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Emily LakdawallaFebruary 21, 2018

Curiosity update, sols 1927-1971: Ready to resume drilling

The last time Curiosity successfully drilled a rock was at Sebina, on sol 1495. It's been very nearly 500 sols since then -- more than an Earth year, 25% of the whole length of the mission. This week, the drill may finally be back in operation, but working differently than it was before.

Before I continue, I just want to celebrate the fact that Curiosity finally took a new self-portrait a few weeks ago, the first one since sol 1463. This was very important to me because I wanted it as the last figure in my book! (Have I mentioned lately that I wrote a book about Curiosity? The release date is now looking like March 30.) If you need an explainer on how Curiosity takes these self-portraits, I have you covered.

Curiosity self-portrait atop Vera Rubin Ridge, sol 1943

NASA / JPL / MSSS

Curiosity self-portrait atop Vera Rubin Ridge, sol 1943
Curiosity took this photo on January 23, 2018 from the southern side of the Vera Rubin Ridge, a topographic feature visible from orbit that separates the Bagnold Dunes from the taller part of Mount Sharp. From this vantage point, all the terrain that Curiosity has traversed is visible. It's also possible to see down into the valley beyond the ridge. Mount Sharp rises behind the rover's mast.

The rover hasn't moved very far since my last update. The team is taking its time to investigate "blue" patches of rock, which have unique properties. ("Blue" is in scare quotes because the actual color is gray, it just looks blue in the contrast-enhanced color HiRISE images that the team uses to plan their traverses.) They also have to wrap up investigative work on the sample that had been held in CHIMRA (a scoop of sand from the Ogunquit Beach site), and prepare the SAM laboratory analysis instrument to accept a new sample. SAM is power-hungry, and the rover has less available power than it used to; most activities involving SAM leave the rover with little power to do much else for the rest of the day.

I covered the mission's plans to return the drill to function last September. In very brief summary: with the drill feed (the motor that moves the drill bit into a rock) no longer working, the engineers now plan to drill with the drill feed extended, using arm motion to press the drill bit into the rock. They call this Feed-Extended Drilling (FED). If successful, such a drill operation will get powdered rock material inside the drill sleeve and drill sample chamber. But there's no way to move the sample from the drill into CHIMRA (the sample sieving and portioning device) without a working drill feed. Instead, they'll rotate the drill bit backwards while tapping it to move some drilled powder down the drill auger to drop portions into the SAM and CheMin instruments. They call that Feed-Extended Sample Transfer (FEST).

The mission has now dumped the remains of the Ogunquit Beach sample and is ready to test FED/FEST on Mars. According to project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, here are the steps we should see in the near future:

Curiosity's first Vera Rubin Ridge drill site workspace, sol 1969

NASA / JPL / MSSS / Paul Hammond / Phil Stooke

Curiosity's first Vera Rubin Ridge drill site workspace, sol 1969
This is the area in front of the rover where Curiosity will make its first attempt at drilling in more than 500 sols. The two dump sites are where Curiosity dropped the remaining Ogunquit Beach sample from its sample handling mechanism on sol 1969. The two circled areas show where Curiosity brushed with its dust removal tool (DRT). The drill attempt is likely to be on the same rock that Curiosity brushed. One spot in the lower right corner of this image that was blocked by part of the arm has been filled in with a colorized Navcam image taken while the arm was in use.

The process at one drill site could, in theory, be completed in as little as two weeks. When doing FED/FEST, It's important to work with drilled sample as fast as possible, because the rover cannot drive or use MAHLI or APXS as long as sample remains in the drill stem and sample chamber.

If FED/FEST works, we could see as many as four drill sites on the top of Vera Rubin Ridge, Ashwin told me. They want to get the drill into "blue" material first, and then into the relatively red stuff nearby. Both of those rock types are in the upper part of the ridge. Then they want to drive to another spot, probably to the northeast, where they can drill into rock that forms the lower-elevation parts of the ridge. Finally, if things are going well, they could do a fourth drill spot in a location in the Murray formation right below the ridge materials. That might be too much to hope for, though, and obviously plans could change depending on their experience at the first attempted drill site.

The drill holes may look different from the old ones, from Sebina and before. The drill will likely not penetrate as far into the rock -- Ashwin told me that in Earth testing, feed-extended drilling usually only got to about 20 to 40 millimeters depth, as opposed to 65 millimeters for the original-style drill operations. That's enough to get the drill sleeve in contact with rock and powder moving up the drill auger. But there'll be less tailings around the drill hole. The reason for the shallower depth is not because of feed-extended drilling. It's because they will be doing rotary-only drilling instead of both rotary and percussion drilling. The team had developed rotary-only drilling for use on Mars because of intermittent electrical shorts in the percussion mechanism and was deploying it for the first time at Precipice when the drill feed anomaly happened. They could still use percussion if needed, but are holding the capability in reserve for harder rocks.

Everybody's ready to drill now, including me. Let's go, Curiosity, start tasting Mars rocks again!

Following are the NASA mission blog updates covering this period, reposted from the Mission Updates website.

