What's next for Curiosity?

After what seemed like a nearly flawless touchdown on Monday afternoon Australian time, the Mars rover will now be assessed before it takes even its first baby steps forward.

After what seemed like a nearly flawless touchdown on Monday afternoon Australian time, the Mars rover will now be assessed before it takes even its first baby steps forward.

Now that Curiosity, NASA's latest Mars rover, has landed, it will soon be heading out to explore the Martian surface — and will depend on a series of cameras to do its work. (Credit: NASA; JPL; CalTech)

After its triumphant touchdown on Mars yesterday, it would be tempting to think that NASA's Curiosity rover is a complete success.

But while the part of the mission involving sending the 1-tonne rover on its journey to Mars ended in worldwide celebration, the real work hasn't even started.

Over the coming weeks and months, NASA scientists have to ensure that everything on Curiosity is in working order, and only then will the rover take its first "baby steps", let alone begin to explore the many square kilometres of Martian terrain that it was designed to investigate. As NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory's director Charles Elachi reportedly said in the wake of Curiosity's landing last night, "We have a priceless asset on the surface of Mars, and we're going to take our time to make sure it works."

According to Tori Hoehler, research scientist in NASA's exobiology branch, who is a member of the Mars Science Laboratory's CheMin instrument team, the earliest steps will involve systematically checking out the "incredibly complex machine's" systems to ensure that everything is working properly.

For starters, Hoehler said, this means using all of the available data and imagery from the landing craft itself, and from the telemetry provided by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Odyssey, to come up with the best estimate of where exactly Curiosity touched down.

Then, he added, there will be several weeks of developing a specific science-gathering plan in advance of Curiosity moving away from its landing spot.

As Hoehler put it, every one of Curiosity's systems was designed to handle the conditions that the rover experienced upon arriving on the surface of Mars — as well as the actual landing itself. Still, the rover is an extremely complex set of systems, and NASA scientists will want to be completely sure that everything is in order before proceeding with the science mission.

That will involve, he explained, running Curiosity through a series of tests to make sure that the rover's instruments are all working the way they're supposed to.

This view from Curiosity's front "hazcam" shows Mount Sharp rising three miles above the floor of Gale Crater to the southeast, with the shadow of the rover in the foreground. (Credit: NASA)

Already, we have seen the first images taken by Curiosity, but those photographs were taken using the rover's 1-megapixel hazard-avoidance cameras (Hazcams), which sport wide-angle fisheye lenses. But once those at JPL are confident that it's in good shape, and that it's safe to proceed, they'll deploy the remote sensing mast — along with its high-tech cameras — and begin to take higher-resolution imagery of the surrounding area.

All told, Curiosity is packed with 12 engineering cameras — eight Hazcams located at the front and back, and four navigation cameras (Navcams) mounted on top of the "look-out" mast, according to NASA. In the early going, imagery from the Hazcams will allow scientists to survey the area immediately around Curiosity. "Ensuring that the rover is on stable ground is important before raising the rover's mast," JPL mission manager Jennifer Trosper said in a pre-landing NASA post. "We are using an entirely new landing system on this mission, so we are proceeding with caution."

By tomorrow, NASA said it expects to begin taking colour photographs of the surface of Mars, using what is called the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), one of five devices mounted on Curiosity's extendable arm. The MAHLI can shoot close-ups of rocks and soil, but also imagery out to the horizon. When the rover's mast is fully extended, "the Navcams will begin taking 1-megapixel stereo pictures 360 degrees around the rover as well as images of the rover deck", NASA wrote. These photographs should begin arriving on Earth by about Wednesday or Thursday. The imagery will be evaluated to determine how to safely drive the rover around the terrain, as well as to decide which rocks are worth examining for their chemical properties.

And also by Wednesday, Curiosity's Mastcams — narrow field-of-view cameras — are hoped to begin taking 2-megapixel colour photographs that "will reveal the rover's new home in exquisite detail".

First steps

Although it's not entirely clear when this will happen, after JPL scientists have determined that everything is in working order, they will direct the rover to take its first few steps.

Hoehler explained that Curiosity will move no more than a few metres. And this first movement will be conducted entirely in "an engineering context — 'let's drive and let's see if all systems associated with movement are working as they should'."

Once scientists have determined that Curiosity's engineering and mobility systems are in working order — assuming they are — they'll begin formulating a plan and preparing to move the rover out for its more extensive science mission explorations. But Hoehler cautioned patience: it could be many weeks before, as he put it, "the keys are going to be turned over to [Mars Science Laboratory chief scientist] John Grotzinger and the science team".

The rover will head out on its explorations ferrying a package of 10 instruments with a total mass is 15 times that of the payloads on earlier Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. As NASA explained in a release today, "Some of the tools are the first of their kind on Mars, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking rocks' elemental composition from a distance. Later in the mission, the rover will use a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interior, then sieve and parcel out those samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover."

As it traverses the Martian terrain, Curiosity will be directed by a team of about 400 scientists at JPL, Hoehler explained. And while these people have spent a significant amount of time training for the mission, "It's going to take some time [for them] to learn how to interact with one another...getting that many people working with one another ... [and] just coordinating all the different instrument teams and all the science teams."

The goal? Hoehler said that the scientists have to "become effective and efficient in using Curiosity almost as an extension of themselves. This incredibly powerful tool for science has just been put in our hands, and now we have to figure out the best use of it."

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