NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover got a bit of help from the European Space Agency (ESA) in October. Beaming data back to Earth from the surface of the Red Planet is often tricky, and Curiosity regularly uses satellites to act as relays when a proper line of sight isn't available. On October 6, the ESA probe Mars Express took up the slack by relaying data and images for the rover as part of an ESA-NASA support agreement.
Mars Express received 15 minutes worth of scientific data from Curiosity and then beamed it to ESA’s 35-meter antenna in New Norcia, Australia, which relayed it to the the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany. From there it was made immediately available to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. The data included a pair of images of the rock designated Rocknest 3. These were before and after images of the rock specimen being hit by Curiosity’s laser.
“The quality of these images from ChemCam is outstanding, and the mosaic image of the spectrometer analyses has been essential for scientific interpretation of the data,” said Sylvestre Maurice, Deputy Principal Investigator for ChemCam at France’s Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology. “This combination of imaging and analysis has demonstrated its potential for future missions.”
Most of Curiosity’s data is relayed by NASA's own satellites around Mars, but Mars Express acts as a backup relay in the event that the others aren’t available, as when it monitored Curiosity’s landing on August 6. It also acts as a relay for NASA’s Opportunity rover.
Another area where NASA’s Mars rovers gets a bit of orbital help is where the weather is concerned. On November 10, Bruce Cantor of Malin Space Systems was using the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Mars Color Imager, when he noticed a large dust storm developing in Mars’ southern hemisphere. By November 16, Orbiter was detecting a rise in temperature in the area of 45ºF (25ºC), which was a sign that dust was rising in the atmosphere.
However, this was more than just an interesting bit of meteorology. Martian dust storms are the largest in the Solar System, and under the right conditions can grow into global super storms engulfing the entire planet in dust. If that had happened, the nuclear-powered Curiosity wouldn't have suffered worse than having to close the dust covers over its lenses – however, Opportunity (which is solar powered) ran the risk of having its panels covered in dust, which might result in it being unable to charge its batteries.
Fortunately, the storm didn't develop beyond a regional area and never came closer to Opportunity than about 837 miles (1,347 km). The rover detected a slight drop in clarity, but that was all. Meanwhile, Curiosity, which has a Spanish-built weather station aboard, detected a slight drop in pressure and overnight temperatures due to the storm. This data provided a valuable comparison to Orbiter's observations.
"This is now a regional dust storm. It has covered a fairly extensive region with its dust haze, and it is in a part of the planet where some regional storms in the past have grown into global dust hazes," said Rich Zurek, chief Mars scientist at JPL. "For the first time since the Viking missions of the 1970s, we are studying a regional dust storm both from orbit and with a weather station on the surface."
As for Curiosity, the robotic explorer is currently at Point Lake after taking its first drive in six weeks. In preparation for the JPL team’s Thanksgiving break, the rover collected a final scoop of soil from Rocknest and on November 16 it drove 6.2 feet (1.9 m) to reach a rock called "Rocknest 3." There, it conducted a touch-and-go examination, scanning the rock with its Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) and also shooting it with its laser. It then stowed its robotic arm and drove a further 83 feet (25.3 m) eastward toward Point Lake.
"We have done touches before, and we've done goes before, but this is our first 'touch-and-go' on the same day," said Curiosity Mission Manager Michael Watkins of JPL. "It is a good sign that the rover team is getting comfortable with more complex operational planning, which will serve us well in the weeks ahead."
Having completed the drive, the team used Curiosity’s mast camera to examine the area over the Thanksgiving break, to locate travel routes and possible candidates for the rover’s first use of its hammering drill designed to collect pulverized rock samples.
The animation below shows Curiosity's touch-and-go rock examination.