Sols 1927-1928 update by Michelle Minitti: Layers of fun! (5 Jan 2018)

Today's image is a color version of part of the workspace image from the Sol 1925-1926 blog, which shows in greater detail the numerous layers and color variations that kept us at this spot for another round of science observations. Exploring more of the steps in our staircase-like workspace was the name of the game today. The MAHLI mosaics acquired on Sol 1925 from the targets "Jura" and "Crinan," near the bottom of the workspace, were intriguing enough to lead ChemCam to analyze both of them with rasters that crossed over multiple layers exposed in these targets. Also near the bottom of the workspace, the target "Craighead," a gray rock cut by criss-crossing sulfate veins, will first be brushed by the Dust Removal Tool (DRT), and then imaged by MAHLI and analyzed by APXS. In between the targets Crinan and "Assynt" (another Sol 1925 target), ChemCam will shoot the target "Brodick" to add to our chemical survey of the outcrop. MAHLI will follow up on a ChemCam target from Sol 1925, "Barra," taking advantage of the dust-removing capability of ChemCam's laser to get a closer, cleaner look at this target near the top of the workspace. 

We took a few brief breaks from the rocks in front of us to image and analyze other objects of interest. ChemCam will shoot the sand target "Boreray" to compare its chemistry to those of sands Curiosity has encountered throughout the mission. ChemCam and Mastcam will both image the Peace Vallis fan, far north of us on the Gale crater rim, as our vantage point on top of the "Vera Rubin Ridge" gives us a clear view of it. MAHLI will image the REMS UV sensor to monitor dust accumulation on the zenith-pointing sensor. REMS itself along with RAD will make regular measurements of the environment, and DAN will ping the ground below the rover both before and after we drive to seek signs of subsurface hydrogen. Early morning Navcam and Mastcam observations of clouds and the amount of dust in the atmosphere will complement a similar suite of observations made mid-day on Sol 1925.

On the second sol of the plan, we will drive away to a new patch of bedrock that, at least from orbit, shares characteristics with the bedrock we have spent the past few sols investigating. By comparing what we find there to our recent measurements, we can continue to put together a story for how the Vera Rubin Ridge came to be.

Sol 1929-30 update by Scott Guzewich: Aiming for pay dirt (8 Jan 2018)

For the last several weeks, Curiosity has been hopping between areas of blue-ish toned rocks on the Vera Rubin Ridge and the results from these locations continue to become more compelling. Our next blue-toned destination has informally been called "Stop E" (the light-colored bedrock material in the depression near the top of the image) and today we had made a unanimous decision to get there as quickly as possible on the second sol of our plan, Sol 1930.

That's not to say we will be ignoring the current location en route! We planned contact science for Sol 1929 with APXS and MAHLI on a bedrock target termed "Banff" as well as an associated ChemCam LIBS raster and Mastcam images. We also targeted ChemCam and Mastcam on targets "Bass Rock" and "Barraclough". In addition to the drive on Sol 1930, ENV also planned three Mastcam tau observations during the day to help study how the amount of dust and clouds in the sky vary throughout the day.

Sol 1931-1933 update by Mark Salvatore: Image Overload! (11 Jan 2018)

Curiosity has made it to "Region e" of the Vera Rubin Ridge (VRR) campaign. This location is a slight depression with exposed fractured bedrock that appears more "blue" from orbit than the surrounding region. In addition, the orbital evidence and observations from the ground suggest that this location is similar to "Region 10" that we visited just last week, which was shown to have some pretty spectacular small-scale features that were of particular interest to many on the science team. As a result, the team was very excited to reach "Region e" and begin our scientific investigation!

During the first day of this plan, Curiosity will focus on acquiring an incredible amount of high-resolution Mast Camera (Mastcam) color images of the area immediately in front of the rover, the "mid-range" region a few meters in front of the rover, and the entirety of Mt. Sharp. This is an anomalous amount of data to collect at a given time, but we are able to do so thanks to the help of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) spacecraft, which will be helping us to downlink those images over the course of the next week. With the exception of the Mt. Sharp images, the other data are to characterize any small-scale geologic features present within "Region e," and the plan is to have these images back to Earth before Friday's planning session.

In the afternoon of the first day, we will unfurl Curiosity's arm to characterize an unfractured piece of bedrock in front of the rover named "Unst." We will use the Dust Removal Tool (DRT) to remove any surface dust, image the patch of bedrock with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) instrument, and then place the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) instrument on the target for an overnight integration to derive its bulk chemistry.

On the second day of the plan, Curiosity will utilize its Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) to remotely acquire chemistry data on two targets of interest. The first will be "Canna," a knobby piece of bedrock, and the second will be "Aberfoyle," the flattest portion of this blocky region in front of the rover. Aberfoyle will also be the target of an APXS measurement that evening. Mastcam will be used to document these targets, in addition to the automated ChemCam observation that was obtained two days earlier. The "Aberfoyle" ChemCam observation is beneficial for two reasons. First, we will be acquiring additional chemical measurements of this target that will be analyzed with APXS. Second, the laser blasts of ChemCam will help to remove any surface dust on the target, which will allow APXS to more confidently measure the bedrock composition with minimal input from the fine-grained dust. After this suite of measurements, the arm will then be moved into position to image the "Canna" target, the "Aberfoyle" target, and also a nearby layerred rock named "Funzie." After these images are acquired, the APXS instrument will be placed on "Aberfoyle" for an overnight integration.

