Tag Archives: curiosity

The Sky Crane, the crazy idea which became the norm

The sky crane was the crazy idea that actually worked. (Credit: NASA/JPL)

Prior to the rover Curiosity, rovers were either reaching the surface of Mars via rocket-controlled landers or merrily bouncing their way along the surface nestled in airbags. However, the creation of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), later named Curiosity, presented a dilemma for engineers. How do you get a one-ton rover the size of a Volkswagen down safely?

While previously rovers utilized landers in which they would drive off, the new car-sized Curiosity presented a problem. Landers need ramps and larger rovers need larger ramps. Additionally, ramps can be one of an engineer’s worse nightmares. Since the first successful rover, Sojourner, landed on Mars in 1997, engineers have always been scared that a multi-billion dollar project could get to a planet some 40,000 miles away from Earth, only to have the rover snag a part on the lander ramp, essentially becoming a lander itself on top of another lander, rendering them both basically useless.

(Note: The microwave-sized Sojourner was not technically the first rover on Martian soil. That distinction belongs to the Russians’ Prop-M rover which was tethered to their Mars 2 and 3 landers. Since Mars 2 pancaked itself into the surface and Mars 3 lost communications with Earth because of a sand storm, neither rover was actually deployed).

Second problem: These larger landers and larger ramps would need more room. On a planet where the main inhabitants are rocks (and lots of them), finding clearance would be a big thorn in the side of those in charge of finding a place to land. Not only that, but the good science comes when you get near the rocky stuff, which would be hard if you had to park in lot BFE.

Third problem: Putting rockets on the bottom of a rover like it was done in earlier landers like Viking creates a stability problem. In the book “Curiosity” by Rod Pyle, he likens it to “balancing a bowling ball on a broomstick.”

This is one reason why Spirit and Opportunity utilized the airbag system. The airbag system is pretty much how it sounds. Prior to the rover landing on the ground, airbags would inflate bouncing them to land where they may. This was never a viable option for the much larger Curiosity rover. Airbags can only handle so much weight and 2,000 pounds went far beyond those limits. Also, airbags also create just another thing to get the rover caught on.

So a new landing system was needed. As Curiosity’s Chief Engineer, Rob Manning, told Pyle in his book, “We were thinking out of the box. In fact, we threw away the box. We were literally going through all possible ways to land this machine, trying to imagine every possible configuration, whether it made sense or not.”

When Manning and his team first conceived the idea, it didn’t exactly have a warm reception. After all, Curiosity would be coming on the heals of two high-profile failures by NASA with the Mars Polar Lander and the Mars Climate Orbiter missions of the “better, faster, cheaper” era of the space program. (In 2004, the Harvard Review actually published a report using this NASA method as the way NOT to do business).

So the idea was tabled…but not for long.

After time devising other strategies, it always ended up coming back to the sky crane. As harrowing as it sounded, it was also one of the best options to deliver the rover to the best destination.

The Sky Crane

Think of the sky crane portion of the descent stage as a kind of jetpack with eight engines which safely lowered the rover to the ground. The sky crane slows the robot down until it hovers over the surface, then slowly winches the rover down with nylon cords.

If you’ve ever seen heavy-lift Sikorsky Skycrane helicopters with cargo dangling beneath via cables, that’s the essence of the sky crane. In fact, the engineers who first devised the idea actually met with pilots and engineers of that bird for guidance. Unfortunately, due to the gravity differences between Mars and Earth, there wasn’t a real way to test the landing system. Yes, it was a do-or-die operation where the only real test HAD to work.

“We talked about it to no end. If this didn’t go right, there would be nowhere to hide because every joe six-pack on the street would be saying that they knew it wouldn’t work,” Adam Steltzner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, chief engineer for the Perseverance rover, told Astronomy. Stelzner’s team originally thought up the sky crane idea for Curiosity.

If all goes right, and the rover makes it safely to the ground, pyrotechnically activated blades cut the cords connecting it to the descent stage. The descent stage then flies off to make its own uncontrolled landing on the surface of the Martian surface a safe distance away from the rover.

