Ken Herkenhoff's Curiosity blog posts
These blog entries are reposted with permission from the USGS Astrogeology website. Ken Herkenhoff posts them after most sols in which he has a tactical role on the Curiosity mission; they may be daily for a few days, then there are gaps in time. Even though they are discontinuous, they are the best day-to-day record available of the science operations of the Curiosity mission. This page covers the period from the day of the landing to sol 324 (July 3, 2013). Blog entries after that are posted periodically on the Planetary Society blogs page; you can also find them listed on Herkenhoff's profile page.
Ken Herkenhoff reports from JPL as the MSL Curiosity Rover lands on Mars (Sun, 05 Aug 2012)
All three of the USGS scientists involved in MSL are in a large conference room in JPL building 321, along with over 400 other science team members. The tension in the room is rising as MSL approaches Mars. Mars Odyssey is in position and sending a good signal, ready to relay data from MSL during descent. Each announcement (via video from the Mission Support Area in a nearby building at JPL) is greeted with applause and cheers: Good signal from Odyssey, cruise stage separation, turn to entry attitude, etc. A few minutes ago, the Project Science Office led a brief "all hands" meeting of the science team, encouraging us to work as a team, be patient, and above all, have fun! With 5 minutes to entry, it is quiet both in the MSA and in Bldg. 321. Because the radio signals from Mars take over 14 minutes to reach Earth, MSL has already landed successfully (or perhaps not), but we won't know for a while. This is the most critical phase of the entire mission, and must be executed perfectly by the spacecraft computer without any control from Earth. I haven't been nervous all day, but my heart rate is now quickening. The outcome of EDL will have a major effect on my career, but there is nothing I can do about it except watch with everyone else. What a crazy business! But I love it. As MSL descends through the atmosphere, it will not be visible from Earth, so its radio signals must be relayed by Odyssey. So a cheer goes up when Odyssey data is first received. Another big cheer when the parachute deployment is reported. Direct communication to Earth is lost as expected, just before the lander separates from the parachute and retro-rockets start. Another cheer as sky crane starts! When the signal is received showing that MSL has landed successfully, everyone in the MSA and in 321 jump up at once, cheering and clapping loudly. Within a few minutes the first pictures from MSL Hazard Avoidance Cameras are received via Odyssey and even louder cheers erupt from both rooms. Given the successful landings of Mars Pathfinder and both Mars Exploration Rovers, I should have expected another success, but I wasn't. MSL is so much more complex than previous missions, and the EDL so much more difficult, that I was prepared for the worst. My heart is still racing, many minutes after landing. I'm on second shift (uplink), so I have to get some sleep before returning to JPL by 5:30 tomorrow morning. I don't know how I will be able to sleep!
Sol 1: Tactical Operations (Mon, 06 Aug 2012)
I'm working second shift today; my tactical operations role is Science Uplink Representative. As the title implies, my responsibility is to represent the science team during the uplink planning process (preparing command sequences to be transmitted to the spacecraft). The early part of the MSL mission, called the Characterization Activity Phase, has been planned and tested in detail; the nominal command sequences were loaded onto the spacecraft well before landing. As long as the mission continues to proceed nominally, no changes to the sequences will be needed, and the uplink planning process will primarily involve modeling the planned activities to confirm that they should be executed. It was difficult to leave JPL soon after landing, but I knew I had to get some sleep before my shift started at 5:30 PDT. I got almost 4 hours of sleep, so I'm doing fine so far. I arrived at JPL as morning twilight began, with Venus and Jupiter shining brightly over the San Gabriel Mountains. Many team members were still at JPL when I arrived, but because they had been up all night, most of them left soon after sunrise in Pasadena. It was then much quieter in the operations area as the team focused on uplink planning. As I met colleagues I hadn't seen earlier, we congratulated each other but the excitement of landing had mostly passed. Of course everyone is happy to be involved in the surface phase of the mission, but the focus is now on doing the jobs we have been rehearsing for the past few months. One of the rehearsals simulated multiple anomalies, and we are all glad that our experience in responding to anomalies has not been needed. The mission is going so well that the mood has gone from "adrenaline rush" to "business as usual" in just a few hours. We just received several of the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) images, showing sections of the "movie" of the descent and landing from the rover. Applause broke out in the camera team's room as the PI, Mike Malin, showed us the data. These images will allow us to locate the rover precisely. Earlier this morning the MRO HiRISE image of the lander descending on its parachute was received, and it is SPECTACULAR. It is the result of months of planning, requiring coordination between the MSL and MRO projects to complete a very complicated observation design. The HiRISE team did a great job in support of MSL!
Sol 2: Planning Report (Tue, 07 Aug 2012)
Today I'm working as Science Uplink Representative again, planning Sol 2 activities. We now know exactly where MSL is, thanks to more good work by the MRO HiRISE team: They acquired a new image of the landing area that shows not only the rover, but its heat shield, parachute, and descent stage, all in the same image! So the MSL team is starting to plan where to drive, but I have not been directly involved in those discussions because they have been occurring during first shift. Certainly we must move out of the area contaminated by the landing rockets before analyzing samples of the soil. The plan for today includes deploying the remote sensing mast, obviously an important activity, as we cannot use the mast cameras and ChemCam instrument until the mast is deployed. Once the mast has been deployed, the navigation cameras will take a full, 360-degree panorama of the terrain around us and another panorama of the rover deck. Based on the hazard avoidance camera images received so far, the Navcam panorama should be spectacular! During one of the tactical planning meeting today, we were interrupted by the Project Manager for a surprise visit from U.S. Congressman John Culberson of Texas. He was impressed by the mission operations area and vowed to protect us from interference from NASA Headquarters, so that we can do our jobs efficiently. I'm not particularly fond of politicians, but it was an honor to hear him thank us for our efforts and we all applauded after his brief speech. Hopefully he will vote to restore funding for NASA's Mars Program in fiscal 2013!
Sol 3: Navcam Panorama (Wed, 08 Aug 2012)
Another good day on Mars: MSL's remote sensing mast was successfully deployed, and a Navcam panorama acquired. Not all of the images have been sent to Earth yet, but those that have been received are very useful for planning future observations. In addition, more full-resolution descent images have been received, showing the heat shield soon after it was jettisoned and the surface close-up after landing. Hundreds of MARDI images like these were acquired during descent and landing, and it will take weeks to months to send them back to Earth. But when they are received, the full-resolution animation of the descent sequence will be spectacular. This has been the theme of the mission so far--we must be patient. Today was my last shift this month as Science Uplink Representative, and planning went well again. The plan for Sol 3 included a Mastcam color panorama which will have about 4x better resolution than the Navcam black and white panorama. The plan also includes checkouts of 4 of the instruments that have not been turned on since landing: the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS), which will measure elemental chemistry; the Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) experiment, which will measure the abundance of hydrogen (water) up to 1 m below the surface; CheMin, an X-ray diffraction and fluorescence instrument that will determine the mineralogy of samples delivered to it by the rover's arm; and SAM, the Sample Analysis at Mars suite of 3 instruments that will search for organics and measure the isotopic composition of Martian rocks, soil and atmosphere. Of course we all hope that these instruments have survived landing and are working well. My tactical operations shifts have been exciting, and I've enjoyed working with the talented and knowledgeable engineers and scientist on the tactical team. But I'm also looking forward to taking a break for a few days and sleeping past 4:30 in the morning!
Sol 10: Science Kickoff (Wed, 15 Aug 2012)
After a nice vacation in Flagstaff, I returned to JPL in time for Sol 10 planning. I was scheduled this time as Science Operations Working Group (SOWG) Chair, with responsibility for leading the discussion of data received the previous sol and deciding what to do the next sol. This job is part of the first shift, which just happened to start at about the same time I was starting my second shift PUL work before my break in Flagstaff. So I arrived at JPL around 5:15 AM, early in twilight, when the waning crescent moon, Venus and Jupiter formed a beautiful line among the "winter" constellations rising in the east. A nice aspect of working first shift is that it involves more interaction with the science team, which is less involved in detailed command sequence planning during second shift. I started my work day by getting back up to speed on rover operations, looking at recent data and discussing priorities for new scientific observations. Rover checkout continues, and we are getting more scientific data from various instruments. During the first big meeting of the day, the "Science Kickoff," we heard updates on each of the instruments. We all applauded when the Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) instrument reported successful completion of their first "passive" observation, in which naturally-generated neutrons were measured from Mars. We also received some more MARDI (descent image) full frames, all of which are beautiful, and there are many more MARDI images still awaiting transmission to Earth. More instrument checkouts were planned for Sol 10, as well as continued updates of rover software. At the end of my shift, I handed off science leadership to the SUR (Science Uplink Representative, the same role I filled during the first 3 planning sols) and gave him some advice based on my previous experience. Then I attended a cameras team meeting in another building at JPL that ended up running late, so that I didn't leave JPL until about 6:30, over 13 hours after I arrived. But I felt good despite the long hours, and recalled working an average of 14 hours/day during the early part of the Spirit and Opportunity missions. So not a bad day at all!
Sol 11: ChemCam Testing (Thu, 16 Aug 2012)
I served as SOWG chair again today, planning Sol 11 of the MSL mission. All is going well, but slowly--we continue to confirm that instruments are working and to get ready for more ambitious activities. Today's plan was so full of stuff that we have to do to realize the full potential of MSL that we couldn't add new observations based on the data we have received so far. For example, a full hour of the day was spent setting software parameters for all the motors on the rover--thousands of parameters! This is indeed a very complex system. But the rover is healthy and the planning team is getting better at preparing ever more complicated command sequences to send to MSL. The most exciting news today was that the ChemCam and Chemin instruments successfully returned their first data. ChemCam is the remote chemical analysis instrument that uses a laser to vaporize rock/soil up to 7 meters away, creating a plasma of ions and excited atoms that emit photons as their electrons relax to lower energy states. These "electronic transitions" are measured by sensitive spectrometers, yielding spectral peaks that indicate which elements are present in the target. In preparation for such observations, we tested the pointing of the instrument by taking pictures of a calibration target on the rover with the Remote Microscopic Imager (RMI), a camera that uses the same optics as the laser and spectrometers to show where the laser hit the target. We didn't fire the laser yet, because we want to be sure that the pointing is accurate first. We wouldn't want to shoot the rover by mistake! But the RMI images show that the pointing is very good, and they will allow us to improve the pointing by analyzing the offsets relative to the center of the calibration target. Most importantly, both ChemCam and Chemin (the X-ray instrument that will determine what minerals are present in samples delivered to it) are working as well as expected--everyone applauded when the initial results were reported!
Sol 12: Mars Time (Sat, 18 Aug 2012)
Those of us supporting MSL tactical mission operations are living on "Mars time." A day on Mars, or "sol" is about 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth, but our workday doesn't shift exactly 40 minutes later each day because the tactical schedule is tied to the receipt of data from the orbiters that are relaying information from MSL to Earth. Each orbiter (MRO and Mars Odyssey) flies over MSL twice a day, early in the morning and late in the afternoon. But they don't fly over MSL at the same time every day, because their orbits were designed to view different parts of Mars every sol so that the orbiter instruments can observe a wide variety of locations on the planet. So the start time of the tactical shifts can vary by up to a couple hours from day to day, but overall slips later and later, cycling through 24 hours on Earth in about 5 weeks. I had been getting to JPL at about 5:30 each morning, but didn't have to be there until 6:30 this morning. I was treated to a beautiful sunrise when I arrived, and felt more like an Earthling than a Martian for a change! Today's planning of MSL activities went very well--the operations team is learning how to work more efficiently while ensuring that every command is safe to send to the rover. Meanwhile, the rest of the science team discussed where to drive after the mobility system is checked out. The favored plan is to drive toward the east to examine an outcrop of bright material. But first, we have to make sure everything is working well. The good news today was that the DAN neutron experiment is working well, and SAM's electrical baseline test was successful. More instrument checkouts are planned for the next few sols--more on those later.
Sol 13: All-Star Crew (Sun, 19 Aug 2012)
I served as SOWG Chair again today, planning Sol 13 activities for MSL. The tactical planning team is getting better at getting everything done in time to send commands to the rover, so we were able to fit more new scientific observations into the plan today. Fortunately, the science team was led by an "all star" crew today, including Steve Squyres as Geology Science Theme Lead. Steve is the Principal Investigator of the science payload on the Mars Exploration Rovers that landed on Mars in January 2004--first Spirit, then Opportunity. I have been working for Steve as science lead for the Microscopic imager, the close-up camera on the MER instrument arms. So we were joking today about the role reversal--as SOWG Chair I lead the science team today. The Opportunity mission continues to be operated from the floor above the one where the MSL team has been working, so I reminded him that upstairs he's still my boss. It was great to have such expert support today, and we put together a good plan. Mid-way through the planning process we learned that the SAM instrument checkout planned for Sol 14 would have to be spread over two Sols because the successful completion of the first part of the checkout would have to be confirmed by analyzing the results on Earth before the second part could start. To avoid having to spend an extra sol to get this done, we scrambled to move the first part of the checkout into the Sol 13 plan. I'll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that it was not easy. We handed the new plan off to the second shift, and hope that they will be able to implement it. So now I'm done with the set of four shifts as SOWG Chair, as scheduled. It was exhilarating and I'm glad I had the opportunity to serve the project in this role, but I'm also glad to have a break for a few days. I'm hoping to get more sleep tonight and to catch up on all the other work that has been piling up over the past week. I'm also looking forward to having more time to analyze the data we have received from MSL and attend the Science Discussion meeting, which always conflict with tactical planning meetings.
