Ken’s Sol 843-852 Update: Brushing “Santa Ana”

19 December 2014 – The Sol 842 command sequences were successfully received by Curiosity, and all the data needed for planning were returned to Earth, including MAHLI images of the right front wheel. These and other data were thoroughly analyzed, and the slip risk assessment team concluded that it is safe to brush the target “Santa Ana.” So after multiple remote sensing ChemCam and Mastcam observations on Sol 843 and 844, the Dust Removal Tool will be used late in the afternoon on Sol 844.

To give the MSL tactical team a break next week, we are planning 10 (!) sols today. Essentially, it’s a normal 3-sol weekend plan, with only REMS and associated background activities for the rest of the plan. Because we don’t want to risk leaving the MAHLI dust cover open in the unlikely event of an arm fault, no MAHLI activities are included in the plan. So it was an easy day for me as MAHLI/MARDI uplink lead; I simply suggested Mastcam 100 mm imaging of the brushed spot in lieu of the usual MAHLI documentation images. After the Mastcam image is acquired, the APXS will be placed on Santa Ana for an overnight integration. A full multispectral Mastcam observation (all filters, both eyes) of the brushed spot is planned just after noon on Sol 845, when the illumination will be better for measuring subtle spectral features.

Ken Herkenhoff is a ChemCam RMI specialist. An archive of Ken’s past updates can be read at http://astrogeology.usgs.gov/news/.

Dates of planned rover activities described in these reports are subject to change due to a variety of factors related to the Martian environment, communication relays and rover status.

Lauren’s Sol 835-836 Update: Driving to Whale Rock

10 December 2014 – After a successful investigation of the Chinle outcrop, Curiosity is ready to move on to the Whale Rock outcrop. Today we are planning two sols, and on the first sol we’ll finish up a few last targeted observations at Chinle. The plan includes a ChemCam passive observation of the target Goldstone (“passive” means that we don’t fire the laser, we just passively collect the spectrum of the target), along with a Mastcam image to document the target. We’ll also acquire a ChemCam z-stack on the target Cucumongo to test out a new template for ChemCam activities, and to look for any changes in chemistry compared to other observations at Chinle (z-stack means that we’ll acquire data from several different focus positions). There’s also a Navcam activity to search for dust devils and monitor the atmosphere.

After we complete our morning science observations, Curiosity will attempt a rather difficult drive toward Whale Rock. Curiosity was last at Whale Rock on Sol 796, and captured this tantalizing image of cross-bedding. We want to go back to Whale Rock to investigate the small-scale textures and composition of the outcrop using the instruments on the rover’s arm (MAHLI and APXS). But in order to do that, we need to get close to the rocks, and the terrain looks quite challenging. One way to work around the difficult approach is to sample a float rock (a block that has broken off from the main outcrop and might be in a more accessible position). Due to the difficult terrain, it might take us a few drives to get into a good position.

After the drive we’ll acquire Navcam and Mastcam images, which we’ll use to select interesting targets and plan future drives. On the second sol Curiosity will also acquire a Navcam observation to monitor the atmosphere above Mt. Sharp. Fingers crossed for a good drive!

Lauren Edgar is a Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and a member of MSL science team.

Dates of planned rover activities described in these reports are subject to change due to a variety of factors related to the Martian environment, communication relays and rover status.

Ryan’s Sol 833-834 Update: New Results From The Murray Formation

08 December 2014 – The main excitement today was that, as the team was busy planning for sols 833 and 834, NASA held a press conference to share some of the results of our recent investigations in the Murray formation, in the foothills of Mt. Sharp. The layered rocks that we have been observing tell the story of a series of shallow lakes with small deltas formed by sediment deposited from the crater rim. Check out the press release for more details!

In the Sol 833-834 plan, we are planning to do three ChemCam “Z-stack” observations of the target “Vaqueros” which looks like it might be a white mineral-filled vein. Z-stack observations are when the instrument collects data from the same location at several different focus positions. We are planning Z-stacks with ChemCam’s black-and-white camera and the main spectroscopy laser to make sure that we get good data from the target, and to collect information to develop new focusing methods for ChemCam.