On the final day of the plan, ChemCam will analyze the chemistry of the "Unst" target (which was analyzed by APXS on the first evening of the plan), the "Funzie" target (to determine if there are any compositional variations associated with the observed layers), and a new target named "Morar," which is a piece of bedrock that shows some unique patterns that might be due to fracturing, the presence of veins, and/or sculpting by the wind. After the ChemCam observations, we will acquire Mastcam documentation images, and then make some environmental observations with Mastcam and Navcam to hunt for dust devils and to assess the amount of dust in the air.

Sols 1934-1936 update by Christopher Edwards: Science at Location "e" of the Vera Rubin Ridge Campaign (15 Jan 2018)

What's in a name? From its rather innocuous sounding informal site name, you might not guess that location "e" would generate such excitement in the science team. The first thing the science team on shift did was decide to stay at the current location rather than drive away. This was primarily driven by the large suite of excellent science targets available in the workspace. These targets continue to help constrain the geologic story of the Vera Rubin Ridge.

Two arm targets for APXS integrations were quickly chosen by the science team and handed off to the Rover Planners for assessment ("Ross of Mull" and "Mcleans Nose"). "Ross of Mull" is a grayer bedrock area with nodular material nearby, while "Mcleans Nose" is a prominent gray toned resistant feature. ChemCam data was acquired of a suite of targets, including those that had the elongate, raised, linear features known by the team as "sticks", as well as the two APXS targets. Documentation imaging of these targets, including multispectral imaging to characterize the visible/near-infrared spectral properties of the site, will happen over the course of the plan. MAHLI imaging of the workspace will continue and is likely to produce stunning images such as this captured of the "Canna" target region from the previous sol's plan. Mars continues to provide Curiosity with some fabulous rocks for investigation!

Sol 1937 update by Rachel E. Kronyak: Taking a closer look… (16 Jan 2018)

Today we're continuing our science activities at the Vera Rubin Ridge (VRR) location "e." It certainly seems that "e" should stand for "exciting," as we've collected quite a rich set of observations at this location, including extensive imaging and geochemical analyses. 

In today's plan, we're focusing our attention on small-scale features in the rocks in front of the rover to try and understand how they formed. We have a nice long science block in the early afternoon, during which we'll use ChemCam to assess the targets "Macleans Nose 2," "Funzie 2," and "Ullapool." The targets with "2" in their name are intended to be repeat observations of targets that we analyzed over the weekend to gather additional information. We'll then take a small Mastcam mosaic to document some of the VRR terrain further away from the rover.

Following the science block, we'll deploy the arm to take a closer look at some interesting rock features. The first is "Rona," a beautiful large white vein, seen in the image above. We'll use the MAHLI camera to take a series of high-resolution images of the vein to look at its interior, along with an APXS observation to see what the vein is made out of. Finally, we'll take additional MAHLI images of the target "Loch Maree," a patch of dark gray material.

Sols 1938-1939 update by Lauren Edgar: It's all about the details (18 Jan 2018)

Today's two-sol plan will wrap up activities at Vera Rubin Ridge location "e." When we assessed the downlink data this morning, we were excited to see that ChemCam did a great job with some very precise pointing in the previous plan. At location "e" we have been focused on understanding small-scale features, like the tiny crystals and veins seen in the above ChemCam RMI image. Today's plan will complete the detailed work on this outcrop, and then we'll bump to a new location to assess a transition from gray to red bedrock.

I was the SOWG Chair today, and we had a fairly straightforward planning day. On the first sol, Curiosity will acquire 4 more carefully pointed ChemCam observations to assess compositional variations in bedrock, a vein, and dark nodules, along with supporting Mastcam documentation. Then we'll acquire MAHLI images of the target "Funzie," and one more MAHLI image on "Rona" to assess small textural differences in the bedrock and veins that are present here. Just for "Funzie," we'll do an overnight APXS analysis. On the second sol, we'll acquire a Mastcam multispectral mosaic of the area that we're bumping towards in order to better understand the color differences and the transition from gray to red bedrock in this area. Then Curiosity will drive ~5 m to the south to set up for contact science in the weekend plan. The plan also includes a number of environmental monitoring observations to look for clouds and variations in dust in the atmosphere. One of the Mastcam atmospheric observations is coordinated with a THEMIS observation, which is pretty cool to think about multiple spacecraft studying Mars from the ground and orbit.

Sols 1940-1942 update by Ken Herkenhoff: Studying a bedrock transition (19 Jan 2018)

The Sol 1939 drive went well, placing MSL next to the bright/dark transition seen at the right side of this image. In order to better understand the textural and chemical changes across this transition, the tactical team planned ChemCam and Right Mastcam observations of targets "Mallaig" and "Criffel" on either side of it. Mastcam will also acquire multispectral mosaics of the transition and of the material toward the south that shows evidence for clays in orbital data, smaller mosaics of nearby bedrock target "Fetlar" and the more distant "Hallival" target, and images of the Sun and the crater rim to measure the amount of dust in the atmosphere. But that's just the beginning! Later on Sol 1940 the arm will be deployed to acquire full suites of MAHLI images of "Knoydart," a block on the darker side of the transition, and of Mallaig. The APXS will be placed on Mallaig for a short integration, then on Knoydart for a longer, overnight integration. 

