Selfies on Mars and NASA’s bold rover plans

From selfies to soil sample analysis, the Curiosity rover has been busily sending data back to Earth over the past 4 years. And it will soon be joined by another.

A friend of mine once said that ‘selfies’ were a lonely man’s game, and if the one taken by the Curiosity Mars rover is anything to go by, this certainly appears to be the case. As the rocky planet’s sole active resident for miles around, the rover was forced to use a camera mounted on its own arm to capture itself inside an amazing panoramic view of the expansive “Murray Buttes” area on the slopes of Mount Sharp.


A closer look at the car-sized Curiosity Mars rover. Credit: NASA


To be fair to Curiosity and its controllers there is much more planned for this $2.5 billion project than just a few images, however great they may be. The rover has already found evidence of ancient lakes that existed on the planet billions of years ago by using its on-board test chambers to analyse the Martian soil, and it will be acquiring more data by drilling at the ‘selfie site’ before moving forward on its extended mission. Over the next two years, teams at NASA plan for Curiosity to continue to analyse a succession of rock layers to read the “’pages’ of Martian history – changing our understanding of Mars and how the planet has evolved,” according to program scientist Michael Meyer.


This graphic showing Curiosity’s location on the 10th September displays the rover’s future direction across Mount Sharp. Click on the image for a closer look. Credit: NASA


The next rover
Fortunately Curiosity won’t have to wait too long for the lonely planet to grow ever so slightly more populated, as NASA are planning their next rover mission to launch in 2020. Like Curiosity the next rover will land with the help of a Sky Crane, but the newest explorer of Mars will arrive using a rocket equipped with an improved guidance system designed for a precise landing at a predesignated target. This will be a significant improvement on Curiosity’s arrival, which was dubbed as “7 minutes of terror” by JPL engineer Tom Rivellini.


Curiosity landed on the surface of Mars using the Sky Crane maneuver. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


The new guidance system – called the Lander Vision System (LVS) – will also be able to use its mounted cameras to adjust the landing point to more favourable terrain if a potential hazard is spotted below. A prototype of the LVS has already been tested with promising results, so the potential remains for the new rover to land in more geologically interesting – mountainous – area, rather than landing in the typically safer open plains used as landing sites by previous rovers. This means it will be able to start analysing samples, and maybe taking some of its own selfies, sooner rather than later.


A prototype of the Lander Vision System has been launched at Mojave Air and Space Port



Feature image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS


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