The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) reported on Wednesday that its latest Mars rover, Curiosity, was healthy and was continuing to check out its systems and “familiarise itself with its new home”. The $2.5-billion rover successfully landed near Aeolis Mons in the Gale Crater on Monday morning, South African time. (Aeolis Mons has been nicknamed Mount Sharp by the Curiosity science team in honour of a US geologist.)
During Wednesday, the rover mission control team will raise Curiosity’s mast, which carries a camera and laser turret mounting seven of its 17 cameras and which will give a human-scale view and will be used for navigation and remote sensing. After being raised and checked out, the turret will be rotated to allow the rover’s Navcam navigation cameras to do a 360˚ pan.
(The laser will be used to study rocks at a distance. It will be used to vaporise a tiny part of interesting rocks, with this vapour then being analysed to determine whether they are worth closer analysis.)
The high-gain antenna, which allows direct communication with Earth, and which was deployed on Tuesday, will have it pointing towards our world adjusted. Curiosity will communicate with Earth both directly through its high gain antenna and, when Earth is below the rover’s horizon, indirectly, using Nasa spacecraft already orbiting Mars (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and, as a backup, Mars Odyssey) as relay platforms.
Another camera, designated Mastcam, will be calibrated using a target carried by Curiosity. The rover has already been sending imagery home using its Mars Hand Lens Imager, or Mahli, and has been collecting scientific data using its Radiation Assessment Detector. Its Rover Environment Monitoring System has also started to operate.
Curiosity’s primary mission is to determine if the right conditions to support life ever existed on Mars. The Aeolis Mons has many layers of different rocks, making examination and analysis relatively easy.
The rover has a designed minimum operational life of at least 24 Earth months (or one Martian year), but its nuclear power plant (which uses plutonium 238 dioxide to produce electricity) should last 14 years. So there is very good chance Curiosity will emulate its predecessors Spirit and Opportunity, and far outlive its predicted life span. Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars in 2004 and were expected to last for three months, but Spirit only failed in 2010 and Opportunity is still operating.
The Curiosity mission is being managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is both a Nasa laboratory and a division of the California Institute of Technology.
The Space Operations Directorate of the South African National Space Agency (Sansa) provided key support to Nasa at the very start of Curiosity’s mission. This came in the form of launch support, as the Mars-bound probe separated from its Atlas V launch rocket over the African continent, back in November 2011.
“We are proud to have been part of this historic event,” said Sansa Space Operations international business manager Tiaan Strydom on Tuesday. “This is one of the most important explorations of space by one of the most advanced space-faring nations in the world; and as Sansa we celebrate this event with the rest of humanity.”