Sunday, January 31, 2016

Curiosity rover records stunning selfie among Martian dunes

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- NASA's Curiosity rover recorded a self portrait recently as it paused from scooping sand samples near an active dune on the Red Planet for an astronomical selfie, the space agency announced on Friday.

The Mars Hand Lens Imager was extended from the end of Curiosity's robotic arm and collected 57 photographs on January 19 as the rover sat poised on Namib Dune. Project engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena then arranged the images to form an impressive true image of the rover.

The selfie mosaic was taken on Sol 1228, Curiosity's 1228 day on Mars, highlights the first complete photograph of the car size rover since it arrived in 2012. Mission scientists paused during the scoop series for an impromptu series of images.

"The mission's current work is the first close-up study of active sand dunes anywhere other than Earth," NASA JPL spokesperson Guy Webster explained. "Investigation of the dunes is providing information about how wind moves and sorts sand particles in conditions with much less atmosphere and less gravity than on Earth."

January's scoop samples are the first taken by the Martian science laboratory since November 2012 as NASA aims to study the different size sand grains. The scooped samples were feed into a sieve which allowed only particles the size of .0006 of an inch to move into an inlet for further examination.

"It was pretty challenging to drive into the sloping sand and then turn on the sand into the position that was the best to study the dunes," said JPL's Curiosity mission planner Michael McHenry on Friday. McHenry added the rover's wheel was first checked the area before making its first scoop on Jan. 14, "The scuff helped give us confidence we have enough sand where we're scooping that the path of the scoop won't hit the ground under the sand."

Curiosity was launched from Cape Canaveral in November 2011, and arrived on Mars in a dynamic never before attempted crane landing the following August. Today, the craft continues to search the planet to uncover why Mars' former environment changed from conditions which supported microbial life to a harsh, desert conditions.

"Observations from the rover suggest that a series of long-lived streams and lakes existed at some point between about 3.8 to 3.3 billion years ago, delivering sediment that slowly built up the lower layers of Mount Sharp," JPL project scientist Ashwin Vasavada added. ""During the traverse of Gale, we have noticed patterns in the geology where we saw evidence of ancient fast-moving streams with coarser gravel, as well as places where streams appear to have emptied out into bodies of standing water.

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