NASA Approves New Horizons Extended KBO Mission, Keeps Dawn at Ceres

New Horizons trajectory and the orbits of Pluto and 2014 MU69.

In an ‘Independence Day’ gift to a slew of US planetary research scientists, NASA has granted approval to nine ongoing missions to continue for another two years this holiday weekend.

The biggest news is that NASA green lighted a mission extension for the New Horizons probe to fly deeper into the Kuiper Belt and decided to keep the Dawn probe at Ceres forever, rather than dispatching it to a record breaking third main belt asteroid.

And the exciting extension news comes just as the agency’s Juno probe is about to ignite a July 4 fireworks display on July 4 to achieve orbit at Jupiter – detailed here.

“Mission approved!” the researchers gleefully reported on the probes Facebook and Twitter social media pages.

“Our extended mission into the #KuiperBelt has been approved. Thanks to everyone for following along & hopefully the best is yet to come.

The New Horizons spacecraft will now continue on course in the Kuiper Belt towards an small object known as 2014 MU69, to carry out the most distant close encounter with a celestial object in human history.

“Here’s to continued success!”

The spacecraft will rendezvous with the ancient rock on New Year’s Day 2019.

Researchers say that 2014 MU69 is considered as one of the early building blocks of the solar system and as such will be invaluable to scientists studying the origin of our solar system how it evolved.

It was almost exactly one year ago on July 14, 2015 that New Horizons conducted Earth’s first ever up close flyby and science reconnaissance of Pluto – the most distant planet in our solar system and the last of the nine planets to be explored.

The immense volume of data gathered continues to stream back to Earth every day.

“The New Horizons mission to Pluto exceeded our expectations and even today the data from the spacecraft continue to surprise,” said NASA’s Director of Planetary Science Jim Green at NASA HQ in Washington, D.C.

“We’re excited to continue onward into the dark depths of the outer solar system to a science target that wasn’t even discovered when the spacecraft launched.”

While waiting for news on whether NASA would approve an extended mission, the New Horizons engineering and science team already ignited the main engine four times to carry out four course changes in October and November 2015, in order to preserve the option of the flyby past 2014 MU69 on Jan 1, 2019.

Green noted that mission extensions into fiscal years 2017 and 2018 are not final until Congress actually passes sufficient appropriation to fund NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

“Final decisions on mission extensions are contingent on the outcome of the annual budget process.”

NASA’s Dawn asteroid orbiter just completed its primary mission at dwarf planet Ceres on June 30, just in time for the global celebration known as Asteroid Day.

“The mission exceeded all expectations originally set for its exploration of protoplanet Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres,” said NASA officials.

The Dawn science team had recently submitted a proposal to break out of orbit around the middle of this month in order to this conduct a flyby of the main belt asteroid Adeona.

Green declined to approve the Dawn proposal, citing additional valuable science to be gathered at Ceres.

The long-term monitoring of Ceres, particularly as it gets closer to perihelion – the part of its orbit with the shortest distance to the sun — has the potential to provide more significant science discoveries than a flyby of Adeona,” he said.

Dawn is Earth’s first probe in human history to explore any dwarf planet, the first to explore Ceres up close and the first to orbit two celestial bodies.

The asteroid Vesta was Dawn’s first orbital target where it conducted extensive observations of the bizarre world for over a year in 2011 and 2012.

The mission is expected to last until at least later into 2016, and possibly longer, depending upon fuel reserves.

Dawn will remain at its current altitude at LAMO for the rest of its mission, and indefinitely afterward, even when no further communications are possible.

Green based his decision on the mission extensions on the biannual peer review scientific assessment by the Senior Review Panel.

The other mission extension – contingent on available resources – are: the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN), the Opportunity and Curiosity Mars rovers, the Mars Odyssey orbiter, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), and NASA’s support for the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The post NASA Approves New Horizons Extended KBO Mission, Keeps Dawn at Ceres appeared first on Universe Today.

Curiosity Finds Ancient Mars Likely Had More Oxygen and Was More Hospitable to Life

This scene shows NASA's Curiosity Mars rover at a location called "Windjana," where the rover found rocks containing manganese-oxide minerals, which require abundant water and strongly oxidizing conditions to form. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

New chemical science findings from NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity indicate that ancient Mars likely had a higher abundance of oxygen in its atmosphere compared to the present day and was thus more hospitable to life forms, if they ever existed.

