Time to Drill…

Things have started moving in Gale Crater. It’s about to get serious.

For the past couple of weeks Curiosity has been taking a long, hard look at an area of rock on the floor of Gale Crater, looking for a suitable place to use her drill for the first time. In this fantastic panorama assembled by UMSF’s Damien Bouic you can see the rover studying the rocky area with the instruments on the end of its robot arm… click on it to enlarge it, it’s a beauty…!

Sol168_169_pano

So, soon Curiosity will be drilling into that rock, the last test of a major rover system left I think. This is going to be very exciting for planetary scientists, because they’ll be able to sample and study, for the first time, the minerals beneath the surface of rocks on Mars. The results won’t look like muh to us – graphs with squiggles and lines, and error bars and whatever on them – but they will tell planetary geologists SO much about Mars that I bet they’re not sleeping they’re so excited by what’s to come.

Anyway, that drill… Curiosity is a HUGE thing, as you know, a real monster truck on Mars! Nuclear powered… laser gun… wheels as big as a family car’s… it must have a stonking great drill on it, right? Like this kick-ass rover from the much-maligned but brilliant film “Armageddon”..?

a rover

Er, not quite. Here, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, is the drill that Curiosity will be using…

arm

arm2

I know what you’re thinking… “They’re going to drill into Mars with THAT?!?!?!” Well, yes, they are, and the reason why it doesn’t have to look like one of Harry Stamper’s asteroid-excavating monsters is because it doesn’t have to go anywhere near as deep down, and, of course, BECAUSE IT’S REAL!!! šŸ™‚ Things in science fiction films are always bigger than they would need to be in real life, usually because sci fi films have bigger budgets than most space missions…

Anyway, let’s take a closer look at that drill bit, courtesy of MSL’s ChemCam camera…

drill

I think we can tidy that up a bit, hang on…

drill z

Wow.. that looks rather… um… oh, how to say this politely…

Crude?

No, that’s not crude. That’s effecient. It looks that way because it has a job to do, and that job isn’t a new one. In fact, it’s a job we’ve ben doing for many thousands of years.

When I saw that picture it rang a bell with me, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then this morning I went onto UMSF and there was an image created by my great Australian mate AstroO, who had absolutely nailed it…

kenya_to_mars

Oh my god… look at that… how powerful an image is that?!?! Just consider the gulf in time between those two images, how many generations have passed between them being taken. Just think, there’s a good chance that the person who made and then used that stone blade on the left looked up at the night sky and saw Mars shining in it, a star as red as the blood that covered the blade as it was used to hack and slice meat from the bones of animals they killed for food. And then, who knows how many tens of thousands of years later, a piece of metal, forged by distant descendants of that hunter, but keeping the same basic shape, is now going to be used ON that blood red “star”, to feed our hunger for knowledge. That’s a hell of a thing isn’t it? A hell of a thing.

A couple of years ago my amazing friend Bev – also Australian! – sent me a present for my birthday, which, when I opened it, absolutely blew me away…

xmas-09-078s

Yes, a stone blade, just like the one in AstroO’s brilliant image. I keep that blade near my computer, and look at it often, it’s one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever been sent. Whenever I look at it I feel connected to the past in a quite spooky, quite glorious way. I take it from the box and feel the weight of it in my hand, turning it over and over, admiring the workmanship, trying to imagine what thoughts were going through its maker’s head as they carefully chipped away at it, fashioning a blade which they would use for keeping themselves and their family alive. When I saw that drill bit on the end of Curiosity’s drill I couldn’t help feeling a connection with it too, the same sort of connection. That is a tool, made by someone – probably more than one person, I know, but a person designed it, and it was probably finished off by a single person, working at a machine or a computer, getting it just right, just perfect – to do a job, but on a totally different planet, far, far away from Earth.

When I look as AstroO’s picture, you know what else I think? I think “Hey, we turned out okay didn’t we?” I know that Mankind has its problems, and large numbers of our troubled species are absolute nutters who find perverse joy in slaughtering their fellow men and women, but the vast majority of us are decent, and help each other, and work hard to make a good life for ourselves and our loved ones. I look at that image and it hits me just how far we HAVE come. Today’s papers are full of religious fanatics, terrorist nutters, greedy bankers, overpaid sportsmen and abused children. It’s easy to believe Mankind is bankrupt, that we’re a waste of space, that our society is doomed and Earth would be better off without us. But look at that picture again. With all our faults, with all our troubles, we still dare to dream amazing dreams, we still reach out towards almost impossible goals, and we succeed.

Many UFO fanatics believe that we’re being monitored by alien beings right now, that their spacecraft are up in orbit, cloaked from our view, and from them they watch over everything we do. If that’s true, they must be very confused by us, seeing pictures like that. Just imagine this morning’sĀ  conversation on the Bridge between their versions of Kirk and Spock, as they peered at AstroO’s image on the big screen…

“So, Science Officer Thargggg, let me get this straight: you’re telling me that the same stupid monkey species which has built enough nuclear weapons to destroy their world a hundred times over, and has created plagues that could wipe themselves out, the ssme species that straps bombs to their females and children and deliberately blows them up, made THAT too..?”

Well, yes, Captain Zlott, we did. Go figure.

