This image from Curiosity's Mascam camera shows the "Amargosa Valley," on the slopes leading up to Mount Sharp on Mars.
NASA/JPL-Caltech (edit by Jason Major/LightsInTheDark.com)
NASA's rover Curiosity has begun drilling operations for the third time on Mars. Currently located at a geologically interesting location nicknamed "The Kimberley," the one-ton rover also took the opportunity to photograph itself and the surrounding landscape in some stunning Martian "selfies." In this scene, Curiosity appears to be leaning its "head" -- a suite of instruments including the Chemcam (the laser "eye") and Mastcam cameras -- to the side, capturing the 5 kilometer-high Aeolis Mons (a.k.a. "Mount Sharp") on the horizon. The self portrait has been stitched togetherby Discovery News' Jason Major
from a series of raw photographs (taken on sol 613, April 28, of the mission) by Curiosity's robotic arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) instrument.
NASA/JPL-Caltech (edit by Doug Ellison/JPL)
In this scene, Curiosity appears to be concentrating hard on a rock of interest -- dubbed "Windjana" by mission scientists after a gorge in Western Australia -- that it has cleaned with its robotic arm-mounted Dust Abrasion Tool. A grey circular patch can be seen on the otherwise rusty rock's surface where the tool has scrubbed away any surface dust ready for analysis and drilling. This beautiful selfie was createdby JPL's Doug Ellison
, after assembling a collection of photos from the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on sol 613 (April 28) of the mission. Curiosity's selfies not only produce some breathtaking scenes, they are also used by mission engineers to keep tabs on the condition of the rover the more time it is exposed to the harsh Martian environment.
Curiosity used its Mastcam to photograph this closeup of its Rock Abrasion Tool. The instrument spins the wire-bristle brush over rock surfaces to remove layers of dust that has accumulated.
After brushing, a grey circle of rock beneath the ruddy Mars dust is exposed for further analysis. In this photo by Curiosity's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), the texture of Mars dust is obvious and fine cracks or seams in "Windjana" can be seen. "In the brushed spot, we can see that the rock is fine-grained, its true color is much grayer than the surface dust, and some portions of the rock are harder than others, creating the interesting bumpy textures,"said Melissa Rice
, Curiosity science team member, of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. "All of these traits reinforce our interest in drilling here in order understand the chemistry of the fluids that bound these grains together to form the rock."
On April 29, Curiosity used its drill to bore a 2 centimeter hole into Windjana. This is only the third rock Curiosity has drilled into since landing on the red planet on Aug. 5, 2012. The grey color obviously extends deeper into the rock than just on its surface, and the powder created can provide a pristine rock sample for further analysis, helping mission scientists understand how the rock formed and under what environmental conditions.
The first two drilled rocks were located in Yellowknife Bay, approximately 4 kilometers from The Kimberley. Those rocks were determined to be mudstone slabs formed through water action and sediment, providing compelling evidence that the interior of Gale Crater used to play host to a lakebed and may have provided a habitable environment for ancient microbial life. This new drilling operation will provide more clues as to how rock formed in the region, revealing more tantalizing clues as to the past habitability of the red planet.
More than two years after touching down inside Gale Crater, NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has arrived at the place that drove scientists to select the landing site at the outset -- Mount Sharp.
The three-mile high mountain of layered rock rises from the center of the impact basin. Each strata holds clues about a different time in Martian history, including periods when warmer temperatures and a thicker, wetter atmosphere made the planet more hospitable to life, or at least life as we know it on Earth.
The Curiosity science team took a gamble after the rover landed and headed off in the opposite direction of Mount Sharp to survey an area that from orbital imagery looked as though it not only had once been under water, but had chemical fingerprints of a water-rich past as well. Samples drilled out from an ancient mudstone showed that the area not only was once covered by a fresh water lake, but that it also had all the chemical ingredients necessary to support microbial life.
With that discovery meeting the major science goal of the mission, the stage was set for a more challenging quest to find places that also could have preserved organic carbon, a conundrum because the same processes that turn sediment into rock tend to destroy organics. Mount Sharp is the hunting ground.
The five-mile trek already has taken more than a year, with Curiosity stopping periodically to inventory and assess its surroundings and by unexpected wear-and-tear on the rover’s wheels.
Using orbital imagery, scientists last month plotted a course that would be easier for Curiosity to navigate, a fortuitous decision that ended up shaving several months off the rover’s journey to the foot of the mountain.
“We have finally arrived at the far frontier that we have sought for so long,” California Institute of Technology geologist John Grotzinger told reporters on a conference call.
“The wheel damage ... drove us on a pathway further south to be safer to the wheels and once we got to the location ... we recognized that in fact this was an even better place to go across the boundary,” between the cratered plains of Gale Crater and the relatively smoother surface of the base of Mount Sharp, Grotzinger said.
Within two weeks, Curiosity should reach an outcrop of rock called Pahrump Hills, where the first drill samples from Mount Sharp will be made.
The rover’s arrival at it prime science target comes weeks after a NASA oversight committee questioned the team’s penchant for driving versus drilling.
“We have to have a good reason to drill something,” Grotzinger said. “We can’t just roll the dice and hope something good is going to happen.”
During its two-year prime mission, Curiosity collected five samples, with eight more due to be analyzed during the recently approved two-year extension.