28 August 2012

Africa: Rover Sends Human Voice and Panoramic View From Mars

Washington — The human voice has been transmitted from Mars across the solar system to Earth for the first time.

The rover Curiosity carried a recording from NASA Director Charles Bolden when the craft landed on the red planet August 6 (August 5 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory control center). At a news briefing August 27, the director's voice came through loud and clear after its journey across millions of kilometers of empty space.

Bolden said exploration of Mars with the laboratory equipment aboard the rover -- the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) -- will increase our understanding of Mars and our own planet as well.

"Curiosity will bring benefits to Earth and inspire a new generation of scientist and explorers as it prepares the way for a human mission in the not too distant future," Bolden's message said.

NASA's Curiosity program executive, Dave Lavery, said the transmission from Mars is a further step toward extending humanity's presence beyond its home planet.

"As Curiosity continues its mission, we hope these words will be an inspiration to someone alive today who will become the first to stand upon the surface of Mars," Lavery said. "And like the great Neil Armstrong, they will speak aloud of that next giant leap in human exploration."

Neil Armstrong was the first person to set foot on the moon in 1969 with the words "one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." That breakthrough moment in human achievement has been refreshed in the public memory in recent days with Armstrong's death on August 25.

NASA unveiled a new panoramic photo of the Martian surface surrounding the rover, one with greater clarity and detail than any sent since the landing three weeks ago. The composite photograph shows the ground at the base of Curiosity, then stretches across a plane to a rising mountain in the distance.

Michael Malin, the principal investigator of the Mast Camera (Mastcam) instrument that took the photographs, characterized them as "geologically exciting" and "pretty," though he acknowledged adjusting the colors to be softer and less stark than they probably appear on the surface.

The spot where Curiosity landed -- Gale Crater -- was carefully chosen from a wide selection of potential sites revealed by views of the planet collected by the orbiters that NASA has had circling the planet for some years. John Grotzinger, MSL project scientist, said the panoramic photo affirms the choice of the location, as it reveals geologic features of great scientific interest.

"Although the anticipated scenic beauty was not something that was at the top of the list for reasons to select it, it was certainly one thing that we were hoping would come through one day," Grotzinger said at the press briefing. "It's awesome to see this."

Mount Sharp is one scientific target seen in the photograph, a mountain about 5 kilometers high in the center of the large crater. The striations of rock and soil seen in the foothills of the mountain are expected to tell part of the planet's history. Research and analysis from previous missions led to the conclusion that Mars was once wetter and warmer than it is today.

The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) team reported that its instruments have been put through preliminary testing indicating that they too reached the Martian surface without damage. This machine carries several analytic tools that will allow collection of chemical samples from the planet. While the cameras may be the eyes of Curiosity, SAM is the nose, said team leader Paul Mahaffey. SAM's equipment will test the chemical composition of the surface atmosphere and other gases that may exude from rocks and soil.

All of Curiosity's data collection would be for naught without the capability to transmit the data back to JPL scientists for analysis. The Curiosity communications team has organized the orbiters into a network of telecommunications relay orbiters that collect data from the rover and convey it back to Earth. JPL has received about 7 billion bytes of data in the three weeks of the mission, more than double the amount received from previous rovers at this early point in their missions.

Curiosity is working a two-year assignment on Mars, collecting data to determine if and when the Mars climate and habitat might have supported some form of life.

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