Thus the Red Planet was much more Earth-like and potentially habitable billions of years ago compared to the cold, barren place we see today.

Curiosity discovered high levels of manganese oxide minerals in rocks investigated at a location called “Windjana” during the spring of 2014.

Manganese-oxide minerals require abundant water and strongly oxidizing conditions to form.

“Researchers found high levels of manganese oxides by using a laser-firing instrument on the rover. This hint of more oxygen in Mars’ early atmosphere adds to other Curiosity findings — such as evidence about ancient lakes — revealing how Earth-like our neighboring planet once was,” NASA reported.

The newly announced results stem from results obtained from the rovers mast mounted ChemCam or Chemistry and Camera laser firing instrument. ChemCam operates by firing laser pulses and then observes the spectrum of resulting flashes of plasma to assess targets’ chemical makeup.

“The only ways on Earth that we know how to make these manganese materials involve atmospheric oxygen or microbes,” said Nina Lanza, a planetary scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, in a statement.

“Now we’re seeing manganese oxides on Mars, and we’re wondering how the heck these could have formed?”

The discovery is being published in a new paper in the American Geophysical Union’s Geophysical Research Letters. Lanza is the lead author.

The manganese oxides were found by ChemCam in mineral veins investigated at “Windjana” and are part of geologic timeline being assembled from Curiosity’s research expedition across of the floor of the Gale Crater landing site.

Scientists have been able to link the new finding of a higher oxygen level to a time when groundwater was present inside Gale Crater.

“These high manganese materials can’t form without lots of liquid water and strongly oxidizing conditions,” says Lanza.

“Here on Earth, we had lots of water but no widespread deposits of manganese oxides until after the oxygen levels in our atmosphere rose.”

The high-manganese materials were found in mineral-filled cracks in sandstones in the “Kimberley” region of the crater.

High concentrations of manganese oxide minerals in Earth’s ancient past correspond to a major shift in our atmosphere’s composition from low to high oxygen atmospheric concentrations. Thus its reasonable to suggest the same thing happened on ancient Mars.

Curiosity also conducted a drill campaign at Windjana.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Ken Kremer

The post Curiosity Finds Ancient Mars Likely Had More Oxygen and Was More Hospitable to Life appeared first on Universe Today.

Curiosity Cores Hole in Mars at ‘Lubango’ Fracture Zone

Curiosity rover reached out with robotic arm and drilled into ‘Lubango’ outcrop target on Sol 1320, Apr. 23, 2016, in this photo mosaic stitched from navcam  camera raw images and colorized.  Lubango is located in the Stimson unit on the lower slopes of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater.  MAHLI camera inset image shows drill hole up close on Sol 1321.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover successfully bored a brand new hole in Mars at a tantalizing sandstone outcrop in the ‘Lubango’ fracture zone this past weekend on Sol 1320, Apr. 23, and is now carefully analyzing the shaken and sieved drill tailings for clues to Mars watery past.

“We have a new drill hole on Mars!” reported Ken Herkenhoff, Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and an MSL science team member, in a mission update.

“All of the activities planned for last weekend have completed successfully.”

“Lubango” counts as the 10th drilling campaign since the one ton rover safely touched down on the Red Planet some 44 months ago inside the targeted Gale Crater landing site, following the nailbiting and never before used ‘sky crane’ maneuver.

After transferring the cored sample to the CHIMRA instrument for sieving it, a portion of the less than 0.15 mm filtered material was successfully delivered this week to the CheMin miniaturized chemistry lab situated in the rovers belly.

CheMin is now analyzing the sample and will return mineralogical data back to scientists on earth for interpretation.

The science team selected Lubango as the robots 10th drill target after determining that it was altered sandstone bedrock and had an unusually high silica content based on analyses carried out using the mast mounted ChemCam laser instrument.

Indeed the rover had already driven away for further scouting and the team then decided to return to Lubango after examining the ChemCam results. They determined the ChemCam and other data observation were encouraging enough – regarding how best to sample both altered and unaltered Stimson bedrock – to change course and drive backwards.

