In the last week, little has captivated people more than Mars. Since last Sunday, images and news have been pouring out of NASA about Curiosity, the rover that will spend the next two years exploring the red planet, sampling geology and looking for evidence of microbial life.
Here are the latest updates involving the remarkable mission.
Geology That Looks Like Death Valley
Curiosity has transmitted back to Earth its first high-resolution color mosaic that shows the environment around its landing site on Mars. It shows a Death Valley-like landscape that includes a northern section on the crater wall where valleys believed to have resulted from water erosion protrude into Gale Crater.
A southern perspective shows the areas the rover will explore, “including the rock-strewn, gravelly surface nearby, the dark dune field and the layered buttes and mesas of the sedimentary rock of Mount Sharp,” reports NASA in an announcement.
This 79-image mosaic was compiled from images taken within about an hour on August 8 with Curiosity’s 34-millimeter Mastcam, but doesn’t include all of the 130 1200-by-1200-pixel full-color photos it captured—some of which have yet to be returned to earth, resulting in the black patches.
Where the Sky Crane Descent Stage Crashed
Some of the first images Curiosity captured included a strange cloud that set the blogosphere abuzz about what it might be.
"We believe we've caught what is the descent stage impact on the Martian surface," Steve Sell, NASA's deputy operations lead for Curiosity's Mars landing, told reporters Friday at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)in Pasadena, California, reports Space.com.
Now, with the high-res images in hand, geologists are looking closely at the crash site that exposes underlying materials as well as an upper layer made up of rock fragments embedded within finer substances.
Curiosity Gets a 'Brain Transplant'
This weekend the Mars rover has been getting what NASA calls a “brain transplant,” a new version of flight software that’s better suited for working on the surface of Mars, such as driving and using Curiosity’s powerful robotic arm and drill. It will also give the rover better image processing ability so it can avoid obstacles while driving as well as go on longer drives.
The software upgrade began the evening of August 10 and should be complete on August 13.
It’s a pretty big deal considering the remote update is happening from 350 million miles away and if something goes wrong it could mean the last contact anyone has with Curiosity.
"It has to work," Steve Scandore, a senior flight software engineer at JPL, told Computerworld. "You don't' want to be known as the guy doing the last activity on the rover before you lose contact."
Other Mars News
While Curiosity wasn’t involved, Mars enthusiasts might like knowing that a UCLA scientist has discovered plate tectonics exist on the planet.
"Mars is at a primitive stage of plate tectonics. It gives us a glimpse of how the early Earth may have looked and may help us understand how plate tectonics began on Earth," said An Yin, a UCLA professor of Earth and space sciences and the author of the research.
Yin made the discovery by analyzing about 100 satellite images from THEMIS (Thermal Emission Imaging System), an instrument on board the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, and from the HIRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
The surface of Mars is home to the longest and deepest system of canyons in the solar system—nearly 2500 miles long—and scientists have long wondered how it was formed. According to Yin, the long crack is where two plates abut.
"The shell is broken and is moving horizontally over a long distance. It is very similar to the Earth's Dead Sea fault system, which has also opened up and is moving horizontally," he said.
How to Keep up with Mars
NASA has dedicated an entire section of its website to its Mars mission and really everything you’d want to know about it is right there.
Otherwise, PCWorld’s Ian Paul has put together a thorough guide on how to track the Mars rover using a plethora of online tools. Check out Mars Rover Curiosity: A Complete Guide to Tagging Along Online.