Archive for March, 2017

Wang Xiaojun, commander-in-chief of Long March-7.
Credit: CCTV-Plus


Chinese space engineers are busily readying the country’s Tianzhou-1 – a resupply spacecraft.

A Long March-7 Y2 carrier rocket will boost the cargo vehicle into space next month, blasting off from China’s Wenchang Launch Center, Hainan Province.

China’s cargo ship will dock with the now-orbiting Tiangong-2 space lab and refuel that facility.
Credit: CMSE

The launch of Tianzhou-1 faces challenges as the rocket’s launch window has to be accurate to a second, explains Wang Xiaojun, commander-in-chief of Long March-7.

“Rockets are composed of a complex system. And the operational procedure before the launch is also very complex. If there is a problem in any step in the process, it will be difficult for us to guarantee the zero window launch,” Wang told CCTV in a video interview.

Zero launch window

The cargo spacecraft will dock with the already orbiting, but unoccupied, Tiangong-2 space lab, and that requires a precise launch window accurate to a second, hence the name “zero launch window.”

Tianzhou-1 supply ship.
Credit: CCTV-Plus

There’s another launch issue. That is, the rainy weather in south China’s Hainan Province that can impact the launch time.

Wang underscores the fact that rocket designers have made the rocket waterproof – reportedly China’s first carrier rocket capable of being launched in rain.

Space lab link-ups

If successfully launched, the Tianzhou-1 is expected to dock with the Tiangong-2 space lab three times to evaluate rendezvous, docking, and refueling techniques.

The rocket will be launched in April “when the time is right,” said Che Zhuming, a senior engineer at the launch center in a previous CCTV interview.

Meanwhile, China’s space monitoring and control vessel team has also entered a key phase of its preparation, at the ready for the upcoming Tianzhou-1 liftoff.

Future plans

Tiangong-2 (Heavenly Palace-2) was lobbed into space in mid-September 2016. A two-person Shenzhou 11 successfully docked with Tiangong-2 in October 2016. Veteran space flyer, Jing Haipeng commanded the mission, with first-time space flyer, Chen Dong, forming the inaugural crew for the space laboratory.

Credit: CSIS

The crew landed successfully after their 33-day space mission on November 18, 2016.

China’s Tianzhou-1 cargo vessel is a key element of the country’s future plans to construct a multi-module space station in the 2020s.

For a recent CCTV-Plus video on Tianzhou-1 launch preparations, go to:

Artist rendering of Lockheed Martin-built Orion spacecraft in deep space.
Credit: Lockheed Martin





To get a leg up on leaving low Earth orbit, dispatching humans back to the Moon…or full throttle and go for the gusto by sending crews to Mars…or?

Private firm foothold on Mars? SpaceX Red Dragon makes use of Supersonic Retro-Propulsion (SRP) to land on Mars.
Credit: SpaceX





If you’re seeking advice look no further than the recent 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC), held March 21-25. Scientists unleashed the latest findings regarding Earth’s Moon, Mars, asteroids, comets and a myriad of other objects of interest. Whereas robotic space exploration is the persistent currency of discovery, seeing humans return as beyond Earth exploration agents is viewed positively.

For more details, go to my new Scientific American story at:

Red Planet versus Dead Planet: Scientists Debate Next Destination for Astronauts in Space

Credit: Clouds AO


Yes, it’s filed under speculative, space, architecture.

But the New York-based Clouds Architecture Office (Clouds AO) has released details of “Analemma” and a system referred to as the Universal Orbital Support System (UOSS).

Credit: Clouds AO

This same group worked with NASA recently to create a Mars Ice Home.

Overall, the group’s new concept trump’s Trump Tower!

Super tall tower

In the group’s new idea, by placing a large asteroid into orbit over Earth, a high strength cable can be lowered towards the surface of earth from which a super tall tower can be suspended. Since this new tower typology is suspended in the air, it can be constructed anywhere in the world and transported to its final location.

Credit: Clouds AO

Clouds AO’s proposal calls for Analemma to be constructed over Dubai, which has proven to be a specialist in tall building construction at one fifth the cost of New York City construction.