Sol 14: ChemCam Team Rocks! (Mon, 20 Aug 2012)
Having completed the SOWG Chair shifts assigned to me over the past 4 days, I didn't have to get up before dawn this morning. After trying (unsuccessfully) to sleep in, I went straight to the ChemCam room at JPL to see how the first Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectrometer (LIBS) data looked. Fortunately, everything we planned yesterday worked well, and the ChemCam team was ecstatic about the results: a better spectrum than expected, and Remote Microscopic Imager (RMI) pictures taken before and after the LIBS shots showing where on the rock the laser hit. What a great day for the ChemCam team! More Information. I was hoping to spend more time looking at RMI data and catching up on other work today, but ended up having to prepare a presentation on the plan for characterization of the Mastcam cameras. We didn't have time to fully test all of the capabilities of Mastcam before launch (too much other testing to do), so we'll have to take a bunch of Mastcam images of Mars to determine how best to focus the cameras and compress the data, among other things. The Principal Investigator of Mastcam, Mike Malin, has not been feeling well, so fellow team member Jim Bell and I volunteered to prepare and give a presentation at the daily "science discussion" meeting this afternoon. Jim is more familiar with the Mastcam experiment than I, but he was on shift as Science Uplink Representative today and couldn't attend the science discussion. So I gave the presentation and answered a few questions about how and when the Mastcam characterization will be done, hopefully in the next few days. Meanwhile, the local Flagstaff newspaper, the Arizona Daily Sun, ran an article about the adverse effects that the cuts to NASA's fiscal 2013 Planetary Science budget would have on the USGS Astrogeology team if they are enacted by Congress. As described in the article, the outlook for Astrogeology is not very good, but the article is accompanied by a picture of me smiling happily. So a few of my colleagues asked my why I was smiling. The picture was taken while I was in Flagstaff last Monday, and apparently the photographer didn't know how it would be used, because he asked me to smile as I recalled the recent successful landing of MSL. I guess he should have take some pictures of me looking depressed just in case, but I'm hopeful that Congress will recognize that the Mars program is a source of great national pride and restore NASA's Planetary Science budget. Anyway, I'm enjoying being involved in an exciting rover mission while I can.
Sol 15: New Insight (Tue, 21 Aug 2012)
The MSL mission continues to go very well, with the first movement of the rover wheels planned for tomorrow. The tactical operations team continues to take on more challenges, planning more and more scientific observations each day. I spent most of the day on strategic planning of the Mastcam characterization sequences, trying to figure out how best to fit them in among the other activities planned for the next few sols. This was a refreshing change from my previous focus on tactical operations, but all of this work is interesting.
But the big news at JPL today was NASA's selection of the next Discovery mission, called InSight. The NASA Discovery program goal is to fly medium cost (less than $425 million) missions to the planets, and is very competitive. The decision was great news for JPL, as the mission is led by Bruce Banerdt, a JPL geophysicist, and will involve many other JPL scientists and engineers in the next few years. Despite the successful landing of MSL this month, JPL has had to lay off hundreds of employees, in part because the peak in the effort to develop MSL has passed and there are few NASA planetary missions in the queue. InSight, a mission to explore the interior of Mars using a seismometer, will keep at least a few engineers and scientists busy, avoiding further layoffs. This was especially good news to me because I was concerned that the engineering expertise at JPL that enabled the successful Mars Pathfinder, Mars Exploration Rover, MSL, and other missions could have been lost if more layoffs were necessary. Once these engineers are lost to other companies, it would be nearly impossible to get them back at JPL in the future. Not only would may of them put down roots in other places, many private companies pay engineers more than they are paid at JPL. So keeping these talented individuals at JPL will be good for NASA and good for planetary exploration.
Sol 16: Wiggling Wheels (Wed, 22 Aug 2012)
First the bad news: The REMS (meteorology experiment) team confirmed that two out of 3 wind sensors on one of the two booms on the remote sensing mast are permanently damaged and cannot be used. They are getting good wind data from the other boom and are working on getting as much information as possible from the one working sensor on the other boom. The most likely explanation for the damage is that the descent rockets threw dirt up on the top of MSL during landing, but it will be a while before we can take pictures (using the camera on the arm) to confirm this. The other sad news is that one of the leaders of the engineering team, Jake Matijevic passed away last weekend. I worked with Jake on the Mars Pathfinder/Sojourner project over 15 years ago, and again on the Mars Exploration Rover project. I enjoyed every interaction I had with him, and along with the rest of the MSL team will miss his contributions to the latest, most ambitious rover project.
And now the good news: More cheers and applause today as MSL successfully deployed its arm and wiggled its wheels in preparation for its first drive. The first drive was planned today, and everyone is anxious to see the results tomorrow morning. It will be a short (3 m) drive, then a turn in place followed by another short drive, intended to check out the mobility system. If all goes well, we will be able to plan a longer (up to 10 m) drive next. After the drive is complete, the rover will take a bunch of images to determine exactly where it ended up, and to allow more observations to be targeted from the new location. ChemCam continues to work well, returning data of better quality than expected. Roger Wiens, the ChemCam Principal Investigator, will summarize early results during a press conference tomorrow at JPL.
Sol 17: Mastcam Mischief (Thu, 23 Aug 2012)
More cheers today when the rover planners (drivers) reported that the first MSL drive went perfectly. It wouldn't be much of a rover mission if we couldn't drive, so this was very good news. I feel extremely fortunate to be involved in yet another successful Mars rover mission--we are now 4 for 4 (Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity), with 2 rovers still active. Wow.
I spent most of the day continuing to work Mastcam characterization sequences into the near-term plan. In addition to the daily tactical work, many people are focused on planning what the rover will do for the next week or so. I've been representing the Mastcam team's interests in these strategic planning discussions and meetings, and despite numerous constraints and evolving scientific goals, it has been going fairly well. But it struck me today that it is a bit strange that I have been so focused on Mastcam. To explain, I must first summarize how I got involved in the first place: In 2004, many teams of scientists were preparing proposals in response to NASA's announcement of an opportunity to develop, test and operate instruments for the MSL mission. I was invited to join some of these teams, and was included as a Co-Investigator on the ChemCam, MARDI (descent imager) and MAHLI (hand-lens imager) proposals, but not on the Mastcam proposal. The MARDI, MAHLI and Mastcam proposals were all submitted by Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS), a small company in San Diego specializing in building cameras to be flown on spacecraft. The company was founded by Mike Malin after he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship ("genius grant") in 1987. Each of the proposals included a clause stating that if all 3 were selected, MSSS would give NASA a 30% discount. Apparently NASA couldn't pass that up, and all 3 cameras were selected to fly on MSL. In addition to consolidating the design and test efforts at MSSS, the 3 science teams were merged into one big team. So I became a member of the Mastcam team, along with the other Co-Is on the MARDI and MAHLI science teams. But I always expected to focus on MAHLI and MARDI, having put more effort into the development of those cameras. While I didn't foresee my recent heavy involvement in Mastcam planning, I was happy to contribute to the team effort. I recognized the importance of getting the Mastcam characterization data needed to improve the quality of the images as soon as possible, and jumped right in. Hopefully this effort will pay off--we expect the first results of the focus and stereo tests tomorrow morning.
Sol 18: Speedy Data (Fri, 24 Aug 2012)
We have received all of the full-size MARDI images of MSL's descent, and they have been combined into a video. Watching this, with the audio from the mission support area dubbed in, brought a tear to my eye. The significance of landing successfully on Mars using an entirely new, incredibly complex system, is still sinking in. I am very fortunate to be involved in such an endeavor.
If you are not impressed with the MARDI video, stay tuned: the images were each heavily compressed to allow them to be transmitted to Earth quickly. The MARDI team has started reprocessing the raw images onboard the rover to return higher-quality versions. Of course, it will take a while to transmit all of these larger images to Earth, but the results will be much better than the images we have on the ground today. This is possible because each of the color cameras has its own memory module that is used to store raw (uncompressed) images as they are acquired. The raw images can therefore be reprocessed as desired and then queued up for transmission. This is obviously a nice capability to have, but the MSL team is still learning how to best take advantage of it. As the performance of the radio link to the Mars orbiters continues to improve, data are being received at an unprecedented rate, so we are reprocessing color camera images to take advantage of the better data rate.
Sol 19: Shooting Stereo (Sat, 25 Aug 2012)
We've started getting Mastcam characterization data on the ground, and the key focus test data have allowed us to modify the command sequences sent to acquire more characterization data with the focus quality needed to make use of them. It's nice to see my recent efforts paying off, but of course it takes many people working very hard to make it happen. Today we planned a sequence of images intended to determine how well we can measure the topography of the surface far from the rover using "long-baseline stereo." MSL has several pairs of stereo cameras that work very much like human (and other animal) pairs of eyes. Our brains interpret the information from both eyes to tell how far away objects are, and cameras can be used to do the same thing. The distance between our eyes, or the "baseline" between cameras limits the distance at which this method works. The longer the baseline, or the greater the distance between cameras, the better the ability to measure distance. So our plan is to take pictures of Mt. Sharp, many kilometers from the rover, before and after moving the rover about 10 m. In order for this experiment to yield useful results, the camera must be properly focused. So it was good to receive some of the data from the focus test in time to plan this next experiment.
A different song is played at the beginning of each Martian day (sol) as the daily bundle of commands are sent to the rover. I'm not sure who picks the song each day, but this is a tradition that extends back to previous Mars landers. For example, here's a video to go along with today's wake-up song. It's great that people are taking the time to put together such videos, and I hope they are fun for the public
Sol 20: ChemCam Rasters (Sun, 26 Aug 2012)
Today we received data from the first ChemCam “rasters,” in this case 5 laser shots in a row on 3 different targets. We were glad to see this capability demonstrated on Mars, because we would like to use it a lot in the future. The laser is focused on a spot less than 1 mm across, and the chemistry of rocks and soils is commonly variable on the millimeter scale. So multiple samples are needed to properly characterize the elemental composition of each target, and the laser rasters will be useful in this regard.
The SAM atmospheric sample test ran to completion, verifying that many parts of this complicated instrument are working well. This was the last SAM characterization test planned, and the team applauded the achievement of this milestone. For this test a bit of Earth’s atmosphere was carried to Mars, and analyzed successfully as planned. Now SAM is ready to acquire and measure a sample of the Martian atmosphere.
I was sorry to hear today that Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the Moon, passed away. His “small step” represented the culmination of an amazing effort that inspired me as a child and helped lead me toward a career in space exploration. I hope that NASA continues to inspire young people with achievements such as the MSL mission.
I plan to take a day off tomorrow, before I begin a string of tactical shifts on Monday. I’ll send my next update when I’m back on shift.
Sol 22: Late Data (Tue, 28 Aug 2012)
After a day off, I'm back on shift as SOWG Chair for 3 days. We had a scare this morning when the Sol 21 data we expected to receive through the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) was not received on time. Just as we were starting to put together contingency plans for Sol 22, most of the data were received from MRO (1.5 hours late). Happily, the Sol 21 drive (4.9 m) to place the rover over one of the areas scoured clean by the descent engines went perfectly, and the images taken after the drive allowed us to plan another drive today. It was encouraging that the team was able to recover from the 1.5-hour delay, allowing planning to proceed as normal. Overall, the tactical team has gotten much better at putting together complex plans, so we are able to include more and more activities each day.
Sol 23: Planning Day (Thu, 30 Aug 2012)
The rover drivers are ready to test more advanced driving techniques and software, but we stayed put today to finish the last of the Mastcam characterization activities (the second half of the long-baseline stereo experiment). So we had more room for new science observations in today's plan than we have before, which was a challenge for the science team. Lots of good ideas were brought forward by the various science theme groups, including ChemCam measurement of rocks and soil, images of the sun and sky to look for clouds, even neutron spectrometer measurements of hydrogen up to 0.5 m below the surface. When the usual weather and radiation "background" observations were included, there was a lot to prioritize and fit in. But we did a pretty good job of fitting in everything we could. Unfortunately, there were enough little problems with recent ChemCam activities that we had to delete most of the ChemCam stuff from today's plan. On the brighter side, removing them gave the second shift crew much more confidence that they could get their job done in time to send the commands to the rover. And we continue to learn how to do our jobs better and get more science from MSL.
Sol 24: Autonomous Navigation (Fri, 31 Aug 2012)
The highlight of the Sol 24 plan is to test some of the software that will allow the rover to avoid obstacles automatically. If the test, involving taking images and processing them onboard the rover, is successful the rover will drive farther toward our goal, called Glenelg. This location will have a good view of the intersection of 3 different terrain types, where we should be able to study the relationships between these geologic units and therefore interpret their history. But to get there quickly we will need to use the "autonomous navigation" that we are starting to check out. After the drive, we have some time for science observations, which were the focus of the science team's efforts today. It was my last shift as SOWG Chair for a few weeks, and went more smoothly than yesterday's planning. The biggest problem today was that the data volume expected to be relayed by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in time to plan Sol 25 is very small, probably not enough to return the images we need to plan another drive. Hopefully we will get more data through MRO than expected, and we prioritized the various data products accordingly. If we don't get at least one stereo pair of images of the terrain in front of the rover after the drive, we will have to stay put for a sol. Obviously, this wouldn't be a problem, but we would like get to Glenelg soon, and it is about 400 m away.
We received confirmation that the last of the Mastcam characterization data were acquired, so we were able to plan new Mastcam observations today. This was a relief to the science team, and especially to me, as fitting it all in to the plans over the past week required a lot of planning.
