Curiosity resumes Martian mountain climb as Nasa team runs rover from home

Topics Curiosity rover | NASA | Mars

The Curiosity rover is currently exploring Mount Sharp on the floor of the Gale Crater on Mars. (Source: NASA)
The Curiosity rover has resumed the next leg of its trip on Mars, with scientists operating it and monitoring its movement remotely from their homes amid the coronavirus pandemic. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) said that the rover would continue through the summer across roughly a mile of terrain to ascend to the next section of a 3-mile-tall (5 km) Martian mountain that it has been exploring since 2014. 

The rover is currently exploring Mount Sharp on the floor of the Gale Crater on the distant planet, looking for conditions that might have supported ancient microbial life. Nasa is studying sedimentary layers in the crater which indicate how Mars might have changed from being more Earth-like – with lakes, streams, and a thicker atmosphere – to the nearly airless freezing desert it is today. 

The agency is planning to reach the "sulfate-bearing unit" of the mountain by early September. According to researchers, sulfates, like Gypsum and Epsom salts, usually form around water as it evaporates, and they are yet another clue to how the climate and prospects for life could have changed nearly 3 billion years ago.

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover captured this view from "Greenheugh Pediment" on its Martian day. (Source: NASA)

Deploying mission control to living rooms

For the first time in the history of interplanetary exploration, scientists have shifted their base from high-tech mission controls to remote locations — their residence. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, scientists at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are executing commands from their living rooms to run a rover over 116 million km away, on Mars. 

“We are usually all in one room, sharing screens, images, and data. People are talking in small groups and to each other from across the room," said Alicia Allbaugh, who leads the Curiosity team in a statement released by JPL. They now conduct several video conferences at once while also relying on messaging apps and a continuous channel of communication among engineers, scientists, and other team members. "It's classic, textbook Nasa," she said, adding "We're presented with a problem and we figure out how to make things work. Mars isn't standing still for us; we're still exploring."

The Curiosity rover team operating the rover fro their homes, (Source: JPL)

The uncharted  journey ahead

As Curiosity begins its journey uphill, a vast patch of sand lies between the rover and the sulfate unit, forcing it to take a mile-long trip. Curiosity's top speeds range between 82 and 328 feet (25 and 100 meters) per hour and the team will deploy the rover’s automated driving abilities, which enable the Curiosity to find the safest paths forward on its own. The automotive driving will be enabled owing to the lack of terrain imagery since they are operating remotely. The ability allows the rover to make simple decisions along the way to avoid large rocks or risky terrain. It stops if it doesn't have enough information to complete a drive on its own.

These goosebump-like textures in the center of this image were formed by water billions of years ago. (Source: NASA)

The Gale terrain and the exploration for life

The Curiosity is currently moving out of the “clay-bearing unit” on the lower side of Mount Sharp, which is being investigated since early 2019. According to Nasa, “Scientists are interested in the watery environment that formed this clay and whether it could have supported ancient microbes.”

Extending across both the clay unit and the sulfate unit is a separate feature, the "Greenheugh Pediment", a slope with a sandstone cap. It likely represents a major transition in the climate of Gale Crater. “At some point, the lakes that filled the 154-kilometre-wide crater disappeared, leaving behind sediments that eroded into the mountain,” Nasa said in a statement. 

Scientists were surprised to find small bumps along the sandstone surface that required water in order for them to form. These bumps or nodules have become a familiar sight throughout Mount Sharp, and suggest that water was present in Gale long after the lakes disappeared and the mountain took its present shape.

The northern end of the pediment spans the clay region, and though the slope is steep, the rover's team decided to ascend Greenheugh pediment. (Source: NASA)

NASA is in the final phase to launch its next mission to the Red Planet, the Perseverance rover, on July 20. The mission is being seen as the next big step ahead of the proposed future manned missions. The rover will not only look for signs of habitable conditions on the planet in the ancient past but also search for signs of past microbial life on the surface.

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