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Headshot of Emily Lakdawalla

Curiosity update, sols 1250-1310: Across the Naukluft Plateau

Posted By Emily Lakdawalla

13-04-2016 14:57 CDT

Topics: pretty pictures, amateur image processing, mission status, Mars, Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory), 3D

Before you get too far into this post: If you have red-blue 3D glasses, go get them! If you don't have them, don't despair; below most of the red-blue anaglyphs in this post are links that take you to other ways to view the 3D photos (including just seeing them in 2D).

In the two months since my last update, Curiosity has been driving west, around the northern edge of a couple of barchan sand dunes. This is the last stretch of road before the rover turns south to pass by the Murray Buttes. The southward turn will finally take Curiosity across the Bagnold dune field, which has stood in the path between the rover and most of Mount Sharp since landing.

The most recent bit of the westward road took the rover across a high-standing section of ridgy rock that the team named the Naukluft Plateau. Up on top of the plateau, eons of wind have carved the rocks into fantastic shapes, and the driving has been extremely difficult. Not only is the rough terrain challenging, but the rover has been fighting annoying problems with a recurring short inside its power generator, and suffered extremely inconvenient losses of several sols' worth of activity due to problems at the Deep Space Network. But the difficult crossing is nearly complete. 

You can see the recent travels in this 3D route map that I drew on a HiRISE digital elevation model based on Phil Stooke's route mapping. The 3D line doesn't quite sit down onto the topography like I should, but I ran out of patience for fiddling with dot locations. You can get the idea. This is just a detail from a wider-view version of the map, where you can see more of the terrain ahead.

3D route map for Curiosity: Across the Bagnold dune field, sols 1153-1310 (detail)

NASA / JPL / UA / Phil Stooke / Emily Lakdawalla

3D route map for Curiosity: Across the Bagnold dune field, sols 1153-1310 (detail)
A wide view of Curiosity's future traverse. At full resolution it is 1 meter per pixel. North is about 7 degrees to the left of up. Murray Buttes are at the left of the image, and the dark swath is the Bagnold dune field. Curiosity's route is based on mapping by Phil Stooke.

Crossed-eye stereo

Parallel-eye stereo

Flicker gif

Curiosity ascended the steep (for Curiosity) eastern slope of the Naukluft Plateau beginning on sol 1274, reaching the top on sol 1281. In doing so, the rover crossed from brighter, flat-eroded Murray rocks into ridgy Stimson rocks, and the team spent several sols analyzing rocks at the contact between the Murray and the Stimson. Curiosity has examined this contact before, for example at Marias Pass, but the contact between the two units looks different in different locations. The science team is having fun exploring those variations. Here is what the Murray-Stimson contact looked like for Curiosity from a distance, on sol 1267:

Eastern edge of the Naukluft plateau, sol 1267

NASA / JPL / MSSS / Emily Lakdawalla

Eastern edge of the Naukluft plateau, sol 1267
At the top of the image is caprock made of Stimson sandstone. Below it is brighter Murray mudstone. In this location, viewed by Curiosity on sol 1267 (February 28, 2016), the Murray formation appears to brighten closer to the Stimson rock.

Closer to the contact between the two units, Curiosity spent some time staring up close at some really cool gypsum veins, obtaining imagery with Mastcam on sol 1274 and 1276 and ChemCam and MAHLI on sol 1275. Here is a wonderful 3D presentation of one those veins that Justin Cowart put together from MAHLI data. I love how you can clearly see a divide in the crystalline gypsum at the center of the vein; the gypsum would have started growing at the edges of the rock, and continued to fill in the vein until the crystal growth from the two sides met at the center.

Curiosity also detoured briefly to check out some neat nodules eroding out of the rocks near the contact:

The scenery across the top of the plateau has been great. The additional elevation, with the help of cooperatively clear skies, has given Curiosity fantastic views, like this 360-degree view from sol 1302, assembled by James Sorenson:

The high elevation has also exposed the rocks to dry erosion from wind for eons, carving bizarre shapes in the Stimson sandstone. I just went through and created a pile of 3D views, posting them on Twitter. I'll embed two of my favorites below, but you can check my Twitter feed for more awesome 3D views from sols 1278, 1280, 1285, 1290, another 1290, and 1292.

Wind-eroded rock atop the Naukluft Plateau, Curiosity sol 1301

NASA / JPL / MSSS / Emily Lakdawalla

Wind-eroded rock atop the Naukluft Plateau, Curiosity sol 1301
Here is a side-by-side stereo version suitable for use with Google Cardboard.

Crossed-eye stereo

Parallel-eye stereo

Flicker gif

Strangely eroded rock atop the Naukluft Plateau, Curiosity sol 1305 (3D)

NASA / JPL / MSSS / Emily Lakdawalla

Strangely eroded rock atop the Naukluft Plateau, Curiosity sol 1305 (3D)
Curiosity encountered lots of oddly shaped wind-eroded rocks atop the Naukluft Plateau. Here is a side-by-side stereo version suitable for Google Cardboard.

Crossed-eye stereo

Parallel-eye stereo

Flicker gif

Initially, the progress across the plateau was pretty rapid, but in the last three weeks it has slowed dramatically for a variety of reasons. They've now fought their way to the western slope off of the plateau. At the toe of the slope in front of the rover is more light-colored, flatter Murray rocks, in a valley that leads to the south and around the western edge of a couple of isolated sand dunes. To the southwest, we can see flat-topped buttes -- the edge of the famous Murray Buttes that we've been aiming toward for so long. Here are two screen caps from the Midnight Planets app, showing the buttes to the southwest as seen on sol 1309.

Midnight Planets view of terrain to the southwest, Curiosity sol 1309

NASA / JPL / Midnight Planets (Michael Howard)

Midnight Planets view of terrain to the southwest, Curiosity sol 1309
Midnight Planets view of terrain to the southwest, Curiosity sol 1309 (zoom)

NASA / JPL / Midnight Planets (Michael Howard)

Midnight Planets view of terrain to the southwest, Curiosity sol 1309 (zoom)

But the path through the center of those images isn't safe; the ripples in the sand are the kind that would bog the rover down. The rover has to go west. You can see why it's been such a challenge to make headway in this terrain. At small scale, it's absolutely full of potentially wheel-damaging pointy embedded rocks. At scales a bit longer than the rover, there are low ridges that hide territory behind them; the rover is not quite tall enough to see all of the ground along its future path from here. Without a view of where the rover wheels will go, the rover isn't allowed to drive. They have to drive in relatively short segments, up to the edge of where they can see, tiptoeing around visible wheel hazards, then take new pictures and return them to Earth to form a safe drive plan for the next day.

