Emily Lakdawalla has been reporting on Curiosity since long before it launched. Her first book on the mission, The Design and Engineering of Curiosity: How the Mars Rover Does Its Job, was published in 2018. She’s now working on her second book, Curiosity and Its Science Mission: A Mars Rover Goes to Work, to be published in 2021. The following articles chronicle Curiosity’s mission. All articles prior to sol 2388 were published at planetary.org. I also provide links to relevant route maps drawn by Phil Stooke for each update.
Clay Campaign (sol 2302-present)
Curiosity Update, Sols 2388-2900: Coming soon
It’s been almost a whole Mars year since I’ve been able to write about Curiosity. I’ve interviewed Ashwin Vasavada and am working on getting back up to speed on rover activity in preparation for returning to work on my second book, Curiosity and Its Science Mission. Stay tuned for an eventful update!
Pretty animation processed by Justin Cowart.
The Curiosity team is happily touring Glen Torridon, the Valley of Clay, south of Vera Rubin Ridge. Their enthusiasm was dampened for a few weeks by annoying memory problems in both rover computers. Despite these challenges, the team succeeded in drilling into very soft rock at Aberlady on sol 2370. For reasons I’ll explain below, they drilled a second time quite close to Aberlady, at Kilmarie, on sol 2384.
Vera Rubin Ridge (sol 1726-2302)
Curiosity finally crossed into the clay-bearing unit on sol 2302. In this update, I’ll discuss Curiosity’s final work on the top of Vera Rubin Ridge (including drilling at Rock Hall on sol 2261), walk through the plans for the clay-bearing unit campaign, and provide brief updates on a regional dust event and progress on the recovery from the B-side computer anomaly. I’ll briefly mention some of the science that’s come out in the recently released 2019 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) abstracts.
On September 15 (sol 2172), engineers noticed the rover behaving oddly; there was a problem with the B-side computer, and it’s now switched to the A-side. But the team recovered and was able to make progress on science goals at Vera Rubin ridge. Curiosity has been exploring the ridge since sol 1809, trying to drill into four distinct rock types. The ridge rocks have proven tough to drill, but the work is almost done. With a third successful drill site at Highfield on sol 2224, they’re ready to tackle the last ridge challenge, a drill site in a particularly red-colored rock.
Heedless of the (now-dissipating) dust storm, Curiosity has achieved its first successful drill into rocks that form the Vera Rubin ridge, and is hopefully on the way to a second. It took three attempts for Curiosity to find a soft enough spot, with Voyageurs (sol 2112) and Ailsa Craig (sol 2122) being too tough, but Stoer proved obligingly soft on sol 2136. The rover delivered samples to both of its analytical laboratory instruments before driving away. Curiosity is ramping up data relay through MAVEN and ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter because of Insight’s impending landing. Great, complete Mastcam panorama of the rover deck at Stoer.
A total of 562 sols elapsed between the previous successful drill at Sebina (sol 1495) and the newest drill site, Duluth (sol 2057). The rover successfully delivered sample to both laboratory instruments, CheMin and SAM, using its new feed-extended sample transfer (FEST) technique, took a self-portrait, and drove away on sol 2084. In all, it spent 30 days at Duluth — not bad, and likely to get much faster as long as nothing else breaks (knock wood). The team now plans as many as three more drill stops in the near future, up on top of Vera Rubin ridge.
Following 200 sols of work, Curiosity’s walkabout of the top of Vera Rubin Ridge (begun back around sol 1814) is complete. Curiosity mission style is to perform one or two surveys of a field site with remote sensing and contact science instruments before committing to drill locations. A first attempt at drilling into Vera Rubin Ridge, at a site named Lake Orcadie, on sols 1977 and 1984, did not succeed in collecting any sample. They didn’t hang around at Lake Orcadie, instead traversing to several science-rich spots to characterize the ridge. Some spots had notable hematite concentrations, while others had weird collections of rocks.
The last time Curiosity successfully drilled a rock was at Sebina, on sol 1495. It’s been very nearly 500 sols since then — more than an Earth year, 25% of the whole length of the mission. This week, the drill may finally be back in operation, but working differently than it was before.
The first months of operation atop Vera Rubin Ridge have been a walkabout, encountering colorful rocks. Progress has occasionally been interrupted by various issues (uplink failures, arm faults, short drives, et cetera) that led some team members to joke that the ridge may be cursed. Nevertheless, the rover has driven about 600 meters, delivered multiple Ogunquit Beach samples to SAM and one to CheMin, and even run its first (intentional) wet chemistry experiment.
Curiosity had a productive three months driving along the front of Vera Rubin Ridge, gathering photos and data with its arm instruments, finally driving up on to the ridge on sol 1809.
Murray Buttes and South (sol 1369-1725)
Curiosity has had a busy eight weeks since my last update, driving south from the Bagnold Dunes toward Vera Rubin Ridge. The path has steepened and the rover is now rapidly climbing upward with every meter traveled. The science team has been systematically observing bedrock with about every 5 meters of elevation gain using MAHLI and APXS instruments, but there’s been no drilling.
The dune science campaign offered the engineers some time to continue troubleshooting the drill. They checked the dune out at four different locations, and scooped sand at a site called Ogunquit Beach on sol 1651. Unexpected behavior of the drill triggered by the use of the sampling tools to prepare Ogunquit Beach sand for delivery to the analytical instruments interrupted the sample delivery. The rover is driving onward with Ogunquit Beach sample cached.
Curiosity update, sols 1548-1599: Serious drill brake problem as Curiosity drives through Murray red beds
Since my last update, the Curiosity mission has developed a better understanding of the problem that prevented them from drilling at Precipice, but its intermittent nature has slowed the development of a workable solution that will allow them to use the drill again. In the meantime, the rover has driven onward, making good use of its other instruments.
Curiosity update, sols 1489-1547: Drilling at Sebina, driving up through Murray, drill problems at Precipice
It’s been a drive-heavy two months for Curiosity. The rover drilled at a site named Sebina (sol 1495), then traveled about 500 meters to the south across increasingly chunky-looking Murray rocks to a new attempted drill site at Precipice on sol 1536. Unfortunately, instead of drilling, they encountered a new problem with the drill instead.
Curiosity has sailed rapidly southward through stunning scenery of Murray Buttes and beyond, to a choppy sea of broken rock, stopping only briefly to drill at the edge of the Buttes at Quela, on sol 1464. The rover is making tracks for the hematite-, clay-, and sulfate-rich sediments to the south. On the way, it’s pausing to drill at regular intervals, systematically sampling the composition of the mudstones along its path.
The last two months of the Curiosity mission have been spent on a southward drive toward the Murray buttes, topographic landmarks of a relatively sand-free region that will allow Curiosity to finally cross the Bagnold dune field. In the last 50-plus sols, Curiosity has covered several hundred meters of flat Murray mudstone that separates the Naukluft plateau from the buttes. Before entering the buttes, Curiosity paused for a very quick drill campaign at a site called Marimba, the rover’s thirteenth site, drilling there on sol 1422. There was also a safing event on 2 July 2016, from which it recovered on 9 July.
Bagnold Dunes, across the Naukluft Plateau (sol 1152-1369)
Curiosity is at a turning point in its mission to Mount Sharp, both literally and figuratively. Having drilled at three sample sites in 7 weeks, the rover took a left turn, changing its trajectory from a generally westward driving path to a southward one. It is now poised to cross the Bagnold dune field at Murray buttes. The drill sites were Lubango, on sol 1320; Okoruso, on sol 1332; and Oudam, on sol 1361.
Curiosity has drilled into Mars for the 10th time at a site named Lubango, on sol 1320 (April 23, 2016).
Enjoy this serene image of a moonset on another world, captured by Curiosity’s Mastcam in April 2014 and processed here by Justin Cowart.
Curiosity has driven onward from Namib dune across a highstanding unit of rock called the Naukluft Plateau. Despite some frustrating sols lost to a short circuit in the RTG and DSN troubles, the rover has made progress, and performed lots of 3D imaging of weirdly wind-eroded rocks.
Recently, space image processing enthusiast Thomas Appéré noticed that Curiosity had taken five photos of exactly the same spot on the rim of Gale crater, identical but for being taken at different times of day. That spot was due north of the rover, so the rising and lowering Sun illuminates the rounded hummocks of the crater rim differently from early morning to early afternoon.
Curiosity has spent the last month sampling and processing dark sand scooped from the side of Namib Dune. It scooped three times at Gobabeb, on sols 1224, 1228, and 1231. But the work was cut short by an anomaly in the CHIMRA sample handling mechanism during the final sample, and on sol 1244 the rover left Namib dune to head for Murray Buttes.
After wrapping up science in the Stimson unit near Big Sky and Greenhorn, Curiosity began the final drive south toward the dunes on sol 1151. The rover has now driven to, on, and around Namib and High dunes, a couple of active barchan sand dunes on Mars.
In a remarkable and wholly unexpected gift to Curiosity fans, on sol 1197 the rover took the first-ever color Mastcam self-portrait from Mars.
Bradbury Traverse Part 2: Pahrump Hills to Bagnold Dunes (sol 949-1151)
There are now two new holes in Mars, drilled only 18 sols and just a meter or two apart. The first, Big Sky on sol 1119, sampled the Stimson unit on which Curiosity is now driving. The second, at Greenhorn on sol 1137, was also in the Stimson unit, but this one was within one of the bright haloes around the fractures that criscross Stimson.
The rover has been steadily driving southward, heading directly toward the Bagnold dune field. They are looking for a place to drill into the Stimson sandstone unit, but have been distracted by intriguing pale haloes around frock fractures.
Curiosity has driven back and forth repeatedly across a section of rocks below Marias pass. The rover finally drilled at a spot named Buckskin on sol 1060, marking the drill’s return to operations after suffering a short on sol 911. Now the rover is driving up into Marias Pass and onto the Washboard or Stimson unit.
