Mars Curiosity update, now with animated GIFs from the red planet

I'm sitting in on a NASA Jet propulsion laboratory teleconference for science journalists, with an update for the world on the Mars Curiosity rover's mission. Curiosity completes her "checkout" phase today. Including an "intermission" of 13 sols, and one remaining sol to inspect the rover's robotic arm, 26 sols have been devoted to so-called checkout duties. Today is sol 37. Rover is currently facing a Southeast direction. Temperatures on the rover are between 7 and 33 C. She has covered a little over a football field's distance on the surface of Mars. Ability to move the arm has been confirmed, and the ability of the rover to perform sampling is confirmed.

Curiosity has so far driven 109 meters from its original landing site, and engineers are driving her about 40 meters per sol. The first drilling into the surface of Mars is expected to occur about a month from now, following various surface activities (scraping rock surfaces, and so on).

Three speakers in the teleconference: Jennifer Trosper, JPL; Curiosity mission manager. Ralf Gellert, University of Guelph, in Guelph, Ontario, Canada; principal investigator for the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer instrument (or APXS) on Curiosity. Ken Edgett, Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego; principal investigator for the Mars Hand Lens Imager (or MAHLI) on Curiosity.

At the top of this blog post, the first Mars image of the day (larger size here):

Read the rest

In Letterspace, No One Can Hear You Kern

We spent $2.5 billion to put Helvetica Arial on Mars (and incidentally, an SUV-sized robotic science rover), and yet not a cent was devoted to kerning. The Curiosity rover carries a calibration target for its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), an adjustable focus camera designed to take close-up pictures. It's one of 17 cameras on the rover, but it's the only one that has its own target for testing a photo against known colors, brightness, and scale. (​Update: ​The sundial on top of the rover has color swatches for the mast cameras.)

But as a former typesetter, I had to poke fun at the kerning in the word "Target", where the "a" in any design software would be neatly tucked underneath the "T". NASA is old-school in type, too, as this is Helvetica, not Helvetica Neue.​ (Update! Readers note this is Arial, as the angle terminators on the upper-case C give it away! Go, go, Microsoft fonts!)

The calibration target includes a 1909 penny as a homage to the practice of using a coin for scale in images. One of the scientists bought the penny from the first year Lincoln appeared on its front, and sent it on its merry mission. The target is now lightly dusted with Martian soil, but still useful for its purpose.

A full size image is available from NASA.

Hello, Curiosity

On Sol 32 (Sept. 7, 2012) the Curiosity rover used a camera located on its arm to obtain this self portrait. The image of the top of Curiosity's Remote Sensing Mast, showing the Mastcam and Chemcam cameras, was acquired by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). The angle of the frame reflects the position of the MAHLI camera on the arm when the image was taken. The image was acquired while MAHLI's clear dust cover was closed.

That's from NASA's description of this great Curiosity self-portrait.

What really stuck out to me, though, was the use of "Sol 32". Sol is what you call a "day" on Mars. We use a different word because the length of time is also a bit different. One Martian Sol is equal to 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35.244 seconds. Sol 32 isn't, itself, a date, but simply a record tracking the number of sols that Curiosity has been on Mars—starting with Sol 0, which was August 6th. Every mission to Mars since Viking has kept its own sol count, so you can't really use these sol dates to keep track of history except as it relates to a specific mission.

There have, however, been proposals for a standardized Martian calendar system with a starting point that all dates progress from. NASA includes a Mars Sol Date on its Mars24 Martian clock app. In this case, the count begins on Earth date December 29, 1873 at noon Greenwich Mean Time and MSD represents the number of sols that have happened since then.

Why December 29, 1873? The Mars24 explainer just says that this date was chosen because it precedes all the really good, detailed observations of how time worked on Mars—how fast the planet was spinning, how often it went around the Sun, what the orbits of its moons were like ... that kind of thing. In 1877, the orbit of Mars took it particularly close to Earth, allowing humans—and their increasingly good quality telescopes—to get a really nice view of the planet.

That still doesn't exactly explain the 1873 date, though. But, according to Wikipedia, it's also the birthday of Carl Lampland, an American astronomer. Among other achievements, Lampland would calculate temperatures on the Martian surface, finding a large difference between soltime temperatures, and those at night. That data gave scientists their first clue that Mars had a particularly thin atmosphere, compared to our own.

1967 JPL employment ad, remixed: now with more Mars Curiosity "Mohawk Guy"

Hahah! Boing Boing reader William Jaspers saw the 1967 ad for jobs at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory I posted yesterday, which ran in Scientific American—and with a little help from Photoshop, he updated it to feature the MSL space celeb Bobak "Mohawk Guy" Ferdowsi, who works on the Mars Curiosity team at JPL.

Now all they need is a reversal of those devastating budget cuts so JPL can hire more space-dreamers, instead of laying them off, and the vintage ad will really be true again 45 years later. Larger size here.

* Thanks again to reader fdecomite for scanning and sharing the original.

About the cameras on Curiosity: "Taking pictures on Mars"

At the Economist, Glenn Fleishmann writes about the 17 cameras on board the Curiosity rover on Mars. That's "seven more than any previous exploratory vehicle," he writes. They "store images in a raw, unprocessed format and initially beam back tiny thumbnails (which NASA uploads as they come in). The scientists working on different aspects of the mission meet daily to determine which of the thumbnails to download in higher resolution. The 'health and safety' of the rover takes priority. After the deliberations, which can last over an hour, instructions are dispatched to Mars."

The first recorded human voice transmission from Mars

Snip from statement of Charlie Bolden, NASA Administrator, speaking via broadcast from the Curiosity Rover on the surface of Mars: "The knowledge we hope to gain from our observation and analysis of Gale Crater, will tell us much about the possibility of life on Mars as well as the past and future possibilities for our own planet. Curiosity will bring benefits to Earth and inspire a new generation of scientists and explorers, as it prepares the way for a human mission in the not too distant future."

Curiosity Mars Rover descent footage interpolated from 4fps to 25fps (video)

[Video Link] This is a magnificent thing.

YouTuber hahahaspam explains, "This is the Curiosity Mars Rover descent footage interpolated from ~4 frames per second to 25 frames per second. It is playing back in real time. This took me 4 days straight to put together, so I hope you enjoy it! Music: Kevin Macleod."

(via Joe Sabia)

Mars Curiosity rover: HD video of landing, and an image of her first drive

[Video Link] Above, HD video of the Mars Curiosity Rover's landing on Mars. And below, an image of her first drive. (via @tweetsoutloud)

Sending messages from Mars: Interplanetary broadband

Glenn Fleishman writes in the Economist about how Curiosity sends messages home from Mars: "NASA'S Curiosity has the fastest modem on Mars. Since its only competition is an oldish bit of kit aboard Opportunity, one of two rovers dispatched in 2003, that is not saying much, at least in terms of what internet users on Earth have learned to expect. Curiosity's ability to capture images and other data easily outstrips its capacity to beam it all back home. Nonetheless, it delivers vastly more information from the red planet than any previous mission did."

Why do NASA engineers like peanuts?

As Curiosity was landing safely on Mars, many of you noted that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers orchestrating the whole thing were eating an awful lot of peanuts. In fact, each workstation boasted a little commemorative jar of peanuts. Seriously, what is up with all those peanuts?

Discovery News has an answer. And it's surprisingly interesting.

Turns out, this is a JPL-specific tradition, dating back to 1964, when the lab's funding was on the line after the Ranger program—unmanned missions to photograph the Moon—weren't living up to expectations. In fact, six Ranger missions in a row had failed.

This was the heritage leading up to Ranger 7. There was talk that JPL should be shut down, that a university-affiliated center couldn’t handle a rigorous spaceflight program. There were suggestions that the program had been sabotaged -- a worker found a small polyethylene bag with 14 screws and a lock washer in one of the sealed electronic modules in Ranger 7’s television subsystem.

Just before Ranger 7 launched to the moon on July 28, mission manager Harris Schurmeier handed out peanuts to ease tensions. He figured chewing or playing with them on the table would give his team something else to focus on.

The full story is pretty neat. You can read the rest at Discovery News

Via Ed Yong

Mars Curiosity/LFMAO parody video: "We're NASA and We Know It"

[Video Link]. This parody music video debuted this week on a new YouTube channel called Satire, and mashes up LMFAO's hit “Sexy and I Know It” with the NASA Curiosity mission and abundant JPL-love.

"It comes complete with shout-outs to Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson," reports the Washington Post, which dug into the story behind its creation. Half a million views so far, huh? Best NASA PSA ever.

Mars Curiosity rover's landing: A video by one of her 3,000+ creators at NASA JPL

What a beautiful video by Mark Rober, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory: "I was able to work on NASA JPL's Curiosity Mars Rover for 7 years. This video is an attempt to capture what it felt like to have 7 years of your life vindicated in the 7 minute landing. Honestly one of the coolest moments of my life so far.

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"Boring" pictures of Mars

I'm with Steve Silberman, who tweeted this image, taken by the Mars Curiosity rover. Silberman, a science journalist, pointed out how amazing it is to be able to have access to photos of Mars that look totally ordinary, decidedly un-exotic, and even a little dull.

There is a delightful irony here. Think of all the work, all the skill, all the serious intelligence that went into getting Curiosity to Mars. This photo is kind of boring. But it represents something truly wonderful and exciting. It's mundane. But it's the mundanity of M*#&$%*!(*%ING MARS.

I dig it. And I'm a little surprised there wasn't already a Tumblr for it.

Check out Steve Silberman's excellent, science-packed Twitter feed

Interview with developer of 2MP cameras taking those amazing Mars photos on the Curiosity rover

As regular readers of this blog will recall, I asked a question of the Mars Curiosity team about imaging technologies during the post-landing press conference at NASA JPL a few days ago.

Related: Digital Photography Review now has an interview with the Mars rover camera project manager. Above, the 34mm (115mm equiv.) Mastcam from the Curiosity rover. This was developed by Mike Ravine and his team at Malin Space Science Systems, a contractor for NASA. Ravine explains how they developed the 2MP main imaging cameras used to transmit those breathtaking images back from Mars.

The slow data rates available for broadcasting images back to Earth and the team's familiarity with that family of sensors played a part, says [Ravine], but the biggest factor was the specifications being fixed as far back as 2004. Multi-shot panoramas will see the cameras deliver high-res images, he explains, but not the 3D movies Hollywood director James Cameron had wanted.

'There's a popular belief that projects like this are going to be very advanced but there are things that mitigate against that. These designs were proposed in 2004, and you don't get to propose one specification and then go off and develop something else. 2MP with 8GB of flash [memory] didn't sound too bad in 2004. But it doesn't compare well to what you get in an iPhone today.'

(thanks, Michael Kammes)

Curiosity transmits first full-color panorama back from Mars

Ain't it pretty? The first color panorama image of Gale Crater, the landing site for the Curiosity rover. Thumbnail versions of images taken by the Mast Camera were combined to form this 360-degree view. From NASA:

Scientists will be taking a closer look at several splotches in the foreground that appear gray. These areas show the effects of the descent stage's rocket engines blasting the ground. What appeared as a dark strip of dunes in previous, black-and-white pictures from Curiosity can also be seen along the top of this mosaic, but the color images also reveal additional shades of reddish brown around the dunes, likely indicating different textures or materials.

The images were taken late Aug. 8 PDT (Aug. 9 EDT) by the 34-millimeter Mast Camera. This panorama mosaic was made of 130 images of 144 by 144 pixels each. Selected full frames from this panorama, which are 1,200 by 1,200 pixels each, are expected to be transmitted to Earth later. The images in this panorama were brightened in the processing. Mars only receives half the sunlight Earth does and this image was taken in the late Martian afternoon.

Full size available here.