Rough terrain at the western edge of the Naukluft plateau (3D)


Rough terrain at the western edge of the Naukluft plateau (3D)
Curiosity took these photos at the end of a short drive on sol 1309 (April 12, 2016) that took it to the western edge of the Naukluft plateau. Its future route will take it toward the center of the image and then angling off to the left (to the south of west), passing some rippled sands to get to more pleasant driving terrain.

Crossed-eye stereo

Parallel-eye stereo

Flicker gif

Here's a brief summary of the frustrating driving across the plateau. I'll explain the various issues that caused missed sols of work below. Successful drives are in normal text, remote sensing sols are in italic text, and sols with various problems are in bold text.

"Restricted sols" are an ordinary aspect of Mars mission operations. They happen when Earth time and Mars time are out of synch, so that images from Mars documenting the rover's condition don't get returned to Earth in time for them to be used for planning another day of driving. Nowadays, during the two of every five weeks that the calendars are out of synch, Curiosity mission operations work only three days a week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday), planning two sols at a time: one drive sol followed by a day of untargeted science (weather observations, sky observations, and/or very long-distance or 360-degree imaging that doesn't need careful targeting). During the untargeted science sol, the post-drive images from the drive sol eventually come down to Earth, allowing driving and/or targeted science to be planned on the next sol.

Another occasional, irritating but not unexpected type of fault precluded driving on sol 1288: "The drive that was planned for Sol 1288 did not occur because the rover determined that a planned arm move would exceed a safety limit. Because this fault is understood, we are going to try once again to drive onto a ridge just north of the rover," Lauren Edgar wrote in a blog entry. These things occasionally happen on a rover as complex as Curiosity, where systems interact in ways that can't always be predicted, and the rover carefully does nothing until the team back on Earth modifies the safety limit to a different but still safe limit and allows the rover to proceed.

Several lost sols were caused by a short in the radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG). This is not a new problem; the RTG short first showed up on Curiosity in November 2013, and a related problem exists within Cassini's RTGs. It has occasionally cropped up since then, but has not had frequent-enough bad effects for it to be more than intermittently annoying. The short itself presents no hazard to the rover, but there are various rover operations (such as wheel steering) that have conservative fault-protection software that checks for unusual power behavior (in this case, a change in voltage) before a drive, and it happened three times in a row on sols 1301, 1303, and 1305, causing Curiosity to lose an entire week of activity. This has elevated the problem from being an intermittent annoyance to a real nuisance, and, according to a blog entry by Ken Herkenhoff, "The engineers are preparing to send parameter changes that will eliminate mobility actuator sensitivity to the transient power spikes." I'm not sure whether these parameter changes have actually been sent yet.

Finally, three sols were affected by outages at the Deep Space Network (DSN), which relays data between Mars and Earth. On sol 1291, a failure at the DSN prevented the team from receiving the images from sol 1290 -- a drive sol -- before it was time to plan sol 1291, effectively turning what should have been a drive sol into a restricted sol. The mission didn't know the current state of the rover, so couldn't plan a drive or any targeted science activity; they were, however, able to perform untargeted remote sensing, so it wasn't a complete loss. Then, on sol 1307 -- after a week of failed drives due to the RTG short -- there was a worse DSN problem: a failure to uplink the rover's command sequence. This sequence would have covered both sols 1307 and 1308. The rover received no instructions for those two sols, and therefore performed only "runout" activities like taking routine weather data. The mission had planned two days' worth of contact science and driving, but when they returned to work on Monday, performed no contact science at all because they felt it was more important to try for the fifth time to keep driving than try to do the science again. DSN outages like this have been affecting Curiosity operations with distressing frequency during its extended mission -- by my count, more than a dozen sols have been affected by downlink or uplink problems. I am trying to look in to the root causes of the DSN problems, but am having difficulty making headway. If you work on a mission and have specific information about how problems at the DSN are affecting your mission operations, please contact me.

In the near future, Curiosity will drive off of the Naukluft plateau onto Murray rocks, and, in so doing, will likely leave the Stimson sandstone unit behind forever. Curiosity will drive past Stimson rocks, but they will be perched up high, out of reach, capping buttes. For the foreseeable future, Curiosity will be driving on Murray rock, occasionally among more Bagnold dunes. I'm sure the rover drivers won't be sorry to leave the Stimson in the rear-view mirror. We'll find out, once the rover reaches smoother terrain on the west side of the plateau, whether the difficult conditions up on top of the plateau caused any acceleration in damage to the rover's wheels.

Following are the USGS Astrogeology blog updates from Ryan Anderson, Lauren Edgar, and Ken Herkenhoff covering the last two months of activity.

Sol 1250 update by Ken Herkenhoff: Bumping for Contact Science (10 February 2016)

The Sol 1249 drive went well, leaving the rover in an area with many nice outcrops of bright bedrock. A large outcrop, partly visible at the left side of the image above, was chosen as the target for dumping the sand sample and examining it this weekend. So, after ChemCam and Mastcam observations of the bedrock target "Kuiseb," the vehicle will back up, turn a bit to the left, then drive forward to get the large outcrop into the arm workspace. Lots of images of the workspace will be acquired after the drive, to allow dump and contact science targets to be selected tomorrow.

Sols 1251-1252 update by Ken Herkenhoff: Dumping sand samples (11 February 2016)

The short Sol 1250 drive completed successfully, placing the rover in position for contact science on the bedrock outcrop of interest. We're planning 2 sols today and 3 sols tomorrow to get the rover through the upcoming holiday weekend. On Sol 1251, ChemCam will observe a bright vein called "Fiskus" and the sieved sand samples will be dumped onto the bedrock. Mastcam will take stereo images of the dump piles, then MAHLI will image the dump piles and a separate brush target named "Kuiseb." After the DRT brushes Kuiseb, the APXS will be placed on the brushed spot for an overnight integration. SAM will also measure the composition of the atmosphere overnight.

