Curiosity's camera mast erected as checkout continues

CBS News

The Curiosity Mars rover, stepping through a complex post-landing checklist in near flawless fashion, successfully raised its main camera mast and beamed down razor-sharp navigation camera views of its surroundings in Gale Crater that provide a hint of the spectacular vistas to come when the craft's high-resolution cameras swing into operation, engineers said Wednesday.

Mission manager Jennifer Trosper said the only anomaly of any significance since landing overnight Sunday -- trouble with a meteorological instrument -- turned out to be a procedural glitch and not a real problem at all.

A normal-resolution view from Curiosity's navigation cameras, mounted on a remote sensing mast that was erected Tuesday. The view, looking north, shows the rim of Gale Crater in the distance. Closer to the rover, two areas can be seen where sky crane descent rockets blasted away topsoil. (Credit: NASA)

Along with erecting the remote sensing mast, Curiosity's high-gain antenna, which follows Earth across the martian sky to provide a direct communications link, was deployed and checked out after minor alignment issues were resolved. The high-gain antenna can be used to receive critical commands when two NASA satellites, the Mars Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, are below the horizon,.

"We accomplished the main things of getting our high gain antenna session to work and we have now confirmed that all of our antennas and all of our links on the rover work perfectly," Trosper said. "We feel very confident that we have lots of data capacity now with all of these links. That was one of the major objectives of this first part of the mission, so that's fantastic."

She said Curiosity's nuclear-power pack, which converts the heat produced by the decay of radioactive plutonium-238 dioxide into electricity, is producing more power than engineers expected, about 10 watts more than the 105-watt pre-flight predictions. The additional power, coupled with slightly higher-than-expected temperatures, will benefit rover operations when its science mission begins.

A downward-looking descent camera used to capture views of the landing site from above captured this post-touchdown view of the gravel-strewn soil directly below the rover. (Credit: NASA)
The radioisotope thermoelectric generator, or RTG, is used to recharge the rover's batteries during overnight "sleep" periods. Excess heat from the RTG keeps critical systems warm.

"We have more power than we expected ,and that's going to be fantastic for being able to keep the rover awake longer," Trosper said. "We also have some thermal data indicating it's a little bit warmer than what our predicts say. We're still looking at why that is. ... The huge advantage of that is that in warming up actuators to do things like drive and move the (robotic) arm we'll (use) less energy."

Navigation cameras on Curiosity's main remote sensing mast captured this "anti-sun" view of Curiosity's shadow on the martian soil. (Credit: NASA)
With Curiosity in good health, engineers unveiled new pictures of the rover's immediate surroundings and shots from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that included intriguing views of the landing site.

On Tuesday, engineers released MRO photos showing Curiosity, it's heat shield, parachute and rocket-powered "sky crane" where they came to rest on the floor of Gale Crater.

On Wednesday, they unveiled before-and-after views showing where six 25-pound weights slammed into the ground about seven-and-a-half-miles downrange from Curiosity. The weights were ejected during atmospheric entry to shift the spacecraft's center-of-mass and spotting their impact sites from orbit eloquently illustrated the value of the orbiter's cameras and the satellite's eagle-eyed operators.

A taste of things to come: This high-resolution frame from Curiosity's descent camera shows Curiosity's heat shield falling away moments after the spacecraft's braking parachute inflated. A high-resolution movie showing the entire descent from that point forward will be released later. (Credit: NASA)
But the view from Curiosity's navigation cameras gave the science team the biggest thrill of the day. The normal resolution view showed the vista to the north of the rover stretching to the rim of Gale Crater. In the foreground, a few yards from the rover, were two areas where pebbles and topsoil had been blown away by two of the sky crane descent vehicle's eight rocket engines.

"That's the part of the rim that's lowest in elevation, facing the northern lowlands of Mars," said Project Scientist John Grotzinger, describing the view. "The thing that really struck the science team about this image, you would really be forgiven for thinking that NASA was trying to pull a fast one on you and we actually put a rover out in the Mojave Desert and took a picture.

"The thing that's amazing about this is to a certain extent the first impression you get is how earth-like this seems, looking at that landscape."

Views from orbit indicate Curiosity landed on an alluvial fan, a region made up or rock and soil transported into the crater by water in the distant past.

"So all the sedimentary materials ... all those materials are derived from erosion of those mountains there, that's the source region for this material," Grotzinger said. "It's really kind of fantastic."

As for the rocket plume impingement, he said the landing engines provided "free trenching" and "what you see beneath the soil is bedrock." When science operations get underway, the rover will train its instruments on the site to assess the nature of the exposed underlying rock.

"We're looking at a place that feels really comfortable," Grotzinger said. "What's going to be interesting is going to be to find out all the ways that it's different."

Now that Curiosity's remote sensing mast is up, the rover will begin snapping a 360-degree full-color panorama overnight Wednesday and Thursday, showing the crater floor, the distant rim and a three-mile-high mound of layered terrain in the heart of Gale Crater just a few miles away.

At the same time, the rover will be gearing up for a critical computer software transition, loading the programming needed for the next phase of the mission.

"There have been a couple of folks who have been working for over a year on how we transition from the R-9 flight software to the R-10 flight software," Trosper said. "They've generated hundreds of files with thousands of commands that we have to execute over the four sols (martian days) of flight software transition and we're going to uplink those on the high gain antenna on the morning of sol 3 so they're all on board and ready to go for the sol-5-to-9 flight software transition."