Lubango sits along a fracture in an area that the team dubs the Stimson formation, which is located on the lower slopes of humongous Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater.

Since early March, the rover has been traversing along a rugged region dubbed the Naukluft Plateau.

“The team decided to drill near this fracture to better understand both the altered and unaltered Stimson bedrock,” noted Herkenhoff.

See our photo mosaic above showing the geologically exciting terrain surrounding Curiosity with its outstretched 7-foot-long (2-meter-long) robotic arm after completing the Lubango drill campaign on Sol 1320. The mosaic was created by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

Its again abundantly clear from the images that beneath the rusty veneer of the Red Planet lies a greyish interior preserving the secrets of Mars ancient climate history.

The team then commanded Curiosity to dump the unsieved portion of the sample and examine the leftover drill tailing residues with the Mastcam, Navcam, MAHLI multispectral characterization cameras and the APXS spectrometer. ChemCam is also being used to fire laser shots in the wall of the drill hole to make additional chemical measurements.

To complement the data from Lubango, scientists are now looking around the area for a suitable target of unaltered Stimson bedrock as the 11th drill target.

“The color information provided by Mastcam is really helpful in distinguishing altered versus unaltered bedrock,” explained MSL science team member Lauren Edgar, Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center, in a mission update.

The ChemCam laser has already shot at the spot dubbed “Oshikati,” a potential target for the next drilling campaign.

“On Sunday we will drive to our next drilling location, which is on a nearby patch of normal-looking Stimson sandstone,” wrote Ryan Anderson, planetary scientist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and a member of the ChemCam team on MSL in today’s (Apr. 28) mission update.

As time permits, the Navcam imager is also being used to search for dust devils.

As I reported here, Opportunity recently detected a beautiful looking dust devil on the floor of Endeavour crater on April 1. Dust devil detections by the NASA rovers are relatively rare.

Curiosity has been driving to the edge of the Naukluft Plateau to reach the interesting fracture zone seen in orbital data gathered from NASA’s Mars orbiter spacecraft.

The rover is almost finished crossing the Naukluft Plateau which is “the most rugged and difficult-to-navigate terrain encountered during the mission’s 44 months on Mars,” says NASA.

Prior to climbing onto the “Naukluft Plateau” the rover spent several weeks investigating sand dunes including the two story tall Namib dune.

As of today, Sol 1325, April 28, 2016, Curiosity has driven over 7.9 miles (12.7 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing, and taken over 320,100 amazing images.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The post Curiosity Cores Hole in Mars at ‘Lubango’ Fracture Zone appeared first on Universe Today.

Curiosity Sticks Her Toes in a Martian Sand Dune, Takes a Selfie

Curiosity rover 'selfie' at the Bagnold Dunes on Mars. The mosaic includes 57 images taken on Sol 1228 (January 19, 2016).  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Andrew Bodrov.

While some of us might only be dreaming of sticking our toes in the sand right about now, the Curiosity rover is actually doing so. But it’s no vacation for the rover, as she makes her way through some very unusual and striking sand dunes on Mars. The Bagnold Dune Field lies along the northwestern flank of Mt. Sharp — Curiosity’s main target for its mission — and this is the first time ever we’ve had the opportunity to do close-up studies of active sand dunes anywhere besides Earth.

Thanks to Andrew Bodrov for sharing his compilation of this 57-image mosaic ‘selfie,’ and you can play around with an interactive version below to see some great views of the dunes. The images were taken by the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on Sol 1228 (January 19, 2016).

Mars Panorama – Curiosity rover: Martian solar day 1228

While the rover stopped to these images to create this 57-image mosaic ‘selfie,’ Curiosity has also been quite busy, both navigating through the dunes and stopping to do some sampling. Excitingly, the rover scooped up some of the sand and sent it to the on-board chemistry lab, the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM). This is only the second time the scoop has been used to deliver small portions – usually about the size of a half of a baby aspirin –to be analyzed; the rover’s drill has been used several times to get samples.

Curiosity scooped its first dune sample on Jan. 14, but the rover stuck in its wheel briefly, scuffing it with a wheel. “The scuff helped give us confidence we have enough sand where we’re scooping that the path of the scoop won’t hit the ground under the sand,” said Michael McHenry, who is the rover planner for collecting these samples.

