Monday, March 24, 2014

NASA MSL Mars: Curiosity Rover pulls into Kimberly and spies curvy terrain for drilling

Martian landscape with rows of curved rock outcrops at ‘Kimberly’ in the foreground and spectacular Mount Sharp on the horizon. 

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover pulled into Kimberly waypoint dominated by layered rock outcrops as likely drilling site. 

This coloured navcam camera photomosaic was assembled from imagery taken on Sol 576 (Mar. 20, 2014). 

Credit: NASA /JPL-Caltech /Marco Di Lorenzo /Ken Kremer

NASA's Curiosity rover has just pulled into gorgeous terrain chock full of curvy rock outcrops at Kimberly that's suitable for contact science and drilling action, according to the mission team.

The six wheeled Martian dune buggy drove into the dazzling Kimberly waypoint this week after traversing a swath of otherworldly dune fields since passing through a gateway known as the 'Dingo Gap' sand dune some six weeks ago.

The robot's arm has been deployed to investigate the most scientifically productive spots to touch Kimberly's textured outcrops for detailed scrutiny.

The science team has been hunting for tasty rock outcrops suitable for the first drilling campaign since she departed the dried out lakebed at Yellowknife Bay in July 2013 and began her epic trek across the floor of Gale Crater towards the base of Mount Sharp.

With each passing Sol, or Martian day, Mount Sharp looms larger and larger and the historical layers with deposits of hydrated minerals potentially indicative of an alien habitable zone come ever clearer into focus.

About a month ago on Feb. 19 (Sol 548), Curiosity couldn't resist the urge to pause mid dune drive, just like a tourist, and snap fabulous imagery of multiple rows of striated rocks at the Junda outcrop – see our mosaics below.

Junda appeared remarkably similar to Kimberly, about 1 kilometer back.

So after executing a final series of short bumps edging ever closer to the outcrops this week, Curiosity parked at the periphery of Kimberly on Thursday, March 20, Sol 576, and captured breathtaking imagery of the rocky rows dominated by towering Mount Sharp on the distant horizon.

"The images [at Kimberly] show nice outcrops in front of the rover, suitable for contact science," according to science team member Ken Herkenhoff in a mission update.

Curiosity looks back at Martian sand dunes and rover tracks after passing by Junda outcrop (right) on Sol 548 (Feb. 19, 2014) with Gale Crater rim and Mount Sharp on the distant horizon. Navcam colorized photomosaic. 

Credit: NASA /JPL-Caltech /Marco Di Lorenzo /Ken Kremer

This weekend, the state of the art robot is conducting contact science with the cameras and spectrometers on the terminus of the 7 foot long robotic arm and the mast mounted ChemCam laser and high resolution cameras to determine the best spot for drilling and sampling.

The team commanded Curiosity to clean out the arms CHIMRA sample handling mechanism in anticipation of boring into the Martian outcrops and delivering powdery, pulverized samples of cored Martian rocks to the SAM and CheMin miniaturised chemistry labs waiting patiently inside the robots belly to eat something exciting from the Red Planet.

"The arm will be deployed to "thwack" and vibrate CHIMRA to clean out any remnants of the "John Klein" [drilling] sample, followed by Mastcam and RMI imaging of the CHIMRA sieve," says Herkenhoff.

Scientists directed Curiosity on a pinpoint drive to Kimberly after their interest was piqued by orbital images taken by the powerful telescopic camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) circling overhead.

"At Kimberly, we see three terrain types exposed and a relatively dust-free surface," said science team collaborator Katie Stack, California Institute of Technology (CalTech), Pasadena.

The missions science focus has shifted to "search for that subset of habitable environments which also preserves organic carbon," says Curiosity Principal Investigator John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover will likely drill into this layered rock outcrop, near the center of the mosaic, at the Kimberly waypoint. 

This photomosaic was assembled from high resolution Mastcam 34 camera images taken on Sol 574 (March 18, 2014). 

Credit: NASA /JPL-Caltech /Marco Di Lorenzo /Ken Kremer

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