The Sol 1252 plan starts with lots of remote sensing: A multispectral Mastcam observation of Fiskus, ChemCam LIBS and Mastcam observations of bumpy features "Vingerklip" and "Buntfeldschuh" on the bedrock, ChemCam RMI mosaics of distant targets, and a Navcam search for clouds. Then the APXS will be placed on its calibration target for an overnight integration. Whew--a busy planning day!

Sols 1253-1255 update by Ken Herkenhoff: Full plan (12 February 2016)

The dune sand samples were dumped onto the ground, but it appears that the sample was partly blown by the wind. There is enough sample left to investigate with various instruments, so the Sol 1253 plan starts with ChemCam passive spectra and Mastcam multispectral observations of the dump piles and brushed spot. Later that sol, MAHLI will take pictures of the APXS calibration target and both dump piles before the APXS is placed on the pile of sieved sand for a short integration. After sunset, the APXS will be moved to a bedrock target named "Bergsig" for another short integration, then to the pile of unsieved sand for a long, overnight integration.

The rover will wake up before dawn on Sol 1254 for an attempt to detect surface frost using ChemCam. This is the best time of year for water frost to form, so we're hoping that ChemCam will see the hydrogen in the water. Later that sol, ChemCam and Mastcam will observe the unsieved dump pile and the brushed spot, this time using ChemCam's laser to measure chemical composition. Mastcam will also image the frost target, the sun, and the distant crater rim to measure the amount of dust in the atmosphere. Then MAHLI will image Bersig, the sieved dump pile to look for the imprint of APXS's contact sensor, and the brushed spot. Overnight, CheMin will analyze the dune sand
again, to improve the accuracy of the mineralogical measurement.

Finally, on Sol 1255, the rover will drive toward the north, to get around the sand dune to the west of the vehicle. In addition to the usual post-drive imaging, the Navcam will take a couple images of Mount Sharp to enable planning of future long-distance imaging. Another full plan that has kept the tactical team busy today!

Sols 1256-1261 update by Ryan Anderson: Driving Around the Dune (19 February 2016)

Apologies for the lateness of this week’s update: The rover is fine, gradually working its way around the north end of a large dune. I’m just an absent-minded blogger with too many other things going on!

We started this week on Tuesday with the Sol 1256 plan. This included some long distance ChemCam RMi images of a location on Mt. Sharp that I have been advocating for, plus some small Mastcam mosaics of targets “Chuos”, “Guinas”, “Aroab”, and the rover deck. This was followed by a ~30 m drive and post-drive imaging.

The 1257 plan was more challenging than we would have liked because we didn’t get the data expected from Sol 1256 due to an issue with the Deep Space Network (the data isn’t lost, just delayed). With most of our data missing, Sol 1257 ended up being mostly untargeted observations. ChemCam did an RMI calibration target observation, followed by a long-distance RMI mosaic of the Peace Vallis alluvial fan. Navcam had an atmospheric observation to look for clouds and measure wind direction right above us. After that, the rover did a “turn for comms” where we turn in place to improve our ability to uplink and downlink data, followed by some post “drive” imaging.

On Sol 1258 we had a bunch more untargeted observations. Navcam had several atmospheric observations, watching for clouds over Mt. Sharp and straight above the rover, plus watching for dust devils. ChemCam had a passive sky observation to measure the atmospheric composition, and Mastcam had an observation of the crater rim to measure the dust in the atmosphere and a tau measurement of the sun for a similar purpose.

In the second science block on Sol 1258, ChemCam repeated the passive sky observation, and Mastcam repeated the observation of the crater rim and the sun. These Mastcam observations were repeated one more time later in the day to see whether the amount of dust changes with time of day.

For today’s weekend plan, there was some uncertainty about whether the rover would be level enough to allow for contact science, but we were happy to find out that it is! We start out on Sol 1259 with ChemCam observations of the targets “Gross Aub”, “Groot Aub”, “Gorob”, and “Grosskopf”, with Mastcam images to document. Navcam also has an atmospheric observation. Then later in the day we will brush the dust off of the target “Gorob”, with MAHLI images before and after. MAHLI will also take some images of “Groot Aub”. APXS will then measure the composition of “Groot Aub” and then do an overnight measurement of “Gorob”. On Sol 1260 we will drive a few meters, then take some pictures of the wheels with MAHLI, and then continue driving for another hour or so, followed by post-drive imaging. Finally, on Sol 1261, ChemCam will do some calibration target observations, and Navcam has a few more atmospheric observations.

Sols 1262-1263 update by Ryan Anderson: Driving Toward Naukluft Plateau (22 February 2016)

We’re gearing up for a nice long drive toward the “Naukluft Plateau” in today’s plan! The sol 1262 plan starts off with ChemCam of the bedrock targets “Gemsboktal” and “Ghaub”, with Mastcam documentation. Mastcam will also take a picture of the interesting wind-blown ripples of the target “Hoachanas”. After that, we will drive 70 meters or so to the northwest, stopping on a small ridge. After the drive, the rover will do standard post-drive imaging of our new surroundings. Overnight, CheMin will analyze its sample from Scoop #5 on the target “Gobabeb”.

Sol 1263 will be all untargeted observations. Mastcam will observe the rover deck to assess how much dust and sand are on the rover, and ChemCam has two long distance RMI mosaics of the stratigraphy of the Peace Vallis alluvial fan (these can be untargeted because they’re so far away that the camera pointing doesn’t really change much when we drive). Mastcam then has a standard “tau” observation, and Navcam has some cloud monitoring of the southern horizon. Later in the day, Navcam has some more atmospheric monitoring, and Mastcam will repeat the tau observation.

Sols 1264-1265 update from Ryan Anderson: Halfway to Naukluft Plateau (24 February 2016)

We had a successful ~70 meter drive toward the Naukluft plateau, and the drive in today’s plan should put us about halfway to the base of the plateau. The Sol 1264 plan starts with some targeted science: first we have a Mastcam mosaic of the scarp that forms the edge of the plateau, and then ChemCam will analyze the two targets “Awahab” and “Awa Gamteb”. After the targeted science, the rover will drive about 30 meters and do standard post-drive imaging so we can do targeted science (and possibly contact science) over the weekend.