The Sol 1941 plan is dominated by a SAM instrument cleaning/maintenance activity, which requires significant power. Early in planning we expected that power would constrain the number of activities that we could plan, but in the end all of the requested scientific observations made it into the plan. This made for a very satisfying day for me as SOWG Chair.

On Sol 1942, the vehicle will drive toward the southeast and acquire the usual post-drive imaging needed for Monday planning. Then Navcam will search for dust devils and clouds and MARDI will snap another image of the ground near the left front wheel during evening twilight. Finally, early on Sol 1943, Navcam will again search for clouds and Mastcam will measure dust opacity in the atmosphere. It's looking like another busy weekend for the MSL rover!

Government Shutdown (22 Jan 2018)

We're sorry, but we will not be posting updates to this blog during the government shutdown. Also, all public NASA activities and events are cancelled or postponed until further notice. We'll be back as soon as possible! Sorry for the inconvenience.

Sol 1943 update by Roger Wiens: From the South Rim of Vera Rubin Ridge (23 Jan 2018)

Having spent 1943 sols on the surface of Mars, Curiosity is in its 6th Earth year on Mars, but it is in its 3rd Mars year of exploration. That means Curiosity has encountered this season of the year twice before. Today happens to be calendar Sol 255 of Mars year 34. We're just a little past the deepest part of winter in the southern hemisphere, where Curiosity roams. On this day in history in Mars year 32 (which happened to be 19-April-2014 on Earth), Curiosity was just arriving at the Kimberley site, where she found manganese-oxide fracture fills and sanidine-rich sediments. And on this day one Mars year ago (6-March-2016), Curiosity was climbing onto the Naukluft Plateau, starting to round the corner after its first encounter with the Bagnold Dunes, and prior to encountering the Murray Buttes. What a journey it has been for this intrepid rover!

Over the weekend Curiosity completed a drive that took her to the very southern edge of Vera Rubin Ridge (VRR), so we have downhill slopes directly in front of and around the side of the rover, though we plan to continue exploring the ridge for a while. The rover team is using the images gleaned over the weekend (like the one shown here) to look for potential geological relationships between VRR and the clay unit that lies south of it.

In today's plan the rover will take its first selfie since Sol 1466 (at the Quela drill site, September, 2016, with the Murray Buttes in the scene; see accompanying link), and will also take a close-up of the RWEB window that ChemCam looks out of, as a check for dust. (So far the window has been very clean throughout the mission; this is just another routine check.) ChemCam will do a 5x1 raster on "Foyers" and a 10x1 raster on "Eaval," and Mastcam will image these targets too. APXS will take advantage of the dust removed from "Eaval" by ChemCam's laser, and will do an overnight observation on that target, which will also be imaged by MAHLI. We will get DAN passive data and also RAD and REMS data.

On the next sol, Mastcam will take a 12x2 mosaic of "Glen Tilt." ChemCam will take passive spectra of several calibration targets on the rover. After that, the rover will spend 13 minutes driving about 25 meters nearly straight south, taking a short dip off the ridge. The rover will finish by taking images from its new position and sending the data home.

Sol 1945-46 update by Scott Guzewich: Heading back to the main road (24 Jan 2018)

Curiosity diverted from our primary "Mount Sharp Ascent Route" a couple weeks ago as we continued to investigate the outcrops of bluish-toned rock that are scattered around this region of the Vera Rubin Ridge. Our most recent drive put us near the edge of the Vera Rubin Ridge, overlooking the "clay unit" (the upper portion of this image) that Curiosity will eventually reach, but not yet! We still have work to do in the hematite-rich Vera Rubin Ridge and so we must return to our original path eastward along the ridge and will begin that with a drive on the second sol of today's plan. 

But before we depart, Curiosity will finish investigating the science goal of this location: studying a transition in rock tones between more gray-blue tones and those familiar martian orange-reds. This involves contact science on one of the redder-toned rocks, "Loch Gairloch", with APXS and MAHLI and then a series of ChemCam LIBS rasters on a suite of both bluish and reddish rocks in the rover's workspace ("Callander", "Moidart", and "Kirkcolm") and some Mastcam images of those nearby targets as well as some more distant features ("Eriskay", "Glen Tilt", and "Broadford") along our future drive path.

Sol 1947-1949 update by Ryan Anderson: I love it when a plan comes together (29 Jan 2018)

Going in to planning today, there was a concern that we would run up against constraints on power and complexity that might force us to eliminate some of the science we wanted to do. Thankfully, that did not end up being the case and nothing had to be removed! I was especially happy about this because this morning I noticed that the single full-resolution Navcam frame of Mt. Sharp that we received (shown above) included a location that I wanted to image with ChemCam's RMI. So even though I was on ChemCam downlink, I also managed to work with the uplink team to get a RMI observation into the plan.

