Washington — All the complex equipment and systems on board the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) are operating “flawlessly,” according to the scientific team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the NASA agency managing the mission to the Red Planet.
The rover Curiosity — equipped with an array of scientific instruments to examine the planet — landed on Mars August 6 (August 5 in the Pacific time zone at JPL master control). In these first days on the surface, the team is checking out the various instruments and cameras on the craft to ensure they survived the almost 570-million-kilometer journey.
The JPL team is also identifying the precise position of the rover in the targeted range where it landed inside a large feature called Gale Crater. Previous observations of the planet made by orbiting satellites led scientists to believe that surface features at this place were formed when liquid water flowed on what appears now to be a dry, hot, desert planet. Investigating those sites to determine if they ever provided a habitat for life-forms is the primary mission of MSL.
Representatives of the JPL team briefed the press on the progress of the mission August 8, reporting that the nuclear generator powering the craft is delivering more energy than anticipated, which will allow more schedule flexibility in operating the craft and powering it down to regenerate its power.
The communication systems are also delivering more than expected. “We feel very confident now that we have lots of data capacity,” said Jennifer Trosker, a mission manager. She said a telecommunications team put in seven years of “fantastic work” to design a system with the capacity to send a great deal of information back to Earth for analysis.
Curiosity sent its first image back from the surface only moments after its touchdown, and the flow has kept on coming. JPL is receiving a variety of pictures from more than a dozen cameras mounted on the craft, providing views of the surrounding landscape and the territory that the rover will soon begin to explore.
Within the next day or two it is expected that Curiosity will be able to send home a collection of images that will collectively form a 360 degree panoramic view of the plain.
Scientists unveiled one new image depicting the plain around the craft as it stretches out in the distance to higher ground, which the team has identified as the rim of Gale Crater.
“The thing that’s amazing about this,” said John Grotzinger, MSL project scientist, “[is] how Earth-like this seems.” Grotzinger compared the Martian landscape to California’s Mojave Desert.
In the foreground of the photograph, a slight depression can be seen that Grotzinger said was created by Curiosity itself as it landed. The soil is disturbed in that rut, revealing a strip of white material.
“What you see beneath the soil is bedrock,” said Grotzinger, also a professor of geology at the California Institute of Technology, where JPL is located. “We’re already getting a glimpse into the subsurface here,” which will be important knowledge as the rover begins to travel across the plain.
The rover Opportunity has been roaming the surface of Mars and sending information back since 2004, but Grotzinger said this is the first glimpse of Martian bedrock ever seen, an insight offered up by Curiosity barely 60 hours after the craft landed.