Curiosity Rover went deep inside the Dusty Skies

Curiosity Rover went deep inside the Dusty Skies

The car-sized rover from NASA is trying to figure out the mystery of the Vera Rubin Ridge.

Curiosity was designed as part of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission in order to explore the Gale Crater on Mars. The primary goals of the rover include the climatic and geological study of Mars and determine whether the red planet could ever foster life or not. Similarly, it is also assigned the task of determining the role of water in this quest. All in all, the rover will help in all possible ways to prepare for human exploration.

The MSL spacecraft that carried Curiosity was launched on 26th November 2011 from Cape Canaveral in Florida. It reached the Aeolis Palus in Gale Crater on 6th August 2012. The total mass of the spacecraft, at the time of its launch, was 3983 kilograms. However, Curiosity contributed to only 23% (899 kg) of that mass. Given the fact that transferring the rover safely from the Earth to the Mars was the only mission of the spacecraft, all the remaining mass was utilized in this task. The 2.9-meters-long rover from NASA is powered by a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG), the same technology that was used successfully for Vikings landers in 1976.

These generators rely on the decay of radioactive isotopes to produce electricity. The U.S. Department of Energy supplies the 4.8 kilograms of Plutonium-238 Dioxide which fuels the RTG of the Curiosity. The RTG of Curiosity is much more flexible than an ordinary RTG. It is a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) which has the ability to produce 2000 watts of thermal power and 110 watts of electrical power at the beginning of the mission. The electrical output of this generator decreases gradually as the fuel (Plutonium) decays over time. The power generated by MMRTG is used to charge two Lithium-ion Batteries in order to handle the situation when the demand temporarily exceeds the constant supply.

Curiosity continued to observe the Martian surface despite the massive dust storm which engulfed the entire planet and led to the “sleep” of the Opportunity rover. It ripped apart a new rock sample on the 9th of August before surveying its surroundings. This examination created a 360o panorama of the Vera Rubin Ridge, its current location. According to a video by NASA, the panorama covers a rare view of the rover showing a thin layer of dust on the deck of the Curiosity. Likewise, umber skies which were darkened by a fading global dust storm were also observed in this panorama. The most recent drill target of the rover, Stoer, is also clearly evident in the video.

It is not possible for Curiosity to determine the hardness of a rock before drilling it. The rover team came up with an educated guess in the case of Stoer. The presence of an extensive ledge on the ridge of the rock guided the scientists that it might include a harder rock which allowed to bear intensive wind erosion. Contrary to that, a spot below the ridge seemed more likely to find softer, erodible rocks. Things went just as predicted much to the delight of the science team of Curiosity. The failure of the last two drill attempts of the rover has put the new drilling method, incorporated earlier this year, into doubts. Although testing has shown it to be equally effective as the older one, the results were going against it until the latest drilling.

Despite these positives, the researchers at NASA are still curious about the very existence of the Vera Rubin Ridge. Ashwin Vasavada, a Project Scientist of Curiosity at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, mentioned that there is a significant variation in the texture and color of this place in comparison to what they found on the other parts of the red planet. He said,

The ridge isn’t this monolithic thing — it has two distinct sections, each of which has a variety of colors. Some are visible to the eye and even more show up when we look in near-infrared, just beyond what our eyes can see. Some seem related to how hard the rocks are.”

He acknowledged that Vera Rubin Ridge is keeping its secret for now but they are trying figure out the mystery of this ridge. According to his views, the most likely explanation could be that the flowing of groundwater through the ridge in the ancient past has strengthened it. Having said that, they are not certain about anything for now but more drilling samples scheduled for future might help them in this regard.

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