The bottom line is that the concept inverts the traditional diagram of an Earth-based foundation, instead depending on a space-based supporting foundation from which the tower is suspended.

Figure-8 form

Orbital mechanics for Analemma: geosynchronous orbit matches Earth’s sidereal rotation period of one day. The tower’s position in the sky traces out a path in a figure-8 form, returning the tower to exactly the same position in the sky each day.

Credit: Clouds AO

Clouds AO explains that manipulating asteroids is no longer relegated to science fiction.

“Analemma can be placed in an eccentric geosynchronous orbit which would allow it to travel between the northern and southern hemispheres on a daily loop. The ground trace for this pendulum tower would be a figure eight, where the tower would move at its slowest speed at the top and bottom of the figure eight allowing the possibility for the towers occupants to interface with the planet’s surface at these points. The proposed orbit is calibrated so the slowest part of the towers trajectory occurs over New York City.

Credit: Clouds AO

Electromagnetic elevators

As detailed by Clouds AO, “Analemma would get its power from space-based solar panels. Installed above the dense and diffuse atmosphere, these panels would have constant exposure to sunlight, with a greater efficiency than conventional PV installations. Water would be filtered and recycled in a semi-closed loop system, replenished with condensate captured from clouds and rainwater. Developments in cable-less electromagnetic elevators have effectively shattered height restrictions imposed by elevator cable spool volume.”

Credit: Clouds AO


Height limit?

While researching atmospheric conditions for this project, Clouds AO experts realized that there is probably a tangible height limit beyond which people would not tolerate living due to the extreme conditions. For example, while there may be a benefit to having 45 extra minutes of daylight at an elevation of 32,000 meters, the near vacuum and -40C temperature would prevent people from going outside without a protective suit.

“Then again,” the Clouds AO website explains, “astronauts have continually occupied the space station for decades, so perhaps it’s not so bad?”

Credit: Clouds AO






High cost of construction

Analemma Tower is a proposal for the world’s tallest building ever.

“Harnessing the power of planetary design thinking, it taps into the desire for extreme height, seclusion and constant mobility. If the recent boom in residential towers proves that sales price per square foot rises with floor elevation, then Analemma Tower will command record prices, justifying its high cost of construction,” the Clouds AO website explains.

For more information on this innovative group, go to:

Pluto nearly fills the frame in this image from the New Horizon’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI).



After more than a decade of controversy, the debate over the icy world’s demotion to “dwarf planet” status shows no sign of stopping.

The upshot from the vote to downgrade Pluto as a planet to a dwarf planet in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) continues to swirl around a major axis of dispute.

Turns out, it’s a world also caught in a vortex of nomenclature, planetary pedagogy, as well as a slight nudge from ambivalence.

Leonard David (left) at last week’s 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas, interviewing Kirby Runyon about his Pluto as a planet campaign.
Courtesy: Kirby Runyon



New Horizons

There is no question that the July 14, 2015 flyby of Pluto by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft – the first probe to do so – has sparked more debate about the famous object’s Solar System standing. That far flung craft revealed surprising, eye-opening detail about Pluto and its entourage of moons.


Back into the “planetary ‘hood?

But while plugging back Pluto into the “planetary ‘hood” is being advanced, it’s arguably a tough call.

For more on the debate, discussion, controversy, take a look at my new story for Scientific American at:

Mars rover Curiosity Navcam Right B image taken Sol 1648, March 26, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is busy working science duties, now in Sol 1651.

“Sol 1650 activities completed as expected, so it’s time to start scooping,” reports Lauren Edgar, a research geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona.

The plan focused on acquiring Scoop #1 and dropping off a portion of the sample to the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument Suite.

Curiosity Front Hazcam Right B image acquired on Sol 1650, March 28, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“This is the first of four intended scoops at this location, aimed at sampling different grain sizes and their composition,” Edgar adds.

Wheel scuff

In the plan, a Mastcam mosaic of “Kennebago Divide” is to document some possible layering exposed by the wheel scuff on the right side of the robot’s workspace.