The weekend plan begins on Sol 1947 with a Mastcam observation of the target "Montrose", the first of a pair of images intended to watch for any changes in the soil at this location. After that, ChemCam will do a calibration observation and two analyses of targets "Thurso" and "Loch Tay," followed by Mastcam documentation of those targets. In the afternoon of Sol 1947, MAHLI will take pictures of Thurso and Loch Tay. APXS will do a short measurement of Thurso, and then an overnight measurement of Loch Tay.

On Sol 1948, ChemCam will do the long-distance imaging observation that I requested, followed by a measurement of "Loch Scridain". Mastcam will document the ChemCam target, and then has several mosaics of the target "Harris Bay". In the late afternoon on Sol 1948, ChemCam and Mastcam will do some "flat field" observations of the sky. Flat fields are used to check for, and potentially correct for, things like dust on the optics of a camera.

On Sol 1949, Mastcam and Navcam have some atmospheric observations to measure the amount of dust in the atmosphere, and Mastcam will follow up with a second observation of "Montrose" to look for changes. Then Curiosity will do a short drive, and collect post-drive imaging so we can plan next week.

The MSL science team will be meeting in California next week, but while we talk about all the data we already have, we will do our best to keep Curiosity busy collecting more!

Sol 1950-1951 update by Abigail Fraeman: North by northeast (29 Jan 2018)

We are back on Vera Rubin Ridge today after a short diversion into the phyllosilicate unit. Our workspace this morning contained rocks in various shades of red. The remote sensing and contact science observations we planned today are designed to investigate the chemistry, spectral properties, and fine scale textures associated with these color changes.

We chose one contact science target, "Balmedie," that we will brush and observe with MAHLI and APXS. This rock was one of the only rocks in the workspace that was big enough to safely brush, and the observations we take will provide information about the properties of the bedrock in the area. We will also take a Mastcam multispectral observation of Balmedie and its surroundings. After the contact science block, we will collect ChemCam observations of bedrock targets that have different colors, "Killiecrankie" and "Bennachie," and an RMI mosaic of a distant target on Mt. Sharp named "Muchalls." Mastcam will document the two ChemCam laser targets, and we will also take a 7x2 stereo mosaic of a distant target "Harris Bay," which is a potential geologic contact. The first sol of the plan will end with a drive to the northeast. We will take a ChemCam automatically targeted AEGIS observation on the second sol of the plan, and some ChemCam calibration targets and a dust devil search.

In addition to the ongoing operations, this week is a particularly exciting because all of the Curiosity science team members are traveling to Pasadena for our bi-annual meeting. We will converse about the latest data and share our interpretations with one another. Team members are located all across the world, so it's wonderful to be able to meet face to face to discuss all of our recent results!

Sols 1952-1953 update by Ken Herkenhoff: Another "touch and go" (1 Feb 2018)

Along with many of my MSL colleagues, I'm attending our semi-annual science team meeting, enjoying the presentations and discussion of recent results and plans for the future. Meanwhile, today's tactical operations team is planning another "touch and go" for Sols 1952 and 1953. The "touch" includes a short APXS integration and a MAHLI full suite on a rock named "Skara Brae," and a single MAHLI image of a grey cobble dubbed "Drummuck." Then ChemCam and Right Mastcam will observe a patch of reddish bedrock called "Harra Ebb" and the ChemCam RMI will acquire a mosaic of a distant target named "Bloodstone Hill." Right Mastcam will also observe the Sol 1951 AEGIS targets and acquire a small mosaic of "Dulce Vallis," near the rim of Gale Crater. The "go" (drive) will be followed by the usual post-drive imaging and DAN active measurement. 

Late in the morning of Sol 1953, AEGIS will autonomously select two more ChemCam targets, Mastcam will measure the amount of dust in the atmosphere, and Navcam will search for dust devils. Late that afternoon, Navcam will watch for clouds overhead and measure variations in sky brightness at various azimuths. Finally, ChemCam will acquire calibration data before the rover sleeps in preparation for the next plan. 

Today is my father's 88th birthday and the 60th anniversary of the launch of the first US satellite, Explorer 1. This reminds me how fortunate his generation is to have witnessed the historic first steps into space and the many spectacular missions of exploration that followed. When he was a child, very little was known about Mars, and many believed that it had canals built by civilized Martians. Missions to Mars have shown no signs of civilization, but the search for evidence of past and present life on Mars continues. We are all lucky to live in such exciting times!

Sol 1954-1956 update by Abigail Fraeman: Groundhog Day Across the Solar System (2 Feb 2018)

Every February 2nd the people of the United States and Canada observe a quirky holiday called Groundhog Day. In the US, the country turns its eyes to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to find out whether Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog, will see his shadow and predict six more weeks of winter. The holiday provides the namesake for a 1993 film in which reporter Phil Conners, brilliantly portrayed by Bill Murray, finds himself in a time loop while covering the events in Punxsutawney.

Planning Curiosity's activities on February 2nd, 2018, aka sol 1954 - 1956, felt a little bit like Groundhog Day on Mars. Unfortunately the uplink to the rover for the sol 1952 - 1953 failed, so we unexpectedly found ourselves in the same location as Wednesday. The Sol 1953 part of the plan was planned yesterday and uplinked to the rover early this morning. Never wanting to lose missed opportunities, we made a plan today that will recapture the missing Sol 1952 observations we were hoping to get in Wednesday's plan, and also adds a few new things into the mix given additional time that is available to us.

