The Times West Virginian

Headline News

December 30, 2012

Road trip on tap for NASA’s Mars rover

PASADENA, Calif. — Since captivating the world with its acrobatic landing, the Mars rover Curiosity has fallen into a rhythm: Drive, snap pictures, zap at boulders, scoop up dirt. Repeat.

Topping its to-do list in the new year: Set off toward a Martian mountain — a trek that will take up a good chunk of the year.

The original itinerary called for starting the drive before the Times Square ball drop, but Curiosity lingered longer than planned at a pit stop, delaying the trip.

Curiosity will now head for Mount Sharp in mid-February after it drills into its first rock.

“We’ll probably be ready to hit the pedal to the metal and give the keys back to the rover drivers,” mission chief scientist John Grotzinger said in a recent interview at his office on the sprawling NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory campus 15 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

The road trip comes amid great expectations. After all, it’s the reason the $2.5 billion mission targeted Gale Crater near the Martian equator. Soaring from the center of the ancient crater is a 3-mile-high peak with intriguing layers of rocks.

Curiosity’s job is to figure out whether the landing site ever had the right environmental conditions to support microbes. Scientists already know water flowed in the past thanks to the rover’s discovery of an old streambed. Besides water, life as we know it also needs energy, the sun.

What’s missing are the chemical building blocks of life: complex carbon-based molecules. If they’re preserved on Mars, scientists figure the best place to hunt for them is at the base of Mount Sharp where images from space reveal hints of interesting geology.

It’s a six-month journey if Curiosity drives nonstop. But since scientists will want to command the six-wheel rover to rest and examine rocky outcrops along the way, it’ll turn into a nine-month odyssey.

Before Curiosity can tackle a mountain, there’s unfinished business to tend to. After spending the holiday taking measurements of the Martian atmosphere, Curiosity gears up for the first task of the new year: Finding the perfect rock to bore into.

The exercise — from picking a rock to drilling to deciphering its chemical makeup — is expected to last more than a month.

“We have promised everybody that we’re going to go slowly,” said Grotzinger, a geologist at the California Institute of Technology.

Curiosity’s low-key adventures thus far are in contrast to the drama-filled touchdown that entranced the world in August. Since the car-size rover was too heavy to land using a parachute and airbags, engineers invented a daring new way that involved lowering it to the surface by cables. The risky arrival proved so successful and popular that NASA is planning an encore in 2020.

Curiosity joined another NASA rover, Opportunity, which has been exploring the Martian southern hemisphere since 2004. Opportunity’s twin, Spirit, stopped communicating in 2010.

After nailing the landing, Curiosity fell into a routine. The first month was dominated by health checkups — a tedious but essential prerequisite before driving. A chemistry laboratory on wheels, it’s the most high-tech spacecraft to land on another planet so extra care was taken to ensure its tools, including its rock-zapping laser and robotic arm, worked.

Once it got the green light, it trundled to a waypoint that’s home to three unique types of terrain to perform science experiments. Every time Curiosity roves, it leaves Morse code tracks in the soil, providing a visual signal between drives. The message spells out JPL, short for Jet Propulsion Lab, which built the rover.

So far, its odometer has logged less than a mile. Despite the slow going, scientists have been smitten with the postcards it beamed home, including a stylish self-portrait and tantalizing glimpses of Mount Sharp.

Huge expectations weigh on the mission with NASA balancing the need to feed the public’s appetite while pursuing discoveries at its own pace. Last month, the space agency quashed Internet speculation that Curiosity had detected complex carbon compounds in a pinch of Martian soil by issuing a statement ahead of a science meeting where the team was due to present the latest findings.

American University space policy professor Howard McCurdy said Curiosity is currently in a transition, caught between the viral landing and the scientific payoff expected at Mount Sharp.

“It is interesting, but slow,” he said in an email. “I expect public interest will rise as the rover gets closer to its destination.”