Curiosity Navcam Right B image taken on Sol 1650, March 28, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“We’ll also take several Mastcam images for change detection to monitor active sand movement,” Edgar notes. Then the arm backbone was slated to start retracting the arm and a vibration was to clean the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS).

Ripple crest

After that, the plan called for use of the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) to image “Flanders Bay” and Scoop #1 locations (prior to

scooping), and a very close-up image of the “Avery Peak” ripple crest.

“Next up, we’ll acquire Scoop #1!  The sample will be sieved, and the fine-grained portion (<150 microns) will be delivered to SAM. These are all very power intensive activities so there wasn’t much room for other science during Sol 1650,  but the plan today should accommodate more activities and context observations.

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), located on the turret at the end of the rover’s robotic arm, acquired this image on Sol 1650, March 28, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“In the meantime, sitting on ‘Ogunquit Beach’ is providing a pretty great view,” Edgar concludes.



New traverse map

Meanwhile a new Curiosity traverse map has been released, showing the route taken by the robot trough Sol 1648.

The base image from the map is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera (HiRISE) in NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech/University of Arizona

This map shows the route driven by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity through the 1648 Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission on Mars as of March 27, 2017.

Numbering of the dots along the line indicate the sol number of each drive. North is up. The scale bar is 1 kilometer (~0.62 mile).

From Sol 1646 to Sol 1648, Curiosity drove a straight line distance of about 23.97 feet (7.31 meters), bringing the rover’s total odometry for the mission to 9.89 miles (15.92 kilometers).

A future Mars protected from the direct solar
wind should come to a new equilibrium allowing an extensive atmosphere to support liquid water on its surface.
Credit: J.L.Green, et al.

Credit for background image: Michael Carroll


What are the prospects for altering the environment of Mars more to our liking?

Can the Red Planet be terraformed was recently spotlighted during last week’s Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) held at The Woodlands, Texas.

Terraforming serves up a variety of meanings, be it raising the pressure and temperature enough to allow intermittent liquid water and possible plant growth, to increasing the pressure and temperature so that humans could work directly on the Mars surface, requiring only breathing apparatus to provide oxygen


Two phase approach

A “terraforming timeline” has been outlined by Aaron Berliner at the University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, and Chris McKay of the NASA Ames Research Center, Mountain View, California.

In their LPSC poster paper, they explain that terraforming Mars can be divided into two phases:

  • Warming the planet from the present average surface temperature of -60ºC to a value close to Earth’s average temperature to +15ºC, and recreating a thick carbon dioxide (CO2) atmosphere. This warming phase is relatively easy and quick, and could take roughly 100 years.
  • The second phase is producing levels of oxygen in the atmosphere that would allow humans and other large mammals to breathe normally. This oxygenation phase is relatively difficult and would take 100,000 years or more, unless one postulates a technological breakthrough.

Wanted: roadmap

The researchers propose, in part, that given the long-term timeline of a possible terraforming endeavor, there’s need to develop a roadmap that outlines the technological processes and advancements required to terraform the Red Planet.

That roadmap would involve adaptation of current and future robotic Martian missions for measuring specific elemental and mineral samples such that a geolocated Martian resource database can be constructed. Also there’s need for mathematical modeling of Martian terraforming to calculate costs for a specific set of terraform-related reactions.

Scene from “Mars,” a National Geographic Channel miniseries.
Credit: National Geographic, Imagine, RadicalMedia, Robert Viglasky


Start now

In addition, Berliner and McKay see a focused synthetic biology initiative for engineering organisms for Martian in-situ resource utilization. In addition they advise development of localized para-terraforming systems for evaluating processes in a controlled area on Martian surface and subsurface via probes.

Furthermore, the researchers envision a planetary protection agreement describing restrictions of terraforming processes “such that Mars can be maintained for future studies and terraforming can be explored beyond experimental and computational means.”

The Mars specialists report that such a roadmap should be started now, as it will require the input from many communities within space sciences, astrobiology, geosciences, and biological sciences.

CO2 deliverables

According to Bruce Jakosky of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, the terraforming of Mars in the near term is not feasible.

Artist concept of NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission.
Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Terraforming Mars would involve putting enough carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere to provide substantial greenhouse warming.