Sol 25: Sunlight Versus Shadow (Fri, 31 Aug 2012)
As predicted, we didn't receive enough data through MRO today to allow us to plan another drive. So while we wait for the images taken after the Sol 24 drive to arrive, we planned a bunch of images to be taken on Sol 25. I was MAHLI/MARDI Payload Uplink Lead 1 today, which means that my job was to focus on how best to use the Mars Hand-Lens Imager (MAHLI) and the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) cameras. MAHLI is on the end of the instrument arm, which has not been checked out on Mars yet, so we can't use that camera yet. And you might expect that MARDI won't be used again because MSL already descended to the surface of Mars on August 5th. Well, it turns out that MARDI can still take useful pictures of Mars, looking straight down at the surface just behind the left front wheel of MSL. Eventually we hope to use MARDI to take images as MSL drives, but that won't be possible until the next version of the rover's software is uploaded and installed. In the meantime, we are taking a single MARDI image at each place the rover stops. So my job today was to find the best time to take such an image. The rover planners (drivers) didn't have much to do today, so I asked Matt Heverly, the rover mobility lead, to help me figure out whether this image would be in shadow or sunlight. We had received enough data through MRO to know that the Sol 14 drive went well, and that the rover heading was WSW (116.5 degrees azimuth relative to north). Using this information, Matt modeled the shadow of the rover in the fancy software the rover planners use to build drive and arm sequences, developed at JPL. We had planned a MARDI image on the afternoon of Sol 24 when the surface under the camera was fully shadowed, but didn't know whether it was successfully acquired because it was taken after MRO flew over MSL and received a burst of data from the rover. I thought that it would be interesting to see what the surface looks like when fully illuminated by the sun, and Matt's modeling showed that the surface would be in sunlight after 4:02 PM. Before that time, the rover would shadow the surface, but later the sunlight would pass under the rover for about an hour before sunset. So I suggested adding this observation to the plan at low priority, and the Geology theme lead agreed to include it. Because it didn't conflict with any other suggestions from the science team, it was included in the final plan that was submitted to the second-shift uplink planning team! So my work paid off and I look forward to seeing both the shadowed and sunlit images of the same spot. Comparing them will help us decide whether to take future MARDI images in sunlight or shadow.
Sol 26: Mars Time (Sat, 01 Sep 2012)
The best news today was that analysis of more detailed ChemCam engineering data showed that the problems noted a few sols ago were very minor and now completely understood, so the instrument can now be used again! While we suspected that the problem was not serious, it was very nice to receive confirmation.
We finally received the images needed to plan the next drive, so the Sol 26 plan includes a checkout of the "visual odometry" software that will be used by the rover to precisely determine how far it has moved using images taken during the drive. Once the data from this and previous driving tests are received and analyzed, all of the rover mobility software will be validated. Of course we are hoping that all goes well, as visual odometry will allow MSL to approach targets accurately enough to put them in the "workspace" of the arm. Even if the rover slips in sand or on a steep slope, it will be able to automatically account for any slip and get where we want to go. This will save lots of time in the future.
Today "Mars time" at Gale crater is about the same as "Earth time" (PDT). The tactical team's workday always starts in the afternoon at Gale, when the rover sends data to the orbiters as they fly overhead. We then work all Mars night to analyze and understand the data MSL has sent to us, then plan what we want the rover to do the next day in time to send the commands the following Mars morning. So today the first shift came in to work in the Earth afternoon, and the second shift will work through the Earth night, finishing up as the sun is rising in Pasadena. Because Mars' day is about 40 minutes longer than an Earth day, our workday will begin later and later in Pacific time. and the current coincidence of Gale and Pasadena time will not recur for about 5 weeks.
Sol 27: Compression Testing (Sun, 02 Sep 2012)
The Sol 26 drive went well, and the images taken after the drive showed some interesting outcrops right in front of the rover. The focus of the Sol 27 plan is primarily the first sampling of Mars' atmosphere by the big SAM instrument, so there wasn't much time to do anything else. Now that ChemCam is working again, the top priority is to acquire better observations of its calibration target, and 77 minutes were allocated to do that. But when we saw the new outcrop target, the science team wanted to take pictures and zap it with ChemCam's laser. So Steve Squyres, the Mineralogy Science Theme Group Lead for today, asked the Tactical Uplink Lead (Pauline Hwang) whether she would be willing to consider adding more time to the plan for additional scientific observations. Steve is the PI of the Athena science payload on the Mars Exploration Rovers, and because Pauline used to work on MER, they already know each other. Steve's plea was well enough received that Pauline agreed to give the science team 40 more minutes to work with. There was much rejoicing, and Mastcam and ChemCam observations of the outcrop were added to the plan. When I left JPL a couple hours ago, it appeared that they would be approved and included in the commands to be sent to MSL early tomorrow morning.
I wasn't scheduled in a tactical role today, but I couldn't resist spending most of my day at JPL. MSL mission operations are just too much fun to miss! Because I didn't have to focus on today's planning as much, I was able to catch up on some other tasks, including processing new MARDI images to determine how much they can be compressed and still preserve the details needed for geologic interpretation. I also looked at some older ChemCam RMI images that were taken in the MSL testbed (a nearly identical copy of the real rover at JPL) to test various types of image compression. I had been meaning to get this done long ago, but was too busy with other work. So far it looks like we will be able to reduce the size of these images without significantly degrading them. We must make the most of the precious bits we receive from MSL through the Mars orbiters, so I need to complete this analysis soon.
Sol 29: Check-in with Opportunity (Fri, 07 Sep 2012)
I was planning to stay on "Mars time" while in Flagstaff this week, but it would have meant less time with my family, so I haven't been sleeping very late. This has allowed me to call in to Mars Exploration Rover planning meetings at 9 AM and catch up with what Opportunity has been doing. After over 8 years roving on Mars, Opportunity is exploring the rim of a 22-km diameter crater that shows evidence from orbit of clay minerals that were probably formed during a more Earth-like period in Martian history. I'm the science lead for the Microscopic Imager (MI), the close-up camera (like a geologist's hand lens) on the end of Opportunity's instrument arm. The rover is now investigating an outcrop that is unlike any we have seen before. The MI just acquired a 2x2 mosaic of images of this outcrop. The abundant spherules seen in these images are generally smaller than the hematite concretions found on the Meridiani plains by Opportunity, and broken ones show more internal structure than the concretions. So they don't appear to be the same kind of concretions, but more data are needed to understand this rock. Today we are finalizing a plan that includes brushing the dust off of this outcrop, taking 4 more MI images to confirm that the brushing worked, and placing the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer on the brushed spot to get elemental chemical information. There are other interesting outcrops in the vicinity of the rover, including some brighter ones that may contain more clay.
So the Opportunity mission is going very well, and I hope to find some time to keep up with it while I'm working on MSL in Pasadena. I will be working graveyard shift, but could drop in on Opportunity planning meetings after my MSL shift if I'm not exhausted. With so much rover activity on Mars these days, it will be difficult to sleep!
Sol 33: Flexing the Arm (Sun, 09 Sep 2012)
I arrived in Pasadena at about 10 PM last night, and went straight to JPL to catch up with the MSL team and start my transition to Mars time. My next shift starts at 9:15 PM tonight. I walked in during a science team meeting regarding "data management" which sounds boring but is very important to the team. In addition to the rover computer's ability to adjust the priority of various data products to be sent to Earth, each of the color cameras includes an 8 gigabyte buffer for storing raw images. So we can acquire panoramic mosaics of many images and return only small "thumbnail" versions of each image while storing the full-resolution images in the camera buffer. Once we have looked at the thumbnails, we can return just the full images of most interest. Obviously this is a nice capability to have, but it means we have to do more work to keep track of the data onboard the rover.
I stayed through the end of the SOWG meeting, and left JPL around 3 AM this morning. On my way out, I talked with Roger Wiens, the PI of ChemCam. His instrument has been working well, and he wanted to discuss the results of the RMI compression testing I mentioned last week. We were both too tired to have the conversation then, and agreed to talk later. But I summarized my conclusion that, while the test data in hand are useful in determining the optimum compression parameters, more test data are needed. Meanwhile, the focus of near-term rover activities will be checkout of the arm.
Sol 34: MAHLI Optics (Mon, 10 Sep 2012)
Over a month into the mission, there are still cheers at JPL when first-time activities are completed successfully. Last night, the latest successes included the first Chemin X-ray diffraction pattern (of an empty sample cell), and the first MAHLI image with its dust cover open. Previous images through MAHLI's dust cover window had much lower contrast, probably because dust settled onto it during MSL's landing. So there was some concern that the dust raised by the landing rockets had gotten under the cover onto MAHLI's optics. The beautifully clear MAHLI image received yesterday showed that any such dust contamination was insignificant, and that the camera is ready to go. So the Sol 34 plan included many MAHLI images of calibration and other targets on the rover, as part of a thorough checkout of the arm pointing. As MAHLI/MARDI Payload Uplink Lead for the first shift last night, I had a lot of MAHLI command sequences to keep track of, but it wasn't very difficult because the arm checkout had already been run on the MSL testbed (nearly identical rover in a lab at JPL) and the sequences built and tested. The checkout includes a mosaic of MAHLI images looking under the rover, to look for any signs of damage incurred during landing. I left JPL when my shift was over at 5 AM, and got enough sleep this morning that I think I have made the transition onto Mars time.
Sol 35: Belly of the Rover (Tue, 11 Sep 2012)
There were more cheers and applause when MAHLI images of the belly of the rover were displayed. The camera, which can focus at distances from 2 cm to infinity, is working perfectly! It also took pictures of its calibration target, which includes a 1909 Lincoln penny. The arm checkout also went well, leaving the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) facing its calibration target for a long integration. Unfortunately, ChemCam suffered a command error on Sol 34 and was shut down by the rover computer. This also prevented the rest of the planned remote sensing observations from being acquired that sol, and the remote sensing mast (RSM) from being used on Sol 35. So the Sol 35 plan was rather simple, including more APXS integration on its calibration target followed by retraction of the arm. Even though we couldn't use the RSM, we could still plan a test of Mastcam's video capability, as it doesn't matter where the cameras are pointed for this test. We are all hoping that recovery from the ChemCam error will be rapid, and that we will be able to use it and the rest of the instruments on the RSM tomorrow.
Sol 36: Sky Flats (Wed, 12 Sep 2012)
The checkout of the MSL arm continues to go well: The Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer returned its first data, of its calibration target on the side of the rover. I was busy last night planning a bunch of MAHLI images to be taken as part of the verification that the arm can be accurately placed over the inlets for Chemin and SAM, the mineralogy and organic chemistry instruments. I also helped plan Mastcam "sky flats," images of the sky to be used in measuring the variations in response of the camera detectors across their field of view. Taking pictures of the sky is one of the techniques used by astronomers to "flat field" their instruments, typically during evening twilight before a night of observing through a telescope. It's a bit more difficult to use this technique for the MSL cameras, as their fields of view are much larger than typical observatory instruments, and more of the variations in brightness across the sky are visible. To allow the shape of the sky brightness variations to be measured, we planned a small mosaic of images around a central image that will be corrected for these variations. Right after these were approved for the Sol 36 plan, I remembered that the Navcams can be calibrated using the Mastcam observations, so I asked if they could be included at the last minute. Fortunately, the leaders of the planning team agreed to add them!
"Mars time" continues to shift relative to PDT, so by the time I left JPL it was daylight, and I got stuck in morning rush hour traffic on the way to my apartment in Pasadena. Fortunately, I won't have this problem for long, as the MSL work day will keep shifting later. Tonight my shift starts just before midnight and ends at 10:15 AM PDT. By then the traffic should have cleared somewhat...
Sol 37: Planning Under a Fake Sun (Thu, 13 Sep 2012)
The ChemCam instrument was confirmed to be safe, but will not be used again until Friday to give the ChemCam team a chance to rest and regroup. The team met at the end of the planning day (7:30 PDT) to review the data received so far and to plan the next steps. By the time of this meeting I had been up all night, so I was pretty tired but it was a good meeting, and kept me off the freeway until rush hour traffic cleared a bit.
It was my last shift as MAHLI/MARDI Payload Uplink Lead this week, and ended up being fairly busy because the MSL science team requested more MARDI images at various times of day to see how useful the images are under different illumination conditions. We were also able to plan one image at exactly the same time of day as one taken on Sol 32, to look for changes on the surface due to winds. So I sat down with one of the rover planners to look at how much the rover shadows the MARDI field of view at various times of day. I always enjoy working with the rover planners because their visualization tools are so COOL. They allow a model of the rover to be placed on the 3-D terrain derived from stereo images and illuminated by a fake sun. This model showed that the MARDI images would be partly shadowed until 15:00, when only a corner of the images would be shadowed by the left front rover wheel. So we planned a couple images in the late afternoon and one earlier to span the range of illumination. Based on the preliminary results of the compression testing I've been doing, I recommended more compression of the fully-illuminated images, to reduce data volume without sacrificing image quality. Details in shadows are more difficult to preserve when the image is compressed, so we left the partly-shadowed image at the default (minimal) compression.
Although I'm not staffed in a tactical role for a few days, I plan to stay involved in tactical operations on Mars time, as shifting between Earth and Mars time is difficult these days.
Sol 38: Glenelg Ahead (Fri, 14 Sep 2012)
With the successful execution of the last of the MSL arm checkout activities, the characterization phase is complete! Many first-time activities still lie ahead (like drilling, scooping, and delivering samples to the mineralogy and organic chemistry instruments), but the major capabilities of the rover have been demonstrated. So after spending over a week in the same place to complete the characterization, the Sol 38 plan included a 32-meter drive toward the east. The near-term goal is "Glenelg," still a few hundred meters away few hundred meters away. Images taken from orbit show that Glenelg is at the junction of 3 different terrain types, the brightest of which may be ancient lakebed sediments. It will take several sols to get to Glenelg, and we are hoping that the driving goes well.
