Making plans

NASA held a Curiosity teleconference yesterday, giving an update on what’s been happening and a look ahead to what’s going to happen. And we finally now have an idea of what Curiosity is going to be doing once all her systems have been checked out.

Basically, this is the plan…

After a spot of target practice with her rock-zapping laser, Curiosity is going to start driving, heading east towards her first science target. Driving 400m – which will take about a month – will take her to a location christened “Glenelg” which will give the mision scientists an opportunity to study three different types of martian geology. She’ll stay there quite a while, studying the rocks and landforms there, and then, “by the end of the year”, will set off south, towards the base of Mt Sharp. It will take her perhaps a year of driving to reach those beautifully layered foothills, and then she’ll start driving up towards the base of the so-called “light toned unit” where scientists hope to find clues about the history of this part of Mars. But don’t take any of these schedules too seriously; there will be lots of stops along the way to study interesting rocks, gather soil and dust samples, take panoramas, things like that. So all we can say with any certainty is that Curiosity will start moving soon, and by the end of the year *should* be heading south towards her ultimate goal.

Ok, let’s break that down a bit. First – that spot of target practice! Curiosity is “armed” with a laser which will zap rocks, vapourising parts of their surfaces which will allow them to be studied, CSI-style, by the rover’s instruments. The MSL team have now chosen the laser’s first target, and the unlucky winner is an innocent-looking rock just ahead of the rover.

They’ve christened the rock “N165” but surely it’ll have a ‘proper’ name soon. I’m sure the scientists will learn a lot from the vapour that hisses up from the rock after it’s zapped. At the very least it’ll help them “get their aim”. Still, you’ve got to feel sorry for it. I mean, it’s sat there on Mars, undisturbed for millennia, just minding its own business, being all… rocky… then out of the blue a ruddy great rover drops out of the sky, plonks itself right down in front of it and then blasts it with a death ray. Poor “N165”, just in the right place at the wrong time…

And after that, the first drive – 400m east to “Glenelg”…

That’s an intrigung science target, but rather than try and explain why I’ll direct you to Emily Lakdawalla’s always brilliant Planetary Society blog, where she explains exactly why the MSL team want to send Curiosity over there

And then? South! To the base of Mt Sharp.

That’s going to be a long, long slog. It’s a trek of about 7 km, but iof course the rover won’t be driving in a stright line, pedal to the metal. She’ll stop, possibly many times, as too-good-to-pass science targets present themselves. When she does eventually reach the foot of Mt Sharp, she’ll make ‘landfall’ – like Oppy made ‘landfall’ at Cape York – here…

Whenever she reaches this part of the mountain’s base, she’ll then slowly work her way up that terrain, around and past the many mesas and buttes there, up to the base of the “light toned unit”, aka “Where the Good Stuff Is”. Then, to coin a phrase, it’ll be “a whole new mission”…

Anyway, that’s the plan. We’ll see what happens.

In the meantime,almost all the high resolution frames of the first 360 deg panmorama are now back on Earth, allowing imagemages to create beautiful mosaics showing the interior of Gale Crater. I did a bit of it, but as so0on as I saw the gorgeous work being created by the guys on UMSF who are waaaay ahead of me in image processing terms I just stopped!šŸ™‚ So, I’d like to invite you to go to the webpage of UMSF’s James Canvin now, to see Gale Crater in all its glory…

There were lots of questions asked at yesterday’s teleconference, and one of them was a question I’ve been asking for a while now, too: when will Curiosity take a ‘proper’ picture of the top of Mt Sharp? So far all we’ve seen is one hazy, dusty hazcam portrait of it. Surely it’s time the rover lifted her eyes from the ground and took a good, high resolution view of the mountain top?

I’ll be honest, this has been bugging me just a bit. I know it’s not really important to see the top of the mountain – I mean, it’s not going anywhere, and Curiosity should be driving around for at least a year, all being well – but Gale Crater was chosen not just for its science value, but also, I’m pretty sure, because it’s a spectacular place too. A ginormous crater, with a mountain – a mountain!!! – in its centre! Outreach gold!! But to date the top of that mountain has remained unphotographed clearly, which is a little frustrating. I know there are concerns about Curiosity’s cameras being at risk from bright sunlight if they catch its glare, and I know they have a lot of other things to do, but it’s just struck me as a bit, well, odd, that after all these months of telling us what a spectacular, amazing, beautiful place Gale is, thanks to that mountain, they’ve not yet got a decent picture of it! It’s as if Curiosity had been sent to Earth from Mars, and sent back these pictures…

Ok, I’m being a bit silly there!šŸ™‚ But I’m still puzzled why completing our view of the landscape by taking a good portrait of the top of Mt Sharp is such a low priority.

Or at least, I was until I did a bit of research, and now I think I know why.

This…

…isn’t the “summit” of Mt Sharp at all. Far from it. The actual summit is hidden BY that feature, some way behind it. No, what we’re seeing on that hazcam image, taken soon after landing, is just the ‘front’ of Mt Sharp as seen from Curiosity’s landing site…

…and the actual summit, the true summit, is far behind it, totally out of view…

So we won’t see the summit of Mt Sharp from the landing site.

In fact, having played about with carefully simulated viewing conditions and lines of sight with Google Mars, I’m a bit worried that we won’t get to see that summit At All… The closer we get to Mt Sharp’s base, the more mountain will be between us and the summit. And once Curiosity reaches the foothills of the mountain, the viewing angle will just be completely wrong, the summit will be hidden by the rising terrain. I think this is correct, because if you use Google Mars to stand on the summit of Mt Sharp, you just can’t see any part of Curiosity’s path across the crater floor and up the mountain’s lower regions (click on the next image to enlarge it – you’ll see only the top of a classic Google Earth yellow marker pin representing Curiosity’s position if/when she reaches her ultimate goal, the base of the light toned unit…)

Well, that’s a bit of a bummer, isn’t it? If I’m right, of course; Google Mars isn’t a NASA-class simulator, and I’ll be more than happy to be corrected by people who know more about this kind of thing than I do (which is just about everybody, haha!). But looking at what I’ve got, I think we might not get to see the top of Mt Sharp. At least, not from this side of the mountain. The angles and lines of sight just won’t allow it.

But that’s ok, it just means Curiosity will either have to drive further up the mountain, or drive around the *other* side after she’s finished her primary mission!šŸ™‚

So, there you have it – what’s going to happen, and what won’t happen.

By the way, if you’re on Twitter, “N165” – the little rock selected as the target for the first test of the laser – is now Tweeting from Mars

I’ve tried to give it a subtle warning about what’s going to happen, but the poor thing has no idea…

That’s not going to end well.

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