NASA rover Curiosity has reached the incredible milestone of 4000 sols (Martian days) on Mars. A sol is slightly longer than an Earth day, approximately 24 hours and 40 minutes. Since landing on August 5, 2012, it has been collecting evidence of minerals, rocks, and other elements of the environment shaped by water.
A freshly drilled sample could, scientists say, increase the amount of evidence. Sequoia sample, collected from the side of Mount Sharp, might reveal traces of sulfates—minerals formed in saltwater evaporated from Mars billions of years ago, likely when its atmosphere thinned.
Curiosity has already found ample sulfates and continues to search for carbonate deposits, which appear to be rare on Mars. “We’ve been waiting for these results for decades. Now, the Sequoia sample will tell us even more” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (rif.).
Decades of work on the Red Planet, starting from the ’90s, have revealed extensive evidence of water from both satellite missions and surface excursions. The polar caps even contain icy water. Reserves may hide beneath the surface, though the debate about the quantity has been ongoing.
NASA’s small rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, came across evidence of features nicknamed blueberries. These were concretions rich in hematite formed in water, whose exact origins remain unclear.
Curiosity ‘s work on Mars has been invaluable. Shortly after landing, it found an ancient riverbed. Over time, it discovered signs of water activity on Mount Sharp as it ascended and carefully documented rocks. Among many discoveries, Curiosity recently found widespread evidence of rivers at the Gale Crater landing site.
Curiosity team has just published results on a magnesium sulfate-based mineral called starkeyite, identified by the rover’s Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument (CheMin). The scientific work was published on October 30 in the Journal of Geophysical Research Planets (rif.).
“The team believes the sulfates first formed in saltwater evaporating billions of years ago. These minerals transformed into starkeyite as the climate continued to dry up to its current state” NASA officials wrote on Monday. “Results like these enhance scientists’ understanding of how today’s Mars formed”.
Early Aging Issues
Curiosity is still in good health after covering a total of 32 kilometers. Nevertheless, engineers are working to address an issue with a camera on Mastcam, one of Curiosity ‘s main eyes providing sharp, color images of Mars.
“If the problem cannot be resolved, the mission would rely on the right Mastcam with a 100 mm high-resolution focal length” NASA officials stated. “As a result, the way the team explores scientific targets and rover paths would be influenced. The right camera has to take nine times more images than the left one to cover the same area”.
Curiosity’s power source will also deplete. The rover relies on the energy emitted from the radioactive decay of plutonium. Mission team members, however, emphasize that the rover still has years of life left. But repeated use and environmental conditions gradually wear down hardware, such as the robotic arm joints. Simultaneously, software updates make Curiosity’s units more efficient. Engineers have also managed to slow down the worrying wear and tear on the rover’s wheels.
Curiosity will work autonomously for the next few weeks. Until November 28, NASA will freeze communications with the rover during solar conjunction when Mars is behind the sun from Earth‘s perspective. Solar plasma can interfere with communications, so sending commands to Mars robots is always halted. But Curiosity’s to-do list is extensive, and agency officials and engineers are not concerned about this enforced silence.