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11 Cool Tools NASA Curiosity Brought To Mars

Oct 13, 2012 (05:10 AM EDT)

Read the Original Article at http://www.informationweek.com/news/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=240008978


As it rolls along the surface of Mars, NASA's Curiosity rover has begun putting its Swiss Army knife of scientific instruments to work. The six-wheeled vehicle is using nearly a dozen high-tech instruments to touch, scoop, sift, clean, and analyze rocks and dirt on its mission.

NASA recently said Curiosity had found "surprises" in the chemical makeup of a rock--dubbed Jake Matijevic by NASA scientists--that it probed. The rock's chemical composition resembled that of igneous rocks from the Earth's interior.

The high-flying lab has been exploring and snapping pictures of the Gale Crater since landing on the Red Planet on Aug. 6. It's also checking in on Foursquare, making it easier for observers to track its progress.

Curiosity is about to begin conducting sample analyses of its surroundings. In about two weeks, the rover will start depositing first soil samples into its analytical instruments, according to the space agency.

Curiosity carries 10 scientific instruments--or 11 if you count its atmospheric sensors, MEDLI. It's the most advanced scientific gear ever used on Mars. The tools are being used to assess the habitability of the planet.

Curiosity recently stretched out its robotic arm and touched the football-sized rock Jake, then used its Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS), located on a turret at the end of its arm, to determine its chemical elements. The Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) and ChemCam instrument, which shoots laser pulses at targets, were also used in the close-up inspection. APXS is pictured above.

NASA is using 17 onboard cameras as Curiosity rolls along. In late September, the rover's Mast Camera captured evidence of a stream that once ran across the north rim of Gale Crater and the base of Mount Sharp, located inside the crater. It was the first such evidence of water on Mars, according to NASA.

Now Curiosity is in position at Rocknest, a site where it collected an initial scoop of soil on Oct. 7. The rover will take three more scoops before it delivers a fourth scoop of sand and powdery material to be analyzed by two of its instruments: Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) and Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM). "We are being very careful with this first time using the scoop on Mars," said Daniel Limonadi, lead systems engineer for Curiosity's surface sampling and science system, in a statement.

The rover is powered by sophisticated software that helps control its instruments. Shortly after Curiosity landed on Mars, NASA engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory upgraded its software, providing better control over its robotic arm, drill, and other instruments. Within the next 12 months, NASA plans to deploy software on Curiosity that can be used to target subjects and take pictures on the go. Image credit: NASA




This image shows Curiosity touching a Martian rock for the first time. On Sept. 22, the rover used its Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) instrument to assess what chemical elements were present in the rock, dubbed Jake Matijevic. The APXS is located on a turret at the end of the rover's robotic arm. Image credit: NASA

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This is a combination of photographs taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager at three different distances from the first rock that Curiosity touched on Mars. Note the target rock, Jake Matijevic, in the picture. MAHLI has revealed that it has a relatively smooth, gray surface, reflects sunlight, and has reddish dust collecting in its crevices. Image credit: NASA

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Curiosity rover's Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument uses a laser to examine side-by-side points in a target patch of soil, which is apparent in these before-and-after shots that show the soil with and without laser marks. Researchers used ChemCam to study this soil target. ChemCam's Remote Micro-Imager took the two pictures. Image credit: NASA

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Thanks to the telephoto capability of Curiosity's Mast Camera (Mastcam), NASA was able to obtain evidence that a stream once existed in the area where the rover is now conducting work. The first-of-its-kind images show rocks containing ancient streambed gravel. The Mastcam consists of two camera systems mounted on a mast extending upward from the Curiosity's deck; its purpose is to take color images and color video footage of the terrain. Image credit: NASA

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Pictured here is the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument, an open inlet where rock and soil samples will be funneled down for analysis. MAHLI took the image about 8 inches away from the mouth of CheMin. When samples are placed down the funnel, CheMin shoots X-rays at the samples to identify and quantify the minerals. Image credit: NASA

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Minutes after NASA's Curiosity rover landed on Mars, its onboard Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) took this full-resolution color image of the planet's gravel-covered surface. MARDI's main purpose was to provide an "astronaut's view" of the local environment and the geologic context surrounding the landing site. Image credit: NASA

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Pictured here is Curiosity's heat shield as it descends to Mars. This image also shows the Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent, and Landing Instrument (MEDLI) hardware attached to the inside surface. MEDLI employed 14 sensors to record heat and atmospheric pressure during the spacecraft's entry. NASA engineers will use the collected data to design more advanced systems for entry into the Martian atmosphere. Image credit: NASA

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The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) uses a suite of meteorological instruments to report daily weather from Mars. Here is an example of a weather report by REMS. NASA has reported that of one of the two sets of REMS wind sensors is not providing data, possibly due to a hit during landing. The remaining wind sensor is being used to get wind speed and direction. Image credit: NASA

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These two images captured by Curiosity's navigation camera show the inlet covers for the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument opening and closing. The SAM suite--which includes a mass spectrometer, gas chromatograph, and tunable laser spectrometer--takes up more than half the rover's science payload. SAM's primary goal is to check for carbon-containing compounds called organic molecules; these compounds make up the building blocks of life on Earth. Image credit: NASA

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This chart measures the amount of hydrogen in the Martian soil. The Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) is the instrument used to conduct the research. DAN generates pulses of neutrons sensitive enough to detect water content as low as one-tenth of one percent. The red line shows neutrons that were emitted after the instrument's pulsing neutron generator hit the ground. The blue line is used for comparison to shows a pre-launch test of DAN. Image credit: NASA

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This data shows the radiation levels measured on Mars by Curiosity's Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD), which functions like a dosimeter to determine radiation from outer space and the sun. NASA scientists will use this information to study how radiation affects habitability for possible microbial life, and potentially, to design shielding needed for human beings on Mars. Image credit: NASA

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Pictured here is a mosaic of 10 images of the calibration target for ChemCam, as viewed by its remote "micro-imager." ChemCam fires laser pulses at rocks and soil. The micro-imager, a kind of telescopic camera, shows the context of the spots hit by the laser. Image credit: NASA

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Curiosity's science instruments are located throughout the vehicle. In addition to collecting rock and soil samples, they gather data on the atmosphere, environmental conditions, and "bio-signatures" on Mars. Image credit: NASA

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Curiosity is loaded with 17 cameras. This picture of the head of the vehicle's remote sensing mast shows seven of them, including four NavCams, two fixed-focal-length cameras (M-100 and M-34), and the ChemCam. Image credit: NASA

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