Curiosity stories from AGU: The fortuitous find of a puzzling mineral on Mars, and a gap in Gale’s history
At the 2015 American Geophysical Union meeting, the Curiosity science team announced the discovery of a mineral never before found on Mars – tridymite – in the area of Marias Pass, around sol 1000.
It’s been an eventful few weeks for Curiosity on Mars. From sols 981 to 986, Curiosity’s human pilots tried and failed to drive the rover southward; but, retracing their steps to Logan’s Run, they quickly found a way up and into a beautiful geological amphitheater named Marias Pass, where they will stay throughout Mars solar conjunction. They also returned ChemCam to normal operations.
Pause your life for six minutes and watch the Sun set….on Mars. Thank you, Glen Nagle, for this awe-inspiring simulation based on Curiosity’s sol 956 sunset images.
Curiosity is finally on the road again! And they’ve never taken a more scenic route than this. Their path to Mount Sharp is taking them to the west and south, across sandy swales between rocky rises.
Pahrump Hills (sol 753-949)
Last month, Curiosity mission scientists published a pair of papers in Science magazine. One of them was about methane, and the other was about organic materials in Mars rocks. There was a lot of hype and speculation around the announcement, and some good and some not-so-good journalism. I thought I could help matters by translating one of the papers from “scientist-ese” into terms that a broader group could understand. I decided to do the organics paper, by Jen Eigenbrode et al., because the word “organics” makes a lot of people jump to (incorrect) conclusions about life on Mars. The following is a fairly direct translation of the paper.
The rover has visited and studied two major sites, drilling at one of them. The first was Telegraph Peak, within Pahrump Hills but close to the top of the section that Curiosity had surveyed before. Curiosity drilled there on sol 908. After wrapping up work there, Curiosity finally left Pahrump Hills on sol 923, headed into a valley called Artist’s Drive. Almost immediately, the rover encountered some truly stunning mineralized veins at a site named Garden City. Curiosity gathered a ton of data with MAHLI and APXS at Garden City, but did not drill before driving onward on sol 949, because they could find no suitably stable, flat spot to safely place the drill.
Curiosity’s second drilling campaign at the foot of Mount Sharp is complete. The rover spent about a month near Pink Cliffs, an area at the base of the Pahrump Hills outcrop, drilling and documenting a site named Mojave on sol 882, where lighter-colored crystals were scattered through a very fine-grained rock.
Curiosity has spent the last two months completing a second circuit of the Pahrump Hills field site, gathering APXS and MAHLI data. The work has been hampered by the loss of the ChemCam focusing laser, but the team is developing a workaround. Over the holidays, the rover downlinked many Gigabits of image data. The rover is now preparing for a drilling campaign.
Pahrump Hills is a light-toned outcrop of rock, easily visible from orbit, that represents about seven meters of layered sedimentary rocks, thought to be the bottom-most visible layers of Mount Sharp. In the last month, Curiosity has “walked the outcrop,” crawling up and down the length of it, giving it a once-over.
Curiosity spent a total of four weeks at Confidence Hills, feeding samples to SAM and CheMin several times. On two weekends during this period, the rover’s activities were interrupted by faults with the robotic arm. Curiosity drove away from Confidence Hills on sol 780, and is ready to observe comet Siding Spring over the weekend.
Curiosity reached the Pahrump Hills on sol 753. Drilling happened at a site called “Confidence Hills” on sol 759 (September 25, 2014).
Bradbury Traverse Part 1: Yellowknife Bay to Pahrump Hills
Curiosity scientists dug into the geology of Gale crater and shared puzzling results about the nature of the rocks that the rover has found there.
A lot has happened behind the scenes on the Curiosity mission in the last few weeks. The mission received a pretty negative review from a panel convened to assess the relative quality of seven different proposed extended planetary science missions. Then, just a week later, the mission announced big news: they have arrived at Mount Sharp.
General Rover Information
This long post is an attempt to answer the question: Which HiRISE image should I use as a base map for such-and-such a part of Curiosity’s traverse? Published on 15 Jan 2018, it includes information on rover positions within each image up to sol 1611, but the images cover the entire traverse beyond that.
September 6, 2017: Since sol 1536 (December 1, 2016), Curiosity has been unable to drill because of a serious problem with one of the drill’s motors. Engineers have been hard at work on the problem ever since, and there is now realistic hope that the drill can be returned to function, but they’ll have to use it in a way it wasn’t designed for. I’ll explain how the drill works, the nature of the problem, the work being done on Earth to understand it, and the path forward for Curiosity. Most of this post is based on an interview with JPL’s Steve Lee.
How and why does Curiosity take self-portraits?
My first book is finally out in the world. It’s available direct from Springer (the publisher) as an eBook or hard copy. You can also buy it at Amazon. You can read a lengthy adapted excerpt of the book on the American Scientist website. I have a different excerpt for you here, which will demonstrate to you the exhaustive detail that I go into on how the components of the rover and its instruments work.