Later on sol 833, the high-resolution color camera on the arm (MAHLI – Mars Hand Lens Imager) will collect some images of the fine details of the layers in the Chinle outcrop, at targets called “Coachella” and “Tropico”. Then we will measure the chemical composition of Tropico with the APXS (Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectroscopy) instrument on the arm.

On Sol 834, Navcam (the black and white Navigation cameras) and Mastcam (the mast-mounted color science cameras) will take some atmospheric observations to measure the amount of dust in the atmosphere.

Ryan Anderson is a planetary scientist and developer at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and a member of the ChemCam team on MSL.

Dates of planned rover activities described in these reports are subject to change due to a variety of factors related to the Martian environment, communication relays and rover status.

Lauren’s Sol 830-832 Update: Investigating the Chinle Outcrop

05 December 2014 – Well it was an exciting day for space exploration! As we were working operations this morning many space enthusiasts on the team were keeping tabs on the launch and splashdown of the Orion capsule – the new spacecraft that might someday take astronauts to Mars. It was fun to think about future human exploration on Mars as we were putting together our rover plan for the day. It was also great to have all three USGS bloggers working together today. I was on duty as the Geology and Mineralogy Science Theme Lead and Ryan was the Keeper of the Plan, so collectively we assembled the geology tasks that Curiosity will carry out over the weekend (Sols 830-832). Ken was the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) Payload Uplink Lead today, meaning that he was responsible for the details of all of the MAHLI activities (figuring out the right pointing, standoff distance, priorities etc. to get good high-resolution images using the camera on the end of the rover’s arm). And we certainly gave Ken a lot of work to do today! The plan includes contact science (using the instruments on the rover’s arm) on the targets “Pickhandle” and “Goldstone” to characterize the lower and middle parts of the Chinle outcrop. First we’ll use the Dust Removal Tool to clean off a fresh surface at “Goldstone” (we cleaned off “Pickhandle in the Sol 828 plan). This MAHLI image from Sol 828 shows “Goldstone” before brushing. Then we’ll acquire several MAHLI images on each target, taken at different distances and offsets to get both context and stereo imaging. Then we’ll place the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) on “Goldstone” to figure out the bulk chemical composition. On the third sol of the weekend plan, we’ll move the arm out of the way and use ChemCam and Mastcam to characterize the targets that we brushed. The plan also includes some extra Mastcam imaging to make a nice mosaic of the outcrop, several observations of the ChemCam calibration targets, and a Navcam observation to monitor the atmosphere above Mount Sharp. I love these days when we get to use so many different instruments to characterize a place on Mars!

Lauren Edgar is an SESE Exploration Postdoctoral Fellow at Arizona State University. An archive of Lauren’s past updates can be read at http://astrogeology.usgs.gov/news/.

Dates of planned rover activities described in these reports are subject to change due to a variety of factors related to the Martian environment, communication relays and rover status.

Ryan’s Sol 828-829 Update: Looking Closer at the Chinle Outcrop

03 December 2014 – Today all three USGS bloggers were on MSL operations! I was on duty as the Science Payload Downlink Lead (sPDL) for ChemCam, meaning that it was my job to check all of the science data that we received to make sure the data looks good and to do a quick analysis of the results. Lauren was the Keeper of the Plan (KOP) for the geology theme group, meaning that she helped put together the plan of geology tasks that the rover will do in the Sol 828-829 plan (a sol is a Mars day). And Ken was the Science Operations Working Group (SOWG) chair, meaning that he led the SOWG meeting and made sure that the plan satisfied the goals of the science team while also staying within the constraints on power, data, safety, complexity, etc.

This morning was a little more “exciting” than normal because bad weather on Earth caused a disruption in our downlink of data from Mars, so for a little while it looked like we would not have any of the images from the end of the drive to help us plan sols 828-829. (We can’t do much if we don’t know what the rover’s surroundings look like!) It also meant that our ChemCam data was missing. But in the end, the data did arrive so that I could assess the ChemCam data and planning could proceed.

On sol 828, ChemCam will do a passive observation of the sky to measure the abundance of different molecules in the atmosphere, and Navcam (the navigation cameras) will take a movie to watch for clouds forming over Mt. Sharp. Also in the morning block, Mastcam has a mosaic of the “Chinle” outcrop to look at the fine-scale layering.