The biggest activity of the plan is setting up to do a SAM geochronology experiment next week. Because this activity will be so power intensive and requires ground in the loop between certain steps, we were not driving in tosol's plan. We will instead do additional remote sensing with our extra time.

Besides the SAM preparation activities, the main science in today's plan is focused on characterizing the broken up rocks in front of us, which are the typical targets on the top of Vera Rubin Ridge. We will do MAHLI contact science in the morning of the first sol on targets "Skara Brae," "Glen Roy," and "Drummock." We will also take an APXS observation of Glen Roy and Skara Brae. We have a remote sensing block on the second sol of the plan. In this block, we will collect ChemCam LIBS observations of Glen Roy, "Harra Ebb," and "Cocksburnpath," and an RMI mosaic of "Bloodstone Hill." All of the LIBS observations will be accompanied by Mastcam documentation images. We will take additional Mastcam images of two aegis targets from the previous plan, a documentation of our surrounding landscape with multispectral filters, an outcrop named "Scalpay," and a large 37x2 mosaic of the crater rim. The third sol of the plan is a morning science block with a Mastcam tau, a crater rim movie, a Navcam zenith movie, a Navcam suprahorizon movie, and a Navcam 360 degree sky survey.

Sol 1957-1958 update by Rachel Kronyak: Onward towards gray patch (5 Feb 2018)

Over the past several months we've made excellent progress up and along the Vera Rubin Ridge (VRR), taking stunning mosaics and using our instrument payload to examine the local geology. Today we planned for Sols 1957-1958, during which we will continue our VRR investigations and drive further along to our next area of interest. Unfortunately, SAM experienced a minor fault over the weekend, so we'll be delaying those activities - a preconditioning test for an upcoming geochronology experiment - to Wednesday's (Sol 1959) plan. 

We'll start off Sol 1957 with two ChemCam LIBS observations on the targets "South Harris" and "Drummock." We got our first taste of Drummock over the weekend with ChemCam and decided to analyze it again to better understand geochemical variations within the rocks around the rover. We'll take Mastcam images to document these ChemCam targets. We'll also take a Mastcam mosaic of "Bloodstone Hill," another target from the weekend plan that warranted further investigation - this area is featured in the black and white RMI image above. Another Mastcam observation in the plan is called a sky column, which we use to periodically monitor material around the Mastcam sunshade. Finally, we'll take a couple of Navcam movies to search for dust devils and cloud activity. 

In the afternoon of Sol 1957, we'll drive approximately 60 meters to put us in front of an area identified from orbit to contain an interesting gray patch of bedrock. Following the drive, we will take our standard post-drive images to set us up for remote and contact science on Wednesday. 

On the second sol, Sol 1958, our science activities are primarily dedicated to environmental observations. First, we'll use ChemCam to conduct a Passive Sky observation. Next, we'll use Mastcam to take a series of images that help us measure both the amount of dust and the optical depth of the atmosphere. We also have our standard REMS and DAN activities in the plan.

Sols 1959-1960 update by Michelle Minitti: Old site, new tricks (7 Feb 2018)

Recovering from the SAM fault proved more challenging than expected, so our planned drive to the patch of pale tan bedrock in the image above did not take place. We took advantage of the fact that we have been parked at this same site for several sols to acquire both new and less-common types of observations. ChemCam's RMI peppered Mt. Sharp with long distance mosaics, imaging a dramatically-layered unit pasted on the flank of Mt. Sharp above us, and various steep slopes to look for evidence of grain motion downhill. In a departure from the normal mid- or late-day imaging blocks available to MAHLI, we planned an early morning arm backbone to get dawn's early light on the target "Arnaboll." Before MAHLI images Arnaboll, ChemCam will shoot it with a raster to clear off dust and measure chemistry, and APXS will perform a long overnight integration to add to our chemistry data from this site. Mastcam will acquire a mosaic of "Soay," a small, unusual depression about 8 m ahead of the rover, and a multispectral observation of two targets previously shot by ChemCam, "Cocksburnpath" and "Harra Ebb." Both these targets have a purplish red color, and the goal is for the Mastcam spectral data to illuminate how (or if!) iron-bearing minerals contribute to those colors. 

We were able to fit in multiple sets of environmental observations across both sols, with early morning and afternoon observations of dust in the atmosphere, and movies looking for clouds and dust devils. DAN passive will probe the subsurface around us for over seven hours, as well!

Sols 1961-1962 update by Rachel E. Kronyak: Final call (9 Feb 2018)

Today we planned for a weekend of activities at the same location we've been at all week. While we're ready and eager to see some new terrain, we had no shortage of interesting science targets to fill our plan. 

