NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover continues to make significant strides in its scientific exploration of the Martian landscape, even after 4,000 Martian days since it first touched down in Gale Crater on August 5, 2012. Recently, the rover completed its 39th sample collection by drilling into a rock known as “Sequoia” and transferring the pulverized rock material into its analytical instruments for a comprehensive examination.
Curiosity’s primary mission is to investigate whether ancient Mars provided the conditions necessary to sustain microbial life. As it gradually ascends the base of the towering 3-mile-tall Mount Sharp, the rover encounters different layers of rock that formed during various periods of Martian history,serving as a historical record of the planet’s changing climate.
The latest sample from “Sequoia” is expected to provide valuable insights into the evolution of Mars’ climate and habitability. Scientists are particularly interested in understanding how this region became enriched in sulfates, minerals that likely originated in salty water that gradually evaporated as Mars transitioned into a drier state billions of years ago, ultimately leading to the disappearance of liquid water on the planet’s surface.
The Curiosity Mars rover collected a sample from a rock nicknamed “Sequoia”.
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover continues to unravel the mysteries of the Red Planet, with its latest achievement being the collection of a sample from a rock affectionately named “Sequoia” on the 3,980th Martian day of the mission, which took place on October 17, 2023. This milestone is a testament to the rover’s resilience and unwavering dedication to scientific exploration.
Curiosity’s scientific endeavors are guided by the mission’s project scientist, Ashwin Vasavada, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. The data collected by the rover’s Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument recently revealed the presence of a magnesium sulfate mineral known as starkeyite. This mineral is associated with extremely dry climates, such as the modern climate on Mars.
The team of scientists believes that as sulfate minerals initially formed in salty water and gradually evaporated billions of years ago, they transformed into starkeyite as the Martian climate continued to dry, ultimately resulting in the arid conditions seen today. These findings contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the planet’s evolution.
Curiosity’s enduring performance is remarkable, considering its journey of nearly 20 miles through the harsh Martian terrain, exposed to extreme cold, dust, and radiation since its arrival in 2012. While the rover remains robust, engineers are actively addressing an issue with one of its “eyes” – the 34 mm focal length left camera of the Mast Camera (Mastcam) instrument. This camera, along with its counterpart, helps scientists remotely analyze rock compositions by examining the spectra of light they reflect in different colors, in addition to providing color images of the rover’s surroundings.
NASA’s Curiosity rover has been encountering a challenge with its Mast Camera (Mastcam), where the left camera’s filter wheel has become stuck between filter positions since September 19, 2023. This issue is affecting the quality of the mission’s raw images. The mission team is working to gradually adjust the filter wheel back to its standard setting, but if this cannot be fully achieved, they may have to rely more on the higher-resolution 100 mm focal length right Mastcam for primary color imaging.
This could impact how the team identifies science targets and rover routes, as the right camera would need to capture nine times more images to cover the same area. Additionally, this situation could reduce the rover’s ability to observe the detailed color spectra of rocks from a distance.
Despite this challenge, mission engineers are actively addressing various aspects of Curiosity’s performance. They continue to monitor the rover’s nuclear power source and anticipate that it will supply sufficient energy for many more years of operation. Solutions have been developed to address wear on the rover’s drill system and robotic-arm joints. Software updates have been implemented to enhance Curiosity’s capabilities, making long drives more efficient and reducing wheel wear resulting from navigating over sharp rocks.
As Mars approaches a solar conjunction, during which the planet will be hidden behind the Sun, Curiosity’s team is preparing for a break in operations for several weeks in November. Solar conjunction can lead to interference with radio waves due to interactions with solar plasma. Engineers have planned a to-do list for the rover from November 6 to 28, with communications resuming after the conjunction period.
Curiosity, a remarkable achievement of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is managed by Caltech in Pasadena, California. JPL leads the mission on behalf of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The Mastcam, which is experiencing the filter wheel issue, was built and is operated by Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego.