'We will SNORT UP CRYSTAL DUST and then do a MAJOR software update'

Curiosity rover team's bold plan

NASA boffins are planning to pulverise a dried-up deposit from the surface of Mars and then snort up and "ingest" the resulting crystalline dust before performing a major software update, they have announced.

The crystal snorting will of course be done by robotic means, through the agency of the nuclear powered, raygun-armed, SUV-sized rover Curiosity, currently aprowl in the red world's Gale Crater. And it will be Curiosity which receives the new software.

Space brainboxes in charge of the rover based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) had this to say yesterday:

This target, called "Mojave," displays copious slender features, slightly smaller than grains of rice, that appear to be mineral crystals ... The features might be a salt mineral left behind when lakewater evaporated ... Mojave [is] at the head of the list of targets for the rover's most intensive inspection, using laboratory instruments that ingest powdered rock collected by the drill.

"The crystal shapes are apparent in the earlier images of Mojave, but we don't know what they represent," enthuses Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada. "We're hoping that mineral identifications we get from the rover's laboratory will shed more light than we got from just the images and bulk chemistry."

Having sniffed and sampled the finely ground crystals, the rover's Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument, or CheMin, "can identify specific minerals in rock powder from a drilled sample," we're told. "Analysis of the drill hole and drill tailings may also reveal whether the crystals are only at the surface, like a salty crust, or are also deeper in the rock."

It seems that this may confirm whether Curiosity is, as the NASA boffins plainly hope, rumbling along in what was once the bed of a mighty water lake in which Martian life could have thrived - or just a barren crater bottom which has been sterile and unexciting ever since the ochre world on which it lies coalesced into being.

Meanwhile the installation of a new version of the rover's onboard flight software is pending - the fourth since the mighty machine set down on the red planet back in August 2012.

"The files have already been uplinked and are sitting in the rover's file system to be ready for the installation," says a no-doubt just slightly sweaty Danny Lam, the JPL sysadmin in charge of the update.

All being well, the Mars roverware 5.0 will be a big step forward:

One change in the new software is to enable use of the rover's gyroscope-containing "inertial measurement unit" at the same time as the rover's drill, for better capability to sense slippage of the rover during a drilling operation. Another is a set of improvements to the rover's ability to autonomously identify and drive in good terrain.

It seems the crystal-snorting operation may actually be postponed until after the upgrade depending on how things go. Full details from JPL are here. ®

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