The foothills of Mt Sharp

As Curiosity makes her increasingly lengthy drives across the floor of Gale Crater, contuing to test her systems (all seems to be going really well!) she’s sending back lots and lots of images, many of them showing the foothills of Mt Sharp in great detail. Well, I say “in great detail”. Unless you’re a keen image processor, with access to kick ass software and hardware and the time and devotion to dig into them and ferret out that detail, like a pig snuffling for truffles in a forest, that detail is lost behind, and destroyed by,  a cyber lace curtain of spots and lines…

Now, there’s a hint of detail there, right? And you’d expect that, as is the case with images sent back by Opportunity, Cassini, Messenger and Dawn, when you clicked on it you’d see a bigger image with a lot more detail. Go on, give it a try, click on that previous image, I’ll wait…

I know, horrendous isn’t it?!! That’s basically the result – as has been explained in great detail elsewhere – of the images being sent from Mars uncompressed and then compressed before publication on the web, which is probably an automated computer process, not a physical process initiated for each image by a living, breathing human being.

At this point I should point out that by no means *All* of the images being sent back by Curiosity suffer from this, it’s only the Mastcam 100’s colour images that are showing this migraine-inducing pattern. There are lots of *other* images, but they’re either much smaller, or in black and white, or both. It’s the high resolution “Ooh, that’s GORGEOUS!” colour pictures that are being displayed in a way that makes them, frankly, a pain in the **** to view. Everything else – fantastic! But, let’s be honest, it’s the gorgeous colour views everyone wants to see.

Now, unlike some people I don’t think this is a deliberate act by the MSL team to stop people “playing” with their images and spotting things on them before the science team have a chance to. I’m not that cynical, and I choose to believe that NASA just wouldn’t allow that to happen. It’s fantastic that we’re getting images back so quickly, of course it is, and I don’t want to sound ungrateful; in the “Old days” we had to wait weeks if not months for pictures taken by a spaceprobe to be made public, now they’re online within hours, which is miraculous and very generous of NASA too. It’s just the way things are being done, right now, and hopefully it will change.

I’m very, very grateful that we’re seeing these images at all, don’t get me wrong. There are very few people who are bigger and more vocal supporters of NASA than myself, and because of that support I’ve been accused of being a “NASA apologist” and “propagandist” by some…

…but my love for NASA isn’t blind, and I’ll criticise if I think criticism is due. And I think the way these images are being displayed is a mistake. I think it’s making the mission and its images a lot less accessible to ordinary people, and I hope they change it.

I’ve been trying – hard! – to work with these images, but I’m almost ready to wave the white flag to be honest. I thought I’d found a way in Registax to make them usable, and managed to turn one griddy image into a clear(ish) colour view, but I haven’t been able to replicate that again since. I downloaded a whole bunch of images like the one shown above, stitched them together, tried a dozen different tricks and processes with my software, and still only got this *(click to enlarge)…

…which shows more detail than the originals, a lot of intriguing buttes, mesas, ridges, outcrops and “Homeplate”-like features, but it’s still poor, a combination of my own lack of image processing skill and kit. In the hands of someone like James Canvin, who is an imaging wizard, those same images can not only be stitched together to make a detailed, grid-free panorama, but a COLOUR, grid-free panorama. Take a look at James’ latest absolutely stunning work with the same images as I used above…

Foothills of Mt Sharp as imaged by James Canvin

That is spectacularly beautiful, and increases my admiration for James’s work by another magnitude. I could wander around that image for hours – and probably will…! I can’t wait to see what he does with the whole mountain, when more images of it are returned…

But that’s a view only a few people are seeing, at the moment, because the images on the MSL site are like… that… (shudder)

Why am I bothered by this? After all, I can enjoy the images, right? I know where to find the work of people like James (i.e. over on the UMSF forum), so even if I can’t create those images myself I can see them elsewhere, right?

Hmm. That’s not the point tho.