Before it hits Martian soil, the rovers have to go through six phases of EDL (Credit: NASA/JPL)

Prior to all of that though, the machine has to make it through the atmosphere. The intense period called the entry, descent and landing (EDL) phase of the mission begins when the spacecraft reaches the top of the Martian atmosphere, traveling at about 13,200 miles per hour (5,900 meters per second). EDL ends about seven minutes later (known as the Seven Minutes of Terror) with the rover stationary on the surface. From just before jettison of the cruise stage 10 minutes before the craft hits the atmosphere, to the cutting of the sky crane bridle, the spacecraft goes through six different vehicle configurations and fires 76 pyrotechnic devices, such as releases for parts to be separated or deployed.

The parachute, which is 51 feet (almost 16 meters) in diameter, deploys about 254 seconds after entry, at an altitude of about 7 miles (11 kilometers) and a velocity of about 940 miles per hour (about 405 meters per second). About 24 more seconds after parachute deployment, the heat shield separates and drops away when the spacecraft is at an altitude of about 5 miles (about 8 kilometers), traveling at a velocity of about 280 miles per hour (125 meters per second).

As the heat shield separates, the Mars Descent Imager begins recording video, looking in the direction the spacecraft is flying. The imager records continuously from then through the landing. The rover, with its descent-stage “rocket backpack,” is still attached to the back shell on the parachute.

The back shell, with a parachute attached, separates from the descent stage and rover about 85 seconds after heat shield separation. At this point, the spacecraft is about 1.3 miles (2.1 kilometers) above the ground and rushing toward it at about 190 miles per hour (about 80 meters per second), 6,900 feet (2,100 meters) above the ground.

All eight throttleable liquid-fueled retrorockets on the descent stage, called Mars landing engines, would then begin firing for the powered descent phase. The rover’s wheels and suspension system, which double as the landing gear, pop into place just before touchdown. The bridle is fully spooled out as the spacecraft continues to descend, so touchdown occurs at the brisk walking speed of about 1.7 miles per hour (0.75 meters per second). When the spacecraft sensed the rover has touched down, those pyrotechnically-fired blades release the cords, and the descent stage can then fly away before impacting on the surface of Mars far away from the rover.

A notable difference between Perseverance’s EDL and Curiosity’s is the Lander Vision System (LVS). While Curiosity used radar to determine the distance to the ground, Perseverance utilized a whole new type of technology.

The LVS’s job determined the rover’s position, handling different possible terrain conditions, within an accuracy of about 130 feet (40 meters) in less than 10 seconds. It contains a downward-facing camera that took multiple images of the ground and an onboard computer – the Vision Compute Element (VCE) — which processed these images and spit out acceptable landing locations. After the camera powered on, the LVS used an initial five seconds to take three images and process them to calculate a rough position relative to the Martian surface. Then, using that initial location solution, it took additional images, processing them every second, deriving locations on a finer scale. The VCE sent a stream of these location calculations to the main rover brain, the Rover Compute Element.

Now what started as a hare-brained idea is seeming to becoming the norm for NASA.

“If you’re landing a rover on Mars, there’s no doubt this is the right way,” said Steltzner. “(For Curiosity) we certainly had questions about whether this really was a crazy thing to try to do. Had we missed a big thing? Was it totally wrong? Did all the pieces actually come together and work? We answered those questions.”

Curiosity embarks on the next leg of its journey

While a new rover is being readied for the trip to Mars, Curiosity will not be idle. The robot is starting a mile-long journey towards Mount Sharp’s “sulfate-bearing unit”.

Composite image of Curiosity’s route.
Image credits NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS.

Under the martian summer sun, Curiosity will be investigating sulfur deposits to gain a glimpse into the alien planet’s history. On Earth, such rocks form through the evaporation of water.

Curiosity has been busy drilling into the clay-rich soils in the Mount Sharp area since 2019, where it was also on the lookout for signs of ancient life and water. By analyzing these clays, researchers can tell whether the planet’s ancient waters could support life.

Now, however, the rover has started making for the mountain’s sulfate bearing unit to get a better understanding of how Martian environments changed as it lost its water and atmosphere.

According to NASA, Curiosity will have to trek around a “vast patch of sand” to avoid getting bogged down. Still, it will have to drive and find the safest paths itself, as there are parts of its journey that we don’t have terrain imagery of.

NASA expects the rover to reach its destination by fall. It could take longer if ground control spots anything interesting they want to take samples of along the way, however.

