Spaceflight Insider

Mars Curiosity rover pauses to check for dust in its eye

Low-angle self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover.

Archive self-portrait image of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover at a rock target called “Buckskin” on lower Mount Sharp. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA’s Curiosity rover – a.k.a. Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission – delayed its travels because a robotic arm fault prevented the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) from putting the dust cover over its lens overnight. Curiosity’s science team put any further roving and science for Sol 1576 on hold pending resolution of the fault.

Is that dust in your eye?

Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI)

The MAHLI on Curiosity’s arm as seen by its mast camera, Sept. 5, 2012. (Click to enlarge) Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Ken Herkenhoff, the geology co-investigator on the MAHLI instrument, reported: “Fortunately, this fault has occurred before and is well understood, but recovering from the anomaly made for a rather hectic day for me.”

The science team put MAHLI into a safe configuration, so the mission plan for Sol 1576 (the number of Martian days since MSL began its mission) started with capturing a single MAHLI image to look for evidence of dust on the exposed optics. MAHLI is an important instrument on Curiosity because it provides scientists with close-up views of minerals, textures, and structures in martian rocks as small as 40 microns – thinner than a human hair.

The science team took couple other steps to look for dust contamination. The Front Hazard Avoidance Camera (Hazcam) captured and compared images before and after MAHLI was retracted from the surface. After that, the Right Mastcam took a picture of MAHLI’s optics, again to look for dust contamination.

After MAHLI dust cover closed, the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) was placed on a knobby-looking rock called Dorr Mountain for a short integration. Herkenhoff told Spaceflight Insider that this was an activity where “the instrument opens its sensor and measures the energy of the X-rays generated when they bombard the surface with alpha particles.”

He added: “During the measurement, the instrument integrates the X-ray counts at various energy levels over time. The concern was that, while the dust cover was open overnight, winds would blow material onto the optics. Once the MAHLI dust cover was closed, we could proceed with APXS activities.”

Science continues

Once the science team evaluated the dust situation, Curiosity stowed its robotic arm and then continued some of its other science operations.

The Right Mastcam acquired a 5×1 mosaic of a distant mesa named “Lobster Mountain”. The ChemCam and Right Mastcam observed Dorr Mountain and a bedrock target dubbed “Parkman Mountain”. The Left Mastcam took another image of the rover deck to monitor changes in the dust and sand on the deck. Mastcam also measured the amount of dust in the atmosphere before the rover resumes its roll across the Martian surface.

Herkenhoff also told Spaceflight Insider that because the overflight opportunities of Mars orbiters were limited on Sol 1576, the team prioritized any image collection for the day, including taking another Navcam stereo image of the arm workspace. Later in the Sol, ChemCam also autonomously observed a target selected by the onboard Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science (AEGIS) software.

Curiosity is expected to recharge overnight to, as Herkenhoff put it, “get ready for more fun on Sol 1577.”

The author thanks Kenneth Herkenhoff and Barbara Cohen, who are planetary scientists at Goddard Space Flight Center, for their inputs to this article.



Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.

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