Later on the same sol, there are a series of observations of Chinle by MAHLI (the Mars Hand Lens Imager – a close-up, high-resolution color camera). These observations will look at the layers in Chinle from a different angle and at a higher resolution than is possible with the mast cameras. While the arm is out, we will also brush off the target “Pickhandle” on Chinle using the Dust Removal Tool (DRT).

On Sol 829, Mastcam will do a routine “clast survey” observation to characterize the loose rocks near the rover, and ChemCam will run a diagnostic test of the focusing laser that has been acting up recently.

Ryan Anderson is a planetary scientist and developer at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and a member of the ChemCam team on MSL.

Dates of planned rover activities described in these reports are subject to change due to a variety of factors related to the Martian environment, communication relays and rover status.

Ken’s Sol 826-827 Update: Drive to Chinle

01 December 2014 – The activities planned for the Thanksgiving holiday went well, and the data received so far look good, including MAHLI images showing the brushed target “Puente.” So we are ready to move on, and the Sol 826 plan includes a few ChemCam and Mastcam observations before a drive to the “Chinle” area. We were also able to squeeze another MAHLI image of the APXS calibration target into the plan, to look for possible changes in dust on the target caused by the long overnight APXS integration on Sols 825-6. Planning is “restricted” again this week because of the offset between Mars time and Pacific Standard Time, so we are planning two sols today. We can plan only untargeted remote sensing observations on Sol 827 because of the drive on the previous sol, as we won’t know the rover position precisely until Wednesday. I’m SOWG Chair today, and it has been a fairly easy day for me so far.

Ken Herkenhoff is a ChemCam RMI specialist. An archive of Ken’s past updates can be read at http://astrogeology.usgs.gov/news/.

Dates of planned rover activities described in these reports are subject to change due to a variety of factors related to the Martian environment, communication relays and rover status.

Lauren’s Sol 823-825 Update: Brushing off the dust at Alexander Hills

26 November 2014 – While everyone is recovering from their Thanksgiving meals, Curiosity will be feasting on some exciting science targets at the Alexander Hills! We are on our second pass at the Pahrump Hills, and on this pass we are using the instruments on the robotic arm to investigate several key outcrops in more detail. This weekend we’re focusing on the Alexander Hills. In the previous plan we used the Dust Removal Tool (DRT) to brush off the dust at a target named “Mescal” to expose a fresh surface. This Navcam image from Sol 819 shows the arm extended while investigating “Mescal.” Over the weekend 3-sol plan, we’ll use the ChemCam instrument to learn about the composition of the targets “Mescal” and “Horned Toad,” and we’ll also acquire some Mastcam images to document those targets. Then we’ll use the DRT to brush off the dust at “Puente.” Once we have a clean surface, we can use the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) to acquire high-resolution images to study the exposed sedimentary structures and grain sizes. After that we’ll use the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) to figure out the bulk chemical composition of “Puente.” The plan also includes some Navcam observations to monitor the atmosphere above Mt. Sharp and search for dust devils. As the MSL team takes a break over the Thanksgiving holiday, I know that we’ll all be thankful for our healthy rover doing some really great science on Mars!

Lauren Edgar is an SESE Exploration Postdoctoral Fellow at Arizona State University. An archive of Lauren’s past updates can be read at http://astrogeology.usgs.gov/news/.

Dates of planned rover activities described in these reports are subject to change due to a variety of factors related to the Martian environment, communication relays and rover status.

Lauren’s Sol 820-822 Update: Investigating Alexander Hills

25 November 2014 – Curiosity is currently investigating the Alexander Hills outcrop. This Mastcam image from Sol 817 shows some of the interesting rock textures that we’ll study at this location. With Thanksgiving coming up, the operations team is putting together several multi-sol plans so that the team can take a break over the holiday. That means that today we’ll plan Sols 820-822, and tomorrow we’ll plan Sols 823-825 to take us through the weekend. On Sol 820 Curiosity will perform several ChemCam tests to develop ways to focus without using the autofocus laser. We will also take Mastcam images to document the ChemCam targets, and a Mastcam tau measurement to monitor atmospheric opacity. On Sol 821 Curiosity will acquire a Mastcam mosaic of the Gilbert Peak and Chinle outcrops, and a Navcam movie to monitor the atmosphere and search for clouds. The plan also includes ChemCam RMI SkyFlats to measure the “flat field” which will improve our processing of RMI images. The third sol includes a Mastcam observation of the brushed target “Mescal” using all of the camera filters. That should keep Curiosity busy while the team takes a well-deserved break!