“Curiosity can’t drive entirely without humans in the loop,” said Matt Gildner, lead rover driver at JPL. “But it does have the ability to make simple decisions along the way to avoid large rocks or risky terrain.”

“It stops if it doesn’t have enough information to complete a drive on its own.”

Depending on the landscape, Curiosity’s can reach between 82 and 328 feet (25 and 100 meters) per hour, NASA adds.

Watch the Mars 2020 rover flex its muscles by doing some biceps curls

In just a year’s time, NASA will launch a new robotic rover mission to Mars. The mission, temporarily called “Mars 2020”, will involve the collection and retrieval of rock and soil samples to Earth. This means there’s gonna be quite a bit of heavy lifting involved. Luckily, a recent demonstration showed that the rover is up for the task.

The rover’s arm and turret are some of its most important parts. They must work together to emulate the arm of a geologist that’s examining and collecting samples. Recently, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Spacecraft Assembly Facility in Pasadena, California, NASA engineers instructed the rover’s 88-pound arm to perform a bicep curl as it moved from a deployed to a stowed configuration.

“This was our first opportunity to watch the arm and turret move in concert with each other, making sure that everything worked as advertised — nothing blocking or otherwise hindering smooth operation of the system,” said Dave Levine, an integration engineer for Mars 2020.

“Standing there, watching the arm and turret go through their motions, you can’t help but marvel that the rover will be in space in less than a year from now and performing these exact movements on Mars in less than two.”

In its final configuration, the rover’s arm will have five electrical motors and five joints. The turret will be equipped with cameras, life and chemical element detection instruments, a percussive drill, and a coring mechanism.

The mission’s launch is planned for July 2020 and scheduled to land at Jezero Crater on Mars in February 2021. Although a future return trip to Mars to retrieve the rover’s collected samples hasn’t yet been put in motion, nor is it clear if it’s feasible at this moment, NASA believes that sample collection from Mars merits much attention. NASA also says that many aspects of the upcoming Mars 2020 mission will shape the technology required for human missions on the Red Planet.

This will be NASA’s seventh mission to touch down on Mars, joining the likes of Curiosity, InSight lander, Spirit, and Opportunity. In order to find a cool name as its predecessors, NASA has put out a call for K-12 students in US schools, offering them the chance to name the 2020 rover. This is somewhat of a tradition now. Before it was dubbed Curiosity, the previously-deployed plucky rover was known as the Mars Science Laboratory.

How scientists are looking for signs of ancient life on Mars

Gale Crater could have supported life 3.5 billion years ago — and the Curiosity Rover is excellently placed to study it.

A view from the “Kimberley” formation on Mars taken by NASA’s Curiosity rover. The layers indicate the flow of water toward a basin that existed before the larger bulk of the mountain formed. Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

Looking at the photos taken by Curiosity, it’s hard to see Mars as anything else than a barren landscape. Yet study after study, we’ve learned that the Red Planet wasn’t always like this. Billions of years ago, it was a temperate, water-rich planet, and Gale Crater is a prime example of that past.

Gale Crater is a dried-up lake bed. The crater’s geology is notable for characteristics. For starters, it contains both clays and sulfate minerals, which form in water conditions, and may also preserve signs of past life. Gale also contains a number of fans and deltas which would have been excellent hotspots for ancient life on Mars.

These pebbles got their rounded shapes after rolling in a river in Gale Crater. (NASA/JPL-Caltech).

Penn State researcher Christopher House says that Gale Crater would have had plenty of time to develop life.

“The water would have persisted for a million years or more,” he says. But the entire groundwater system lasted for way longer than that.

“The whole system, including the groundwater that ran through it, lasted much longer, perhaps even a billion or more years,” he said. “There are fractures filled with sulfate, which indicates that water ran through these rocks much later, after the planet was no longer forming lakes.”

But just because the planet may have had the right conditions to host life (which is in itself a debate) doesn’t necessarily mean that it did host life. This is why House and other scientists are looking for sulfate and sulfide minerals. If they wound find a mineral such as pyrite, for instance, this would indicate that the environment could have supported life.

Curiosity samples the rocks at Gale Crater. Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo.

House is also working in the sedimentology and stratigraphy team — which, as the name implies, studies how the rock layers on Mars formed. The goal is to understand the environment in which they formed, to better understand the geological evolution of our planetary neighbor.