I do a lot of what we call “Outreach and Education” –  which is a fancy way of saying I give talks about space and astronomy to community groups, young and old, in school classroms, drafty church halls, and the like! – and at the end of my talks I always stress to my audiences that if they can get online – at home, at work, at school, in the library, wherever – they can access new images, taken by spaceprobes scattered across the solar system, for free, and become “armchair explorers”. In the run-up to the landing of MSL I was saying just that, again and again, telling people how, after landing (if all went well!) they’d be able to go tothe MSL website and see, every day, great new images from Mars. But that’s not the case at the moment. These Bayer-patterned horrors are just foul. And I’m sure they’re putting some people off following the mission, which would be a great shame if it’s true.

Anyway, I hope someone gets to grips with this. There are people out here – teachers stood in front of packed classrooms, astronomy students in bedsits, science enthusiasts in poor countries across the world – who haven’t got the technical know-how, or the computer kit, to turn these gridmarked images into real pictures, desperate to walk alongside Curiosity as she explores Gale, desperate to see what she sees.

Come on, NASA, show them the beauty of Mars too.

That’s one of the reasons you went there in the first place, isn’t it? :-)

The scale of things…

There was another press conference by the MSL team yesterday, and some beautiful new images were released, a couple of which have been picked up by the mass media and are being heralded as “The most detailed images ever taken of Mars”. They’re the latest high resolution images taken by the rover’s Mastcam, and the portraits of the mesas, buttes, ledges and layers waiting for Curiosity in “The Promised Land” when/if she gets there are genuinely stunning. Here’s the one which is **everywhere** today, and justifiably so…

Isn’t that spectacular???!! I wish I knew more about geology so I could tell what the hell I was seeing there! But even my untrained eye can see lots and lots of lovely layers, and different kinds of rock, and eroded features, and… well, if I can see things like that, just imagine how excited the geologists on the mission must be feeling! I bet they can’t wait to get there!

But they’ll have to, because those features are a long way off. Another image released by the team yesterday very helpfully showed the distances to those features…

I love pictures like that, they really help to give you a sense of scale don’t they?

Well, that one certainly helps us appreciate the scale of the *distances* involved, but doesn’t really tell us how big those faraway features are, does it? Or does it..?

Another image was released yesterday, which DOES tell us just that. Very cleverly, the MSL team have spotted a rock way, waaay over there which is roughly the same size as the rover (you can see it in the box on the image), so now we can directly compare the size of the landforms and features over there to the rover!

Now… when I saw that I had a bit of a “lightbulb moment”. I wondered if it would be possible to identify that very same rock on images of the Promised Land taken from orbit, and then use it to virtually place Curiosity *among* all those mesas and buttes, to simulate HiRISE images of Curiosity exploring the landscape and give us a REAL sense of scale..?

And yes, it wasn’t just possible, it worked really well! :-)

Ok, so, let’s have a look at a few simulated HiRISE views… on the following images – which you’ll need to click on to enlarge if you’re going to have a hope of seeing anything! –  Curiosity is represented as a series of small black dots, joined by a dark ‘line’ running from top to bottom, which represents an **imaginary** traverse through the landscape. NOTE: this is just a very rough guide, I’m not claiming 100% accuracy here, ok?

And finally…

I think that works pretty well. But it works even better if you plot an **IMAGINARY** traverse through that amazing landscape, seeing just how big Curiosity is compared to these incredible martian rock ormations. You need to click on this next image to enlarge it, then look to the upper right, find the traverse line, and then just scroll down the image, following our mock Curiosity as she wends her way through The Promised Land… Go, have fun wandering around, I’ll wait for you… :-)

But what would REALLY bring the scale of this area to life would be to see it, and Curiosity, together in 3D, right? Well, I can’t do that – dropping virtual Curiositys into the landscape on a 3D pic just doesn’t work – but by highlighting features *in* the landscape that are the same size as the rover we can begin to grasp the sheer size of the geological ruins Curiosity will encounter maybe a year from now. So, take a look at these next images – the rocks ringed are the same size (roughly) as MSL…

Note: Curiosity is actually a little larger than the feature within the ring on that second 3D image, but there isn’t anything the correct size in the area that I can use, sorry!