Sol 39: Driving Again (Sat, 15 Sep 2012)
The drive went as planned, and left MSL next to a nice outcrop During the drive the DAN instrument monitored neutrons coming up from the subsurface and noticed significant variations along the way. It's not known (at least to me) what causes these variations, but possibilities include hydrated minerals, water ice (unlikely?), and density variations. Another drive is planned for Sol 39 (about 20 meters this time), so a bunch of images of the outcrop were planned before the drive. Unfortunately, we aren't expecting to get much data through the orbiters tomorrow, so we probably won't see these images for a while. Worse, we may not get enough Navcam images after the Sol 39 drive to plan more observations in the new location. The amount of data that can be relayed to the orbiters depends on how high in the sky they pass over MSL, which varies a lot day to day. In addition the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is turning instruments back on, which may interfere with MSL radio communications. Therefore, telemetry rates are set low to ensure that we get at least some data while characterizing the radio link with the instruments turned on. Most of MRO's instruments were off during MSL landing to maximize the amount of data that could be relayed from MSL. The instruments are resuming scientific data collection after the hiatus for MSL.
Sol 40: Seeking Diverse Terrain (Sun, 16 Sep 2012)
Once again, the drive went well, and we are 20 meters closer to Glenelg, our near-term goal. The terrain surrounding the rover at the end of the Sol 39 drive is not as interesting as the previous location, so we didn't plan many observations besides those needed to support drive planning. But the plan included some ChemCam observations, as the instrument team is now ready to resume tactical planning. Hooray! The Sol 40 drive will be a bit longer, over 30 meters, and should get us to a low ridge that will give us a better view of the terrain ahead.
I was reminded again today how diverse the MSL team is. Okay, white males make up the majority of the team, but women serve in many of the most important roles, including Mission Manager, Deputy Project Scientist, Tactical Uplink Lead (mostly women), and Science Theme Lead. Most impressive is the number of team members from foreign countries, including Spain, Russia, and France, for whom English is a second (or third) language. They are required to understand all of the team discussions and respond to questions in English, despite the highly technical nature of the subject matter. Some of the engineering jargon is unfamiliar to many of us who are native English speakers! For example, "IPE supra-tactical reported replacement of the MOB backbone in tosol's APAM and deconfliction of the margin after the mobility block." Hard enough to understand when English is your first language--I'm really impressed by the foreign nationals' ability to do such a good job in these conditions.
Sol 41: High Plateau (Mon, 17 Sep 2012)
Once again the drive went well and we planned another drive on Sol 41. The terrain is relatively featureless in this area, so we are focusing imaging plans on distant targets. We are on a relatively high plateau so the views toward the rim of Gale crater are better than they were from the landing site. The path to Glenelg is mostly (slightly) downhill from here, so the distant views are as good as they will get for a while.
The amount of time we have to plan each sol's activities is a bit shorter than usual these days due to unusually long delays in relaying the data from MSL through the Mars orbiters. So we are not able to plan as many scientific observations, but are still able to drive each sol. ChemCam is working well and returning good data again.
Sol 42: Active Neutron Spectrometry (Tue, 18 Sep 2012)
The Sol 41 drive went well, but we are still on relatively featureless terrain. We planned another drive for Sol 42, and a huge Mastcam mosaic from the new position. It is pointed toward Glenelg and the surrounding area, and will be used to identify interesting targets for future investigations.
Another first-time activity was completed on Sol 41: Active neutron spectrometry during the drive. These data will allow variations in hydrogen (most likely in hydrated, or water-rich minerals) within about 1 meter of the surface to be measured in greater detail. Such variations have already been detected between the places the rover has stopped.
Our work schedule is getting closer to normal workday hours, with first shift starting around 4 AM these days. By the end of September our schedule will be close to that of most Earthlings in California!
Sol 43: Transits (Wed, 19 Sep 2012)
A couple of transits of Mars' moon across the face of the sun were observed by Mastcam. These are similar to solar eclipses on Earth, but because the Martian moons are so much smaller than Earth's moon, they do not completely block the sun. But they are still fun to watch and scientifically useful, as they allow the position of the moons to be determined and their orbits to be precisely updated. The rate of change of the moon's orbits is affected by the interior structure of Mars, so in a way the transits are geophysical observations.
I was SOWG Chair for Sol 43 planning, and I was busy because it was an ambitious plan: ChemCam characterization in morning, followed by a ~30 meter drive toward a dark boulder that may become the target of close-up investigation using the arm. On the morning of Sol 44, the rover will wake up early to look for frost or fog before dawn, then take a big Mastcam panorama toward the northwest while the lighting is good.
Sol 44: Everything is Jake (Thu, 20 Sep 2012)
Once again, the rover planners (drivers) displayed their ability to position MSL accurately, leaving the rover right where we wanted. It looks like the rock named "Jake Matijevic" will suffice for the first examination of Mars by the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) and close-up imaging by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). The Sol 44 plan included Mastcam color imaging of " Jake Matijevic" that will be used to decide whether this rock is suitable for the long-anticipated arm activities. The rock was named after a pioneering JPL robotics expert who played a major role in the development and operation of the Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and MSL rovers. I am lucky to have known Jake; we met during preparations for the Mars Pathfinder (and Sojourner) mission in the mid-1990s. His name is still posted outside his JPL office in the MSL operations area, and I'm sad every time I walk past it. He would have loved to see how well MSL is doing.
We all celebrated the Mastcam images of the Phobos transit. I've enjoyed astronomy since I was a child, but astronomical observations from the surface of Mars are a special treat! Similar observations have been made from the Spirt and Opportunity rovers, but the new Mastcam images have much higher resolution. Such observations are not top priority for Mars rovers, but opportunities to view Phobos and Deimos transits are rare enough that considerable effort it put in to planning them. Because the Opportunity rover is at about the same latitude as MSL (near the equator), observations of solar transits by the Martian satellites were also planned today by the Opportunity team.
Sol 45: Bump Drive (Fri, 21 Sep 2012)
The high-resolution color images of "Jake Matijevic" show that one face of the rock is clean (dust-free) enough for detailed study using the instruments on MSL's arm. So the Sol 45 plan includes a "bump" (short rover drive) to get close enough to reach it with the arm. We also planned ChemCam laser shots on the rock before the bump to see how much its chemistry varies on millimeter scales. After the drive, late afternoon images of Aeolis Mons (the huge mountain in the middle of Gale crater, informally known as Mt. Sharp) were planned. Previous images of Aeolis Mons were taken with the sun high in the sky, so that subtle topography is difficult to see. The new mosaic should be spectacular, but will take days to weeks to return to Earth because of the large volume of data involved.
Sol 46: Perfect Bump (Sat, 22 Sep 2012)
The Sol 45 rover "bump" was executed perfectly, putting the rover in position to deploy the arm instruments to the rock "Jake Matijevic" and shoot it with ChemCam's laser. So the Sol 46 plan includes the long-awaited first use of the arm on a rock target. I look forward to seeing the close-up MAHLI images of this rock.
I feel very luck to be working on the MSL project, and even luckier today that I got to see the space shuttle "Endeavor" fly right over JPL on a 747! It then landed at the LA airport, to be trucked to the California Science Center in Exposition Park where it will be permanently displayed.
Sol 47: Out of Focus! (Sun, 23 Sep 2012)
"Mars time" is getting closer to PDT, with first shift starting around 6 AM today. Lots of good news and applause today: The Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) received its first data from a Mars rock, the first MAHLI close-up images of the same rock, and the first mass spectrometer measurement of the Martian atmosphere from SAM. But not all of the news was good...
I was SOWG Chair for Sol 47 planning, and was expecting an "easy" day for the science team because the long-anticipated arm activities had been planned well in advance and there would be no time in the plan for "opportunistic science." Well, that all changed quickly when we received the Sol 46 data that showed the ChemCam Remote Microscopic Imager (RMI) images all completely out of focus. The automatic focusing system had clearly failed, and successful focusing was required before the ChemCam laser could be fired at the same target today. So we had to scramble to recover from this anomaly and acquire ChemCam diagnostic data that would allow the engineering team to determine what had gone wrong. We were hoping to use ChemCam to measure the chemistry of the same spot on the rock "Jake Matijevic" that would be measured by the APXS before driving away on Sol 48, but it quickly became clear that this would not be possible. Instead, we decided to move the APXS spot to the place on the rock where ChemCam had previously acquired less extensive data. While not what we originally had in mind, it will allow us to proceed toward Glenelg as planned.
Sol 49: 42 Meters! (Mon, 24 Sep 2012)
Today I served as the leader of the Geology Science Theme Group, which was fun because I had never done it before. The Sol 48 drive set a new record for MSL: 42 meters! We also heard the good news that APXS acquired high-quality data in only 12 minutes, during the middle of the day when the instrument was warmer that preferred. We also enjoyed the new MAHLI images of "Jake Matijevic". So there was a lot of applause during our kickoff meeting today. The Sol 49 plan included another drive toward Glenelg, so we added some Mastcam and ChemCam observations of targets near the rover before the drive. We also planned Navcam and Mastcam panoramas after the drive, to document the area around the rover and allow more close-up observations on Sol 50.
Sol 50: Windblown Ripple Observations (Tue, 25 Sep 2012)
Yet another good drive on Sol 49, leaving the rover right next to a windblown ripple (right of center). It doesn't look like much, but it's the first one we've been close to so it was the target of ChemCam and Mastcam observations planned for Sol 50. We are currently searching for a larger ripple or windblown drift for the first use of MSL's scoop, and these observations should help us determine how suitable such a ripple would be for scooping. The goal is to find a fine-grained deposit that can be "fed" to the mechanism on the arm that will be used to crush and sort samples before they are delivered to the mineralogy and chemistry experiments inside the rover. Processing a sandy sample will not only test this mechanism, it will sweep out any terrestrial contamination still remaining in it. The entire rover was carefully cleaned before launch, but it is very difficult to remove all traces of Earth, so passing Martian soil through the mechanism will "clean" it out.
Another drive was planned for Sol 50, after the ripple observations. The Geology Theme Group focused on post-drive imaging, working with the Rover Planners to get the images they need to plan the following drive. We planned full 360-degree Navcam and Mastcam panoramas from the new location, which should allow us to pick a good soil target for scooping. Only the Navcam (wide-angle) images will be received in time to be used for planning Sol 51 observations, so we will use those images to determine which of the Mastcam images should be sent to Earth right away. If we see a good ripple or fine-grained soil patch nearby, we will probably drive over to it and scoop it up.
Sol 51: Back in Flagstaff (Thu, 27 Sep 2012)
I haven't been following the MSL mission for the last couple days, traveling back to Flagstaff to give a talk about Mars rovers for the Flagstaff Festival of Science today at Lowell Observatory. I've been giving talks for the Festival for about 10 years, starting with an overview of the Mars Exploration Rover mission (Spirit and Opportunity) before those rovers landed on Mars in 2004. So I started my talk today with a quick update on the Opportunity mission, which is still going strong and exploring new rock types. Then I turned to MSL, and ran out of time even though I left out one of the cool videos I planned to show. So there wasn't much time for questions, but enough to embarrassed by one about today's press release. I was so busy preparing for my talk that I hadn't seen the release, so I didn't know what it was about! Too bad, because it would been nice to have included in my presentation images of the outcrop that was the subject of the press conference. A few sols ago, we drove by an outcrop that was immediately recognized as conglomerate, a poorly-sorted sediment that is commonly formed in stream beds on Earth. This type of rock was expected by some to be found in this part of Gale crater, and images taken from orbit showed that the landing site is near the base of a large alluvial fan, likely formed by ancient streams.
Sol 57: First Scuff (Tue, 02 Oct 2012)
I'm back at JPL, serving as SOWG Chair planning Sol 57. The mission continues to go very well, with recent drives executed nearly perfectly. The rover is now positioned near a windblown ripple that is the current target of both scientific and engineering study. As I mentioned previously, we have been looking for a relatively fine-grained soil patch to scoop into CHIMRA, the "Collection and Handling for Interior Martian Rock Analysis" subsystem. CHIMRA will be used to sieve and portion samples into the CheMin and SAM instruments for mineralogic and organic chemical analysis. But before such samples will be delivered, some Martian soil will be used to clean any terrestrial contamination from CHIMRA by passing it through the system. So today's plan included the first "scuff" by one of the rover wheels, intended to measure the depth of the ripple and determine whether it is safe to scoop it. To scuff, the left front wheel will be rolled over the ripple, then that wheel will be rotated while the other 5 wheels are held stationary. This should allow a cross-section of the ripple to be imaged, and the composition of the interior of the ripple to be examined. After the scuff is complete, the rover will move back to essentially its current position to allow the arm to be used to place the MAHLI and APXS instruments into the scuffed area.
Sol 58: The Right Scuff (Thu, 04 Oct 2012)
The first wheel scuff went well, so we planned APXS (elemental chemistry) and MAHLI (close-up imaging) of the floor and sidewall of the scuff, as well as an undisturbed area just to the right of the scuff. These data should allow us to decide whether the ripple is suitable for the scooping using CHIMRA. We also planned REMS wind observations during the afternoon, the time of day we expect to deliver samples to the analytical instruments inside the rover body. High winds would make sample transfer difficult, as small soil grains might be blown away as they are dropped into the sample inlets.