“Is enough CO2 available to do this? No,” explains Jakosky who is also the scientific leader of NASA’s now orbiting Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission that is busily studying the Martian atmosphere.

“It is not feasible today, using existing technology or concepts, to carry out any activities that significantly increase the atmospheric CO2 pressure and/or provide any significant warming of the planet,” he explains in a poster paper presented at the LPSC last week.

Extremely limited

Jakosky and his co-author, Christopher Edwards of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, conclude that the ability to release enough CO2 into the Mars atmosphere to provide any significant greenhouse warming is “extremely limited.”

This is the case even if most of the CO2 present on early Mars still remained on the planet, locked up in adsorbed gas and carbonates. Greenhouse warming is further limited in the likely event that the bulk of the early CO2 has been lost to space, as suggested by recent measurements.

While greenhouse warming is still conceivable by large-scale manufacturing of chlorofluorocarbons, as some researchers have suggested, this approach “is very far into the future at best.”

To view the full abstracts and more information presented in the two papers, go to:

The Terraforming Timeline

Can Mars Be Terrraformed?


Artist’s impression of the ExoMars 2020 rover and Russia’s stationary surface platform in background.
ESA/ATG medialab

(Update: March 28, 2017)
Two ancient sites on Mars that hosted an abundance of water in the planet’s early history have been recommended as the final candidates for the landing site of the 2020 ExoMars rover and surface science platform: Oxia Planum and Mawrth Vallis.

The process to decide where Europe’s ExoMars rover will scout about on the Red Planet is underway this week.

In late 2015, one site – Oxia Planum – had been recommended as the primary focus for further detailed evaluation, with two other sites retained for discussion. Now experts will determine whether it will be Aram Dorsum or Mawrth Vallis that will also be put forward to study in further detail.

Landing sites

Aram Dorsum comes with a channel, curving from northeast to west across the location. The sedimentary rocks around the channel are thought to be alluvial sediments deposited much like those around Earth’s River Nile.

Mawrth Vallis is one of the oldest outflow channels on Mars, at least 3.8 billion years old. It hosts large exposures of finely layered clay-rich rocks, indicating that water once played a role here.

Oxia Planum contains one of the largest exposures of ancient – approximately 3.8 billion years old – clay-rich rocks on the planet. The finely layered formations record a variety of deposition and wetting environments believed to be similar to that of Mawrth Vallis.

Credit: ESA/ATG medialab


The European Space Agency’s (ESA) ExoMars rover and Russia’s stationary surface science platform are scheduled for launch in July 2020, arriving at Mars in March 2021.

A key objective of ExoMars is establishing whether life ever existed on Mars. Therefore the chosen site should be ancient – around 3.9 billion years old – with abundant evidence of water having been present for extended periods.

Drill depth

ESA’s rover is factory equipped with a drill that is capable of extracting samples from depths of over 6 feet (2 meters).

According to an ESA statement regarding drill depth, “this is crucial, because the present surface of Mars is a hostile place for living organisms owing to the harsh solar and cosmic radiation. By searching underground, the rover has more chance of finding preserved evidence.”

Drill samples are to be delivered to the Analytical Laboratory Drawer (ALD) in the body of the rover, via a sample delivery window.

ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter, now in Mars orbit since October 2016, will serve as a relay station for the ExoMars rover mission, as it continues to press on with its own science agenda.

For an informative overview of the ESA Mars rover, go to:


A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket successfully launched the U.S. Air Force X-37B space plane on May 20, 2015.
Credit: ULA

The hush-hush mission by the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B space plane has sailed past a previous program record for time in orbit.

Launched atop an Atlas booster on May 20, 2015, the OTV-4 (Orbital Test Vehicle-4) has winged past 674 days – a long-duration flight milestone for the program reached back in October 2014.

The first X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle waits in the encapsulation cell of the Evolved Expendable Launch vehicle on April 5, 2010 at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, Fla. Half of the Atlas V five-meter fairing is visible in the background.
Credit: U.S. Air Force

The robotic mini-space plane now in orbit is one of two reusable X-37B vehicles that constitute the space plane “fleet.” Also, this current OTV-4 space trek is the second flight of the second X-37B vehicle built for the Air Force by Boeing.