I’ve also started trying to identify certain landscape features on photos taken from different viewpoints by different probes…

So, there you go. Hope all that helps!

Back to ground level, and we have new images showing Curiosity is really getting the hang of this “roving” thing…

And some 3D views of the rocks scattered around Curiosity, too…


There’s not an awful lot to see there is there? Kind of makes you miss the boulder-strewn landing sites of Spirit and the Vikings…

Anyway, that’s all for now. Check back soon.

Farewell, Neil – the adventure continues

I’m sure you’ve heard by now the very, very sad news that Neil Armstrong died last night. The word “hero” is over-used so often nowadays it’s lost some of its meaning, but Armstrong was exactly that, a hero, in every sense of the word. It’s very strange to think that we now live in a world where the first person to stand on the surface of another world is no longer with us. And very, very sad. I wrote more about this on my Cumbrian Sky blog, if you want to wander over there and have a read.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that many of us in the space exploration “community” are frustrated, and yes, angry, that the amazing journey and adventure which began with Neil Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface didn’t continue, but stalled. As much as we love looking at the pictures sent back by Opportunity and Curiosity, that love is tinged with frustration. As fantastic as the rovers are, almost half a century after Armstrong stepped off the footpad of the Eagle lunar lander and pushed his boot down into the ashen lunar dust, surely we should be seeing images taken by the cameras of astronauts instead of robots. We really should be seeing video of people bounding across the surface of Mars today, bending down to gather rock samples, proudly holding stones up to the camera, and posing with Mt Sharp in the background. That we’re not is a result of many things, including a lack of money, a lack of politicians with vision and courage, and it’s very depressing to think that we might not see bootprints on Mars for another generation.

But today, as we mourn the passing of Neil Armstrong, let us remember how *amazing* the achievements of the Mars rovers – all of them, Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity and now Curiosity – have been and how they have transformed our knowledge of Mars. With no human beings due to even fly to Mars, let alone land on it, for many years, Opportunity and Curiosity are our “astronauts”, and they are continuing Armstrong’s work, and carrying out his wishes – that Mankind should expand out into space. They may not be made of flesh, and blood themselves, but they were made by people who were inspired by Armstrong. Through the missions of Opportunity and Curiosity, Neil Armstrong’s journey, and the incredible adventure that began with the landing of the Eagle on the Moon all those years ago, continues.

Farewell Neil, and thank you.

Now – onwards!

Curiosity has been busy with her laser again, that’s what it looks like from the latest images anyway. If you compare these “before” and “after” shots you’ll see five holes have appeared on the rock in question. Looks like Curiosity has been going all Han Solo up there!


So far today no new ‘landscape’ images have come back, but I have made some progress on coaxing detail out of those hideous dotty Bayered monstrosities. Turns out that the free software I use for sharpening up and boosting the images from Oppy – “Registax”, more usually used by amateur astronomers to process and enhance astronomical images taken through telescopes – has a “deBayer” function, allowing me to work on the Mastcam 100 images after all… Here’s what I got after my first clumsy, stumbling attempt…

Those awful green splashes are all over the hills, making it look as if the terraforming of mars is already well underway, and the surface around Curiosity appears to have been scattered with glittering emeralds or fragments of kryptonite by some kindly passing jewel thief. PLEASE will someone on the MSL team arrange for these beautifully detailed images to be released without the filtering? Cos seriously, if you don’t, you’ll be bombarded with tin foil hat-wearing NASA-hating conspiracy theory loving **nutters** emailing you insisting the pictures show lichen, moss or grass on Mars, and declaring you’ve been covering up the existence of life on Mars all along, as they’ve been saying…!

Until I can get to grips with the whole “colour” thing, I think I’m going to restrict myself to creating black and white images from these mutations, trying to pull geological detail out of them. Here’s what I managed to do last night -this, I like to think, is the picture Ansel Adams would take of Curiosity’s “Promised Land” if he was on Mars right now…


A lovely view, to be sure, but imagine you’re a geologist looking at that – how loudly will those layers, outcrops and ridges be calling out to you?!?!?!