Sol 59: Before the Descent (Fri, 05 Oct 2012)
The data from Sol 58 show that the ripple is suitable for scooping, so the Sol 59 plan includes a short rover drive to position the rover near a part of the ripple that has not been disturbed yet. The MAHLI images of the wall are beautiful and show that the interior of the ripple is mostly fine-grained sand. The grain sizes in the ripple are just what is needed to test and clean the CHIMRA. The layer of coarse grains on the surface of the ripple is thin and is covered by only a thin layer of dust.
We expect to get a large volume of data through MRO in the afternoon of Sol 59, so planning was relatively easy. We were able to include all of the science observations requested by the team, including the first half of a "long-baseline stereo" Mastcam mosaic. The Sol 59 drive should place the rover 1.1 m to the north of the current location, which will provide a nice offset for stereo images taken looking east. We targeted an interesting area south of Glenelg that we don't plan to visit before leaving this area, so this is a good opportunity to image it before descending to Glenelg.
Sol 62: Graveyard Shift (Mon, 08 Oct 2012)
I took a break over the weekend to visit my family. While I was away, MSL successfully acquired its first scoop of Martian soil, from the wind ripple we have been working at for several sols. "Mars time" (the local time at MSL's location) and PDT are nearly the same again, so that the planning team is working overnight in Pasadena, while the rover is "sleeping." First shift begins around 5 PM PDT, and the second shift is working the graveyard shift. I'll be working first shift this week, so I need to get used to working late again!
Sol 63: Bright Object (Tue, 09 Oct 2012)
When I arrived at JPL Monday evening, the discussion was still centered on the bright object seen the previous sol. The Sol 62 plan was revised late in the planning day to acquire more images of this object. The resulting Mastcam and RMI images show that is not a screw, as initially feared, but it's not clear yet what it is. While it is being studied further, a Mastcam mosaic was planned for Sol 63 instead of continuing arm activities.
I was glad to see that the scooping activities had been going well, including vibration of the first scoopful of soil. We are all hoping that the arm activities will resume soon and that the bright object is benign.
Sol 64: Opportunistic Science (Wed, 10 Oct 2012)
After much analysis and discussion, the MSL project decided that the bright object on the ground is benign and that we can therefore proceed with the long-anticipated first sample manipulation activities. These activities are complex enough that there was not room in the Sol 64 plan for "opportunistic science," so the science team focused on activities to be included in the plans for future sols. I worked with the folks in charge of long-term planning to figure out when we can fit a ChemCam decontamination (heating) activity that should be done every week or so. It's looking like Sol 66 will work, but of course the plan may change...
Sol 65: First-Time Activities (Thu, 11 Oct 2012)
There was applause again today when the successful completion of the first CHIMRA sieving and processing of soil was announced. While it was expected that it would take months to get through all of these "first-time" activities, this latest achievement reminds me of how complex MSL is. There are still many first-time activities ahead!
I served as ChemCam Payload Element Lead for the first time today, so was a bit nervous about my ability to handle this new responsibility. It ended up being easy, as very few science observations were added to the already full plan, and the ChemCam team was released early.
Sol 66: Decontamination Time (Fri, 12 Oct 2012)
The Sol 66 plan includes the second scooping activity on the same sandy ripple, again intended to be used to flush out the CHIMRA system, removing any remaining terrestrial contamination. This won't take the entire sol, and there were a couple blocks of time available for science observations. So it was a busy day (actually night, with my shift starting at 5 PM PDT) for the science team, preparing and prioritizing potential observations. I was focused on ChemCam again as PEL, and our top priority was to run our decontamination heaters for 2 hours. We have been doing this approximately weekly to ensure that gases released within the rover body when it was warm (during cruise to Mars) have not condensed on ChemCam's detectors. Ideally, LIBS (laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy) measurements of our titanium calibration target should be acquired soon before and after the decontamination heating, to see whether instrument performance has changed. The problem with doing this is that just cooling down and turning on the instrument takes about 40 minutes, so fitting it in with other science observations isn't easy. But the team recognized the importance of this instrument maintenance and it made it into the plan along with Mastcam, MAHLI, DAN, RAD, and REMS observations. Hopefully it will all go well and we will be able to squeeze in another (post-decontamination) ChemCam observation of the titanium target in the Sol 67 plan.
Sol 67: Getting the Scoop (Sat, 13 Oct 2012)
Less than half of the ChemCam data acquired on Sol 66 have been received so far, but it looks like the activities we planned before the decontamination heating went well. So we requested another titanium calibration target observation in Sol 67, and the theme groups requested a new 3x3 LIBS raster on the rock "Pearson" and 2 RMI images of the 2nd scoop trench. Initially, the RMI images were planned in the early afternoon, so that the images would be returned to Earth right away and be used to study the bright spot seen in a Right Mastcam image of the scoop trench. But concerns that the bright spot is more material shed from the flight system, and that some of this terrestrial material is in the scooped dirt, led the tactical team to decide to dump the scoop and take MAHLI images of the scoop targets first. This freed up enough time in the plan that we could combine the ChemCam observations into a single block, which we preferred to save time. Because the MAHLI images replaced the RMI images as the data needed to determine what is causing the bright spot, this change was approved. It looks we will not continue scooping activities on Sol 68, as we don't want to put any terrestrial material into CHIMRA, and certainly not in the analytical instruments!
Sol 68: Schmutz! (Sun, 14 Oct 2012)
The MAHLI image of the "schmutz" in the 2nd scoop trench (at lower left in photo) shows that it is brighter than anything else in the image, but it's still not clear what it is. In case it is debris from MSL, a nearby area of the same sandy ripple will be imaged by MAHLI to determine whether similar debris is present there. If not, the plan is to scoop that target. MAHLI images of other potential scoop targets were also planned, along with Mastcam, ChemCam, and other observations. It was my last shift as ChemCam PEL, and I was glad that we were able to squeeze in another instrument characterization activity, intended to determine the best gain setting for RMI imaging. The results of this test will be used to improve the quality of future RMI images.
Sol 69: Pushing Data (Mon, 15 Oct 2012)
The command sequences prepared for Sol 68 were not received by MSL due to a problem with a radio transmitter at a Deep Space Network ground station. But enough data were received from earlier sols that we were confident that we could resume scooping on a new site, where contamination was not seen in close-up MAHLI images. So the Sol 69 plan includes some of the activities we intended to perform on Sol 68, plus scooping and documentation imaging of the new site. I was MAHLI/MARDI uplink lead, so was busy making sure that we planned the MAHLI images we need, working with the rover planners to optimize the plan.
About halfway into the Sol 69 planning process, we learned that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) went into "safe mode." MRO has been in safe mode several times during its mission, and has recovered every time, so we expect that the orbiter will recover quickly. But it reminds us how much MSL depends on the orbiters--we will not be able to use MRO for data relay for at least a couple days. While we can still receive MSL data through Mars Odyssey, the data volume is typically greater via MRO. And it is possible to receive data directly from MSL to Earth, but data volumes are even lower. So we hope that the MRO project will be able to understand and recover from this anomaly quickly.
Sol 71: Observation Tray (Wed, 17 Oct 2012)
The third scoop of soil was successfully acquired, and partly processed by CHIMRA, dumping part of it on the observation tray. So MSL is back on track despite the unavailability of MRO data relay and other communications problems. MRO has exited safe mode and is expected to resume relaying MSL data today. The plan for Sol 71 is to use CHIMRA to sieve the sample and deliver it to CheMin, the mineralogy instrument inside the rover. It will be the first Mars sample for CheMin, an event that has been eagerly anticipated. The Mastcam will then take pictures of CheMin's sample inlet to confirm that all went well. Other Mastcam and ChemCam observations were also planned for Sol 71. I was not scheduled in a tactical role the past 2 sols, so have been catching up on other work before I'm back on as SOWG Chair for Sols 72-74.
Sol 72: MRO is back (Thu, 18 Oct 2012)
MRO is back--we received over 400 Mbits of data through the orbiter yesterday! The amount of data relayed through MRO will decrease once the orbiter's instruments are operating again (they were turned on this morning), but in the meantime we're enjoying the flood of data. Among the new data were 810 ChemCam laser shots acquired on Sol 71--a new record for a single sol. For Sol 72, we planned a raster of ChemCam laser shots of the bright particle "Schmutz2" in the second scoop trench. And the much-anticipated first mineralogical analysis by CheMin was planned to run into the early morning of Sol 73.
"Mars time" is rough for those of us on first shift these days: The daily "science discussion" started at 10 PM PDT, and I wasn't done with SOWG Chair duties until 7:30 this morning. It didn't seem fair that I got caught in morning rush hour traffic on my way home! But I've realized that this may be the last time I'll work on "Mars time" in my career--it looks like there will not be another NASA spacecraft landed on Mars this decade--so I'm trying to enjoy it. In fact, I'm getting used to being a Martian, even though sleeping during the day is difficult.
Sol 73: CheMin Online (Sat, 20 Oct 2012)
The team applauded the first results from CheMin, which show that the instrument is working well, measuring abundances of minerals in the sandy first sample delivered to it. The CheMin scientists thanked the Surface Sampling Subsystem team for doing such a good job delivering the first sample, and there was another round of applause.
The plan for Sol 73 is dominated by more arm activities, processing another scooped sample through CHIMRA to further clean out any terrestrial contamination before a sample is delivered to SAM, which is very sensitive to organic material. We don't want to put any organic material from Earth into SAM! There wasn't much room in the plan for additional science observations, but we were able to squeeze in a MAHLI image of the observation tray to see whether the soil placed on it during Sol 70 slid or blew off the tray.
Sol 74: Squeezing More In (Sun, 21 Oct 2012)
As the MSL operations team gets more experience, we are getting more aggressive. In addition to the long-planned arm activities (4th scoop of soil), we added MAHLI images of the far side of the ripple we are scooping, Mastcam mosaics, and ChemCam LIBS observations of a nearby patch of soil during the day and just before dawn. The ChemCam observations are intended to see whether water frost forms on the surface during the night, by comparing the amount of hydrogen seen in the LIBS spectra when the soil is warm and cold. It was my last sol as SOWG Chair, and I was happy that we were able to squeeze so much into the Sol 74 plan.
I'll be taking a few days off from tactical operations this week, traveling to the Bay Area to give an overview of the Curiosity mission at the USGS in Menlo Park.
Sol 75: Week Off (Tue, 23 Oct 2012)
I'm not at JPL for the rest of the week, but was glad to see that the ChemCam shot at the soil near MSL went as planned on Sol 74. Since then, more observations of the ChemCam calibration targets have been successfully acquired, which is good news because the calibration is long overdue. Also, a Mastcam image of the latest soil scoop was returned.
Sol 82: CHIMRA Cleaning (Sun, 28 Oct 2012)
MSL operations have gone well while I was in the Bay Area: the team applauded the successful completion of CHIMRA cleaning today. As a bonus, almost 1 gigabit of data were received on Sol 81! I was MAHLI payload uplink lead for Sol 82 planning, and had to scramble to get up to speed after being away for a few days. A lot of good MAHLI observations were proposed, and most of them made it into the plan: Stereo observations of two rocks near the left front wheel that cannot be well imaged by the Navigation cameras, and a couple images of the latest scoop trench. The stereo MAHLI images will hopefully be useful in determining whether the APXS can measure the chemistry of these rocks.
Mars time is getting closer to Pacific Daylight Time these days--my shift didn't start until 6:30 this morning. We will receive data from MSL even earlier tomorrow morning, so I have to arrive at JPL at 5:45 AM. But we will not be working on Mars time for long--the plan is to transition to "Earth time" by Sol 90.
Sol 83: Shifting Gears (Tue, 30 Oct 2012)
The MAHLI images of the rocks right in front of the rover came out nicely and are being processed to enable APXS placement on one or both of them. The Sol 83 plan focused on SAM and CheMin activities, in preparation for the next scooping and delivery of soil to those instruments. So there wasn't much room in the plan for anything else, and no new MAHLI images were planned. I had an easy day, but have to start my next MAHLI PUL shift at 4:30 tomorrow morning. It will be my last PUL shift on Mars time, and the last difficult start time for me. While I'm looking forward to returning to a normal schedule, I'll miss the excitement of working with the whole team at JPL. After Sol 90 the plan is for most of the science team to return to their home institutions and support rover operations remotely. More on that later...
Sol 84: SAM I Am (Wed, 31 Oct 2012)
We continue to prepare for the first delivery of a sample of Mars to SAM, the big analytical chemistry instrument on MSL. CheMin already analyzed its first soil sample, and SAM is next. The SAM "pre-conditioning" was successful, so the next scoop of soil will be delivered to SAM. As MAHLI PUL for the last time this week, I helped plan a "self-portrait" of the rover from the camera on the end of MSL's arm. It should yield a nice view of the entire rover, including the remote sensing mast that holds the cameras that usually take pictures of the rover: the stereo Mastcams and Navcams, and the ChemCam LIBS and camera combination. It addition, we planned more stereo images of the rocks right in front of the rover to extend the topographic map of the area surrounding them. This map is needed to ensure that the arm instruments (especially APXS) can be deployed on these rocks.
Sol 87: Self Portrait (Fri, 02 Nov 2012)
The MAHLI "self portrait" of the rover that we planned on Sol 84 came out beautifully. Several other updates on the MSL mission are related to the news conference this morning, which included discussion of SAM atmospheric measurements. The SAM data indicate that much of Mars' atmosphere has escaped, as suspected based on previous studies. The rate of atmospheric escape is greater on Mars than on Earth because of the difference in gravity--if you weigh 100 pounds on Earth, you would weigh only 38 pounds on Mars. This difference makes it easier for gas molecules to fly away from Mars, and for the effects of these losses to be measured.
