NASA releases treasure trove of Mars footage

NASA releases treasure trove of Mars footage

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NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is giving scientists a new view of where the space agency’s rover hunkered down for the recent Martian winter. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory reports that the rover’s panoramic camera (Pancam) has spotted fresh rover tracks and an impact crater from billions of years ago as well as the ruddy terrain around the outcrop where Opportunity hibernated.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory compares the view from Opportunity’s mast-mounted color camera to the view that one would see if he or she was sitting on top of the rover and looking out at the Martian landscape. According to NASA scientists, the release of footage from Pancam complements several milestones for the long-lived explorer: Opportunity’s 3000th Martian day and 15 years of robotic presence on Mars for the space agency.

The latest Opportunity Update says that “Opportunity has now exceeded 3,000 sols, or Martian days, of operation on the surface of Mars! The rover is still exploring the north end of Cape York on the rim of Endeavour Crater.”

Jim Bell of Arizona State University (ASU) at Tempe and the lead scientist of Pancam, said, “The view provides rich geologic context for the detailed chemical and mineral work that the team did at Greeley Haven over the rover’s fifth Martian winter, as well as a spectacularly detailed view of the largest impact crater that we’ve driven to yet with either rover over the course of the mission.”

Interested parties can view Pancam’s footage at http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA15689. Scientists say the footage is “presented in false color to emphasize differences between materials in the scene.” Pancam took these 817 component images between December 21, 2011 and May 8, 2012, while the Mars rover was sitting on “Greeley Haven,” on a portion of the rim of Endeavour Crater.

“The view provides rich geologic context for the detailed chemical and mineral work that the team did at Greeley Haven over the rover’s fifth Martian winter, as well as a spectacularly detailed view of the largest impact crater that we’ve driven to yet with either rover over the course of the mission,” said Jim Bell of Arizona State University, Pancam lead scientist, in a statement.

The release of the image comes as NASA is preparing for its latest mission to Mars. NASA’s huge Curiosity rover is hurtling toward a planned late-night landing on Mars on August 5, which will then begin streaming loads of information back to NASA headquarters.

The rover is reportedly nearly seven feet tall and is twice as big as previous Mars rovers. Officials say the rover weighs over a ton, and it’s expected to carry more than ten times the amount of scientific equipment sent with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that launched in 2004. The cost of the mission: $2.5 billion.

The massive rover has been traveling through space since its launch earlier this year. It will reportedly land in Gale crater, according to NASA scientists, which is thought to be about three and a half billion years old and more than 95 miles in diameter. The crater has a combined size of Connecticut and Rhode Island with a three-mile-high mountain of layered sedimentary rock at its bottom — an enticing area of exploration for scientists.

Curiosity will survey the area, using equipment in the Mars Science Laboratory, which is stored within the confines of the rover. Scientists say the rover will roam Mars powered by a nuclear battery rated for a minimum lifetime of 14 years, possibly providing NASA with a long-term presence on the Red Planet. The landing site is thought to have sediments washed away from the crater wall, giving scientists access to a region of interesting rocks, clay minerals and sulphate salts.

“Curiosity is revolutionary, because it has a nuclear-power source. We’ve got this little marshmallow-shaped block of plutonium that decays, creating heat that generates electricity that charges the rover’s batteries. This process produces a lot more power than any of the previous rovers, enough energy, in fact, to run all of the instruments in the daytime or the nighttime. And unlike the solar panels, it doesn’t matter if it’s a cloudy day on Mars or a dusty day, this power source is going to provide a constant level of energy,” said Michael Mischna, a planetary scientist who works on the Curiosity team, in an interview with The Atlantic Monthly.

An instrument on NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity can check for any water that might be bound into shallow underground minerals along the rover’s path.

“If we conclude that there is something unusual in the subsurface at a particular spot, we could suggest more analysis of the spot using the capabilities of other instruments,” says this instrument’s principal investigator, Igor Mitrofanov of the Space Research Institute, Russia.

The Mars Science Laboratory mission will use its set of ten instruments to investigate whether the area selected for the mission has ever offered environmental conditions favorable for life and favorable for preserving evidence about life.

While the rover lacks life-detection equipment, it is equipped with instruments allowing it to detect whether carbon and minerals used by living things remain on Mars. The rover will reportedly focus on the walls of ravines that appear shaped by water, providing NASA with an astrobiologist that has the capacity to analyze Mars’ geology and atmosphere. Previous rovers simply searched for evidence of water on the Red Planet.

In May, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory released a stunning image of the Endeavour Crater. A low sun angle created a shadow of the rover in the foreground of the picture and the Endeavour Crater in the distance. Opportunity shot these component images on March 9, 2012.

The space agency also uses Opportunity and Spirit for a variety of surface operations, including rover navigation and science investigations. Rover navigation allows the Mars rovers to explore places the team identifies as important for further examination a science investigations allow the Mars rovers’ science instruments to learn more about the red planet’s environment.

The Opportunity and Spirit rovers are part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort to use robots to explore the red planet.

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