I had the chance to visit with John Michael Morookian, the rover planning team lead for Curiosity at JPL about two weeks ago, and he said the plan was to drive into the dune a short distance, get samples with the scoop and deliver them to the experiments on board.

Morookian explained that from orbital images from the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the team knows there is a good path among the dunes for the rover to navigate, and there should be no danger of the rover getting stuck or trapped.

“We’ll be circumnavigating them, there is plenty of path available,” he said. “This is not impassible area. The rover will be at this particular site doing the sampling for approximately the month of January, and the current plan is to take a long path about a kilometer circumnutating the dunes to get to less active dunes that are part of the same field of dunes.”

Getting the samples from the scoop to SAM involves a set of complex moves of a multi-chambered device on the rover’s arm passing the material through a sieve that screened out particles bigger than 150 microns (0.006 inch); some of the material that passed the sieve was dropped into laboratory inlet ports from a “portioner” on the device.

“We start the vibration and gradually tilt the scoop,” Morookian explained. “The material flows off the end of the scoop, in more of a stream than all at once.”

The material blocked by the sieve is dumped onto the ground.

According to Ryan Anderson from the Curiosity team, the rover Mastcam and MAHLI cameras are both thoroughly documenting the scooping process, and the Mastcam also is doing observations of the dump piles left over from the scooping, and the ChemCam will take passive spectra of the piles. The Mastcam will also be imaging a dune names “Hebron” several times to observe any changes in the dune while the rover is nearby.

Find out more about Curiosity’s recent activities at the Martian Chronicles blog, and at this article from JPL.

And if you’re wondering why the rover’s arm doesn’t show up on the self image mosaics, read our previous article which explains it here.

The post Curiosity Sticks Her Toes in a Martian Sand Dune, Takes a Selfie appeared first on Universe Today.

Curiosity Celebrates Christmas at Red Planet Paradise at Namib Dune with 1st Mastcam Self-portrait

Curiosity explores Red Planet paradise at Namib Dune during Christmas 2015 - backdropped by Mount Sharp.  Curiosity took first ever self-portrait with Mastcam color camera after arriving at the lee face of Namib Dune.  This photo mosaic shows a portion of the full self portrait and is stitched from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1197, Dec. 19, 2015.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Just in time for the holidays, NASA’s Curiosity rover is celebrating Christmas 2015 at a Red Planet Paradise – spectacular “Namib Dune.” And she marked the occasion by snapping her first ever color self-portrait with the mast mounted high resolution Mastcam 34 mm camera.

Heretofore Curiosity has taken color self portraits with the MAHLI camera mounted at the end of the 7-foot-long (2-meter-long) robotic arm, and black and white self portraits with the mast mounted navcam camera.

The new Mastcam color self portrait was taken just days ago on December 19, and includes the first ever color images of the rover deck. Previously, Curiosity has used the Mastcam color camera to take tens of thousands of exquisite high resolution panoramic images of the magnificent looking Martian terrain, but not the rover deck which includes the inlet ports for the pair of chemistry labs in the robots belly.

Curiosity arrived at the outskirts of Namib Dune in mid-December. And as the images show Namib Dune is humongous and unlike anything encountered before by Curiosity. See out photo mosaics above and below.

Why snap a Mastcam self portrait now? Because there’s unique science to be gained from the Red Planets swirling winds whipping up dust and sand particles with the rover now at the edge of the giant dune field at the foothills of Mount Sharp, and to check for buildup of particles on the rover deck.

“The plan includes a Mastcam image of the rover deck to monitor the movement of particles,” wrote MSL science team member Lauren Edgar, Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center, in a mission update.

Namib Dune is part of a massive field of spectacular rippled dark sand dunes, known as the “Bagnold Dunes” – located at the base of Mount Sharp and range up to two stories tall.

The six wheeled rover was dispatched to the dunes to conduct humanity’s first up-close investigation of currently active sand dunes anywhere beyond Earth.

“Namib is an Aeolian paradise,” wrote Edgar.

“The view at Namib Dune is pretty spectacular. We’ve received a lot of beautiful Mastcam and Navcam images.”

This past week, the science and engineering team commanded the car sized rover to drive closer and around Namib to investigate the dune from various angles with her state of the art science instrument suite.

Curiosity arrived at the lee face of Namib Dune on December 19, or Sol 1197.

“The latest Navcam images reveal many beautiful aeolian features on the slipface and interdune deposits.”

“It’s hard to curb your imaging appetite when the views are so spectacular!”

The dark dunes skirt the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp and lie on the alien road of Curiosity’s daring trek up the lower portion of the layered Martian mountain.

Beside dunes, the local terrain is also replete with a bonanza of outcrops of bedrock and mineral veins for targeted science observations.

“Curiosity will acquire ChemCam and Mastcam observations of targets to characterize some of the local bedrock and veins,” Edgar elaborated. “We’ll also take a Mastcam stereo mosaic of “Namib Dune” to better understand the morphology of the ripples and grain flow.”

“We’ll use ChemCam to assess the composition and grain size of a ripple. Then we’ll use Mastcam to image the brink of the dune and its slipface to characterize the dune morphology. We’ll also use Mastcam to document an outcrop with an unusual purple hue.”

Initial imaging results are already promising and much more is upcoming.

“The Mastcam images that we took earlier this week are coming down now, and they reveal a lot of great details about the dune morphology,” says Edgar.

“Mastcam will do a mosaic of the slip face of Namib dune, and a stereo observation of the target “Nadas” to study the shape of the alcoves on the very crest of the dune,” MSL team member Ryan Anderson added.

“Mastcam will also watch for changes in a patch of nearby sand, as well as a couple of locations on the dune slip face.”

While Earthlings and their families are gathering together and engrossed in the Christmas holiday cheer, there will be little rest for ‘The Martian’ Curiosity. The science team has planned out and uploaded more than a week of science observations to run through the New Year’s holiday.

“We’re in a great location to study “Namib Dune” so there is plenty of good science to be done,” says Anderson.

In addition, Curiosity is dumping the recently acquired rock drill sample from “Greenhorn” onto the surface to analyze the residue further, “before the martian wind blows it away.”

As of today, Sol 1203, December 25, 2015, Curiosity has driven over 6.9 miles (11.1 kilometers) kilometers and taken over 291,700 amazing images.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The post Curiosity Celebrates Christmas at Red Planet Paradise at Namib Dune with 1st Mastcam Self-portrait appeared first on Universe Today.

Curiosity Celebrates Christmas at Red Planet Paradise at Namib Dune with 1st Mastcam Self-portrait

Curiosity explores Red Planet paradise at Namib Dune during Christmas 2015 - backdropped by Mount Sharp.  Curiosity took first ever self-portrait with Mastcam color camera after arriving at the lee face of Namib Dune.  This photo mosaic shows a portion of the full self portrait and is stitched from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1197, Dec. 19, 2015.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Just in time for the holidays, NASA’s Curiosity rover is celebrating Christmas 2015 at a Red Planet Paradise – spectacular “Namib Dune.” And she marked the occasion by snapping her first ever color self-portrait with the mast mounted high resolution Mastcam 34 mm camera.

Heretofore Curiosity has taken color self portraits with the MAHLI camera mounted at the end of the 7-foot-long (2-meter-long) robotic arm, and black and white self portraits with the mast mounted navcam camera.

The new Mastcam color self portrait was taken just days ago on December 19, and includes the first ever color images of the rover deck. Previously, Curiosity has used the Mastcam color camera to take tens of thousands of exquisite high resolution panoramic images of the magnificent looking Martian terrain, but not the rover deck which includes the inlet ports for the pair of chemistry labs in the robots belly.

Curiosity arrived at the outskirts of Namib Dune in mid-December. And as the images show Namib Dune is humongous and unlike anything encountered before by Curiosity. See out photo mosaics above and below.

Why snap a Mastcam self portrait now? Because there’s unique science to be gained from the Red Planets swirling winds whipping up dust and sand particles with the rover now at the edge of the giant dune field at the foothills of Mount Sharp, and to check for buildup of particles on the rover deck.

“The plan includes a Mastcam image of the rover deck to monitor the movement of particles,” wrote MSL science team member Lauren Edgar, Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center, in a mission update.

Namib Dune is part of a massive field of spectacular rippled dark sand dunes, known as the “Bagnold Dunes” – located at the base of Mount Sharp and range up to two stories tall.

