Published : Wednesday, January 31, 2018 | 4:56 PM
NASA’s Curiosity rover has covered about 11 miles on Mars since it landed on the planet in August 2012. Last week, the Curiosity team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena received copious new images from the rover through a record-setting relay by NASA’s MAVEN orbiter, surpassing a gigabit of data during a single relay session from Mars, for the first time in history.
The images now provide a panoramic photo that shows a sweeping vista of the key sites Curiosity has covered since 2012, and the towering surroundings. The rover photographed the scene shortly before northern Mars’ winter solstice, a season of clear skies, gaining a sharp view of distant details.
The images along the 11-mile route were all taken from inside Gale Crater on Mars. From Vera Rubin Ridge on the north flank of Mount Sharp, the view shows one hill on the northern horizon about 50 miles away, well outside of the crater, though most of the scene’s horizon is the crater’s northern rim, roughly one-third that distance away and 1.2 miles above the rover.
Mount Sharp stands in the middle of Gale Crater, which is 96 miles (154 kilometers) in diameter.
“Even though Curiosity has been steadily climbing for five years, this is the first time we could look back and see the whole mission laid out below us,” Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity Project Scientist at JPL, said. “From our perch on Vera Rubin Ridge, the vast plains of the crater floor stretch out to the spectacular mountain range that forms the northern rim of Gale Crater.”
Curiosity’s Mast Camera, or Mastcam, took the component images of the panorama three months ago while the rover paused on the northern edge of Vera Rubin Ridge. The mission has since approached the southern edge of the ridge and examined several outcrop locations along the way.
The scene includes Yellowknife Bay, where, in 2013, the mission found evidence of an ancient freshwater-lake environment that offered all of the basic chemical ingredients for microbial life. Farther north are the channel and fan of Peace Vallis, relics of the streams that carried water and sediment into the crater about three billion years ago.
Sites such as Kimberley and Murray Buttes along the rover’s route are marked on an annotated posting of the panorama. The Mastcam recorded both a wider version of the scene with its left-eye 34-millimeter-lens camera and a more detailed narrower version with its right-eye 100-millimeter-lens camera.
The site from which these images were taken sits 1,073 feet in elevation above Curiosity’s landing site. Since leaving that site, the rover has climbed another 85 feet. Recently, the Mastcam recorded component images for a panorama looking uphill southward toward the mission’s next major destination area – the Clay Unit, for clay minerals detected there by observations from orbit.
The Curiosity team is now preparing to resume use of the rover’s drill for acquiring powdered rock samples to be analyzed by laboratory instruments inside the rover, more than a year after the most recent of the 15 times the drill has pulled sample material from Martian rocks.
Curiosity relays all data to Earth through NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey orbiter, which fly in nearly circular, nearly polar orbits.
MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution), which relayed the latest images, flies an elliptical orbit varying more than 40-fold from its nearest to farthest point from Mars. This suits MAVEN’s science focus on Mars’ atmosphere but results in variable coverage for relaying rover data. Usually, MAVEN passes over rover locations when the distance is too large for optimal relays. However, during occasional periods when the low point of its orbit is near Curiosity’s location on Mars, the relays can serve exceedingly well.
“MAVEN definitely has the potential to move lots of data for us, and we expect to make even more use of it in the future,” Roy Gladden, manager of NASA’s Mars Relay Network Office at JPL, said.
The January 22 relay of 1,006 megabits topped the previous record of 840 megabits, also set by MAVEN, but might in turn be bested by other favorable MAVEN relay opportunities in coming days.