Apparently things are better than feared for Curiosity on Mars: after automatically going into safe mode on 2 July, Curiosity is once again fully operational, according to NASA.
“NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is resuming full operations today, following work by engineers to investigate why the rover put itself into a safe standby mode on 2 July”, stated NASA in a press release.
The Curiosity team, which includes the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology (IRAP) in Toulouse with the astrophysicist Sylvestre Maurice, successfully brought the rover out of “standby” and it recommenced its investigations on the surface of the Red Planet on 9 July.
For NASA, “the most likely cause” of Curiosity’s decision to place itself into safe mode was a software problem regarding the transmission of on board images.
Curiosity: practically technological perfection
Curiosity has already travelled some 14 kilometres on the surface of Mars since it landed in Gale Crater almost 4 years ago, in August 2012.
The rover has constantly worked in very harsh conditions with extreme temperatures that can range between -145 degrees and + 25 degrees, plotting its course across a rough terrain, between rocks, on ground comprised of red dust, taking photos and studying the most remarkable rocks using its ChemCam instrument developed by IRAP.
Since its arrival, it has put itself into safe mode on just four occasions, including three times in 2013.
Completely satisfied, last week, NASA approved a two -year extension to its mission from October 2016.
During its first year on the planet, Curiosity demonstrated that over 3 billion years ago, the Gale Crater region had freshwater lakes and rivers offering an environment conducive to the potential emergence of microbial life.
The scientists for the mission, managed from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena (California) and the IRAP laboratories in Toulouse, are now seeking to further their knowledge about the era when Mars was a wet planet and why it became dry and inhospitable.
Curiosity, which reached the base of Mount Sharp in 2014 will now continue its ascent of the mountain.
“Now that we’ve skirted our way around the dunes (Editor’s note: Bagnold Dunes) and crossed the plateau (Naukluft), we’ve turned south to climb the mountain head-on. It’s a great moment for the mission”, said Ashwin Vasavada in mid-June, one of the mission scientists for JPL.
On its travels, the rover has collected rock samples and soil analyses in its small on board laboratory at 14 sites, and examined 12 rocks using its ChemCam instrument equipped with a laser.
On 4 June, it drilled the rock “Oudam”. On the Naukluft Plateau, it set about drilling the “Lubango” rock, which presented an area of brighter sandstone near a fracture and “Okoruso”.
At each stage, it is intriguing scientists.
In a paper recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division (AREA) at Johnson Space Centre in Houston found a discovery that could mark a turning point in the knowledge regarding the planet’s evolution.
According to them, Curiosity could have uncovered a large presence of tridymite in Gale Crater at the site called “Buckskin”. Tridymite is a mineral from acidic volcanic rock generally associated with silicic volcanism. Tridymite is known on Earth, but experts did not think that it would be found, or at least not in such great quantities, on Mars. This discovery could therefore challenge theories about the planet’s volcanic history.
Furthermore, in a study published in early July by the review Science, a scientist from Caltech (Pasadena), Mathieu Lapotre, noted from the observation of the “Bagnold Dunes”, that certain formations are not exactly the same as on Earth.
Both planets have large dunes, but also small ripples, like rippled corrugate, also made of sand. On Earth, on beaches, they are parallel, approximately 30 cm apart and formed by the action of the wind which sweeps the grains of sand over each other.
Curiosity has revealed that on Mars, these ripples can be approximately one metre apart and particularly sinuous, as if they were formed on Earth under flowing water like on a stream or river bed.
The study’s authors conclude that they would have been formed by the wind which would not have acted as it does on Earth, sweeping the grains over one another but like the water of a river: “a fluid that was the Martian atmosphere”. Additional observations on the form of these ripples has led them to believe that Mars lost a large part of its atmosphere quite early on in its history.