The six wheeled rover was dispatched to the dunes to conduct humanity’s first up-close investigation of currently active sand dunes anywhere beyond Earth.

“Namib is an Aeolian paradise,” wrote Edgar.

“The view at Namib Dune is pretty spectacular. We’ve received a lot of beautiful Mastcam and Navcam images.”

This past week, the science and engineering team commanded the car sized rover to drive closer and around Namib to investigate the dune from various angles with her state of the art science instrument suite.

Curiosity arrived at the lee face of Namib Dune on December 19, or Sol 1197.

“The latest Navcam images reveal many beautiful aeolian features on the slipface and interdune deposits.”

“It’s hard to curb your imaging appetite when the views are so spectacular!”

The dark dunes skirt the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp and lie on the alien road of Curiosity’s daring trek up the lower portion of the layered Martian mountain.

Beside dunes, the local terrain is also replete with a bonanza of outcrops of bedrock and mineral veins for targeted science observations.

“Curiosity will acquire ChemCam and Mastcam observations of targets to characterize some of the local bedrock and veins,” Edgar elaborated. “We’ll also take a Mastcam stereo mosaic of “Namib Dune” to better understand the morphology of the ripples and grain flow.”

“We’ll use ChemCam to assess the composition and grain size of a ripple. Then we’ll use Mastcam to image the brink of the dune and its slipface to characterize the dune morphology. We’ll also use Mastcam to document an outcrop with an unusual purple hue.”

Initial imaging results are already promising and much more is upcoming.

“The Mastcam images that we took earlier this week are coming down now, and they reveal a lot of great details about the dune morphology,” says Edgar.

“Mastcam will do a mosaic of the slip face of Namib dune, and a stereo observation of the target “Nadas” to study the shape of the alcoves on the very crest of the dune,” MSL team member Ryan Anderson added.

“Mastcam will also watch for changes in a patch of nearby sand, as well as a couple of locations on the dune slip face.”

While Earthlings and their families are gathering together and engrossed in the Christmas holiday cheer, there will be little rest for ‘The Martian’ Curiosity. The science team has planned out and uploaded more than a week of science observations to run through the New Year’s holiday.

“We’re in a great location to study “Namib Dune” so there is plenty of good science to be done,” says Anderson.

In addition, Curiosity is dumping the recently acquired rock drill sample from “Greenhorn” onto the surface to analyze the residue further, “before the martian wind blows it away.”

As of today, Sol 1203, December 25, 2015, Curiosity has driven over 6.9 miles (11.1 kilometers) kilometers and taken over 291,700 amazing images.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The post Curiosity Celebrates Christmas at Red Planet Paradise at Namib Dune with 1st Mastcam Self-portrait appeared first on Universe Today.

Curiosity Celebrates Christmas at Red Planet Paradise at Namib Dune with 1st Mastcam Self-portrait

Curiosity explores Red Planet paradise at Namib Dune during Christmas 2015 - backdropped by Mount Sharp.  Curiosity took first ever self-portrait with Mastcam color camera after arriving at the lee face of Namib Dune.  This photo mosaic shows a portion of the full self portrait and is stitched from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1197, Dec. 19, 2015.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Just in time for the holidays, NASA’s Curiosity rover is celebrating Christmas 2015 at a Red Planet Paradise – spectacular “Namib Dune.” And she marked the occasion by snapping her first ever color self-portrait with the mast mounted high resolution Mastcam 34 mm camera.

Heretofore Curiosity has taken color self portraits with the MAHLI camera mounted at the end of the 7-foot-long (2-meter-long) robotic arm, and black and white self portraits with the mast mounted navcam camera.

The new Mastcam color self portrait was taken just days ago on December 19, and includes the first ever color images of the rover deck. Previously, Curiosity has used the Mastcam color camera to take tens of thousands of exquisite high resolution panoramic images of the magnificent looking Martian terrain, but not the rover deck which includes the inlet ports for the pair of chemistry labs in the robots belly.

Curiosity arrived at the outskirts of Namib Dune in mid-December. And as the images show Namib Dune is humongous and unlike anything encountered before by Curiosity. See out photo mosaics above and below.

