Life's a Beach: Rover Finds Mars Pebbles
Since NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity landed on the red planet, each sol (a Martian "day") of the mission sees a flood of new photographs from Aeolis Palus -- the plain inside Gale Crater where Curiosity landed on Aug. 5. In September 2012, mission controllers sent the command for Curiosity to flip open the dust cap in front of the robotic arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). Until that point, the semi-transparent dust cap only allowed MAHLI to make out fuzzy shapes -- although it did a great job imaging Curiosity's "head" and it is also famous for capturing Curiosity's first color photograph. But since the true clarity of MAHLI has been unleashed, we've been treated to some of the most high-resolution views of the rover, Martian landscape and, most importantly, we've seen exactly what MAHLI was designed to do: Look closely at Mars rocks and dirt, assembling geological evidence of potential past habitability of Mars.
The Business End
Curiosity is armed with 17 cameras and MAHLI is designed to capture close-up photos of geological samples and formations as the rover explores. MAHLI was designed and built by Malin Space Science Systems and is analogous to a geologist's hand lens -- only a lot more sophisticated. Its high-resolution system can focus and magnify objects as small as 12.5 micrometers (that's smaller than the width of a human hair!). This photograph captured by the rover's Mastcam shows the MAHLI lens (with dust cap in place) in the center of the end of Curiosity's instrument-laden robotic arm.
To aid its studies, MAHLI is equipped with four LEDs to light up the imager's samples.
The first photograph to be returned from MAHLI without the dust cover in place was received on Sol 33 (Sept. 8) of Curiosity's mission. Shown here is a view of the ground immediately in front of the rover. Although this photo was a test, mission scientists were able to do a very preliminary study of the large "pebble" at the bottom of the picture: "Notice that the ground immediately around that pebble has less dust visible (more gravel exposed) than in other parts of the image. The presence of the pebble may have affected the wind in a way that preferentially removes dust from the surface around it," they wrote.
How Did Lincoln Help MAHLI?
On Sol 34 (Sept. 9), MAHLI was aimed at Curiosity's calibration target. This target is intended to color balance the instrument and provide a "standard" for mission scientists to refer to. The 1909 Lincoln penny was provided by MAHLI's principal investigatory Ken Edgett. Using a penny as a calibration target is a nod to geologists' tradition of placing a coin or some other object of known scale as a size reference in close-up photographs of rocks, says the MSL mission site.
Although MAHLI will be used to examine microscopic scales, it is showing its prowess at generating some spectacular high-definition views of the rover. Shown here is a mosaic of Curiosity's three left-side dusty wheels.
Hazard Avoidance Cameras
Hazard Avoidance Cameras, or Hazcams, have become "standard issue" for the last three rovers to land on Mars. Mounted on the front and back of rovers Opportunity, Spirit and Curiosity, these small cameras provide invaluable information about the terrain and potential hazards surrounding the rovers. These cameras are not scientific cameras -- they are engineering cameras. Shown here, MAHLI has imaged the four front Hazcams on Curiosity. Interestingly, it was these cameras who returned Curiosity's first dusty image after touch down in August.
Using the flexibility of the robotic arm, MAHLI was able to check the underside of Curiosity. As the camera can focus on objects from 0.8 inch (2.1 centimeters) to infinity, MAHLI has incredible versatility allowing mission controllers to focus on the very small features of Mars to checking the health of the rover to viewing the impressive vistas beyond.
In October 2012, the Internet was abuzz with speculation about a "mystery object" lying beneath the rover during digging operations at "Rocknest." Sadly, after studying the translucent object, mission scientists deduced that it wasn't anything native to the alien environment, it was actually a piece of plastic that had fallen from Curiosity. Yes, Curiosity is littering the red planet.
The MAHLI camera was very attentive while Curiosity dug trenches in the Mars soil at "Rocknest."
In early 2013, MAHLI snapped another curious photo. This time, after driving to a rocky outcrop at a location dubbed "Yellowknife," the camera picked out what appeared to be some kind of organic-looking object embedded in the rock. Nope, it's not a Mars "flower" -- more likely it's a concentration of minerals.
In what has become an iconic photo of Curiosity, MAHLI was commanded to capture dozens of high-resolution pictures of the rover. Like an "arms length" shot you may have in your Facebook profile, Curiosity did the same, composing a mosaic of pics taken with its outstretched robotic arm.
Curiosity Cleans Up!
The Mars rover isn't only a scientific superstar, it also has a talent for cleaning. This circular pattern on a Mars rock was brushed aside by Curiosity's Dust Removal Tool (DRT), helping the rover carry out analysis of the rock surface beneath the layer of dirt.
When Curiosity was coasting through interplanetary space on its way to Mars, I doubt it considered the possibility that the landing site inside Gale Crater would be a pebbly beach — almost.
Although “beach” is a little generous, NASA scientists revealed on Thursday that the nuclear-powered rover had imaged pebbles that were shaped by water embedded in rock at “Bradbury Landing” — Curiosity’s landing site. Pebbles as small as grains of sand up to the size of golf balls were photographed inside conglomerate rock, a sign that they were shaped in a riverbed.
“We completed more rigorous quantification of the outcrops to characterize the size distribution and roundness of the pebbles and sand that make up these conglomerates,” said Rebecca Williams of the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Ariz. “We ended up with a calculation in the same range as our initial estimate last fall. At a minimum, the stream was flowing at a speed equivalent to a walking pace — a meter, or three feet, per second — and it was ankle-deep to hip-deep.”
The research, to be published in the journal Science this week, supports evidence gathered by Curiosity last year that indicated Curiosity’s area of study was once covered in flowing water.
This new finding is especially satisfying as Mars pebbles bear a striking resemblance to their terrestrial counterparts (see the comparison, top).
“These conglomerates look amazingly like streambed deposits on Earth,” Williams added in a NASA news release. “Most people are familiar with rounded river pebbles. Maybe you’ve picked up a smoothed, round rock to skip across the water. Seeing something so familiar on another world is exciting and also gratifying.”
Through analysis of the distribution of the pebbles of various sizes inside the conglomerates, Williams’ team was also able to deduce that the pebbles formed in a river or stream with persistent, steady flow that likely carried the material over long distances before depositing it downstream.
“Our analysis of the amount of rounding of the pebbles provided further information,” said co-author Sanjeev Gupta of Imperial College, London. “The rounding indicates sustained flow. It occurs as pebbles hit each other multiple times. This wasn’t a one-off flow. It was sustained, certainly more than weeks or months, though we can’t say exactly how long.”
The growing body of evidence supporting the idea that Mars used to be a much wetter world than today is compelling and this latest finding of a very familiar feature of long-term liquid water flow will help scientists understand just how extensive Mars’ hydrological cycle was in the planet’s ancient past.
So the next question that needs to be answered is: Did Mars’ surface water contribute to, and support, basic lifeforms? Although Curiosity cannot directly search for life, as it continues the long trek to Mt. Sharp in the middle of Gale Crater, further evidence of the Red Planet’s past and, possibly, present habitability may be revealed.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech