Emily LakdawallaAug 15, 2012

Curiosity sol 9 update

There was a press briefing yesterday about Curiosity's status, which is still very good. There aren't yet any images taken since the end of sol 3, because the rover spent sols 4-8 successfully upgrading its flight software on twin, redundant computers. With that done, Curiosity is ready to proceed with commissioning. I'm going to be talking about all of this and more in a Google+ hangout this afternoon, at 1600 PDT / 2300 UTC. Join me there!

Before I give a more thorough update, I thought I'd share the best 360-degree rotatable version of the sol 3 Mastcam panorama I've seen yet.

We're going to need to be patient; Curiosity is the most complicated spacecraft ever landed on Mars, with a Viking-sized payload atop a vehicle with lots of moving parts, and it's going to take well over a month, probably more like two months, to get through this commissioning phase. Each instrument must go through a long series of checkouts and preliminary observations designed to make sure that things are working on Mars the same way they were working on Earth, before Curiosity left the clean room. When you're planning scientific observations it is absolutely crucial to baseline the performance of your science instruments.

Here's a look at the early-mission calendar and what we can expect over the coming weeks.

Landing (COMPLETED): Sol 0. Imaging: More than 1500 MARDI frames, front and rear hazcam images.

Commissioning Activity Phase 1A (COMPLETED): Sols 1-8. Imaging: Navcam 360 panorama on sol 2; Mastcam 360 panorama sol 3. Flight software upgrade sols 4-8. RAD begins routine radiation environment observations.

Commissioning Activity Phase 1B (CURRENT PHASE): Sols 9-?. About a week. Imaging: Chemcam in active (laser) mode; Mastcam panoramas. First driving plan: wheel steering actuator test on sol 13, short drive forward and back on sol 15. REMS begins routine weather observations. At the end of this phase, the commissioning of the remote sensing instruments will be complete.

Intermission: open-ended, but probably about a week. May include a drive to a new location for first sampling, and will include imaging to support that.

Commissioning Activity Phase 2: At least a week, probably more. Major activity of this phase is commissioning of the arm. That includes first arm motions; imaging of all of the tools on the arm; calibration of arm positioning; data acquisition by turret-mounted instruments (MAHLI camera and APXS elemental analyzer). Check out all the mechanical tools on the end of the arm: drill, brush, CHIMRA sieving system. Hopefully this period will include the first rover self-portrait by MAHLI. At the end of this phase, the commissioning of the turret-mounted instruments will be complete.

Next, Curiosity faces a major hurdle: a high-level review by JPL and NASA of the health and operability of the rover. This review must be completed successfully before the mission will receive the go-ahead to prepare and deliver the first soil samples to the laboratory instruments, SAM and Chemin.

The first sample acquisition will likely take a long time -- again, at least a week, probably more.

In the meantime, though, we should hopefully be getting more new pictures. I've been checking the official raw images website regularly, but there's nothing since sol 3 posted there yet. They have recently redesigned their front end a little bit, bringing it more in line with the way that the Mars Exploration Rover raw images page works. This makes it easier to sort and locate images by instrument; but it's still not too easy to zero in on the newest images. So I'm glad for two volunteer programmers who have been working to develop browser-based tools that scrape the JPL website and present the raw image data in a much easier-to-handle format. The two community-produced raw image browsers are:

Joe Knapp's curiositymsl.com: A tabular view of raw images, whose columns are sortable. It defaults to sorting by post date, so it's easy to see the newest images. Because of that handy feature, I can tell you that as I have been writing this post JPL has posted a bunch of new full-frame MARDI images, like this one with the heat shield against Mars, and this especially cool one taken less than a second after the shield separated from the backshell. Some of the missing frames of the sol 2 navcam panorama were posted earlier this morning, like this one containing the MarsDial.

Ludo Stellingwerff's MSL Raw Image Listing: Defaults to a text-based view, sorted by filename that you can filter by camera and/or sol, and also filter out thumbnail versions of images. Its nicest feature is the "show more" button that allows you to increase the number of files visible per page.

Another handy amateur-created site is James Tauber's Mars Clock, which dynamically displays Earth and Mars times, including sol and solar times for Curiosity and Opportunity, with neat mouseover explanations of what each clock format represents, and how the calculations were performed.

I have been getting a lot of inquiries about a piece of amateur-created software that I use all the time: Mike Howard's Midnight Mars Browser, which you can use to automatically download Opportunity (as well as Spirit and Phoenix) images to a local folder. It auto-generates color and red-blue anaglyph versions of images. It also displays Mars Exploration Rover Pancam and Navcam images as dynamic VR panoramas, which you can move through with your mouse. Mike hasn't supported the software for several years, but it still works. People want to know if he's going to update it for Curiosity. I've talked with Mike and he would like to -- keeping in mind that he has a day job and this program is a massive effort -- but he can't, yet, because the Curiosity mission is not yet providing some necessary metadata for the images, information about where Curiosity's camera was pointed when it took each image. Without that metadata, a successor to Midnight Mars Browser would not be able to automatically generate those VR panoramas. If you would like to see Mike -- or some other enterprising programmer like Joe, Ludo, or James -- produce software that can generate panoramas automatically from Curiosity's images, please let JPL know that they need to share camera pointing information for the photos! (When you do that, please also thank them for sharing the raw images at all!)

It is now about 10 p.m. local solar time on Curiosity sol 9.

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