Space drone

Appearing like a miniature version of NASA’s now-retired space shuttle orbiter, the reusable military space plane is 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 9.6 feet (2.9 meters) tall, and has a wingspan of nearly 15 feet (4.6 meters).

The space drone has a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed that can be outfitted with a robotic arm. It has a launch weight of 11,000 pounds (4,990 kilograms) and is powered on orbit gallium arsenide solar cells with lithium-ion batteries.

A third mission of the Boeing-built X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle was completed on Oct. 17, 2014, when it landed and was recovered at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California following a successful 674-day space mission. The upcoming space plane flight – on the program’s fourth mission — may land at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Credit: Boeing

Track record

What this “winged warrior” is doing high above Earth is an on-going, tight-lipped affair.

Some payloads onboard the OTV-4 craft have been previously identified.

For example, Aerojet Rocketdyne has said that its XR-5A Hall Thruster had completed initial on-orbit validation testing onboard the X-37B space plane. Also onboard is a NASA advanced materials investigation.

The first OTV mission began April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit.

The second OTV mission began March 5, 2011, and concluded on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit.

An OTV-3 mission chalked up nearly 675 days in orbit when it landed Oct. 17, 2014.

Recovery crew members process the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at Vandenberg Air Force Base after the program’s third mission complete.
Credit: Boeing

Land ho?

There’s no telling how long the now-orbiting space plane will continue to fly. All the OTV craft to date have guided their way on auto-pilot to a Vandenberg Air Force Base, California tarmac-touchdown.

But that could change with the OTV-4 mission.

What is known is that progress has been made on consolidating X-37B space plane operations, including use of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida as a landing site for the robotic space plane.

A former KSC space-shuttle facility known as Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF-1) was converted into a structure that will enable the Air Force “to efficiently land, recover, refurbish and relaunch the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV),” according to Boeing.

Former shuttle processing area at the Kennedy Space Center has been overhauled by Boeing to prep the military’s secretive X-37B space plane.
Credit: Malcolm Glenn

Rapid capabilities

The X-37B vehicle development falls under the Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems in El Segundo, California, the firm’s center for all space and experimental systems and government and commercial satellites.

The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office is leading the Department of Defense’s OTV initiative, by direction of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics and the Secretary of the Air Force.

What’s up?

“The Air Force continues to push the envelope of what the X37B can do, likely toward determining operational mission capabilities in the future,” explains Joan Johnson-Freese, Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College. “It remains unclear what capabilities the spacecraft will add to those already available, other than duration in orbit,” she told Inside Outer Space.

Curiosity Navcam Left B image taken on Sol 1646, March 24, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is busy at work on Sol 1647 after a drive of over 98 feet (30 meters) on Sol 1646.

Over this weekend, the robot is assigned remote sensing and arm work, along with a drive onto the edge of a large dune.

Left middle wheel

A recent traction control test involving Curiosity’s wheels went well, reports Ken Herkenhoff of the USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Two of the raised treads, called grousers, on the left middle wheel of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover broke during the first quarter of 2017, including the one seen partially detached at the top of the wheel in this image from the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on the rover’s arm.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Traction control comes none too soon as a routine check of the aluminum wheels on the rover has found two small breaks on the Mars machinery’s left middle wheel.

According to experts at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, builder of Curiosity, new imagery shows signs of worrisome wheel wear and tear.

Grouser grousing

The mission’s first and second breaks in raised treads — called grousers — appeared in a March 19 image check of the wheels, documenting that these breaks occurred after the last check on January 27. The grousers bear much of the rover’s weight and provide most of the traction and ability to traverse over uneven terrain.

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) image taken on March 19, 2017, Sol 1641.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“All six wheels have more than enough working lifespan remaining to get the vehicle to all destinations planned for the mission,” said Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson at JPL. “While not unexpected, this damage is the first sign that the left middle wheel is nearing a wheel-wear milestone,” he said in a statement.

Testing has shown that at the point when three grousers on a wheel have broken, that wheel has reached about 60 percent of its useful life.

