Flagstaff USGS Team Helps Curiosity Rover Explore Mars

Nov 21, 2012

Later this year, the Mars Rover Curiosity is scheduled to begin its longest road trip yet, to Mount Sharp.  That’s a three-mile-high mountain on Mars that tells the planet’s geologic history in the same way the Grand Canyon’s exposes earth’s.  But getting Curiosity to its ultimate destination depends on maps and cameras.  That’s where Flagstaff’s office of the U.S. Geological Survey comes in.

Donna Galuszka, a cartographer at the U.S Geological Survey in Flagstaff, slips on a pair of 3D glasses.

Portrait of APXS on Mars This image shows the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) on NASA's Curiosity rover, with the Martian landscape in the background.
Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, Sept. 7, 2012, PDT

She helped produce the maps that showed the smooth site where the Curiosity rover landed on Mars in August.

"I can show you what we look at in 3D," she said. "You’ll have to put on some glasses."

On the computer screen, we see two photos of Gale Crater on Mars.

Looking through the glasses causes the two photos merge into a three dimensional view.   

“We are able to determine the elevation of the ground surface by overlapping images in a stereo format," she said.

Galuszka used these 3-D images to develop digital topographic maps.

Curiosity’s operators then use her maps to determine where to go and how to get there on a planet that’s 140,000,000 miles away.

To help Curiosity get there safely, the rover’s operators use cameras on board that act like eyes.

Ken Herkenhoff is a geologist at USGS in Flagstaff.

He helped design four of Curiosity’s 10 cameras, including one called the chem-cam.

"It stands for chemistry and camera," he said. "It has a telescope that it used to focus the laser on distant targets. When the laser hits the surface, it vaporizes and ionizes the material there and causes a bright little flash.”

An instrument called a spectrometer then measures the different colors in that flash of light.

Those colors tell scientists what the rock is made of.  

Using the chem-cam, Herkenhoff says they’ve found basalt rocks just like those found in Northern Arizona.

“In this case," he said, "We’re seeing, iron, magnesium, silicon, aluminum, calcium, a little sodium, so this is an alkaline basalt.” 

This kind of information will help scientists discover if the red planet ever supported life.

One of the conditions that’s necessary for life is water.

And Herkenhoff says they’ve already found some interesting information.

“Off in the distance we can see the layers in Mt. Sharp," he pointed out. "These appear to contain minerals that involve water in their formation, clay minerals for example.  These clays at Mt. Sharp we’re trying to get to are more common on Earth because the waters are more neutral. So they probably record a period on Mars that was more Earth-like than it is today.”

Mt Sharp is only about 6 miles away, but it could take as much as a year to get there.

As one astro-geologist at USGS put it, driving on Mars is like taking a road trip with 500 people in the car.

Everybody wants to stop every few feet and pick up a rock.