I served as SOWG chair today, and struggled to catch up with what had happened in the 2 days I took off since my last tactical shift. Fortunately, there were several people at JPL who had been working operations while I was away, and they helped me get up to speed quickly. The reports saved each sol on the team web site were also helpful, as usual, and will become even more important as we transition to remote operations next week.
Sol 88: Remote Remote (Sat, 03 Nov 2012)
We squeezed a lot of good science observations into the Sol 88 plan, and I'm happy with it. There were a lot of conflicting requests from the science theme groups, but we got most of them into the plan, including both arm and remote sensing activities. The only instrument that will not be acquiring new data is CheMin. I'm getting more used to the compressed tactical schedule and the tools we need to enable remote operations. So is the rest of the operations team, which is good because most of the science team will be leaving JPL next week.
Sol 89: Working from Home (Sun, 04 Nov 2012)
I served as SOWG Chair for my last MSL tactical shift on Mars time. It was bittersweet: I'll miss working with the whole team at JPL, but I'm looking forward to going home. We are learning how to more effectively operate the rover with most of the team being "remote" (working from their home institutions rather than in residence at JPL). The transition to remote operations is going well, but we are still working to find better ways to communicate. We have multiple videoconferencing lines set up, but it impossible for the tactical leadership to call in to all of them. We are also using internet chat rooms for the various groups, which is easier to follow. We also schedule tagup meetings to make sure everyone is on the same page at key points in the planning process. The techniques we are using will continue to evolve as we get more experience with remote operations.
Sol 89 planning went well, with the biggest challenge being how to get the data we need to proceed with SAM and scooping activities later this week. Mars Odyssey is not available this week for data relay, and MRO won't go right over MSL on Sol 89. So we won't get much data from MSL until Sol 90. If all goes well, we will have just enough information to allow us to proceed with the Sol 91 plan.
Sol 91: Dry Run (Tue, 06 Nov 2012)
I made it home to Flagstaff last night despite being detoured by a fire that closed I-15 near Cajon Pass. I verified that the web tools and phone access to the MSL tactical planning meetings worked well, and followed the SOWG meeting planning Sol 91. The tools are similar to those we have been using for the Opportunity rover, so it was easy for me to get connected. So while it would be nice to still be working operations at JPL, it's good to be home and I'm confident that remote operations will work well. I'm not staffed in a tactical shift until Friday, so was not fully engaged in planning today. But it's clear that all is going well. The focus is on preparing SAM for delivery of its first solid sample, which involved a "dry run" that went well and preconditioning on Sol 91. Most SAM activities require a lot of power, as expected, so there wasn't much room for other science. But the science team squeezed in some ChemCam and Navcam observations, along with the normal background REMS, DAN and RAD measurements.
Sol 94: Driving in Flagstaff (Sat, 10 Nov 2012)
The fifth scoop of Martian soil was successful, and Sol 94 planning was focussed on processing the sample and delivering it to CheMin. The X-ray diffraction instrument will then analyze the sample overnight. There was enough power and time left for a couple Mastcam mosaics in the afternoon.
I served as Science Uplink Representative (SUR) for the first time since Sol 3. The operations schedule has been significantly compressed since then, so had less time to get my job done. And this was my first tactical shift since the transition to remote operations, which added the challenge of interacting with the rest of the team from my office in Flagstaff. We had some trouble with the web broadcast tool that were overcome by starting over a couple times, otherwise planning went well. The SUR is the science team lead for the second shift, so I ended up working until almost 11 PM local time. This would have been less of a problem if the first storm of the season hit Flagstaff the same night. During a break between the last two sequence reviews, I decided to drive home before the roads got icy. It was more difficult to participate in the last meeting using my laptop and home phone, but it worked. Hopefully the weather will be better for Sol 95 planning.
Sol 95: Preconditioning (Sun, 11 Nov 2012)
There was applause in the MSL SOWG meeting room and on the phone lines as the first SAM results on solid Martian material were announced. The instrument appears to be working well, and the team is busy analyzing the new data. The plan for Sol 95 therefore included another SAM "preconditioning" activity to prepare for another scoop sample. The more complicated part of the plan involved lots of arm motion to process and drop the rest of the scoop 5 sample to the observation tray and measure it with APXS. This will allow results from various instruments to be compared, which will allow the team to more fully understand the detailed composition of the soil sample and to compare the calibration of the instruments. MAHLI images of the material on the observation tray will be taken to determine how much material is measured by APXS. It was nearly midnight in Flagstaff when my shift ended, almost like being on Mars time!
Sol 96: Arm Complexity (Tue, 13 Nov 2012)
The plan for Sol 96 was dominated by continued arm activities, with little room for "opportunistic science." So my last shift as SUR (this week) was fairly easy. The plan included dropping another soil sample into the SAM instrument, with Mastcam and MAHLI support imaging. As we stepped through each sequence in detail, I was again impressed by the complexity of the arm, CHIMRA in particular. Fortunately, there is a team of very capable engineers who are focused on operating the arm. Thanks to them, the arm activities have been going well. I'm getting more used to remote operations, but following the details of various discussions is still challenging.
Sol 97: Meeting at APL (Wed, 14 Nov 2012)
I'm at the Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland for a ChemCam science team meeting this week. The location was chosen, in part, to make traveling easier overall--it's between France and JPL. Some of the team members are supporting MSL tactical operations so that the rest of us can focus on the meeting. It's nice to take a break from operations and think about ChemCam data analysis and interpretation, but difficult to keep up with what the rover is doing. One of the people who is working operations reported that the latest SAM analysis had to be pulled out of yesterday's plan because there wasn't enough power to do it and the decontamination heating that ChemCam needs every week or so. This must have been very frustrating for the operations team!
Sol 99: ChemCam Team Meeting (Thu, 15 Nov 2012)
The ChemCam science team meeting went well, but we have a lot of work to do. Of course everyone knew this before the meeting, and now we are more focused on the most important tasks. We have a lot of excellent data, and the most important near-term goal is to broaden the range of rocks and minerals in the database that is used to match Mars spectra with known materials. We knew roughly what to expect before MSL delivered ChemCam to Mars, and built the database appropriately. But it is clear that expanding the database will improve the fidelity of the mineralogic modeling, so it must be done soon. I presented my work on RMI image compression testing, which is much less important but will allow us to significantly reduce the data volume of each image, in turn allowing us to acquire and return more images to Earth.
Sol 102: Driving Again (Sat, 17 Nov 2012)
I'm back on tactical operations tomorrow as SOWG Chair, so I'm following along with Sol 102 planning to get up to speed after being away at the ChemCam team meeting. The rover drove to a nearby rock target yesterday, and the plan is to drive 35 meters on Sol 102 after placing the APXS on the nearby rock target for a short chemistry measurement. The rover will stop early in the drive to look back at the scuff in the ripple using Mastcam. This is a fairly complex plan, and I'm happy to see that the ops team is taking it on. We had some trouble with one of the web video sharing tools today, so had to use a backup system that is slower (long delay relative to phone/real time). Otherwise, remote operations are going well and MSL is healthy. It helps that I can recognize most of the voices on the phone!
Sol 103: Restricted (Sun, 18 Nov 2012)
Overall, my first shift as SOWG Chair since the transition to remote operations went well. The better tool for sharing video on the web was not working again today, so we had to resort to the backup tool, which again was slower and frustrating at times. But we couldn't plan much science anyway because today was a "restricted" sol. On of the disadvantages of working on "Earth time" (reasonable hours Pacific time) is that, almost half the time, we receive data from MSL too late in the day to react to it tactically. So we have to plan a day in advance, and assume that the previously planned activities went well. We planned a 35-meter drive yesterday, but won't know how it went until late this afternoon. Therefore, we could plan only activities that didn't depend on accurate knowledge of the rover position and orientation. The most important activity we planned for Sol 103 is a checkout of MSL's drill, which won't take too long, so we had room for opportunistic science activities. These included a DAN active measurement of the hydrogen below the surface at our new location, and a 180-degree Navcam panorama to complete the coverage of the area surrounding the rover. We'll use the latter to plan observations over the Thanksgiving holiday, assuming all goes well.
Sol 104-107: To Bump Or Not To Bump (Thu, 22 Nov 2012)
The "touch and go" planned for Sol 102 went well, the data arriving in time for planning Sol 104. There was a lot of discussion of whether to "bump" the rover a few meters farther to improve the view toward Yellowknife Bay, our near-term drive objective. Ultimately we decided to stay put, which allowed us to accurately target Mastcam mosaics in the Sol 105-107 plan. I was SOWG Chair for this first of 2 "multisol" plans which would allow the operations team to take a break during the Thanksgiving holiday. Because it was the first time we had planned more than one sol's worth of activities at a time, we kept the plan simple. In addition to the Mastcam mosaics, we planned some atmospheric observations and DAN (neutron spectrometer) measurements in our new location. This planning approach worked well, without stressing the tactical team very much. Still, I was glad when we were done, as I needed a break from tactical operations to catch up on other work before the holiday. Happy Thanksgiving!
Sol 112: Yellowknife Bay (Tue, 27 Nov 2012)
We've received much of the data acquired during the Thanksgiving holiday, including the Mastcam panorama of Yellowknife Bay, the near-term drive goal. These images will be used to pick specific targets for drilling. Meanwhile, a short "bump" of about 1 meter was planned on Sol 112, to allow arm contact on the rockunder the rover's left front wheel. Planning is still "restricted" for a few sols until Mars and Earth time get back in synch, so we can't plan drive or arm activities every day because we need data showing the position of the rover/arm before planning new rover/arm motions.
Sol 113: The Drill (Thu, 29 Nov 2012)
I'm back on tactical operations today, this time as MAHLI/MARDI Payload Uplink Lead. The Sol 113 plan included further checkouts of the drill and other remote sensing, but no MAHLI or MARDI activities, so it was an easy day for me. Just as well, as I'm scrambling to catch up with work on other projects!
Sol 114: Looking Forward to AGU (Fri, 30 Nov 2012)
I'm MAHLI/MARDI PUL1 again today, and again no MAHLI or MARDI activities made it into the plan. The focus of the Sol 114 plan is to deliver another sample of the wind ripple to SAM. The last scoop sample was saved in CHIMRA to allow the option of analyzing another sample; we are exercising that option now. This new SAM analysis of the scoop sample is motivated in part by the desire to better understand the results of the previous SAM analysis. The preliminary results will be reported at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco next week. About 20,000 scientists are expected to attend this meeting, so I expect that the MSL session will be well attended.
Sol 115: Organics? (Tue, 04 Dec 2012)
Again, there were no MAHLI or MARDI activities planned during my last sol (for a while) as PUL. But lots of ChemCam and Mastcam observations of local rock targets were planned, along with SAM's 4th analysis of soil. The previous measurements of the soil show evidence for a variety of compounds, perhaps including organics. But the organics may have been brought from Earth, so further analyses are needed to confirm this.
I will be on vacation for a week, but will try to keep track of what MSL is up to.
Sol 126: Back to Mars (Thu, 13 Dec 2012)
I'm back in Flagstaff after a nice vacation with my wife, catching up on what the rovers have been doing while I was away. MSL has been busy driving down into "Yellowknife Bay," pausing at a layered outcrop dubbed Shaler to acquire remote-sensing data. The rover is now on the floor of Yellowknife Bay, looking for a good target for the first drilling operation. A short drive toward a small scarp is planned for Sol 127.
Sol 129: Contact Science (Sun, 16 Dec 2012)
We have been waiting for the remaining soil sample in CHIMRA to be dumped before the arm instruments can be fully used again. The Sol 128 plan included cleaning the sample out of CHIMRA and taking Mastcam images to confirm that the cleaning was successful. If that went well, we could plan "contact science" with the arm on Sol 129. But the confirming data would not be analyzed until the beginning of the SOWG meeting, so we had to formulate contingency plans while we waited for the go-ahead for contact science. This made for a difficult planning day for the team. As SOWG Chair, I had to make quick decisions and rush through the meeting, but I was happy with the plan when we were through. We got the word that CHIMRA was clean a bit earlier than expected, and proceeded to plan observations of 2 targets in front of the rover with APXS and MAHLI. We also planned ChemCam and Mastcam observations, plus DAN active neutron spectroscopy in our new location.
Sol 130: No Uncertainty (Mon, 17 Dec 2012)
Planning went more smoothly for Sol 130, mostly because there was no uncertainty about the use of the arm. The biggest decision was whether to use the arm to acquire more APXS and MAHLI data on another target before driving away. Once the data from the Sol 129 observations were verified as good enough (including the highest-resolution MAHLI images acquired yet), we concluded that observing other targets with ChemCam and Mastcam was more important. We also had to decide where to drive, and settled on an approach to a steep exposure of rock just north of the rover.
Sol 133: Good Parking Spot (Wed, 19 Dec 2012)
I was Geology Science Theme Group Lead today for the first time in several weeks, and it ended up being a busy day. We had to pick the location we want to park the rover during the Christmas/New Year's holiday break, and drive there on Sol 133 so that we get the images taken from the new location before the last planning session before the break. We are in "restricted" planning again, because Mars and Earth time our out of sync enough that we don't get data from the rover in time to plan the next sol. Therefore, we can't precisely target observations from the new location until Sol 135. We decided to drive to a place with a good view of the outcrops surrounding Yellowknife Bay to allow good imaging of these outcrops before the holiday break. As the images are returned during the break, we can use them to help decide where to perform the first drilling operation.