On the first sol of the weekend plan (Sol 1961), we have a nice long science block that we've filled with a suite of ChemCam observations: LIBS measurements on bedrock targets "Glenfinnan" and "Skara Brae," a long-distance RMI image of the lower slopes of Mount Sharp, and a passive measurement of "Bloodstone Hill." We'll take a Mastcam image to document the LIBS targets and an additional Mastcam image for change detection. When we're at a single location for an extended period of time, we like to take repeat Mastcam images of the same target area across multiple sols. This allows us to compare the images and look for any changes or movement in the field of view. Finally, we'll take a Navcam movie to look for dust devils.

In the evening, we'll take MAHLI nighttime images of Glenfinnan and Skara Brae to take a closer look at some of the small-scale features within the rocks, with the additional benefit of some dust having been cleared by our LIBS observations during the day. The Skara Brae rock target is shown in the MAHLI image above. 

On the second sol, Sol 1962, we'll drive to our next VRR location, take some post-drive images, and set ourselves up for an exciting week of contact and remote science!

Sol 1963 update by Lauren Edgar: Getting ready for the SAM geochronology experiment (12 Feb 2018)

Over the weekend Curiosity drove ~52 m to the northeast to another patch of gray bedrock. The team is interested in characterizing the gray bedrock to determine if we might want to drill here. But before we can think about drilling again, we need to wrap up our analyses of the cached Ogunquit Beach sample. This means that we need to do some SAM preconditioning today, which is a very power-hungry activity. That also means that there's not a lot of power for other science activities, but we did manage to squeeze in a few contact science activities. I was the SOWG Chair today, and it was exciting to be back to planning nominal sols, which means we'll plan every day this week. However, it was an early slide sol, so the day kicked off dark and early at 6am.

Today's one sol plan starts with the SAM preconditioning activity, which heats up a sample cup in order to prepare for solid sample analysis. In the afternoon, we'll use the DRT to clear a fresh patch of gray bedrock to analyze with MAHLI and APXS at the target "Newmachar," followed by MAHLI imaging of the target "Yesnaby" to investigate a dark gray vein. We'll also acquire some additional workspace imaging to supplement the current coverage and to make sure that we pass our slip checks tomorrow. The plan also includes routine DAN passive and REMS activities. While it was a relatively light plan in terms of science, it's exciting to think about being able to drill again, so we're looking forward to accomplishing the SAM analyses!

Sol 1964 update by Mark Salvatore: A Personal Touch (13 Feb 2018)

Like yesterday, today's plan is a bit on the thin side, as the rover's power allotment will be primarily dedicated to activities associated with the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and its preparation for a planned power-hungry experiment in tomorrow's plan. As a result, Curiosity only has about 50 minutes to make observations and measurements of the surrounding workspace, but the team did a great job in packing it full of great observations!

We will first use Mastcam's multispectral imaging capabilities to image yesterday's brushed and analyzed target named "Newmachar," followed by a calibration image, and then two additional multispectral observations of two vein targets named "St. Kilda" and "Benbecula." Mastcam will then perform some additional stereo imaging to assess the workspace and to acquire enough data for the rover engineers to determine whether this area is safe for our first use of the drill since the Fall of 2016! Following these engineer-requested Mastcam mosaics, we will also use the ChemCam RMI high-resolution camera to investigate some interesting targets in our workspace.

It's not everyday that a science team member has a personal connection to a name selected for a target on Mars, but today is an exception. St. Kilda (a target name selected during today's plan) is the name of a small archipelago northwest of Scotland. Before the 1930s, these islands were home to only a few dozen people and, since then, it has become a World Heritage Site and a bird refuge. The islands are largely barren, rocky, and desolate.

What does St. Kilda have to do with a member of Curiosity's science team? St. Kilda is closely tied to Linda Kah, today's Mastcam PUL, a member of the Mastcam team, and a Professor at the University of Tennessee. As her family's story goes, her great great grandfather wanted to purchase St. Kilda and move his family to the archipelago. However, after a family revolt, the purchase and move never took place. As Linda's mother (Ann Ferguson Kah) explained, the family refused to eat solely puffins for the rest of their lives!

After the name was selected for today's target, Linda called her mother to inform her of this connection. Her mother responded "If St. Kilda on Mars is as remote as the St. Kilda in Scotland, your great great grandfather might try to buy that rock as well!"

Sol 1965 update by Michelle Minitti: Torrid(on) pace (14 Feb 2018)

For the last several months, the science, engineering and operations teams have only met three days a week to plan activities for Curiosity in order to give the engineers more time to focus on bringing the drill back online. This week, we returned to planning five days a week as we continue to traverse east across the "Vera Rubin Ridge" within the Torridon quadrangle, and it feels like the sols (and blogs!) are flying by at rapid speed! Curiosity remained at the same patch of bedrock she has been at all week, a great spot to sit still at while SAM conducts geochronology analyses of the "Ogunquit Beach" sand sample. Before SAM kicks off overnight, Curiosity will acquire a 360 degree mosaic with Mastcam (always a stunning product), and ChemCam will plaster the target "Newmachar" with a rare 16 point raster. These data will provide insight into the chemical variability of Newmachar, which was analyzed on a previous sol with two APXS integrations. The rover will take a brief look skyward for dust devils and clouds, and measurements of the clarity of the atmosphere, and then it's on to SAM. Fingers are crossed for SAM success as the team looks forward to getting back to work again tomorrow!

