Curiosity Right B Navigation Camera image acquired on Sol 2864, August 26, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now carrying out Sol 2865 duties.

“Mars is often a very dynamic place due to its atmosphere and how it interacts with the surface,” explains Claire Newman, Atmospheric Scientist at Aeolis Research in Pasadena, California. “At present, we’re in the “windy season” in Gale crater.”

Curiosity Front Hazard Avoidance Camera Left B image taken on Sol 2864, August 26, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This means, continues Newman, “that we’re seeing increased aeolian (meaning “related to the wind”) activity at the surface. In recent sols, we’ve taken Mastcam images of the same surface ripples on multiple sols. We’ve been able to see the ripples moving from sol to sol, due to wind moving the sand grains that make up the ripples, which tells us both the dominant wind direction and how strong the wind is.”

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photo produced on Sol 2864, August 26, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Surface, rover deck changes

A recent plan scripted for Curiosity included more observations designed to look for changes on the surface and rover deck: a Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) image of the region below the rover, to prepare for making more images of that location over the next few sols so Mars researchers can look for changes, and a Navcam deck pan, to look for changes to dust and sand grains on the rover deck.

Look closely! On Sol 2847, Curiosity captured a dust devil that was so impressive that you can just see it moving to the right, at the border between the darker and lighter slopes. Give up? Go to this video at:
Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech

“It’s almost summer in Gale crater, which puts us in a period of strong surface heating that lasts from early spring through mid-summer,” Newman adds. “Stronger surface heating tends to produce stronger convection and convective vortices, which consist of fast winds whipping around low pressure cores. If those vortices are strong enough, they can raise dust from the surface and become visible as “dust devils” that we can image with our cameras.”

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photo produced on Sol 2864, August 26, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Dust devil movie

A recent plan has added both a short and a long Navcam dust devil movie, which take lots of images of the same region over, respectively, a five or 30 minute period.

“These give us the most information about dust devils, such as where they initiate, how they evolve, and how much variety there is in size, dust-content, and duration. Looking at how fast they’re moving and in what direction also tells us about the background wind speed and direction at their location,” Newman explains.

Combining images

Also taken, meteorological measurements with the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) throughout each movie, in case the robot images a vortex that’s close enough for scientists to also measure its pressure drop, impact on local temperatures, or even ultraviolet radiation if it’s dusty enough to partially block out the Sun.

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photo produced on Sol 2864, August 26, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“Combining imaging with other observations can tell us more about the size and dust content of a dust devil and how far it is from us,” Newman points out. “We also added a five-minute Navcam dust devil survey. This takes three images in eight directions, covering the whole 360° around the rover, and helps us gather statistics on when and where dust devils occur.”

Not in position

Also continuing is exploration of the clay-bearing unit, where the primary goal at present is to drill and sample material for SAM’s “wet chemistry” experiment. This involves transforming less volatile organics into forms that can be detected using the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer.

Newman notes that it turned out that the robot was not positioned perfectly to drill at the “Mary Anning 2” target, so the rover is slated to take a short drive or “bump” to put it in the right place by the next plan.

Regional dust activity

In the meantime, added to the plan were three ChemCam observations of the nodular layers in the “Howwood,” “Maligar,” and “North Fearns” targets, plus a Mastcam image to document those targets. Also added was a ChemCam Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) long-distance mosaic and a Mastcam workspace image.

Finally, the plan included usual Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) and Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN)  passive and active measurements, and REMS cadence of observations, plus cloud movies and measurements of how much dust is above the robot and across the crater.

“The dust measurements will help us to track the regional dust activity on Mars that has been seen from the surface and orbit in recent sols,” Newman concludes.

As always, dates of planned rover activities are subject to change due to a variety of factors related to the Martian environment, communication relays and rover status.

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