In the early morning of Sol 1265, we have a bunch of atmospheric observations with Navcam and Mastcam to watch for clouds and measure the amount of dust in the atmosphere. Then later in the day Mastcam will repeat its dust observations. I was involved in planning this morning and we were hoping to get some long-distance RMI observations of Mt. Sharp in the Sol 1265 plan, but they had to be removed because the software we use to write the commands was giving different coordinates than what we were expecting from the images. It’s always disappointing to have observations pulled from the plan, but it’s better to be safe than sorry when you start to get weird results from the software. Pulling them from the plan allows us to figure out what the issue was, and we can get the images I wanted some other time.

Sols 1266-1268 update from Ryan Anderson: Taking Stock of Stockdale (26 February 2016)

Today’s plan has a nice mix of science and driving. The rover will start off on Sol 1266 with ChemCam observations of the targets “Ugab”, “Rooibank” and “Stockdale”. We will zap the Rooibank target using two different laser energies to see if that helps us figure out the amount of hydrogen in the target. Afterwards, Mastcam has some documentation images of the ChemCam targets, and then we will do some contact science: MAHLI will take some images of “Waterburg”, then the DRT will brush the dust off of “Stockdale” and MAHLI will take some pictures of that target too. After the DRT, Mastcam will observe the Stockdale target with all of its science filters, and APXS will then do an overnight observation on the brushed location.

On Sol 1267, Mastcam has a big mosaic of the edge of the Naukluft plateau, which will give us a nice view of the geology there and help us decide what to do as we get closer. After that, the rover will continue driving toward the plateau and do the usual post-drive imaging, plus some additional Mastcam off to the right hand side of the rover.

On Sol 1268, we have a bunch of untargeted observations. ChemCam has a passive sky observation, and Mastcam will observe its calibration targets so the filter observations of Stockdale can be calibrated. Mastcam also has tau observations at two different times. To wrap up the plan, Navcam will do its usual atmospheric monitoring observations. 

Sols 1269-1270 update by Lauren Edgar: Approaching Naukluft Plateau (1 March 2016)

Here is Monday’s blog post (can we blame the delay on leap day?). Curiosity is currently making her way toward the Naukluft Plateau, and Monday’s plan was full of driving and remote sensing. On the first sol, Curiosity will acquire ChemCam and Mastcam observations of the target “Swartpunt.” Then we’ll drive toward the Naukluft Plateau, and acquire post-drive imaging to prepare for future targeting and document the Murray formation along the way. The second sol includes a number of ChemCam calibration activities, and a Navcam movie to monitor the atmosphere above Mount Sharp. We’ll also acquire a large Mastcam mosaic to study the stratigraphy exposed on the east side of the Naukluft Plateau.

I’ve been working MER operations this week, so it’s been fun to check in and see what’s happening on the other side of the planet!

Sols 1271-1272 update by Lauren Edgar: Remote Sensing and CheMin Analysis (2 March 2016)

Today’s 2-sol plan is focused on targeted remote sensing, imaging to prepare for contact science, and CheMin analysis of the Gobabeb #6 sample. We’re in a great position on the east side of the Naukluft Plateau, and we’re trying to understand the local stratigraphy and diagenetic features. The first sol includes ChemCam and Mastcam observations of the targets “Uniab” and “Tumas,” followed by imaging of the area in front of the rover to prepare for possible contact science in the weekend plan. The second sol starts with an early morning science block for atmospheric monitoring observations. Sol 1272 also includes CheMin analysis of a sample that we acquired back at Namib dune. In the afternoon, Curiosity will acquire a long-distance RMI mosaic of Peace Vallis, and will continue monitoring atmospheric opacity and studying the sky above Mount Sharp.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, Opportunity is perched on a steep slope, trying to make her way up to an interesting outcrop on Knudsen Ridge. It’s another great day on Mars!

Sols 1275-1276 update by Ryan Anderson: Interesting Veins and Textures (8 March 2016)

The weekend drive went well, and put us in a great location for some contact science, right near the contact between the “Murray” and “Stimson” formations, with some interesting veins and textures in the nearby rocks. Given our nice location, we opted not to do any driving in the Sol 1275 plan and instead study the area in front of us.

The Sol 1275 plan started off with a ChemCam passive sky observation and ChemCam LIBS and RMI observations of the targets “Palmhorst”, “Palmwag”, and “Mirabib”. Mastcam took documentation images of each of the ChemCam targets, plus a couple of mosaics of the Murray-Stimson contact. Later in the day, MAHLI took some images of Mirabib before and after brushing the dust off, as well as mosaics of Palmwag and Palmhorst. APXS then analyzed the composition of Palmwag and then did an overnight measurement of Mirabib.

In today’s plan, our goal is to place the rover in position to study some interesting knobby textures. Prior to the drive, Navcam will do some atmospheric measurements and ChemCam will analyze the targets “Duruchaus”, “Eiseb”, and “Aranos”. As usual, Mastcam will take some documentation images of the ChemCam targets. Mastcam also has a mosaic of fine laminations in the rock at the Murray-Stimson contact, another mosaic to extend the coverage of the contact, and a small 2x1 mosaic of Mirabib and nearby veins using all of Mastcam’s science filters. After that, we will do a short drive toward the knobby texture followed by post-drive imaging. The knobby texture is not in a great position for us to continue driving after we analyze it, so we’ll likely return back to our current position before continuing up onto Naukluft plateau.

Sol 1277 update by Ryan Anderson: Nodules! (9 March 2016)

Our drive yesterday was a success, putting us right on the contact between the “Murray” and “Stimson” units, and in reach of some very interesting nodules. The plan today is mostly focused on studying those nodules. ChemCam has an observation of a nodule and neighboring bedrock at the target “Vogelfederberg” followed by a “depth profile” on one of the nodules named “Verbrandeberg”. For the depth profile, we will only analyze two locations on the target, but we will shoot each location with the laser 150 times instead of the normal 30 shots. These extra shots allow us to measure changes in the chemistry in the outer surface of the target. After the depth profile, ChemCam will analyze two other nodule and bedrock locations named “Maieberg” and “Mikberg”. Mastcam will take documentation images of all of these targets.