Curiosity’s prime mission lasts two years, but NASA expects the plutonium-powered rover to live far longer. A priority for its human handlers is to learn to operate it more efficiently so that it becomes second nature. Before heading to Mount Sharp, engineers plan a software update to Curiosity’s computers to fix remaining bugs.

“We’ll need to be pretty careful,” project manager Richard Cook said of the upcoming drive. “We may find terrain that we’re not comfortable driving in and we’ll have to spend time driving around stuff.”

1
Text Only
Headline News
  • George Harrison memorial tree killed by beetles

     A tree planted in Los Angeles to honor former Beatle George Harrison has been killed — by beetles.

    July 23, 2014

  • ‘X-Men’ VR experience coming to Comic-Con

    Comic-Con attendees will have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to enter the mind of Professor X.
    20th Century Fox has created an “X-Men”-themed virtual reality stunt especially for the pop-culture convention, which kicks off Thursday in San Diego. The interactive digital experience utilizes the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, which is not yet available to consumers, to simulate the fictional Cerebro technology used to track down mutants by the character portrayed by Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy in the “X-Men” films.

    July 23, 2014

  • Centenarian Weather W_time2.jpg At 101, weather observer gets a place in the sun

    It takes only a couple of minutes, twice a day, but 101-year-old Richard Hendrickson is fiercely proud that he has done the same thing for his country and community nearly every day since Herbert Hoover was in the White House in 1930.
    The retired chicken and dairy farmer, whose home sits in the heart of the ritzy Hamptons, has been recording daily readings of temperature and precipitation on eastern Long Island longer than any volunteer observer in the history of the National Weather Service.

    July 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • Starved Pennsylvania 7-year-old weighed only 25 pounds

    A 7-year-old Pennsylvania boy authorities described as being so underweight he looked like a human skeleton has been released from the hospital.

    July 22, 2014

  • U.S. outlines case against Russia on downed plane

    Video of a rocket launcher, one surface-to-air missile missing, leaving the likely launch site. Imagery showing the firing. Calls claiming credit for the strike. Recordings said to reveal a cover-up at the crash site.

    July 21, 2014

  • James Garner Obit.jpg 'Maverick' star James Garner, 86, dies in California

     Actor James Garner, whose whimsical style in the 1950s TV Western "Maverick" led to a stellar career in TV and films such as "The Rockford Files" and his Oscar-nominated "Murphy's Romance," has died, police said. He was 86.

    July 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • Given life term, drug offender hopes for clemency

    From the very start, Scott Walker refused to believe he would die in prison.
    Arrested and jailed at 25, then sent to prison more than two years later, Walker couldn’t imagine spending his life behind bars for dealing drugs. He told himself this wasn’t the end, that someday he’d be released. But the years passed, his appeals failed and nothing changed.

    July 20, 2014

  • Teen’s death puts focus on caffeine powder dangers

    A few weeks before their prom king’s death, students at an Ohio high school had attended an assembly on narcotics that warned about the dangers of heroin and prescription painkillers.
    But it was one of the world’s most widely accepted drugs that killed Logan Stiner — a powdered form of caffeine so potent that as little as a single teaspoon can be fatal.

    July 20, 2014

  • Monitors try to secure Ukraine plane crash site

    International monitors moved gingerly Saturday through fields reeking of the decomposing corpses that fell from a Malaysian airliner shot down over rebel-held eastern Ukraine, trying to secure the sprawling site in hopes that a credible investigation can be conducted.
    But before inspectors ever reach the scene, doubts arose about whether evidence was being compromised.

    July 20, 2014

  • Without radar, missile may not have identified jet

    If Ukrainian rebels shot down the Malaysian jetliner, killing 298 people, it may have been because they didn’t have the right systems in place to distinguish between military and civilian aircraft, experts said Saturday.
    American officials said Friday that they believe the Boeing 777 was brought down by an SA-11 missile fired from an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

    July 20, 2014

House Ads
Featured Ads