Sol 134: Relatively Idle (Tue, 25 Dec 2012)
I was Science Uplink Representative (SUR) for the last time for Sol 134 planning. The MSL Project decided to combine the SOWG Chair and SUR jobs starting in the new year, so the SOWG Chairs will be working longer shifts. Sol 134 planning was restricted (data arrived too late to affect planning) so we focused on ChemCam calibration observations. Therefore, it was not a complicated planning day and I recognized that combining the SOWG Chair and SUR jobs would not be difficult. Sol 135 was the last one planned tactically before the holiday break. While I'm disappointed that MSL will be relatively idle during the break, I and the rest of the operations team are ready for a vacation.
Sol 147: Snake River (Wed, 02 Jan 2013)
After the holiday hiatus, the MSL operations team sprang back into action to plan Sol 147 activities. The rover has been waiting patiently for more exciting duties, and she will be rewarded with commands to drive toward a sinuous outcrop named "Snake River." The science team studied the data acquired and returned over the holidays and decided that "Snake River" and the surrounding rocks should be the next subject of investigation using the arm instruments. As SOWG Chair, I was responsible for leading the team to this decision, and the thoughtful analysis that the team recently completed made my job easy. In addition to the drive, we planned pre-drive ChemCam and Mastcam observations of nearby rocks, and all the post-drive imaging needed to properly plan arm activities in the new location.
Sol 148: Instrument Health (Fri, 04 Jan 2013)
Because MSL planning is "restricted" these days and we planned a drive on Sol 147, we could not accurately point at targets on Mars on Sol 148. So it was a good time to take care of some instrument health and calibration activities that are periodically needed, including heating of the ChemCam instrument to remove any contaminants that may have frozen onto the sensors. We planned some ChemCam observations of calibration targets before heating up the instrument, and a CheMin calibration activity in preparation for analyzing the first drill sample. It was an easier day for the planning team, and my shift as SOWG Chair lasted less than 9 hours (Sol 147 planning took more like the nominal 11 hours).
Sol 150: A Bit Rusty (Sat, 05 Jan 2013)
The short drive went well, so lots of "contact science" was planned for Sols 149 and 150. I was MAHLI/MARDI PUL1 for the first time since November for Sol 150 planning, and was a bit rusty. Fortunately, similar MAHLI observations were planned for Sols 149 and 150 (context and high-resolution images of APXS targets), so only a few changes were needed for Sol 150 MAHLI planning. We are studying chemical and textural differences in the rocks near Snake River.
Sol 151: Younger Rocks (Mon, 07 Jan 2013)
A short "bump" toward slightly younger rocks in front of the rover was planned for Sol 151, and no MAHLI observations were included so I had an easy day as PUL. The contact science activities in the current location went well, including the first brushing of the surface. In order to characterize the geology and chemistry of the rocks at the edge of Yellowknife Bay, we intend to repeat the set of brushing, APXS, MAHLI, ChemCam and Mastcam activities at the new location starting on Sol 152. These activities won't be planned until Tuesday, because we are taking a day off Monday while Mars and Earth schedules sync up again. About every 5 weeks, such a "skip" sol is scheduled, giving Earthlings a break, but the rover won't notice.
Sol 153: Advance Planning (Thu, 10 Jan 2013)
I was MAHLI/MARDI uplink lead again for Sol 153 planning, but there were no MAHLI or MARDI observations in the plan, so I focused instead on advance planning for Sol 154. Now that the duration of the daily tactical process has been reduced to 11 hours, part of the science team spends a couple hours each afternoon getting a head start on planning the next sol. This avoids having to start the tactical process much earlier in the morning every day. We are planning a lot of arm activities on Sol 154, including a bunch of MAHLI close-up images.
Sol 158: An Exciting Sol (Mon, 14 Jan 2013)
I was SOWG Chair for Sol 158 planning, and it was an exciting sol. On Sol 156, there was a minor problem with the arm that caused the team to preclude more arm contact science until the anomaly was better understood. Fortunately, good work in the testbed at JPL yesterday verified that the problem was well understood, and we got the go ahead for contact science on Sol 158 just in time to make it happen. This includes APXS and MAHLI observations of two targets, plus a nice MAHLI mosaic of the rock ledge in front of the rover.
Sol 159: Concretions (Tue, 15 Jan 2013)
For Sol 159, we planned MAHLI imaging of one more rock outcrop before stowing the arm and driving about 1 meter backward. The goal of this short "bump" is to allow us to use the arm instruments to investigate spherical objects in the rock that some team members have interpreted as concretions--blobs of minerals that probably precipitated as water/brines cooled and/or evaporated. See examples of these concretions. The biggest challenge today was to return all of the data we need for Sol 160 planning, because the volume of data we expect to be able to return to Earth via the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is smaller than usual.
Sol 160: A Bright Rock (Wed, 16 Jan 2013)
The Sol 159 "bump" went well, and we received the images we needed to plan ChemCam, MAHLI, and Mastcam observations in the new location. As MAHLI uplink lead for Sol 160, I was focused on planning close-up images of a bright rock that apparently was broken and freshly exposed by the rover wheel. This target is visible below and left of center in this image. During the SOWG meeting, we were able to add an additional MAHLI observation, looking under the rock ledge in front of the rover.
Sol 167: Ready to Drill (Wed, 23 Jan 2013)
We have arrived at John Klein, the location selected for the first use of the drill! There are multiple potential drill targets in front of the rover, which must be flat as well as scientifically interesting. The Sol 167 plan includes a MAHLI mosaic of the area that can be reached by the drill, to allow more precise selection of drill targets. Also planned are higher-resolution MAHLI and APXS observations of the top two drill targets, and RMI images of the drill tip. Because the rover will be in this location for several weeks while the drill is being tested and we hope used to deliver samples to SAM and CheMin, we are also acquiring a full Navcam panorama to enable Mastcam and ChemCam observations of the surrounding terrain to be accurately pointed.
Sol 168: Ninth Anniversary (Thu, 24 Jan 2013)
Today is the 9th anniversary of Opportunity's landing on Mars. Her twin Mars Exploration Rover, Spirit, sent her last transmission to Earth in 2010, after over 6 years of successful operation on the surface of Mars. Not bad, considering the nominal mission lifetime of the MER rovers was 90 days. If MSL exceeds its one-Mars-year lifetime by a similar factor, it will outlive me! Speaking of MSL, the first nighttime MAHLI images are available. Images were taken with the white-light LEDs as well as ultraviolet LEDs. The latter are used to look for fluorescent minerals. As shown here, the MAHLI calibration target includes a fluorescent swatch that confirms that the UV LEDs are working. Fluorescence of the Martian surface is not obvious, but analysis continues...
Sol 169: Staying Put (Fri, 25 Jan 2013)
I was MAHLI/MARDI uplink lead again today, planning images of potential drill targets. We still need more information before we can start drilling, and there are more tests to be done before the first drilling activity. So it looks like we will be in the same place for several weeks!
Sol 170 - 171: Preload Testing (Sun, 27 Jan 2013)
Preparations for the first drilling activities continue to go well. The focus of the Sol 170 and 171 plans was to test the ability of arm to press the drill against the surface. Four targets were selected for the "preload" testing, and the arm was left pressed against one of them overnight, to see how the pressure changed with temperature. I was MAHLI uplink lead over the weekend, and helped plan images of the 4 targets before and after the preload tests. The goal of these images is to look at changes in the surface caused by pushing the drill against it.
Sol 174: Fully Charged (Wed, 30 Jan 2013)
I served as SOWG Chair for Sol 174 planning, which includes the first use of the drill on Mars. Drill tailings will not be collected during this test, which will use only the percussion (not rotation) drilling mode. MAHLI images will be taken before and after the drill activity, so the effect of the percussion on the outcrop target should be easy to assess. To enable SAM analysis of one of the "blank" samples brought from Earth on Sol 175, the Sol 174 plan has to leave the rover batteries nearly fully charged at the time of handover to the Sol 175 plan. This didn't leave much room for activities in addition to the drill test, but we were able to squeeze in ChemCam, DAN, Mastcam, and REMS observations.
Sol 175: Runout Plan (Thu, 31 Jan 2013)
As SOWG Chair again, I worked hard today to fit as many observations into the Sol 175 plan as possible while leaving enough energy in the batteries for Sol 176 activities. Overnight SAM analysis of a blank cell in preparation for a drill sample takes a lot of power, but we were still able to plan lots of additional MAHLI imaging during the day. We had almost finished reviewing and polishing the sequences when the latest data from the rover were received, including some bad news: there was an anomaly during the arm activities on Sol 174. It was too late in the day to make the major changes in the Sol 175 plan needed to respond to this anomaly, so we had to quit work on the Sol 175 plan and let the rover execute the "runout" plan that is routinely included in every day's set of commands. The runout consists of a few simple, safe activities--very different from the complex plan we developed today. While this was disappointing, the rover is safe and will likely recover quickly. When planning is "restricted" as it was today, because Mars and Earth time our out of sync, we have to accept the risk that we will not receive data from the rover in time to respond to it.
Sol 176: Anomaly (Fri, 01 Feb 2013)
Because the "drill-on-rock checkout" activity did not complete successfully on Sol 174, the MSL team had to work extra hard to determine how best to recover from the anomaly. Several engineers worked overnight in the rover testbed at JPL to understand the root cause of the problem in time to allow the tactical planning team to repeat the drill checkout on Sol 176 with only a minor change. Because this repeat affects what was tentatively planned for the next few sols, we had to quickly revise the long-term plan and consider how much power is needed in future sols before finalizing the Sol 176 plan. So it was a hectic day as SOWG Chair, but we were all glad the recovery was so quick.
Sol 181: Waiting for Confirmation (Wed, 06 Feb 2013)
Planning is still "restricted," so we had an opportunity to acquire more ChemCam and imaging data on Sol 181 while waiting for confirmation that the Sol 180 "mini-drill" test completed successfully. As MAHLI/MARDI uplink lead, I focused on planning MAHLI images of 3 targets in front of the rover. We had to avoid the area of the drill testing, to avoid disturbing it, but there are plenty of other areas of interest. Again, the planning assumes that the Sol 181 activities went well, because we won't receive the Sol 181 data until early tomorrow morning.
Sol 182: Mini-Drill Test (Thu, 07 Feb 2013)
The "mini-drill" test went well, so Sol 182 planning focused on the first full drilling activity. As MAHLI/MARDI uplink lead again, I concentrated on planning MAHLI images of the drill target, to be taken both before and after the drilling. A lot of effort had already gone into planning these images, so I spent most of my time helping to ensure that the planned durations of these imaging activities were correct and would fit into the available time. We also had to tweak the downlink priority of some of the images to ensure that the data needed to assess the results of the drilling will be received in time to plan the next sol.
Sol 183: First Drill Sample! (Sun, 10 Feb 2013)
I was happy to see that first drill sample was successfully acquired on Sol 182, as shown in one of the MAHLI images I helped plan. The whole team is very excited about this news!
Sol 195: Feeding Chemin (Thu, 21 Feb 2013)
After taking a break from tactical operations for an MSL science team meeting (and a bit of vacation) last week, I'm back on as SOWG chair for Sol 195 planning. The most exciting part of this plan is "feeding" some of the first drill sample to Chemin. There wasn't much room to add additional science observations to the plan, but we were able to squeeze in a couple of ChemCam LIBS activities. We can't wait to see what Chemin will tell us about the minerals in the drill sample!
Sol 196: Power Limits (Fri, 22 Feb 2013)
Planning was more difficult today because of power limitations. The top priority for Sol 196 is to drop some of the drill sample into SAM and analyze it overnight. SAM is the largest instrument on MSL, and it requires lots of power to run. As usual, the tactical science team proposed some additional observations, but it quickly became apparent that they would not fit into the plan. Even after making the difficult decision to remove them during the SOWG meeting, we still didn't have enough power. Fortunately, we got an updated power prediction late in the meeting that was more favorable--based on analysis of the latest telemetry from the rover, it became clear that the initial estimate of the battery charge at the beginning of Sol 196 was too low. The change in the power prediction allowed us to keep all of the SAM activities in the plan!
Sol 197: Two-Sol Planning (Mon, 25 Feb 2013)
For the first time, I was SOWG Chair for a 2-sol planning session on Saturday. Earlier this month, the MSL project stopped scheduling tactical operations on Sundays, to give the team a break once a week. So we've been planning 2 sols at a time on Saturdays, which can be challenging, but it went pretty well this time. The focus continues to be on Chemin and SAM analysis of the first drill sample, and we look forward to hearing the results of these analyses soon. We were also able to add a few DAN and Mastcam observations, again limited by battery power.
Sol 200: Quiet Day (Wed, 27 Feb 2013)
I'm scheduled as MAHLI/MARDI uplink lead 4 days this week. The first planning day, for Sol 200, was rather quiet for me, with just a single MAHLI activity (pulling old images out of the camera's memory and preparing less-compressed versions). Most of the rover power continues to be used to analyze the first drill sample in Chemin and SAM.
Sol 201: Memory Problem (Thu, 28 Feb 2013)
During Sol 200, MSL was unable to save data to part of its memory, so the rover stopped what it was doing and waited for more instructions. The engineering team at JPL is analyzing the available telemetry to determine how to recover from this anomaly, and the Sol 201 plan was cancelled. The problem does not sound very serious, but I'm not an engineer and don't know much of the details. As more telemetry is received, the experts will probably figure out what caused the problem and how to avoid it in the future. But for now we have to be patient.
Sol 202: Plan B (Fri, 01 Mar 2013)
As the MSL engineering team continues to study the Sol 200 anomaly, tactical science planning has been cancelled through this weekend. The rover has two computers, and has been running on the A side until yesterday, when commands were sent to boot up the B side. The rover is safe in this configuration, and if necessary we could continue to operate the rover on the B side. But the focus now is on understanding the anomaly and how to recover from it. Of course I'm concerned about this situation, but I've seen JPL spacecraft experts recover from more serious problems, and am therefore confident that they will solve this one as well.