Later in the day, we will use MAHLI to take some images of a nodule named “Sperrgebiet”’, plus a broader mosaic of the nodular texture. APXS will then measure the composition of Sperrgebiet and the neighboring bedrock. Tomorrow the plan is to back out of our current location and then drive up onto Naukluft plateau!

Sol 1278 update by Ryan Anderson: Nodules: Take 2 (10 March 2016)

Our APXS observation of the nodules in yesterday’s plan didn’t go exactly as planned: it was slightly misaligned with the nodule we were trying to analyze, so the measurement was mostly of the neighboring bedrock. That meant planning today started with a discussion of whether the chemistry from ChemCam was sufficient, or if we should spend another day and nail the APXS measurement as well. In the end we decided to try again and make sure we get all the data we want about the nodules before moving on.

The Sol 1278 plan starts with ChemCam analyses and Mastcam images of the targets “Tsarabis”, “Lofdal”, “Kunene”, and “Nababis”. Mastcam also has two mosaics to capture the contact between the “Murray” and “Stimson” formations and the transition from knobby nodule-rich bedrock to less nodule-rich bedrock. After that, MAHLI will collect images of the nodule targets “Sperrgebiet”, “Maieberg”, and “Konigstein” and APXS will try again to do an overnight measurement of the composition of Sperrgebiet. Since this is the second try, the rover planners have yesterday’s data to work with and should be able to place the APXS more accurately. If all goes well, we should be able to wrap up at this location and drive away in the weekend plan!

Sols 1279-1281 by Ryan Anderson: Climbing up onto Naukluft Plateau (11 March 2016)

It’s time to wrap up our investigation of the interesting nodules at the contact between the Murray and Stimson formations and resume driving!

The weekend starts off focused mostly on contact science. On Sol 1279, APXS will analyze two neighboring locations on a group of nodules collectively called “Khomas”, and then on Sol 1280 APXS will analyze a third location on Khomas. MAHLI will collect supporting images, and will also take some pictures of the targets “Etendeka” and “Maieberg”.

In the morning on Sol 1280, the rover will make some atmospheric measurements using Navcam, Mastcam, and ChemCam, followed by a 20-spot ChemCam analysis of the target “Marienfluss”, right across the Murray-Stimson contact. Mastcam will take a support image of Marienfluss, plus a small mosaic of a target called “Kerpfenkliff”.

Then on Sol 1281, we will get moving again with a ~70 meter drive that should take us up onto the Naukluft plateau. During the drive, MARDI will collect some images of the terrain underneath the rover. After the drive we have post-drive imaging, and I added a request for some Navcam images of Mt. Sharp to help target potential long distance ChemCam RMI images next week. 

Sol 1282 update by Ken Herkenhoff: Up on the Plateau (14 March 2016)

I'm scheduled on tactical operations tomorrow, so I'm getting back up to speed on recent MSL activities today.  The Sol 1281 drive completed as planned, crossing the Murray/Stimson contact at the edge of the Naukluft plateau.  Now that we have a better view of the plateau, we are ready to start driving across it.  But first, ChemCam and Mastcam will observe targets "Orupembe" and "Witvlei" on the bedrock in front of the rover.  Mastcam will also take pictures of the rocks in front of the rover and targets "Natab East" and "Natab West" on either side of the vehicle before the Sol 1282 drive.  After the drive, in addition to the usual post-drive imaging, the Left Mastcam will acquire a full 360-degree panorama, as the view from the new location (near the left edge of the image above) is expected to be good.  We are looking forward to seeing the new data!

Sol 1283 update by Ken Herkenhoff: Driving over Stimson bedrock (15 March 2016)

The 26-meter drive planned for sol 1282 completed successfully, giving the rover nice views of interesting features in the Stimson unit.  Some of these features appear to be the result of erosion by windblown sand and are the subject of a Right Mastcam 7x2 mosaic planned for Sol 1283.  ChemCam will measure elemental chemistry at the edge of one of the bedrock blocks and Mastcam will acquire another mosaic of a fracture named "Welwitschia Wash" before the rover drives away.  The view from the intended location, about 40 meters toward the west, is expected to be excellent because much of the Gale crater rim and Mt. Sharp will be visible, and the atmosphere is not as dusty as usual.  Other post-drive observations include ChemCam RMI and Right Mastcam mosaics of features on Mt. Sharp that are so far away that they can be targeted accurately using available image data.  Also, the Left Navcam will be used to search for clouds and dust devils.

It was an easy day for me as MAHLI/MARDI uplink lead, as I only had to plan the usual MARDI twilight image after the drive.  But, as usual, it was fun and interesting to be involved in tactical operations.

Sol 1284 update by Ken Herkenhoff: Driving Across the Plateau (16 March 2016)

MSL drove almost 40 meters over the rough terrain on the Naukluft plateau, as planned, and again there are many interesting features near the rover.  Many of the rocks appear to have been abraded by windblown sand, resulting in some bizarre shapes in places.  The chemical and morphological diversity of these nearby rocks will be sampled before the rover drives toward the west on Sol 1284:  ChemCam and Mastcam will observe outcrop targets named "Rooirand," "Grootberg," and "Gratzplatz."  The Left Mastcam will also acquire mosaics of the outcrop around Rooirand and sedimentary structures to the south of the rover.  After the drive, the usual post-drive imaging is planned, including a MARDI twilight image (my only responsibility today).

Sol 1285 update by Lauren Edgar: Still driving across the Naukluft Plateau (17 March 2016) 

Curiosity is still working her way across the Naukluft Plateau.  On Sol 1284 Curiosity drove ~27 m, which brings our total traverse distance to ~12,549 m.  Today’s plan is fairly straightforward.  In the morning, Curiosity will acquire Mastcam and ChemCam on targets named “Mulden” and “Koigab” to characterize the bedrock that we’ve been driving over.  We’ll also take a Mastcam mosaic to investigate the local stratigraphy.  Then Curiosity will continue driving towards the northwest, and will take post-drive imaging to prepare for contact science over the weekend.  Early the next morning, Curiosity will take several Navcam, Mastcam, and ChemCam observations to monitor the atmospheric composition and opacity and search for clouds.  I’ll be on duty tomorrow as GSTL, so I’m looking forward to planning some contact science! 