Why snap a Mastcam self portrait now? Because there’s unique science to be gained from the Red Planets swirling winds whipping up dust and sand particles with the rover now at the edge of the giant dune field at the foothills of Mount Sharp, and to check for buildup of particles on the rover deck.

“The plan includes a Mastcam image of the rover deck to monitor the movement of particles,” wrote MSL science team member Lauren Edgar, Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center, in a mission update.

Namib Dune is part of a massive field of spectacular rippled dark sand dunes, known as the “Bagnold Dunes” – located at the base of Mount Sharp and range up to two stories tall.

The six wheeled rover was dispatched to the dunes to conduct humanity’s first up-close investigation of currently active sand dunes anywhere beyond Earth.

“Namib is an Aeolian paradise,” wrote Edgar.

“The view at Namib Dune is pretty spectacular. We’ve received a lot of beautiful Mastcam and Navcam images.”

This past week, the science and engineering team commanded the car sized rover to drive closer and around Namib to investigate the dune from various angles with her state of the art science instrument suite.

Curiosity arrived at the lee face of Namib Dune on December 19, or Sol 1197.

“The latest Navcam images reveal many beautiful aeolian features on the slipface and interdune deposits.”

“It’s hard to curb your imaging appetite when the views are so spectacular!”

The dark dunes skirt the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp and lie on the alien road of Curiosity’s daring trek up the lower portion of the layered Martian mountain.

Beside dunes, the local terrain is also replete with a bonanza of outcrops of bedrock and mineral veins for targeted science observations.

“Curiosity will acquire ChemCam and Mastcam observations of targets to characterize some of the local bedrock and veins,” Edgar elaborated. “We’ll also take a Mastcam stereo mosaic of “Namib Dune” to better understand the morphology of the ripples and grain flow.”

“We’ll use ChemCam to assess the composition and grain size of a ripple. Then we’ll use Mastcam to image the brink of the dune and its slipface to characterize the dune morphology. We’ll also use Mastcam to document an outcrop with an unusual purple hue.”

Initial imaging results are already promising and much more is upcoming.

“The Mastcam images that we took earlier this week are coming down now, and they reveal a lot of great details about the dune morphology,” says Edgar.

“Mastcam will do a mosaic of the slip face of Namib dune, and a stereo observation of the target “Nadas” to study the shape of the alcoves on the very crest of the dune,” MSL team member Ryan Anderson added.

“Mastcam will also watch for changes in a patch of nearby sand, as well as a couple of locations on the dune slip face.”

While Earthlings and their families are gathering together and engrossed in the Christmas holiday cheer, there will be little rest for ‘The Martian’ Curiosity. The science team has planned out and uploaded more than a week of science observations to run through the New Year’s holiday.

“We’re in a great location to study “Namib Dune” so there is plenty of good science to be done,” says Anderson.

In addition, Curiosity is dumping the recently acquired rock drill sample from “Greenhorn” onto the surface to analyze the residue further, “before the martian wind blows it away.”

As of today, Sol 1203, December 25, 2015, Curiosity has driven over 6.9 miles (11.1 kilometers) kilometers and taken over 291,700 amazing images.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The post Curiosity Celebrates Christmas at Red Planet Paradise at Namib Dune with 1st Mastcam Self-portrait appeared first on Universe Today.

Curiosity Mars Rover Nears First Study Site of Active Sand Dunes Beyond Earth

NASA’s Curiosity rover is on the road to soon start the first ever study of currently active sand dunes anywhere beyond Earth. The dunes are located nearby, at the foothills of Mount Sharp, and Curiosity is due to arrive for an up close look in just a few days to start her unique research investigations. […]

NASA vs. Cigarettes: A Numbers Game

People often criticize the amount of money spent on space exploration. Sometimes it’s well-meaning friends and family who say that that money is wasted, and would be better spent on solving problems here on Earth. In fact, that’s a whole cultural meme. You see it played out over and over in the comments section whenever […]

Why Don’t We See the Curiosity Rover’s Arm When it Takes a Selfie?

Every time the Curiosity rover takes a ‘selfie’ on Mars, we get the same questions: “How was this picture taken?” “Why isn’t the rover’s arm or the camera visible in this picture?” “In all of Curiosity’s selfies, the camera mast is never visible… why?” And (sigh) “What is NASA hiding???” The answer is simple and […]