemCam fired its laser on a Martian rock for the first time

Curiosity fired its laser for the first time on Mars, using the beam from a science instrument to interrogate a fist-size rock called "Coronation."

The mission's Chemistry and Camera instrument, or ChemCam, hit the fist-sized rock with 30 pulses of its laser during a 10-second period. Each pulse delivers more than a million watts of power for about five one-billionths of a second.

The energy from the laser excites atoms in the rock into an ionized, glowing plasma. ChemCam catches the light from that spark with a telescope and analyzes it with three spectrometers for information about what elements are in the target.

"We got a great spectrum of Coronation — lots of signal," said ChemCam Principal Investigator Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory, N.M. "Our team is both thrilled and working hard, looking at the results. After eight years building the instrument, it's payoff time!"

Composite image, with magnified insets, depicts the first laser test by the Chemistry and Camera, or ChemCam, instrument aboard NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP

ChemCam recorded spectra from the laser-induced spark at each of the 30 pulses. The goal of this initial use of the laser on Mars was to serve as target practice for characterizing the instrument, but the activity may provide additional value. Researchers will check whether the composition changed as the pulses progressed. If it did change, that could indicate dust or other surface material being penetrated to reveal different composition beneath the surface. The spectrometers record intensity at 6,144 different wavelengths of ultraviolet, visible and infrared light.

First laser spectrum from ChemCam instrument on NASA's Curiosity rover, sent back from Mars on August 19, 2012 - Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP

"It's surprising that the data are even better than we ever had during tests on Earth, in signal-to-noise ratio," said ChemCam Deputy Project Scientist Sylvestre Maurice of the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planetologie (IRAP) in Toulouse, France. "It's so rich, we can expect great science from investigating what might be thousands of targets with ChemCam in the next two years."

The technique used by ChemCam, called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, has been used to determine composition of targets in other extreme environments, such as inside nuclear reactors and on the sea floor, and has had experimental applications in environmental monitoring and cancer detection. Today's investigation of Coronation is the first use of the technique in interplanetary exploration.

Read more on: NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/msl/news/msl20120819b.html

August 6, 2012: Monday, August 6, 07:31 AM (CEST): Curiosity has successfully landed on the Red Planet!

NASA's most advanced Mars rover, Curiosity, has landed on the Red Planet. The one-ton rover, hanging by ropes from a rocket backpack, touched down onto Mars early Monday EDT to end a 36-week flight and begin a two-year investigation.

Read more on:

June 28, 2012: Why NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover landing will be "Seven Minutes of Absolute Terror"

On August 5, NASA's Mars Curiosity rover will touch down on the surface of the Red Planet. Or that's what we all hope, because it will be the craziest landing in the history of space exploration.

The landing sequence alone requires six vehicle configurations, 76 pyrotechnic devices, the largest supersonic parachute ever built, and more than 500,000 lines of code. It's such an intense undertaking that the scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, call it The Seven Minutes of Terror.

Watch this amazing new video-which feels like a trailer for a Tony Scott movie-and you'll understand why.

Mars rover, Curiosity, landing by Nasa
Credit: NASA/JPL

June 11, 2012: NASA has narrowed the target for its Mars rover, Curiosity

NASA has narrowed the target for its most advanced Mars rover, Curiosity: approximately 4 miles wide and 12 miles long (7 kilometers by 20 kilometers) instead of 12 miles wide and 16 miles long (20 kilometers by 25 kilometers).
"We're trimming the distance we'll have to drive after landing by almost half," said Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. "That could get us to the mountain months earlier."

Narrowing of Mars rover, Curiosity, landing site by Nasa
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS

March 20, 2012: CHEMCAM and SAM, instruments on board the spacecraft, were activated

During the night between Friday and Saturday (March 16 to 17), CHEMCAM instrument on board the spacecraft was activated. It had a normal behaviour, all the lights are green. Evidently, All CHEMCAM functions couldn't be tested so we must remain careful but everithing that was tested worked. Next CHEMCAM activation is schedulled for August 6 on Mars.
SAM was activated on March 19 night. SAM worked correctly. Three sequences have been run. All of them were good. Time will be needed to analyse all the results but everithing seems nominal.
After travelling for 290 millions of kms, Curiosity is nearing Mars at 92 000 km/h. The spacecraft arrives at mid-cruise and there is a little less than 270 millions of kms to travel, even if Mars is only 60 millions of kilometers away.
There won't be any more activation of CHEMCAM or SAM before the arrival on Mars, so rendez-vous on August 6.

2011 events

November 26, 2011: Successful launch for MSL mission

Video of the Atlas V Lifting Off with MSL
Video of the Atlas V Lifting Off with MSL.
( MPG 4 format, ~13.5 Mb)

October 27, 2011: MSL: to solve the mysteries of the red planet

 to solve the mysteries of the red planet
Curiosity rover should begins its journey to Mars on November 26.
Objective: to test the past habitability of the planet.
(in French)

July 2011: MSL landing site selected: Gale Crater

Choosing the right landing site for a Mars mission is always a long process in which engineers and scientists need to find 'common ground'. The list of 100 potential sites for the MSL mission had to be whittled down to one.

"Scientists identified Gale as their top choice to pursue the ambitious goals of this new rover mission," said Jim Green, Director of NASA's Planetary Science Division. "The site offers a visually dramatic landscape and also great potential for significant science findings."

Curiosity landing site localisation in Gale Crater - © Nasa/JPL/Esa/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS
Curiosity landing site localisation in Gale Crater
© Nasa/JPL/Esa/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS

Read the complete news on CNES's web site

2010 events

August 2010: Formal delivery of CHEMCAM instrument to JPL

The formal delivery review of the complete instrument ChemCam to JPL took place on July 26 and 27 at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

ChemCam instruments performances meeting perfectly the requirements and objectives of MSL mission, JPL accepted the instrument.

CHEMCAM Body unit was delivered by LANL in August to JPL, for an integration scheduled in October.

CHEMCAM Mast Unit (French part), is already integrated on top of the Rover mast.

July 2010: Mars Curiosity Takes First Baby Steps

May 2010: Nasa announced that MSL mission launch window extends between November 25 and December 18, 2011

2009 events

July 2009: Current prospective landing sites

June 18, 2009: The Rover mock-up at Paris Air show

May 27, 2009: MSL rover is now nammed "Curiosity"

2008 events

December 14, 2008: Nasa announced that MSL mission will launch two years later than previously planned, in the fall of 2011.