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) image taken on March 22, 2017, Sol 1644.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS


Beach setting

Meanwhile, on Sol 1647, the plan calls for the robot’s Left Mastcam to take a 360-degree panorama and Right Mastcam will acquire a 17×3 mosaic of the edge of the sand dune, which is named “Ogunquit Beach.”

Then the Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam ) and Right Mastcam will observe bedrock targets “Damariscotta Lake,” “Mount Katahdin,” and “Boothbay Harbor.”

Later in the day, the rover’s robotic arm will be unstowed for drill diagnostic tests and a full suite of Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) images on another bedrock target dubbed “Halftide Ledge.”

Curiosity ChemCam Remote Micro-Imager photo acquired on Sol 1646, March 24, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

Then the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) is slated to be placed on the same target for an overnight integration.

Drive onto the dune

On Sol 1648, the schedule calls for the arm to be stowed after more drill diagnostic tests and Curiosity’s Navcam will search for dust devils while the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) acquires environmental data.

According to Herkenhoff, the wheeled robot is set to drive onto the dune. “After the drive, the arm will be unstowed to allow Mastcam and Navcam to acquire stereo images of the arm workspace to support planning next week.”

Curiosity’s traverse map through Sol 1646 – as of March 24, 2017.
From Sol 1645 to Sol 1646, Curiosity has driven a straight line distance of about 97.95 feet (29.86 meters), bringing the rover’s total odometry for the mission to 9.89 miles (15.91 kilometers).
The base image from the map is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera (HiRISE) in NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech/University of Arizona


Early the next morning, Mastcam is set to measure the dust in the atmosphere and Navcam will search for clouds. In the afternoon, Right Mastcam will repeatedly take pictures of three areas near the rover to look for changes due to winds.

In addition, Mastcam will search for dust devils and measure atmospheric dust at two different times of day.

“Finally, the rover will sleep through the night to recharge in preparation for what will likely be a busy week,” Herkenhoff concludes.

Curiosity Front Hazcam Right B image taken on Sol 1645, March 23, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Curiosity Mars rover is now in Sol 1646, following a drive of roughly 65 feet (20 meters) the previous sol.

Curiosity has wheeled toward the big sand dune to the east that is the subject of a science campaign that will possibly start next week.

Traction control

“Another drive toward the east is planned for Sol 1646, with post-drive imaging to set up for contact science,” reports Ken Herkenhoff of the USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. “The drive will include the first use on Mars of traction control software that’s been tested and fine-tuned in JPL’s Mars Yard since last April.”

Curiosity Navcam Left B image taken on Sol 1645, March 23, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Herkenhoff adds that this new software allows the rover to drive “softer,” meaning that when the rover detects that a wheel is driving over a rock, it slows the other five wheels to avoid pushing the wheel into the rock while the wheel climbs over the rock.

“Curiosity’s first use of traction control has been planned for months to begin about now,” Herkenhoff notes, “and is intended to validate the new software for optional use in future drives.”

Curiosity Mastcam Right image taken on Sol 1643, March 21, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Layered outcrops

Before the planned Sol 1646 drive, the rover’s Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) will observe targets “Bald Rock Ledge” and “Porcupine Dry Ledge” on one of the layered outcrops to the right of the rover.

Then the robot’s Right Mastcam is slated to acquire mosaics of layered outcrops. After the drive, Navcam is slated to again search for dust devils and ChemCam will observe a target selected by Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science, or AEGIS software.

Lastly, Curiosity’s Navcam will search for clouds and Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument Suite to perform an engineering baseline test.

Curiosity rover’s location for Sol 1645.
The base image from the map is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera (HiRISE) in NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona


Road map

Meanwhile, a map depicting the Curiosity rover’s location for Sol 1645 shows the route driven by the robot through the 1645 Martian day, or sol as of March 23, 2017.

Numbering of the dots along the line indicate the sol number of each drive. North is up.

From Sol 1643 to Sol 1645, Curiosity had driven a straight line distance of about 67.68 feet (20.63 meters).

Since touching down in Bradbury Landing in August 2012, the NASA rover has driven 9.87 miles (15.88 kilometers).