NASA is back on Mars

NASA is back on Mars

and getting ready for the next mission to the Red Planet! After an astounding 154 million mile journey and a harrowing landing that demonstrated cutting-edge technology, Curiosity, the largest rover ever sent to another planet, is in place and ready to work. This robotic laboratory will seek answers to one of humanity’s oldest questions as it investigates whether conditions have favored development of microbial life on the Red Planet.

The mission is a critical planetary science mission — and a precursor to sending humans to the Red Planet in the 2030’s, a goal set forth by President Obama.

It’s another great leadership moment for our nation and a sign of the continued strength of NASA’s many programs in science, aeronautics and human spaceflight. It’s also important to remember that the $2.5 billion investment made in this project was not spent on Mars, but right here on Earth, supporting more than 7,000 jobs in at least 31 states.

With the retirement of the Shuttle program after its final flight in July 2011, some have suggested that NASA’s leadership in the exploration of space, including our extraordinary successes on Mars, was coming to an end. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Curiosity mission is only the latest in a long list of extraordinary NASA missions that established the United States as the undisputed world leader, and it will help guarantee that remains the case for many years to come.

When our Orion deep space crew vehicle takes its first test flight in 2014, it will travel farther into space than any spacecraft designed for humans has flown in the 40 years since our astronauts returned from the moon.

In 2017, NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), a heavy-lift rocket that will provide an entirely new capability for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit, will launch Orion.

We also reached a critically important milestone in May when SpaceX became the first private company to send a spacecraft — the Dragon cargo capsule — to the International Space Station and return it with cargo intact. This successful mission ushered in a new era in spaceflight — and signaled a new way of doing business for NASA. And just a few days ago, we announced the next step in the Obama Administration’s aggressive plan to once again launch our astronauts from U.S. soil on spacecraft built by American companies.

As part of our commitment to maintain American leadership in the exploration of Mars beyond the Curiosity mission, NASA will launch the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter next year. Earlier this year, I directed NASA’s science mission director, along with the head of human exploration, Chief Technologist, and Chief Scientist to develop a more integrated strategy to ensure that the next steps for Mars exploration will support the nation’s planetary science objectives as well as our human exploration goals. They are looking at many options, including another robotic mission to land on Mars in this decade.

I am so proud of the NASA team that has made tonight’s challenging milestone possible. However, tomorrow we begin to plan for the next great challenge — and start compiling incredible scientific data from Curiosity. For the past 50 years, NASA has specialized in doing the hard things. Thanks to the ingenuity of our teams across America and the world, we are poised for even greater success.

For more information about Curiosity and NASA’s missions to Mars, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/mars

If a group of tourists piled out of a transport vehicle onto the surface of Mars, they’d no doubt start snapping pictures wildly. NASA’s Curiosity rover, set to touch down on the Red Planet the evening of Aug. 5 PDT (early morning EDT), will take a more careful approach to capturing its first scenic views.

The car-size rover’s very first images will come from the one-megapixel Hazard-Avoidance cameras (Hazcams) attached to the body of the rover. Once engineers have determined that it is safe to deploy the rover’s Remote Sensing Mast and its high-tech cameras, a process that may take several days, Curiosity will begin to survey its exotic surroundings.

“A set of low-resolution gray scale Hazcam images will be acquired within minutes of landing on the surface,” said Justin Maki of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Once all of the critical systems have been checked out by the engineering team and the mast is deployed, the rover will image the landing site with higher-resolution cameras.”

Maki led the development of Curiosity’s 12 engineering cameras — eight Hazcams at the front and back of the rover, and four Navigation cameras (Navcams) at the top of the rover’s “look-out” mast. All the engineering cameras acquire black-and-white pictures from left and right stereo “eyes,” which are merged to provide three-dimensional information. Half of the cameras are backups, meaning there’s one set for each of the rover’s A- and B-side redundant computers.

The very first images are likely to arrive more than two hours after landing, due to the timing of NASA’s signal-relaying Odyssey orbiter. They will be captured with the left and right Hazcams at the back and front of the rover, and they will not yet be full-resolution (the two images arriving on Earth first are “thumbnail” copies, which are 64 by 64 pixels in size). The Hazcams are equipped with very wide-angle, fisheye lenses, initially capped with clear dust covers. The covers are designed to protect the cameras from dust that may be kicked up during landing; they are clear just in case they don’t pop off as expected.

These first views will give engineers a good idea of what surrounds Curiosity, as well as its location and tilt. “Ensuring that the rover is on stable ground is important before raising the rover’s mast,” said Mission Manager Jennifer Trosper at JPL. “We are using an entirely new landing system on this mission, so we are proceeding with caution.”

Color pictures from the rover’s Mars Descent Imager, or MARDI, acquired as the rover descends to the Martian surface, will help pinpoint the rover’s location. Initial images from MARDI are expected to be released Aug. 6, the day after landing. These will also be in the form of thumbnails (in the case of the science cameras, thumbnails can vary in size, with the largest being 192 pixels wide by 144 pixels high). One full-resolution image may also be returned at this time.

Additional color views of the planet’s surface are expected the morning of Aug. 7 from the Mars Hand Lens Imager, or MAHLI, one of five devices on the rover’s Inspector Gadget-like arm. The camera is designed to take close-up pictures of rocks and soil, but can also take images out to the horizon. When Curiosity lands and its arm is still stowed, the instrument will be pointed to the side, allowing it to capture an initial color view of the Gale Crater area.

Once Curiosity’s mast is standing tall, the Navcams will begin taking one-megapixel stereo pictures 360 degrees around the rover as well as images of the rover deck. These cameras have medium-angle, 45-degree fields of views and could resolve the equivalent of a golf ball lying 82 feet (25 meters) away. They are designed to survey the landscape fairly quickly, and, not only can they look all around but also up and down. Navigation camera pictures are expected to begin arriving on Earth about three days after landing if the mast is deployed on schedule.

Like the Hazcams, Navcam images are used to obtain three-dimensional information about the Martian terrain. Together, they help the scientists and engineers make decisions about where and how to drive the rover and which rocks to examine with instruments that identify chemical ingredients. “A large part of the surface mission is conducted using the images returned from the cameras,” said Maki.

Also, about three days after landing, the narrower field-of-view Mast Cameras (Mastcams) are expected to start snapping their first shots. These two-megapixel color cameras will reveal the rover’s new home in exquisite detail. Small thumbnail versions of the pictures will be sent down first with an initial high-resolution panorama expected more than a week later.

The camera of the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument will provide a telescopic view of targets at a distance.

As the mission progresses, the entire suite of cameras and science instruments will work together to hunt for clues to the mystery of Mars and help answer the long-standing puzzle of whether our next-door-neighbor planet has ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life.

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory and its Curiosity rover are a project of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The mission is managed by JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Curiosity was designed, developed and assembled at JPL.

To view Curiosity’s latest images, visit http://www.nasa.gov/ and http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/msl/multimedia/gallery-indexEvents.html . Raw images will appear when available at http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/raw/ .

For information about NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission and its Curiosity rover, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/mars and http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/ . You can follow the mission on Facebook and on Twitter at http://www.facebook.com/marscuriosity and http://www.twitter.com/marscuriosity .

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