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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Teleconference Updates

At 2pm EST NASA hosted a teleconference to update the public on the status of Curiosity.

The conference was kicked off with Jennifer Trosper, MSL Mission Mananger, re-assuring us that we are in the final Sol of characterization. Today, Sol 37 puts the team one day behind schedule, but, according to Trosper, in her experience on Pathfinder, which she noted lost 1 in 3 sols to unexpected events, and MER, which lost 1 in 10, that the MSL team is doing well. Thus far, Curiosity has shown that her arm can reach all of the calibration targets and "teach points," which are points that would be needed to be reached to fulfill the science mission, such as moving over the CheMin input.

Ms. Trosper also noted that over the next couple of days the MastCam will be pointed to the sun to watch the transits of Phobos and Deimos, and event that only happens twice a Martian Year. MastCam will take video of the transit, but will only transmit back a few frames to Earth. The rest will be stored until a later date because of constraints on bandwidth and the importance of engineering data at the moment.

Additionally, it was added that the RTGs are producing 115W of energy and the rover is kept between 7°C and 37°C, right where they should be. Also, the rover has driven 109m according to the odometer, but only 82m the way the crow flies. Glenelg is approximately 400m away and Curiosity can move 30m/sol to 40m/sol depending on the terrain and science-team needs.

Over the next two months, the team will attempt to move back to Earth-time. Currently the team is using Mars-time in order to maximize the time they have before needing to send commands to the rover from the time they get the downlink. Currently it takes approximately 8 hours to figure out what the team wants to do and another 8 hours to turn that into a sequence of commands. By Sol 90, it is hoped that the team will be fast enough to allow them to function on Earth-time.

As far as rover-operations go, the plan for the next month is to transition to a science-based mission from the current characterization one. The rover will start its trip to Glenelg, stopping along the way to do the first contact science with MAHLI and APXS. The rover will then move to a more sandy location in order to test scooping and using CheMin. After scooping is finished, the rover will continue towards Glenelg, stopping to run the first tests with the drill.

Recently, there have been worries over contamination of the drill because its case was opened to install a backup bit without the knowledge of the Planetary Protection Officer, Catharine Conley. In the conference, Dave Lavery, the MSL Program Executive, said "the mission has been been fully compliant with all the cleanliness requirements for the Gale Crater landing site, and in fact, the Curiosity Rover is the cleanest rover NASA ever sent to Mars." Mr. Lavery continued, "there would be no prohibitions against any sort of planned drilling activity."

Ralf Gellert, the APXS Primary Investigator, conveyed his happiness when the first image of the APXS showed that the APXS is physically in good condition and dust from the landing has not caked or otherwise inhibited the sensor. In the previous image and this one, the grey metal plate is the contact plate that will touch the soil and brace the detector and α-emitter, which are found in the circular section in the middle of the plate. Mr. Gellert then showed the spectrograph taken from the APXS imaging the calibration target (Which was talked about yesterday). The elements labeled in black are those found in the target; those in blue are from the air, Ar, and the detector casing, Zr. The elements marked in red, S and Cl are from bits of Martian dust that had settled on the target.

Mr. Gellert also stated that data has been collected during the day and the night, and both have good data. The importance of this statement, beyond having a working spectrometer, is that the APXS sensor is sensitive enough to pick up thermal noise in the sensor between the day and night. The MER detectors imaged at night and took 10 hours. Curiosity's APXS, being is 5× faster and able to be used during the day, will significantly speed up the rate at which science can be done.

Ken Edgett, the MAHLI Primary Investigator, was next to speak and showed an image of MAHLI with its 4 white LEDs on taken from MastCam. (Other images show the LEDs and MAHLI a little more clearly.) Mr. Edgett then showed an image of the dust cover of the CheMin instrument. This was followed by an image of the inside of the CheMin inlet and wind-gaurd. The image of the inlet is a composite of 8 images taken from the same location, but at different focal lengths. These images were combined on the rover before being transmitted back to Earth. When asked how to identify these types of images, Mr. Edgett said that some clues would be that the images are subframes, the presence of a grey, cartoony version of the image next to the composite, representing the range map, and the file name (though, he follows up, they havn't really explained the image title format yet).

During the Q&A session, Joy Crisp, MSL Deputy Project Scientist, fielded a question about the SAM, specifically the TLS, progress on analysing the composition of the air. The TLS is working well, and the team is working to remove any background data and will need one or two more runs before they are confident with their interpretation of the data.

The recording of the conference can be found on JPL's channel.

- posted by Jim @ 23:51 EST