Hopefully we’ll have *proper* colour views of this stunning terrain soon.

Curious images

If you’re following the mission of Curiosity closely you’ll know it’s covered in more cameras than a Japanese tourist walking around Grasmere. The rover has 17 different cameras, all of which do different jobs. Almost every day now new images from these cameras are being released, sometimes only a matter of hours after they were taken on Mars, which is fantastic. But while many of these images are sharp, and crisp, and fill your monitor with magnificent Mars goodness, bringing Gale crater and Mt Sharp to life in beautiful, realistic colour, some of these images look, to be brutally honest, bloody rubbish. They’re clearly high resolution pictures, but they’re criss-crossed with gazillions of lines, and look like highly-magnifed newspaper photographs, made up of countless tiny squares. Images like this…

Click on that and you’ll see what I mean. Going to the MSL Raw images site, or checking on the arrival of new images by using one of the brilliant image update pages created by members of the amateur community, and seeing these black and white monstrosities, is very disappointing and very, very frustrating for people who want to follow the mission and walk alongside the rover as it sets out on its journey into the heart of Gale crater, especially after all of these years of enjoying “hot off the press” images sent back from Spirit and Opportunity which haven’t ever looked anything like that.

Why do they look like that? Well, it’s a combination of the way the images are physically and digitally taken by the rover’s cameras, the way they’re processed and the way they’re released and displayed. It would be possible, I gather, for the images to be released “clean”, if they were processed a bit differently, but that’s not happening.

Some people are suggesting that, having seen how voraciously the amateur imaging community fell upon the raw images released by the MER team and created gorgeous images with them, this is a deliberate attempt by the MSL team to prevent people not on the mission doing the same thing, and even though I don’t think that’s the case I suppose there’s a logic to that. The scientists have invested a lot of time and money in the rover and its mission, and are desperate for it to be a huge scientific success, so it must be galling for them sometimes to see images pop up online before they’ve even had a chance to work on them and pull science out of them. But I am sure it’s not a cynical thing, I think it’s just the result of things being done differently *by* MSL and by the team. You never know, with such huge public interest in, and support for, Curiosity’s mission around the world, maybe someone will decide that these clearly beautiful images should be released in such a way as to let everyone enjoy them. I hope so.

( For a very detailed explanation of exactly WHY these images look this way, head on over to Emily Lakdawalla’s always-excellent Planetary Society blog where she’s written a detailed post all about it. )

Bsides, if it *is* an attempt to stop people pulling detail out of them and making beautiful images out of them, it’s already a big failure, because, inevitably, there are people out there who know image processing backwards and inside out, who live, eat and breathe this stuff, and can do things with Photoshop, ImageJ and their computers that leave me shaking my head in wonder.

I like to potter about with these images, as you know, and manage to create some fairly decent stuff now and again which some people enjoy looking at. But I am an absolute beginner, just a really keen amateur, with an old computer, cheap software, and (just!) enough free timeto let me play about with pictures from Mars. But there are others, like UMSF’s James Canvin and Damien Bouic, who are *magicians*, who take these images and turn them into something… wonderful. Whenever I post one of my images on UMSF I feel like the shabbily dressed kid who has wandered accidentally into the school science club at lunchtime! :-) But seriously, their images are works of brilliance. They’ve recently been stitching together dozens of images sent back by Curiosity to create colour panoramas of the landscape, showing the crater wall and Mt Sharp in just breathtaking detail. Their images have now been widely seen across the internet, but if you haven’t seen them yet, or if you just want to drool over them again, well, here you go…

James Canvin’s panorama

Damien Bouic’s panorama

Soooo, if they can do that with “clean” images, no surprise then that they can take these new stripey images and make them look great too.

I had a go, with very limited success… Here are a few “Before and After” views…

Hmmm. They’re not bad, a little clearer, but with the right software, hardware, and a LOT of image processing skill (which I obviously don’t have! Haha!) and talent you can actually turn those blurry, line-covered horrors into beautiful colour pictures. Here’s what Damian has been able to achieve

Anyway, as I said, hopefully someone somewhere will decide that these images deserve to be seen by everyone – by kids browsing in school computer rooms, by people looking at the MSL website on computers in libraries, by everyone interested in the mission – and not just by a select few image processing wizards with kick ass computers and software. I’m sure that will happen. In the meantime, we can all enjoy new images from Mars, from MARS, every day, and that’s an amazing thing! :-)

 

 

A portrait of Mt Sharp

It’s already well-established that we can’t – and may never – see the actual summit of Mt Sharp, the mountain which juts up out of the centre of Gale Crater, but we finally have some good colour views of the *front* of the mountain, as seen by Curiosity. Here, then, is a colour portrait of Mt Sharp, as it’s being seen by Curiosity… click to enlarge, as usual…

The colours are pretty muted in that version (though not as muted as on the original ‘raw’ images) so let’s boost everything, just a bit, to bring out some detail…

Over on the right of the image is the area of the foothills of Mt Sharp which will be Curiosity’s eventual destination. Some close-up images of that reagion came back today too, which I made into this…

Just think… in maybe a year or so, Curiosity could be wending her way through those mesas and buttes, working her way up the lower slopes of Mt Sharp towards that Light Toned Unit ( come on, MSL guys, we need a better name than that by now!)… we’ll see some sights then, I’m sure..!

More pictures soon.

Curiosity is a ROVER now…!

A very historic day on Mars, and for the mars exoploration program, today. After 16 sols on the red planet, Curiosity finally drove away from her landing site. Not far, just a few metres, not much more than a tootle about really, but that’s not the point. Since she landed more than two weeks (two weeks???? What!?!?) Curiosity has been essentially a lander with wheels. She has stayed exactly where the Skycrane left her. Yesterday she waggled her wheels a bit, which was pretty exciting, but really did little more than prove the wheels *could* waggle. But today, today images came back showing real wheel tracks in the dust, proof she had moved off, driving away from her landing site, and had begun driving across the surface of Mars…

Curiosity really is a Mars rover now! :-)

Here’s a mosaic I made of several of the frames that were sent back. I wanted to show the foothills of Mt Sharp and the rover’s wheel tracks at the same time…


Isn’t that beautiful? (the view, not my mosaic! haha!) Now we really do have a Mars rover mission to look forward to.

But for a proper look at what happened today, I’ll direct you to a panorama created by one of UMSF’s most celebrated and accomplished imagesmiths, Damien Bouic. Just go here and click on the image to enlarge it – but set aside the next half hour, because you’re going to be busy scrolling around it, drinking in the view… :-)

First Drive panorama

The MSL team are making firm plans now, and a timetable is (kind of) emerging. There’ll now be a short pause – “intermission” the rover team call it – during which more of the rover’s systems and equipment will be checked out. They’ll give the cameras on the mastcam a good run, maybe even trying some hi resolution 3D images. And after that, Curiosity will set off for Glenelg. Along the way they’ll stop to test the rover’s ability to scoop up and then clean itself of martian dust, or “fines” to give them their proper name, and then they’ll drive to Glenelg for some very detailed scientific work there. It’s here that they might even use the rover’s drill for the first time, which will be exciting!

Here’s a 3D view of part of the tracks Curiosity made today…

Isn’t that gorgeous? Soon the wheels which made those tracks will be carrying Curiosity towards Glenelg, and then towards Mt Sharp. Speaking of which, here’s a new view of the mountain… (click to enlarge)

