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.
After three weeks of radio silence from NASA’s veteran Mars rover Opportunity, mission managers regained contact with the robot only to find it had dropped into a self-imposed “safe mode.”
The three-week lack of communications was expected and caused by the sun-Mars conjunction, where the red planet orbited nearly behind the sun from our viewpoint. To avoid the crippling solar interference with transmissions being sent to active robotic missions on the surface of and orbiting Mars, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) had to manage a period of patchy communications with rovers Opportunity and Curiosity, and orbiters Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey and Mars Express (ESA). For some missions, like NASA’s new rover Curiosity, this meant a few weeks weeks of complete radio silence.
But in the case of Opportunity, when managers tried to hail the rover on April 27, they quickly realized that something had happened to the rover while it was out of regular communications reach.
“Our current suspicion is that Opportunity rebooted its flight software, possibly while the cameras on the mast were imaging the sun,” Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif, said in a NASA news update. “We found the rover in a standby state called automode, in which it maintains power balance and communication schedules, but waits for instructions from the ground. We crafted our solar conjunction plan to be resilient to this kind of rover reset, if it were to occur.”
Commands have been sent to Opportunity for it to recommence post-conjunction operations, but mission managers will continue work to try to understand why the rover was found in a safe mode state.
Opportunity, which landed on Mars in 2004 with sister rover Spirit, has roved over 22 miles across Meridiani Planum and is currently working around the rim of Endeavour Crater. Spirit was officially declared lost in 2010 after the rover became stuck in a sand trap at Gusev Crater. Both golf cart-sized rovers have uncovered evidence for water interactions on the Martian surface, providing a huge amount of data on the red planet’s wet past.
As for Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, the mission, which landed on Aug. 5, 2012, inside Gale Crater, has already checked-in and appears to be operating as normal post-conjunction. Commands will be uploaded to the mission on May 1.
Opportunity has lived through 5 solar conjunction events — that occur once every 26 months. This was Curiosity’s first solar conjunction.
Image: Part of the panorama imaged by rover Opportunity in January 2013 to celebrate its nine years on Mars. You can find the whole panorama on the JPL mission site. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech