August 7, 2012 in Nation/World

Rover hits intriguing spot on Mars

Scott Gold Los Angeles Times
Associated Press photo

This image taken Monday by NASA’s Curiosity shows what lies ahead for the rover: its main science target, informally called Mount Sharp. The rover’s shadow can be seen in the foreground, and the dark bands beyond are dunes. Rising up in the distance is the highest peak of Mount Sharp at a height of about 3.4 miles, taller than Mount Whitney in California. The Curiosity team hopes to drive the rover to the mountain to investigate its lower layers, which scientists think hold clues to past environmental change. This image was captured by the rover’s front left Hazard-Avoidance camera at full resolution shortly after it landed. It has not yet been linearized to remove the distorted appearance that results from its fisheye lens.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

LOS ANGELES – NASA’s Curiosity robot not only survived its elaborate landing on Mars, but also wound up in the most scientifically exciting pocket of its 48-square-mile target area on the floor of an ancient crater, space scientists said Monday.

Engineers pored over data to figure out precisely where the spacecraft landed Sunday – and determined that Curiosity’s mission, which has the potential to transform deep-space exploration, won’t start at the base of a mountain four miles away, but right under its nose.

Curiosity landed in a geological feature called an alluvial fan, a plain of rocks and dirt perhaps deposited by a river during Mars’ ancient, watery past. When it comes to Curiosity’s primary mission, the search for evidence that Mars is or was able to sustain life, the fan could be “a jackpot,” said California Institute of Technology geologist John Grotzinger, the mission’s lead scientist.

“This place is awesome,” Grotzinger said in an interview at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, which is managing the $2.5 billion mission for NASA. “We really don’t want to blow out of there.”

Curiosity, a six-wheeled geochemistry lab and the most sophisticated machine ever sent to another planet, landed in Gale Crater on Sunday night.

Much of the discussion about Curiosity had focused on its intricate landing sequence, which had never been attempted and could not be tested on Earth because of atmospheric differences.

When it worked, a cascade of joy and relief washed over the JPL campus. But scientists took pains to point out Monday that the moment of triumph was not a climax, or an ending. Curiosity was not built to put on a splashy, one-night show, said mission systems manager Michael Watkins, “but to drive over Mars and execute a beautiful science mission.”

After a few weeks of tests to make sure Curiosity’s instruments are working, a significant order of business will be to figure out where to drive first.

The target, and the reason Gale Crater was selected as a landing zone, is the towering and unusual mountain in the center of the crater. Known as Mount Sharp, it is taller than any mountain in the Lower 48 United States, and scientists believe its walls were eroded over millions of years, either by wind or water, and contain a preserved record of Mars’ history and evolution.

Curiosity could have wound up anywhere in its landing target, an ellipse measuring 12 miles by 4 miles. Scientists had long been attracted to the fan in addition to the mountain, but there were no guarantees that Curiosity would land on or even near the fan.

Now, Curiosity doesn’t have to go anywhere anytime soon because there’s enough science to do right in the neighborhood, where running water appears to have swept debris from the northern rim of the crater into its bowl. The spot is at the 11 o’clock position in the crater, a little more than a mile east of the center of the landing ellipse, and about 14 miles from the north wall of the crater.

Space scientists are so fascinated by the possibility of taking a close look at an alluvial fan on Mars that they very nearly chose a different spot – a site that appeared to be the petrified remnants of a river delta.

“The place we landed looks pretty darn interesting,” Grotzinger said. “We want to check it out.”

Curiosity will explore the alluvial fan, and then “head for the hills,” Watkins said.

Curiosity’s primary mission is expected to last for at least one Martian year, or 687 Earth days, a luxury compared with primary missions of previous Mars projects that lasted months. What’s more, the nuclear-powered rover could easily operate for twice that long – four years – officials said Monday.

Still, the presence of solid science within arm’s reach was something of a relief for senior space officials, who knew that Curiosity would otherwise face pressure to “blaze out across the plains,” as Grotzinger put it.

“We’re in no hurry,” said Pete Theisinger, Curiosity’s project manager. “We have a priceless national asset here. And we are not going to – pardon the French – screw it up.”

Scientists said their initial reviews of Curiosity indicated that its geochemistry instruments – lasers that can vaporize rock, scoops that can ingest dirt to test for the presence of minerals – survived the landing and would operate properly.

The spacecraft could have survived landing on a slope steeper than many expert ski runs. But it found a far gentler angle, landing with its nose pointed down at less than 4 degrees.

Scientists also released an extraordinary photograph taken during Curiosity’s landing sequence by a passing satellite. The photo clearly showed Curiosity in its final seconds of flight, headed toward Mars beneath a fully inflated parachute.

The image was captured by a camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter known as HiRISE, which also played a key role in NASA’s choice of Gale Crater.

“HiRISE has taken over 120 pictures of Gale,” said JPL scientist Sarah Milkovich. She smiled broadly. “But I think this is the coolest one.”

By Monday, Curiosity’s success – so widely followed that NASA’s websites crashed in the minutes after the landing – had instantly reinvigorated proponents of deep-space, planetary exploration.

NASA, like many government agencies, faces an uncertain financial future. President Barack Obama’s proposed NASA budget for the 2013 fiscal year, $17.7 billion, was fairly flat. But it prompted the space agency to make difficult decisions, including a $300 million cut to planetary science, JPL’s specialty.

The cut bewildered critics because it was made in what is viewed as a golden age in robotic space exploration, with the Mars program NASA’s crown jewel. Proponents of robotic exploration have worked to restore $100 million and pledged to seize on the enthusiasm generated by Curiosity to fight for the rest.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., said in an interview that deep-space backers would also try to get canceled Mars missions “back on track.” NASA, for example, had pulled out of two partnerships with the European Space Agency to explore Mars. Those missions are considered important because they could lead to technology allowing for soil samples to be returned from Mars to Earth – a critical next step in the search for signs of life.

“I hope NASA will be infected by the enthusiasm and will reconsider,” Schiff said. “It’s what the public wants. We owe a lot to the Mars program. NASA should not forget that.”

Caltech President Jean-Lou Chameau agreed that Curiosity is “energizing public support” for space exploration. “We’re going to work very hard to ensure that there is sufficient funding and that the U.S. stays on the leading edge of space exploration,” he said.

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