But back to today’s historic drive. At an NMSL press briefing, broadcast on NASA TV earlier this evening, the MSL team announced, with great fanfare and not a little emotion, that the rover’s landing site would from now on be known as “Bradbury Landing”. Now, I’m assuming that because you’re here you already have an interest in Mars, even a small one, so I’m pretty sure you’ll know who the “Bradbury” in question is, or was, because let’s face it, if you have any interest in Mars and don’t know why this landing site has been christened “Bradbury Landing” then there’s something seriously wrong! But for the few people reading this won don’t understand the tribute that’s been made, “Bradbury” is Ray Bradbury, a great, great science fiction writer whose work inspired countless numbers of people working for NASA today, including many on the MSL and MER missions. Bradbury’s book “The Martian Chronicles” made Mars into a real place, a destination, for a generation and for every generation after. Every Mars “fan” has a copy – at least one! – of “Chronicles” in their home, and reads it again and again and again. It’s a genuine work of vision and wonder, and not even the harrowing memories of a godawful 1970s TV adaption starring Rock Hudson can taint it. The only other book I can think of that treats Mars, its landscapes, its history and destiny, with such utter locve and devotion is Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Red Mars”. If you have a copy of “The Martian Chronicles” read some of it tonight to honour Ray Bradbury and his legacy. If you don’t have a copy, then tomorrow, first thing, get yourself down to your local bookshop and BUY yourself a copy, because you absolutely, absoLUTELY have to read it, now, while MSL is just starting her adventure.

So, from now on, and forever, this little corner of Mars will be known as “Bradbury Landing”, to honour a great man and his great love of, and for, the Red Planet.

Thank you Ray. See? We can stand tall when we put our minds to it.

What’s it like to drive on Mars..?

Something for you to read while we all wait for the first pictures of Curiosity’s first drive…

If you’re a regular reader of my other blog, “The Road to Endeavour”, you’ll know that from time to time members of the Mars Exploration Rover team have very generously answered some questions for me, via email. I was hoping to be able to continue this tradition here on “Gale Gazette”, so I’m thrilled that Mars rover driver, Gale crater mapper and MSL traverse-planner extraordinaire Paolo Bellutta has agreed to “chat” to us here, this time, naturally, about Curiosity’s mission! :-)

Thanks for talking to us, Paolo! First of all, where were you during EDL? And how did it compare to watching the MER EDLs?

I was with friends at Caltech where many MSL ops people were… Weather was perfect and while waiting for EDL the ISS flew over Pasadena, very bright since Sun had just set, it was an extra treat.  It was quite surreal to watch the EDL. I had my camera with me but it was so intense I forgot to take any pictures!

I had watched MER landing at home, not knowing and fully understanding the complexity of what was going on.  This time I had a much better understanding, all the HiRISE images I had analyzed for years were clear in my head.  It was a very tense moment.

When the first pictures came back of the landing site, what were your first impressions – both as one of the people who has got to drive the rover, and as a space enthusiast (which I know you are!)

That is funny.  I spent years analyzing the telemetry of Spirit and Opportunity so my eye got automatically switched to analyze the rear and front hazcam.  The rear haz told me right away we were pretty much flat (the horizon was flat) and that the terrain was not very rocky at all.  The Front Haz with the vehicle shadow right in front immediately told me the rover was pointed ESE (we landed close to 15:00 Mars Time) and confirmed that the soil was not that rocky at all. I was already working on Mars!

But when I saw the FHAZ without the lens cap my eye was caught by the sheer beauty of the image.  It struck me not as an engineer but for the photographic composition, rule of thirds respected, long shadows, as if Ansel Adams had nudged the vehicle during descent.

I have the door to my office already plastered with pictured from Hazcams, Navcams, MARDI.

You saw Curiosity in the “factory” at JPL as it were, many times, while she was being built. You probably touched it too. What was it like to see that first pic of the rover ON MARS, wheels on the ground, deck spattered with grit?

I did not get to touch it unfortunately but went down to the SAF (Spacecraft Assembly Facility) many times to see it being built and tested.  I don’t mind the dust and pebbles on the deck as long as the wheels are firmly on the ground! I’m sure they will all roll away once we start climbing Mt.Sharp.

Back to the landing zone at Gale Crater. We’ve now got pretty good pictures of the base of Mt Sharp, the “Promised Land” where she’l make ‘landfall’ in maybe a year’s time, if all goes well. You’ve mapped that terrain in great detail using HiRISE images. How does the “real thing” – the view from the ground – compare to orbital views? Do you think it will be easier to drive through? Harder? Were there any unpleasent or pleasent surprises on the first hi-res images?