One day Curiosity will be in a museum on Mars, displayed lovingly in the glow of spotlights and softlights, for people from across the whole solar system to see. I hope that, in a case next to her, there’ll be one of the stone age blades her builders’ ancestors made all those thousands of years ago. I’ll even let them have mine if they want. I’m sure Bev wouldn’t mind, would you Bev?

I must admit I’ve been getting rather bored by Curiosity of late. The images have been on my screen, but they haven’t spoken to me like they always used to. But looking at that little drill bit sent a shiver up my spine, it really did.

We’re going to drill on Mars. On Mars!

šŸ™‚

Note: if you want to know lots of technical details about MSL’s drill, Emily Lakdawalla has written a brilliant piece about it on her blog for the Planetary Society…

And I wrote about how we’re leaving our mark, as a species, on Mars, in a previous post here

 

Who needs a hammer…

…when you have a nuclear-powered, tractor-wheeled, laser-toting monster truck rover to drive over rocks and smash them to bits, like the Hulk with a bad head..?

People often say that one thing the rovers can’t do on Mars is look inside rocks, like a human geologist would do. Well, that’s not always true. Curiosity and Opportunity both have tools they can use to grind or drill a little way beneath the surface of martian rocks, to expose and study the minerals there, but creative driving can turn the rovers into weapons of scientific destruction, breaking open rocks to allow scientists a glimpse of the secrets hiding inside.

Opportunity did this last year, when she found and then drove over “Homestake”, a small exposed vein of the mineral gypsum at the northern end of Cape York…

before after

HS sparkly 3

Never one to be left out, Curiosity has been doing the same thing, and a couple of sols ago she ran over a rock which promptly shattered, scattering bits of itself in all directions, including one large piece highlighted in the previous post. Take a look at teh scene, with these images I’ve enhanced to bring out detail and texture…

broken rocks 2b

rock b2

Looking forward to more “Hulk! Smash!” action from Curiosity…

A strange and beautiful place…

Yes, we’re back! I am sure some of you thought this blog had closed for business when posts dried up after Christmas, but no, you don’t get rid of us so easily! Apologies for the radio silence, but I was busy with a number of things – work, being ill, writing my blog all about Comets PANSTARRS and ISON – that kept me away.

And, yes, I’ll be perfectly honest, I just got bored with Curiosity and her mission, and was feeling no inspiration to write about it. I know that’s heresy coming from a self-confessed Mars fanatic, but it’s true. I just got sick of seeing the same rocks, the same ledges, the same teeny tiny dust dunes and the same dust scoops and spill. I was feeling like the fantastically exciting exobiological side of the mission was being quietly ignored at best and kicked under the table like a mewling kitten at worst, by people who seem strangely scared by the idea of just looking for life on other planets. That was really hacking me off, I’ll be honest, so I decided to just take a break from writing about Curiosity, and Gale, and come back when things – and the rover – started moving again.

And boy, have they! There was a media briefing this week, at which the MSL science team showed how the rover has found evidence that the area of the floor of Gale Crater across which MSL is currently travelling was once *drenched* in water, which is of course very exciting for the prospects of finding signs of past life here. Yes, I said the L word, so shoot me.

There was a lot of excitement amongst rover followers recently about a strange bright thing photographed embedded in one of the rocks, which did, I’ll admit, look a lot like a tiny shell of fragment of shell, but the rover team explained that it was just a large bright sand grain.

So, the rover is now in Yellowknife Bay, and is preparing to use its drill for the first time, which is very exciting. And Yellowknife Bay is a spectacular, beautiful place, with a lot of weird and wonderful geology, like this…

a

See? What the hell is going on there? All those little pits and rings in the rock, very odd. I wish the MSL team would have someone on hand to just tap out a few words of explanation when a picture like that appears, it would be really useful.

Any of the MSL images returned recently have had the woo-woos screaming about how the rover has spotted life on Mars, but NASA are either keeping it a secret or are too dumb to spot it when it’s right in front of their faces. A few of the loudest alien hunters have been insisting that white areas seen on the rocks around this area are actually patches of lichen, but NASA aren’t admitting it. Right, that makes perfect sense – a space agency which desperately wants more money, has found life on Mars, but aren’t admitting it, even though such a discovery would solve all their budget problems in a moment because the discovery of life on Mars would lead to demands for follow-up manned missions there as soon as possible. Honstly, I could give up sometimes…

Curiosity is now taking a good long look at a little rock she spotted a day or so ago…

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When Curiosity took a closer look, she saw this…

b

…and when she took an even CLOSER look she saw this… (note: I’ve sharpened this up and played about with the levels and contrast a bit just to bring out details on the rock…)…

c

Oooh, that’s pretty isn’t it? What does that remind you of? Not lichen. I think that looks like “Homestake”, the vein of light mineral Opportunity found up near the northern end of Cape York last year… is that little rock covered in gypsum? That would make sense if this part of Gale Crater was indeed once “drenched” with water because gypsum forms in the presence of water, and through the action of water. Just click on that image and then on the link above it to the larger full resolution version when it appears, and take a good look at the rock in all its glory, it really is beautiful.

So, that’s what Curiosity has been getting up to, and yes, “Gale Gazette” is back. Coming soon – all the news about the long-awaited first use of the rover’s drill…