Lauren Edgar is an SESE Exploration Postdoctoral Fellow at Arizona State University. An archive of Lauren’s past updates can be read at http://astrogeology.usgs.gov/news/.

Dates of planned rover activities described in these reports are subject to change due to a variety of factors related to the Martian environment, communication relays and rover status.

Ken’s Sol 819 Update: Late Planning

24 November 2014 – The difficult 35-meter drive planned for Sol 817 went perfectly, placing the rover in position for arm activities on the Alexander Hills outcrop. We also received good news from ChemCam: test images acquired on Sol 816 showed that the instrument can still acquire data without using the autofocus laser. More ChemCam tests were planned today. Sol 819 planning started 3 hours later than usual, giving me extra time to prepare for my MAHLI/MARDI uplink lead shift this morning. We had lots of interesting rocks to choose from, and decided to brush a target dubbed “Mescal.” After taking MAHLI images, the APXS will be placed on the same target for a long overnight integration to measure its elemental chemistry. We also planned MAHLI images of targets “Puente” and “Cajon,” as well as Mastcam mosaics including these and other targets of interest.

Ken Herkenhoff is a ChemCam RMI specialist. An archive of Ken’s past updates can be read at http://astrogeology.usgs.gov/news/.

Dates of planned rover activities described in these reports are subject to change due to a variety of factors related to the Martian environment, communication relays and rover status.

Thanksgiving on Mars: A ChemCam Update from PI Roger Wiens

21 November 2014 – We just received our first data from ChemCam after a two-week break in the action for our instrument. Two weeks ago on Friday, data we received from the rover earlier in the week showed that the optical power on our continuous wave laser was dropping steadily each time it was turned on. This is not the main laser we use to zap rocks and soils. Rather, it is a little laser quite like that in a laser pointer. Typically we turn it on while we adjust the focus of the telescope. A little sensor at the back of the telescope records the red light reflected back from the target, and when the intensity of the light collected by the telescope is greatest, that is determined to be the best focus position. Over the course of the week, the signal had dropped from about 8 milliWatts to about 1 milliWatt. That was still good enough to focus the telescope, but if it dropped much more we would not be able to focus using this laser. So we de-activated ChemCam for about ten days while we considered our options.

Fortunately, ChemCam is quite a versatile instrument and we have been considering two alternative methods for focusing the instrument. One method would involve using the main LIBS laser to determine the focus. When the instrument is in focus it yields stronger signals than when it is out of focus. This was the subject of a master’s degree thesis that one of our team members wrote in 2008. The second method involves optimizing the focus based on the entropy, or contrast, of the pixels in the RMI image. (Most consumer cameras focus themselves in a similar fasion.) Our team has spent the last several days taking data with a surrogate ChemCam instrument in the laboratory and analyzing previously-obtained data from ChemCam on Mars to consider these options. Over the next few weeks our software engineer will work to code one of these focus methods and a test engineer will begin testing the new code.

In the meantime, we have released the instrument to be used without the focus laser. We get a good estimate of the distance to our targets from the Navcam images. In the near term we will take data at several focus positions centered on this “distance seed.” This will allow us to get new data while we are waiting on the software upgrade. This will be a little more tedious, but the team is happy to be back to getting data.

As we celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday in the US, here on Earth, our entire team is very thankful that in spite of the loss of our little focus laser, ChemCam has a new lease on life. We hope we can keep exploring Mars for years to come.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Dr. Roger Wiens is a planetary scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Principal Investigator for the ChemCam instrument on the Curiosity rover.

Dates of planned rover activities described in these reports are subject to change due to a variety of factors related to the Martian environment, communication relays and rover status.

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