Sols 1286-1288 update by Lauren Edgar: Blame it on the leprechauns (18 March 2016) 

St. Patrick’s Day on Mars didn’t quite go as planned.  Yesterday we planned a ~15 m drive to a nearby ridge, but we came in this morning to find that the drive didn’t occur (blame it on the leprechauns?).  In reality, we can blame it on a short in the RTG, which precluded the drive.  This fault has occurred several times previously. Because the fault is understood, we were able to proceed with the weekend plan from our current location.

The first sol of the weekend plan is devoted to targeted remote sensing.  We’ll start with some environmental monitoring observations to assess atmospheric opacity and composition.  Then we’ll acquire ChemCam and Mastcam observations on the targets “Sesriem Canyon,” “Omaheke,” and “Varianto” to assess variations in composition and sedimentary structures in the local bedrock.  In the afternoon, we’ll acquire a large Mastcam mosaic of Mt. Sharp, to take advantage of the low atmospheric opacity right now (which means that the conditions are great for imaging).  The second sol is focused on contact science.  We’ll use MAHLI and APXS to investigate two targets: “Sesrium Canyon” and ldquo;Rossing.”  The first target exposes some nice bedding in the Stimson formation, and the second includes some interesting bright material for comparison.  Then on the third sol, we’ll again try to drive towards the ridge to the northwest and acquire post-drive imaging for targeting.  I hear the pot of gold lies just beyond…

Sol 1289 update by Lauren Edgar: Third time’s the charm? (21 March 2016) 

The science that we planned over the weekend went smoothly, and we acquired some beautiful MAHLI and Mastcam images.  However, the drive that was planned for Sol 1288 did not occur because the rover determined that a planned arm move would exceed a safety limit..  Because this fault is understood, we are going to try once again to drive onto a ridge just north of the rover.

Today’s plan includes some pre-drive science, a drive, and post-drive imaging.  In the pre-drive science block, we’ll acquire a Navcam movie to search for clouds and monitor atmospheric opacity.  Then we’ll use ChemCam and Mastcam to evaluate a target that had previously shown a high-silica signature (target “Koigab”).  After the arm is stowed, we’ll use Mastcam to acquire a multispectral image of the DRT target “Sesrium Canyon” from the weekend plan.  Hopefully the drive will go well and our post-drive imaging will show that we are in fact in a new location! 

Sol 1290 update by Lauren Edgar: A good vantage point (22 March 2016)

The drive on Sol [1289] was successful, and Curiosity drove ~15 m to the north.  We are currently sitting on top of a ridge in the Stimson formation, which provides a good view of the surrounding terrain and will enable us to plan the upcoming drives better.

The goal this week is to keep making our way across the Naukluft Plateau.  Today’s plan follows a similar structure: remote sensing, drive, and post-drive imaging.  The plan includes ChemCam documentation of the local bedrock at a target named “Khaudam,” and two Mastcam mosaics to assess the sedimentary structures exposed along the ridge.  Then Curiosity will continue driving across the plateau, and will take post-drive imaging to prepare for upcoming targeting and traverse planning.  It’s a quiet week of operations, while most of the science team is busy at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston!

Sol 1291 update by Lauren Edgar: Another curveball (23 March 2016)

Mars is certainly keeping us on our toes this week, and reminding us how challenging it can be to do remote operations on another planet.  We use two satellites in orbit around Mars to relay data: Mars Odyssey (ODY) and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).  On Sol 1290, the ODY pass relayed data that showed the rover status was healthy.  However, the MRO pass was not received due to an issue with the Deep Space Network (DSN), and that was the pass that contained data about how the drive went.  So today turned into an untargeted remote sensing day, while we wait for updated information.  It was a good opportunity to catch up on some ChemCam calibration activities, deck monitoring, and environmental observations.  The MRO data will be retransmitted, and hopefully we’ll be back on the road tomorrow!

Sol 1292 update by Lauren Edgar: Gnarly terrain ahead (24 March 2016)

Data was recovered from the missing MRO pass on Sol 1290, and we confirmed that the 23 m drive went well.  Today’s plan is to keep driving across the Naukluft Plateau.  The terrain looks pretty rough, so we’re plotting our course carefully.  Science activities in today’s plan include ChemCam and Mastcam observations to assess the local bedrock, and a Mastcam mosaic to document the sedimentary structures exposed here.  The plan also includes some Mastcam observations to assess atmospheric opacity.  After the drive, we’ll take our standard post-drive imaging to prepare for future targeting and the possibility of contact science in the weekend plan. 

Sols 1296-1297 update by Ken Herkenhoff: Driving Across Rough Terrain (28 March 2016)

MSL drove about 17 meters on Sol 1294, continuing over rough terrain.  Some of the images that have been recently received show delicate features that have apparently been formed by windblown sand abrasion.  The path ahead is over more rough terrain, but it looks like we will be able to drive ~50 meters on Sol 1296.  Before driving, ChemCam and Mastcam will observe bedrock targets "Bloedkoppie," "Blaubeker" and "Blaubock," and Mastcam will acquire mosaics of ridges and outcrops of the Stimson sandstone.  Planning is restricted, so we are planning untargeted remote sensing observations on Sol 1297:  The RMI will acquire a mosaic of a distant target toward the northwest, Mastcam will measure the amount of dust in the atmosphere by imaging the Sun, and Navcam will search for dust devils.  Finally, early on Sol 1298, the Left Mastcam will acquire another mosaic of the Stimson sandstone on the Naukluft Plateau.

Sols 1298-1299 update by Ken Herkenhoff: Drive cut short (30 March 2016)

The Sol 1296 drive was halted after only 4 meters of progress because the suspension on the left side of the rover was more tilted than expected.  Suspension checks are routinely included in drive sequences, to keep the vehicle safe, and MSL is indeed safe.  So the Sol 1298 plan includes a drive to the same location as previously planned.  We were also able to squeeze in some pre-drive remote science:  ChemCam and Mastcam will observe rock targets named "Blaubock 2" and "Chapeu Armado."  Sol 1299 observations are untargeted because they will occur after the drive, and include Mastcam, ChemCam, and Navcam measurements of the sun and sky.