Sol 205: Still Recovering (Tue, 05 Mar 2013)
The engineering and instrument teams are working to set up MSL's "B" computer with all the parameter settings needed to resume science operations. It looks like this process will take all week, so we have to be patient while they check everything out. At the same time, an anomaly response team is working to fully understand the fault on the "A" computer.
Sol 206: Sun Blasting Mars (Wed, 06 Mar 2013)
Rather than continue with recovery efforts, MSL will be shut down due to intense solar activity. A big "coronal mass ejection" is predicted to hit Mars on Sol 207, so the rover will be commanded to go to sleep to avoid problems like the Sol 200 anomaly. Space weather can by nasty!
Sol 208: Stay Patient (Mon, 11 Mar 2013)
I'm scheduled to serve as SOWG Chair today and tomorrow, but we won't be able to plan any new science observations because the recovery from the Sol 200 anomaly is not yet complete. Unfortunately, it appears that we won't resume normal science planning until next week. But the science team recognizes the importance of keeping the rover healthy, and will continue to be patient as the engineers work the problem.
Sol 210: Clay Minerals (Thu, 14 Mar 2013)
I'm SOWG Chair again today, but because anomaly recovery continues we are not planning science activities. So I was able to watch the MSL press conference at NASA Headquarters this morning, during which the discovery of clay minerals and possible organic material in the first drill sample was announced. The mineralogy and chemistry of the sample indicates that the environment was more habitable than in other locations on Mars. The water was less acidic than the fluids that formed the sulfate-rich rocks analyzed by the MER rovers, and therefore more conducive to any organisms that may have been there. As pointed out during the press briefing, MSL was never intended to detect life, but has achieved one of the main goals of the mission, to determine whether the ancient environment could have supported life. Because the organic material found by SAM could have been brought from Earth, another drill sample should be acquired and processed to confirm that it is Martian. The first drilling and sample handling should have removed most of whatever terrestrial contamination remains on the drill and other hardware, so future samples should not be contaminated. Of course, the MSL team is very excited about these new results!
Sol 212: Nothing to Do (Wed, 20 Mar 2013)
I'm scheduled as MAHLI/MARDI uplink lead again today, but there's nothing for me to do because the engineers at JPL are still working to recover from recent software anomalies. The latest fault was not serious, but delayed the return to nominal science operations. The instruments have been turned on and checked out on the "B" computer, so we are ready to go when the anomaly recovery is completed.
Sol 226: We're Back! (Tue, 26 Mar 2013)
At long last, the MSL team has resumed planning science observations! I was MAHLI/MARDI uplink lead on Monday, and although we didn't plan any activities with those cameras, it was good to be involved in tactical operations again. The engineering team is still working to fully understand the Sol 200 anomaly, so we are proceeding carefully, not using the arm yet.
Sol 227: Chem Data (Thu, 28 Mar 2013)
I was MAHLI/MARDI uplink lead again for Sol 227 planning, but again didn't have much to do (just moving images between camera and rover memory). The focus has been on SAM and CheMin analyses of the first drill sample, and they are getting some good data. The rover is operating well on the B computer, and despite some concerns about differences between the A and B sides, ChemCam pointing has been excellent. The laser successfully acquired chemical data on the wall of the first full drill hole!
Sol 229: Superior Conjunction (Mon, 01 Apr 2013)
I'm not scheduled in any tactical operations roles this week, but have been calling into planning meetings for both MSL (Curiosity) and MER (Opportunity). The rovers and other Mars spacecraft are preparing for the upcoming "superior conjunction" of Mars, when the planet will pass behind the Sun as seen from Earth. For a couple weeks around conjunction, it is difficult (or impossible) to communicate with the spacecraft because radio waves are disrupted by plasma in the Sun's atmosphere. So command sequences have been prepared to get the spacecraft through this period safely, without much activity. This week is our last chance to plan additional observations before the conjunction plan kicks in, so we are finishing up the highest-priority science activities on both rovers. On MSL, these include APXS, Mastcam and ChemCam measurements of the first drill sample after it was dumped out of CHIMRA. For MER, we have selected in interested rock target to place the APXS, in order to acquire lots of good data during conjunction.
A Bit of Data (Thu, 25 Apr 2013)
For most of April, while Mars is behind the Sun as seen from Earth, no commands are being sent to MSL. Before the start of the solar conjunction stand-down, the rover was programmed to acquire radiation and weather data every day. The Sun interferes with radio waves that pass close to it, but we have received a bit of data anyway, enough to know that the rover is healthy and running the command sequences as planned.
Planning Resumes (Wed, 01 May 2013)
Both Mars rovers survived conjunction, when they could not be reliably commanded for most of April. Opportunity had some computer issues, but is now back under sequence control and a short drive was planned today. MSL (Curiosity) is healthy and the first post-conjunction tactical planning is today. Before resuming full science operations, a new version of flight software is being loaded onto MSL. It should take the rest of this week to confirm that the software is properly installed.
Sol 269: New Software (Thu, 09 May 2013)
I was SOWG Chair today for the first time since the conjunction stand-down. A new version of flight software has been installed on the rover, and many of the Sol 269 activities focused on acquiring images needed to evaluate the precision of camera pointing on the "B" computer running the new software. We also planned Mastcam observations of nearby targets of interest. All is going well, but there is still more analysis to be done before the full capabilities of the rover can be used.
Sol 270: Planning Three Sols (Fri, 10 May 2013)
Today we planned 3 sols (271-273) in one day for the first time on MSL. I was nervous about leading the science team as SOWG Chair through this challenging planning day, but it went smoothly. In fact, planning Sol 270 yesterday was more hectic, in part because of the variety of activities we squeezed into the plan, including hundreds of MAHLI images and lots of arm motion. There were a number of high-priority science observations we wanted to accomplish before driving away from the first drill hole, and lots of pressure to fit them into the Sol 270 plan so that we can move on to the next drill target, called Cumberland. The Sol 272 plan includes a bump (short drive) designed to move the rover within 1 meter of "Cumberland" and all the imaging needed to plan another bump that will position the rover for drilling.
Sol 275: On the Cumberland Trail (Wed, 15 May 2013)
It's good to see that the activities we planned over the weekend went well--the rover is now in position to drill the target "Cumberland." I'm MAHLI payload uplink lead for Sol 275, and helped plan MAHLI images of the potential drill target. These images are intended to confirm that the target is suitable for drilling.
Sol 276: Roving Records (Thu, 16 May 2013)
Because the critical data from yesterday's plan won't be received until around noon Pacific time, MSL tactical planning starts later than usual today. Even though the MSL project made the transition to "Earth time" planning months ago, the schedule is still allowed to shift a few hours when necessary. Meanwhile, Opportunity, on the other side of Mars, sent data in the middle of the night and will receive commands in the afternoon Pacific time. So Opportunity planning is starting earlier than usual (7 AM PDT yesterday). I'm MAHLI uplink lead for MSL again today, but wanted to call in to the Opportunity kickoff meeting this morning to hear the latest. I was rewarded with the news that Opportunity now holds second place among extraterrestrial rovers for total distance traversed, just passing the Apollo 17 lunar rover's record of 35.74 km. First place is still held by the Russian Lunokhod 2 rover, which drove 37 km on the lunar surface. It may be a long work day for me, but operating 2 rovers on Mars is, as they say, "a nice problem to have."
Sol 277: Drill, Baby, Drill! (Fri, 17 May 2013)
I was MAHLI uplink lead today, planning 3 sols to get us through the weekend. It was a busy day--lots of MAHLI images were planned, both before and after drilling the Cumberland target. A SAM measurement of the atmosphere and SAM "preconditioning" in anticipation of the second drill sample analysis were also plan, so there wasn't much room for other observations. If all goes well, the sample will be analyzed next week.
Sol 280: Drilling Success! (Mon, 20 May 2013)
The drilling at "Cumberland" went perfectly. The MAHLI images that we planned for Sol 279 came out well. So the plan for Sol 281 includes sieving of the sample and feeding some of it to SAM. This will happen late in the afternoon, when winds are expected to be low, to avoid loosing some of the sample during dropoff to SAM. SAM will then start analyzing the sample overnight.
Sol 282: Self Portrait (Thu, 23 May 2013)
I was MAHLI uplink lead again for Sol 282, and helped plan images of the SAM and CheMin sample inlets to verify that samples were delivered properly. The plan also included sample dropoff to CheMin and overnight analysis. It's nice to see that the updates to the MAHLI "self portrait" of the rover that I helped plan on Sol 270 have been incorporated
Sol 289: Heating Up (Wed, 29 May 2013)
Yesterday I was Geology/Mineralogy Science Theme Lead for the first time in months, so I was a bit rusty. We tried to fit some MAHLI imaging into the plan, along with overnight CheMin analysis of the Cumberland drill sample, but didn't have enough power. However, we were able to plan a high-priority ChemCam observation of the drill tailings during the day (when warm) and early the next morning (when cold), to look for changes in hydrogen due to daily absorption/desorption of water vapor. The early morning ChemCam observation required pointing the instrument at the target the previous evening, to avoid having to heat and move the remote sensing mast at night.
Sol 291: The Drill Hole Walls (Fri, 31 May 2013)
I'm not on shift in any tactical operations roles, but have been helping finish up important observations in the "Cumberland" area before we drive away next week. In particular, I have been leading the effort to take MAHLI images of the drill hole walls at night, using the LEDs to illuminate the hole. We are hoping, based on previous nighttime MAHLI images, that this will provide better views of the walls of the drill hole. This activity is currently included in the 3-sol plan that will get the rover through the weekend.
Sol 301: Recovery Sequence (Mon, 10 Jun 2013)
The MSL activities planned for last weekend went well, except for a ChemCam instrument problem on Sol 300. Fortunately, it's not serious and the Sol 301 plan includes ChemCam recovery sequences. If they go well we will be able to use ChemCam again on Sol 302. The Sol 301 plan includes another drive toward the "Point Lake" outcrop with more DAN (neutron spectrometer) active observations along the way.
Sol 302: Point Lake Outcrop (Tue, 11 Jun 2013)
I'm SOWG Chair again today, planning Sol 302. The Sol 301 drive went well, and we received images after the drive was complete showing the Point Lake outcrop. Unfortunately, they showed that the slopes near the most interesting part of the outcrop are large enough that we would have to spend an additional sol checking to be sure that the rover did not slip in that location before deploying the arm. The science team discussed the options and decided that the major goals of the Point Lake campaign could be achieved at a different part of the outcrop, where the rover could approach on more level ground. So the Sol 302 plan includes a short drive to this location, along with lots of imaging before and after the drive. If all goes well, we will be able to deploy the arm on Sol 303 and take close-up images with MAHLI and measure the rock's chemistry with APXS. ChemCam observations will help us decide where to target the arm work.
Sol 303: Nine Degree Tilt (Wed, 12 Jun 2013)
The approach to Point Lake on Sol 302 went well, allowing the arm to reach the outcrop of interest. However, the rover is tilted over 9 degrees, so we have to wait a sol to confirm that it is stable before planning contact science. Therefore, we could place MAHLI no closer than 10 cm from the outcrop, but such images will still be very useful. So we planned a MAHLI mosaic and individual images of various targets on Point Lake, and hope to receive most of them in time for Sol 304 planning. We can then use them to select targets for higher-resolution MAHLI images and APXS measurements, assuming the rover has not slipped. We also planned a Mastcam mosaic and ChemCam observations of the outcrop.
Sol 308: Shaler (Wed, 19 Jun 2013)
The rover is approaching the last stop before hitting the road, an outcrop dubbed Shaler. We noticed the Shaler outcrop on our way into "Yellowknife Bay" but did not get close enough to study it in detail. So we plan study Shaler in detail before starting the traverse toward Mt. Sharp (Aeolis Mons).
Sol 311: The Approach (Tue, 25 Jun 2013)
MSL continues to study the "Shaler" outcrop, slowed a bit by minor driving problems. Last week, the tilt of the rover exceeded the 12-degree limit during a drive toward the center of the outcrop, so the drive had to be commanded again. That drive was successful except that it ended with the left middle wheel about 20 cm higher than expected on a rock. This situation is not dangerous, but concerns about slipping off the rock while using the arm have precluded use of the arm at this location. Fortunately, it is still possible to acquire remote sensing data, including lots of Mastcam stereo observations and ChemCam measurements.
Sol 322: Contacting Shaler (Mon, 01 Jul 2013)
"Contact science," including APXS and MAHLI close-up observations of a couple of rocks at the "Shaler" outcrop, are being planned for Sols 322 and 323. There are still some concerns about the stability of the rover, so some of these observations may be delayed to Sol 323 to allow more time to confirm that the rover has not slipped. In the meantime, we're planning some MAHLI calibration and test activities on Sol 322, which will not involve placing the camera close to the surface.
Sol 324: Finishing Up at Shaler (Wed, 03 Jul 2013)
We decided to spend a bit more time investigating the "Shaler" outcrop using the arm instruments and ChemCam before starting the long drive to Aeolis Mons or "Mt. Sharp." The Sol 322 data we have received so far look good, and I was glad to see that the MAHLI calibration data I had requested were successfully acquired. We are planning 2 sols today, to get us through the 4th of July holiday, but planning is "restricted" now so we won't see the results of the drive planned for Sol 324 until Friday anyway. So the tactical planning team gets to take a break for the holiday without significant consequences in terms of science or drive progress.
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