Sols 1966-1967 update by Kenneth Herkenhoff: Studying a potential drill target (15 Feb 2018)

We are planning 2 sols today to get a head start on the holiday weekend planning. We had several options today, including mobility and contact science with or without brushing, which made for an interesting day for me as SOWG Chair. Early in planning, we decided not to move and that our top priority is to brush and investigate a potential drill target just to the right of the Newmachar brush spot. The drill target cannot be finalized today, but the area to be brushed on Sol 1966, centered at "Lake Orcadie," is likely to include the drill target. Before the DRT is used on Lake Orcadie, ChemCam will measure its elemental composition at 9 points in a 3x3 raster and MAHLI will take images from 25 and 5 cm above the surface. ChemCam will also shoot its laser at another contact science target named "Forties," which should clean some of the dust off of the surface before MAHLI and APXS examine it later in the day. MAHLI will also acquire a full suite of images of the brushed spot before APXS is placed on it for an overnight integration. 

On Sol 1967, the arm will be moved out of the way so that Mastcam can acquire multispectral observations of Lake Orcadie and "Loch Ba," where there appears to be a change in bedrock characteristics. Then ChemCam and Right Mastcam will observe a vein named "Loch Carron" and sedimentary laminations at "Village Bay." The Right Mastcam will also take an image of Forties before MSL rests and recharges in preparation for the weekend plan.

Unfortunately, we didn't get a successful relay from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) this morning. We'll be relying on Mars Odyssey instead. Most of the data received from MSL have been relayed through MRO; both Opportunity and Curiosity depend on Mars orbiters to return data. This reminds me how essential the orbiters are to rover operations!

Sol 1968-1970 update by Kenneth Herkenhoff: Dumping Ogunquit Beach sample (16 Feb 2018)

We got lots of good news this morning: The DRT brushing of the potential drill target completed successfully, as did SAM's recent analysis of the Ogunquit Beach sample, and the rover is healthy and ready for more! So the weekend plan is focused on dumping the last of the Ogunquit Beach sand out of CHIMRA, which is necessary before we can test the new feed-extended drilling technique. But first, on Sol 1968, Navcam will perform a sky survey and search for clouds, as this is the cloudy season on Mars. Then ChemCam and Right Mastcam will observe bedrock targets "Smoo Cave" and "St. Andrews" to sample the nearby chemical diversity. Sol 1969 will be a busy day for MSL, starting with more ChemCam and Right Mastcam bedrock observations, this time of "Yesnaby" and "Dingwall." Then the arm will get to work, taking MAHLI images of the locations where the samples will be dumped, followed by dumping of sieved and un-sieved samples in those two locations. CHIMRA will be cleaned out, then MAHLI will take images of each dump pile from 25 and 5 cm above them. Finally, the APXS will be placed over the pile of sieved material for an overnight integration. 

The next morning (Sol 1970), APXS will be retracted so that MAHLI can take another image of sieved material, to see whether and where APXS touched it. Then the arm will be moved out of the way for Mastcam and ChemCam passive spectral observations of the dump piles, and ChemCam LIBS measurements (with Right Mastcam documentation) of red clasts named "Fladda." Just after sunrise on Sol 1971, Mastcam and Navcam will measure the amount of dust in the atmosphere, and Navcam will search for clouds and perform another sky survey. This plan will get MSL through the holiday weekend, and tactical planning will resume Tuesday morning.

Sol 1971 update by Michelle Minitti: Piling on (21 Feb 2018)

Over the weekend, Curiosity successfully off-loaded the sample she acquired previously, the "Ogunquit Beach" sand sample, in preparation for what the science team hopes is acquisition of a new *drilled* rock sample very soon. Curiosity has a sophisticated sample handling and preparation system, known as the Sample Acquisition/Sample Processing and Handling (SA/SPaH, "saw-spa") system. SA/SPaH has the ability to divide a drilled or scooped sample up into different ranges of particle sizes. In the case of the Ogunquit Beach sample, the finest particle size range corresponded to the material that was delivered to both SAM and CheMin. It is known as the post-sieve sample. The larger particle size range material, which was just along for the ride within SA/SPaH, is known as the pre-sieve sample. The first round of MAHLI imaging of both the pre-sieve and post-sieve samples, dumped into separate piles in the workspace, was successful over the weekend, as was the APXS analysis of the post-sieve pile. In today's plan, MAHLI will return to both dump piles for closer approach images to better resolve the fine sand particles in each pile, and APXS will analyze the pre-sieve dump pile. ChemCam will get a turn at the dump piles, acquiring reflectance spectra from the pre-sieve dump pile and a raster over the post-sieve dump pile. ChemCam is kind enough to wait to shoot the dump piles until MAHLI and APXS look closely at them so the pile is not blasted away by the laser! ChemCam will also acquire a raster over the dark gray pebble target "Black Cuillin," which is one of the larger pebble targets strewn among the bedrock in the workspace. Curiosity will squeeze in some looks skyward, measuring dust load in the atmosphere and acquiring movies to look for dust devils.

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Read more: mission status, Mars, Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory)

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Emily Lakdawalla

Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for The Planetary Society
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