I was MAHLI/MARDI uplink lead again today, with only the usual MARDI twilight image to plan.  But if the rover ends up in a good location for contact science, we'll be able to plan MAHLI close-up images this weekend.

Sols 1300-1302 update by Ryan Anderson: Approaching the Edge of the Plateau (1 April 2016)

Everything went well in Wednesday’s plan, and we are near the edge of the Naukluft plateau, driving across “Stimson” bedrock. The weekend plan begins on Sol 1300 with three ChemCam observations of the bedrock target “Bero” and fracture targets “Iona”, “and “Arco” along with Mastcam documentation. This is followed up by some MAHLI and Mastcam images of Bero before and after brushing off the dust. MAHLI also has some images of Gudaus and APXS will measure the composition of Gudaus and Bero.

In the early morning on Sol 1301, Mastcam has 4 mosaics of various portions of the Stimson unit. These include areas with fractures and nodules, as well as some interesting layers in a nearby outcrop. After that, the plan is to drive about 50 meters and collect our standard post-drive images.

On Sol 1302, Navcam and Mastcam have a bunch of atmospheric observations, and ChemCam has a long-distance observation of Peace Vallis, the large valley carved into the northern rim of the crater. Mastcam will then round out the day with a large 360 degree panorama from our end-of-drive location.

Next week we are having a team meeting out in Pasadena, so there will probably be a hiatus in our blogging.

Sols 1303-1304 update by Ken Herkenhoff: Driving Again (4 April 2016)

The Sol 1301 drive halted after only 4.5 meters of progress, apparently due to a short in the RTG that caused a steering actuator fault.  This type of fault has occurred before, so we are planning a drive toward the northwest on Sol 1303.  Before the drive, lots of remote sensing science is planned, starting with a Right Mastcam mosaic of an outcrop toward the southwest dubbed "Rasthof."  Then ChemCam and Mastcam will observe bedrock targets "Tsondab," "Omingonde," and "Marble Koppie," and Mastcam will observe the Sun and the distant crater rim to measure the amount of dust in the atmosphere.  After the drive and the usual post-drive observations, on Sol 1304 ChemCam will shoot its laser at its titanium calibration target and Navcam will search for clouds again.

Sols 1305-1306 update by Ken Herkenhoff: Deja vu (6 April 2016)

Once again, the Sol 1303 drive stopped during wheel steering, apparently due to another short in the RTG.  While the power and mobility engineers investigate the fault and ways to respond to them, another drive will be attempted on Sol 1305.  The remote science observations made on Sol 1303 went well, so only one ChemCam/Mastcam observation is planned before the Sol 1305 drive, of a rock with interesting surface texture dubbed "Katwitwi."  Early on Sol 1306, Navcam, Mastcam and ChemCam will look for clouds and dust devils, and measure the amount of dust and various gasses in the atmosphere.  Later that sol, Mastcam will observe the Sun again and Navcam will acquire a panorama of the rover deck to look for changes in the distribution of dust and debris.  Overnight, CheMin will analyze and empty sample cell to improve instrument calibration.

Sols 1307-1308 update by Ken Herkenhoff: Deja vu all over again (8 April 2016)

On Sol 1305, the rover straightened its wheels in preparation for a drive, but then the fault that prevented driving earlier this week occurred again, and the vehicle did not move.  The engineers are preparing to send parameter changes that will eliminate mobility actuator sensitivity to the transient power spikes.

Fortunately, there are some rocks in front of the rover that are suitable for contact science, so the arm will be deployed on Sol 1307.  But first, ChemCam and Mastcam will examine a bedrock target named "Divundu" and rock target "Kapako," and Mastcam will acquire a full multispectral set of images of a distant bright ridge called "Ruacana."  Later that sol, MAHLI will take a couple images of Divundu before the DRT brushes dust off of the target.  MAHLI will then acquire a full suite of images of the brushed spot and smaller sets of images of a rock named "Gaio" and a bedrock target called "Lucira."  The APXS will be placed on Gaio for a couple of evening integrations, then on Divundu for a long overnight integration.

Early on the morning of Sol 1308, the Right Mastcam will acquire a mosaic of the north side of Aeolis Mons ("Mt. Sharp").  Later that morning, Navcam will search for clouds and dust devils, and Mastcam will image the crater rim to determine how much dust is in the air within Gale crater.  In the afternoon, the arm will be stowed before Mastcam acquires a multispectral observation of the Divundu brush spot before the rover attempts to drive again.  After taking the usual post-drive images, the rover will go to sleep and recharge its batteries in preparation for Monday's activities.  Only 2 sols are being planned today, to get the tactical schedule back in sync with "Mars time."

Sol 1309 update by Ryan Anderson: Can't Catch a Break (11 April 2016)

We just can’t catch a break lately! Curiosity is healthy but unfortunately the plan for the weekend was not transmitted to Mars due to a Deep Space Network outage. That means that the contact science that was planned for the weekend is lost, but the team decided that it was not important enough for us to delay driving. Today’s plan attempts to at least recover the remote sensing observations before we move on.

The Sol 1309 plan starts off with a continuation of the previous mosaic of the target “Rasthof” plus a multispectral observation of the target “Ruacana”. ChemCam then has a long distance RMI mosaic of some mesas to the west of the Peace Vallis fan, followed by an analysis of some dark cap rock at the target “Kapako”. Mastcam will document Kapako and finish up with a small mosaic of some interesting textures in a nearby part of the outcrop. After that, we have a short drive followed by standard post-drive imaging. In the afternoon, Mastcam and Navcam have several atmospheric observations and MARDI has an image of the terrain beneath the rover. Finally, in the early morning of Sol 1310 Mastcam has a mosaic of Mt. Sharp.