I knew that the terrain where we would land was going to be easy for driving but I did not think it was going to be *that* easy.  Had we landed a bit more to the NW we would have had a maze of mesas and buttes to drive around but the real challenge will begin once we get to the base of Mt.Sharp.  Surely by then we will have honed our skills on how to drive carefully and successfully.

Obviously there’s no scientific rush to get Curiosity moving – the rocks and layers of Mt Sharp aren’t going anywhere! – and as someone very wise said to me, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint”, but we are now just a few sols away from Curiosity’s historic first drive. It’s going to be slow and short, not a mad dash – imagining that first drive I can’t help thinking of that sequence from the first Star Trek movie, when the Enterprise gracefully leaves Spacedock! – but are thedrivers itching to hit the road? I think I would be…

I think there are many that feel like racing horses at the starting line.  We do care about science of course, that’s why we are there but I want to see more of Gale.  Patience is a virtue, not only on Earth but especially on Mars.

Once Curiosity leaves her landing site and heads for Glenelg, how will driving her be different from driving the MERs? Faster? Slower? More cautious?

The first few drives will be very, very conservative, a few meters at the beginning and increasing our drive distance as we get a better feeling and exercise our sequencing skills.  We have learned a lot by driving MER but we want to be cautious.

The dust dunes are the most obvious feature in the landscape shown inthe Mastcam pictures, surrounding the base of Mt Sharp almost like a moat around a castle…

Can you tell yet if you can drive Curiosity *over* those dunes, or if you’ll have to go around them? Obviously you must have learned a lot about ‘dune riding’ from driving Opportunity across Meridiani…

The dark dunes we see from orbit, in the MARDI, and even in the FHAZ are partly driveable.  They are really tall, some are 10-12 meters tall, some have faces up to 25 degrees steep but we should be able to drive between them.  These dunes are active dunes not ancient like Meridiani’s so there will be definite differences in the soil mechanics properties.  I don’t think we will see then up close and personal very soon unfortunately.

I know it’s a long way away, but once we reach the Promised Land, just how dramatic do you think the scenery will be? The pics of the base of Mt Sharp show lots of mesas and buttes, and there’s a lot of breathless talk about “spectacular” views, but what do you think we’ll see? Is it possible to compare it to any locations on our planet?

There is a spot near Monument Valley called Valley of the Gods (see picture) that comes to mind.

I’m sure the geology is completely different but that is how dramatic I imagine will be to views climbing Mt.Sharp.

Finally, can you try to explain what it feels like to sit there, in your chair at JPL, and make an incredible machine, at the cutting edge of our technology, move on Mars? What thoughts go through your head? Do you ever allow yourself a moment to sit back and think “Oh my god, I’m driving a spacecraft on another world..”?

It is pretty exhausting.  It is like writing code, critical code that has to work the first time, you have limited time to do it and you have only one chance.  For anyone who has used a compiler they know exactly the feeling, for those who haven’t it is like having a job interview every day.

I typically don’t think about my sequence running on Mars, I usually think about Mars when I talk to people and explain what I do for a living.  It brings back the joy and the excitement of exploring Mars.

Many thanks for talking to us, Paolo!

You are welcome.

Rock star rocks and robot arms…

Well, things are really hotting up on Mars – at least, for one little rock they are. The Rock Formerly Known As N165 sat there on Mars, in absolute obscurity, for the past few million years at least, but that peaceful existence changed when the Mars Science Laboratory fell out of the sky and landed right in front of it on Aug 6th. Over the weekend the media spotlight turned on N165 after it was selected to be the first target for the rover’s laser, and by the time the ChemCam laser was actually fired our little basalt buddy was being followed by thousands of people on Twitter, as it gave a running account of what was going on…

If you missed it, the whole ‘chat’ can be read in one go here…

http://storify.com/N165Mars/encounter-with-marscuriosity

In the aftermath of the ChemCam firing there was actually a lot of sympathy for the rock – yes, you read that correctly! :-) – but all was well in the end, because the rock was only singed, a little, in one tiny spot…

… and for its contribution to science and planetary exploration was given a brilliant name – “Coronation”, which I couldn’t help honouring with a special picture…

Yeah, I know it’s silly, and I know some people haven’t exactly been keen on this episode, they’ve been quite sniffy about it. But come on, it’s just a bit of fun! As for the official reaction to this story, well, I don’t know what the MSL team thought of the Tweets (and I have no idea who wrote them) but I hope they’re okay with it because it was a stroke of Outreach genius, I think; it engaged a lot of people with the mission and its goals. Thanks to those Tweets – which have been picked up and reproduced on countless websites now, some very high profile – many more people now know there’s a rover on Mars, zapping rocks, with a laser, in the name of science. That’s just fantastic!