Sol 1310 update by Ryan Anderson: Good morning Mars! (12 April 2016)

Well, that was an early morning! I was on duty as the KOP today and we started at 6:30 am, so I was up and looking at new pictures of Mars before sunrise. Normally I would not be happy about getting up so early, but I reminded myself this morning that getting to help run a nuclear-powered laser-wielding robot on Mars is worth losing a little bit of sleep every once in a while!

Our drive finally went according to plan, bringing us a bit closer to the edge of the Naukluft plateau. We plan to continue driving today and tomorrow, aiming to get within reach of some interesting large fractures that we can see in the orbital data to do contact science over the weekend. There are also some tantalizing outcrops coming up that should give us nice views of the stratigraphy of the Stimson unit, but they are not quite visible yet.

We are only expecting to get a small amount of data downlinked before tomorrow, so we kept today’s plan for Sol 1310 nice and simple. In the morning, we have a ChemCam observation and Mastcam documentation of a nearby alteration halo around a fracture, followed by a small Mastcam mosaic of a similar bright halo and fracture at a location we are calling “Oswater”. After that, Curiosity will drive for about 20 meters and we will collect our standard post drive imaging.

See other posts from April 2016


Read more blog entries about: pretty pictures, amateur image processing, mission status, Mars, Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory), 3D


dougforworldsexplr: 04/13/2016 06:31 CDT

Hi Emily, thanks for the good update of Curiosity's recent investigations on Mars. I was particularly interested that it took a reading of Mars' atmosphere on February 11 or Sols 1251-52 with the SAM instrument. As I'm sure you are very well aware it was this instrument that before found the above average methane level in Mars' atmosphere for about two months I think in 2014. Have the results come back yet from the February 11th SAM measurement of Mars' atmosphere or of some other recent measurements when Curiosity was near Pahrump Hills and I think you mentioned it took one or two readings of Mars' atmosphere I think including to detect methane levels. What were the methane levels recorded by SAM in these recent measurements and were any of them much above the approximately .7 parts per billion methane levels determined before? How often in the near future do the Curiosity team plan to take further SAM measurements of Mars' atmosphere and how long does it usually take to get results back of methane or other component levels after the measurement is taken, in the case of the I think most recent one measured on February 11th. I followed the lead up to Curiosity and have a book written just before it landed and a key feature of Curiosity that was then mentioned was its ability to detect methane in Mars' atmosphere and organics in rocks or soil but I don't hear hardly any attention to these matters now. Do you know why not? I think even a mere .7 parts per billion atmospheric level of methane measurement would be significant to bring things more up to date but of course more elevated levels would be much more significant especially if they could be high enough concentrations to determine the carbon ratios of the methane and whether it is biotic or abiotic which I think is the largest remaining discovery Curiosity could make on Mars. Anyway would be glad to hear more about this matter from you.

Emily Lakdawalla: 04/14/2016 10:20 CDT

Doug, Every time I write about Curiosity you ask me about atmospheric methane. If the Curiosity mission has some science results that they were ready to discuss about methane, they will publish them and likely do a press release about them. I last wrote about methane measurements in , when the SAM team published a Science paper about them. If you read that article you can see how challenging it is for scientists to detect it in Curiosity measurements; the results are not instant. I am sure there is another paper in the works that will be published eventually. I suspect they will not publish another paper until they have collected at least another full Mars year of data, if not more, so you'll need to be patient. Since this topic is something you are very interested in, perhaps you should occasionally search for papers about methane where SAM principal investigator Paul Mahaffy is an author:

Bob Ware: 04/16/2016 08:12 CDT

Hi Doug ... "long time no hear..." Hope you are doing well. Regarding this methane interest, I'm afraid to say that follow on timing is by observational data leaning away from the life caused methane sensing. Please go to and read their article at link: Sorry my friend. It is really disappointing.

dougforworldsexplr: 04/17/2016 09:49 CDT

Hi Bob; It is good to hear from you and I wish we still had something like the discussion forum that we and some other people participated in quite a lot where we could initiate aspects of topics. Do you still miss that? Anyway thanks for the link which I looked up although I saw it at the time as I regularly check I agree it would be a setback for getting more support for methane being from life on Mars if it is not shown to reoccur on a seasonal basis as seemed to be the case without observation of it the same seasonal time this most recent Martian year as when the elevated methane was observed last year. My question is then do you think the elevated methane is from that deliquesce. underground geological activity melting water or something else. Also what to you think the European ExoMars 2016 and 2018 will find regarding methane and what do you think their findings about methane will indicate about the source of the Mars methane? Anyway good to hear from you too my friend although I have been posting things in response to the blogs all along but dougforworldsexplr.

Tim: 04/17/2016 04:02 CDT

I don't think we should put too much emphasis on the presence or absence of methane in Mars' atmosphere not least because it is perhaps more likely to be of geological/cometary origin. For example, the work done 50 years ago at the magnificently situated Pic du Midi de Bigorre observatory in France indicated that Mars' atmosphere is in chemical equilibrium i.e. no life processes are affecting or interacting with the atmosphere. Nothing I am aware of since then has contradicted that research. There is also a debate going on about whether Mars had a warm, wet start or a cold wet start (and the length of the wet period) and the jury is still out on that one. That also could affect how favourable the conditions were, or were not, for the development of life.

Torbjörn Larsson: 04/21/2016 04:04 CDT

[Handwaving alert/] The presence or absence of methane may well have nothing to do with life living in crustal refugia. The water exchange times may well be hundreds of thousands of year (IIRC, but I can't find the data as i write this), and while it may make for slow growth and reproduction it may not suffice to have a large impact on atmosphere equilibrium.

enrique: 04/21/2016 11:42 CDT

Emily, I was surprised that you admitted to have "run out of patience" in plotting points in 3D! I thought scientists were all about patience. Thanks for that insight. ;)

Tim: 04/21/2016 01:31 CDT

There are certainly no obvious signs of life on Mars and we know that from the pictures and experiments from orbit and on the surface. If life is present at all (and that is a very big if) then it is very safe to say that it is not abundant or widespread. I think the very best that could be expected is some form of microbial life existing in some specialised niche habitat which means that if it is present like that then it will probably take the presence of humans on Mars in order to find it. I'm not too hung up on the life/no life aspect because Mars is such an interesting place anyway because of the recognisably similar geological phenomena and erosion processes.

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