I hope it doesn’t happen for every rock that’s chosen for a zappin’ with the ChemCam, that would get a bit tedious and the novelty would wear off really quickly, but this time it was a lot of fun, and yet another great illustration of how social media can be used to make people feel involved with a mission like this. Well done to everyone involved! :-)

In other news, the rover’s robot arm has been unstowed for the first time, and its muscles flexed, as part of the ongoing check-ot of the rover’s systems. Here’s an official mosaic, made of thumbnail images (hence the low resolution)…

There are now higher resolution images too, showing the instrument package at the end of the robot arm, in lovely detail…

I wonder what it feels like to be one of the scientists and engineers who worked on those instruments, for years and years, to finally see them there, on Mars, with rocks beneath them and Mt Sharp behind them? That must be an incredible feeling.

Finally for this post, I’d like to share with you an absolutely beautiful pic created by one of unmannedspaceflight.com’s most accomplished imagesmiths, and a great friend of mine, AstroO. He’s very cleverly created a fisheye self portrait of Criosity standing proudly on the surface of Mars which  really think gives the rover character…

So, things are really starting to move in Gale. The laser has been used, and worked fine; the robot arm has been put through its first movements, and works fine. Soon the rover will move its wheels for the first time, and soon after that will start rolling across the crater floor, heading for its first science target.

Buckle up! :-)

Preparing to fire…

In the far far future, when Mankind is waging war in a multitude of solar systems scattered across the Galaxy, when our brave starship troopers are swarming over the surfaces of asteroids, planets and moons orbiting stars in faraway spairal arms, military historians will look back on this moment in 2012 as the moment when it all began. And the first shot was fired on Mars, at a rock called “N165″.

Okay, that’s just science fiction. But sometime soon, maybe even today, Curiosity will fire its ChemCam laser for the first time. I’ve never actually felt sorry for a rock before, but I am starting to feel sorry for “N165″, the unremarkable-looking piece of dust-stained grey basalt that has been chosen as the target for the first ever firing of a death ray on another planet…

Little N165 has become something of a personality, thanks to Twitter, the popular social networking service. Somewhere, someone has started Tweeting AS the rock, and given it its own character. It started off Tweeting away quite happily, naively welcoming its “new robot friend” to Mars, blissfully unaware of what the future had in store. Soon other users of Twitter were sending it warnings, telling it what NASA was planning for it. At first the rock wouldn’t believe them, and laughed off mentions of lasers, but this morning it seems a bit more worried…

I realise some people will be snootily turning their noses up at “this kind of thing”, and yeah, I know it’s a bit silly, pretending to “be” a rock on Mars, but don’t you think it’s another great sign of how people are engaging with science and Mars exploration now?

Anyway, N165 – I wonder why they won’t give it a name? Guilt? ;-) – will soon feel the kiss of Curiosity’s laser and, being serious for a moment, a new era of planetary geology will have begun. What is actually going to happen? Well, not this…

The ChemCam laser isn’t like that! No, when the laser fires there’ll be no beam leaping from rover to rock, no “War of the Worlds” death ray spitting out. A small, 1.5cm ish area of N165’s surface  will be heated up, and the vapourised rock that comes off it will be analysed by Curiosity’s onboard instruments. N165 won’t be blasted to bits, but it will have a bit of a scar that will take some explaining to its friends…

Curiosity already has N165 in its sights, as shwon by this new ChemCam image…

We’ll see what happens next. But if were you, N165, I’d duck…