“Missions like this have shown habitable environments on Mars in the past,” House said. “Missions have also shown Mars to continue to be an active world with potentially methane releases and geology, including volcanic eruptions, in the not too distant past. There’s definitely great interest in Mars as a dynamic terrestrial world that is not so different than our Earth as some other worlds in our solar system,” House adds.

However, working remotely via Curiosity is no easy feat. The brave rover has been going strong since August 2012 and despite some minor issues, it shows no signs of stopping, although it has long surpassed its original planned mission.

This rover is on another planet, going strong for more than 2,500 days. Here it is taking a selfie. Image credits: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/Malin Space Science Systems.

In its almost 7 years of activity, Curiosity has covered 20.73 km (12.88 mi). It might not seem like much to us, but every step of the way is carefully planned and analyzed. The day-to-day operations and scientific tests are planned with painstaking care and detail. Researchers need to carefully address all the information that’s presented to them and additionally, Curiosity has a limited amount of power.

“Each time we drive, we wake up to an entirely new field of view with new rocks and new questions to ask,” he said.

“It’s sort of a whole new world each time you move, and so often you’re still thinking about the questions that were happening months ago, but you have to deal with the fact that there’s a whole new landscape, and you have to do the science of that day as well.”

However, so far, the results have been extremely rewarding. Mars is not the boring, desolate environment we once thought it to be. Mars is a fascinating world, one that we’ve learned much about, we still have even more to learn. Is there — or was there — life on Mars? We don’t know yet. But in this case, the journey is just as exciting as the destination.

“Each time we drive, we wake up to an entirely new field of view with new rocks and new questions to ask,” he said. “It’s sort of a whole new world each time you move, and so often you’re still thinking about the questions that were happening months ago, but you have to deal with the fact that there’s a whole new landscape, and you have to do the science of that day as well,” House concludes.

Strata at Base of Mount Sharp

Ingenious new technique shows Mars’ Mount Sharp to be very porous

Some outside-the-box thinking allowed NASA to calculate the density of Mount Sharp on Mars — and the results aren’t at all what they expected.

Strata at Base of Mount Sharp

A view from the Kimberly formation on Mars taken by NASA Curiosity rover. The strata in the foreground dip towards the base of Mount Sharp.
Image credits NASA / JPL-Caltech.

Curiosity has been on a lonely trek on the surface of Mars for almost a decade now. It landed there in 2012 and has been exploring the planet ever since. But its journey is teaching us a lot about our galactic neighbor, including the surprising porosity of its rocks.

Mount Sharp, Mount Porous

“What we were able to do is measure the bulk density of the material in Gale Crater,” says Travis Gabriel, a graduate student at the Arizona State University School of Earth and Space Exploration, who computed the densities of the rocks Curiosity has been driving over.

I really like this study. For starters, Curiosity wasn’t ‘meant’ to be able to measure the densities of huge bodies of rock when it was designed — at least, not in the way the team did it.

First off, some context: Curiosity can be used to estimate rock density, but this is based on chemical analysis of rocks it can actually bore through (so it’s limited to making surface measurements). Gale Crater (wherein Mount Sharp, officially “Aeolis Mons”, nestles) definitely qualifies as a ‘huge body of rock’ with its 96-mile (154 km) diameter, and its depths are definitely out of Curiosity’s reach.

To estimate densities, the rover will essentially dig into a rock, take out the residue, and analyze its mineralogical composition. Based on the particular species identified and their ratios, ground control can then estimate how dense said rock is. And NASA was content with this for the longest time. But the present study casts doubt on those previous estimates.

“Working from the rocks’ mineral abundances as determined by the Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument, we estimated a grain density of 2810 kilograms per cubic meter,” Gabriel says. “However the bulk density that came out of our study is a lot less — 1680 kilograms per cubic meter.”

What the team did instead was to use Curiosity’s accelerometers and gyroscopes to read densities. These devices are pretty much exactly like that in any smartphone (only more accurate and expensive), and are used to determine Curiosity’s orientation and its motions. NASA uses readings from these devices to steer Curiosity across the face of Mars, just like you’d use those in your smartphone to steer towards the nearest pub.

These devices work round-the-clock, however — not just when you’re on the move. And those on Curiosity are sensitive enough to pick up on the local gravitational tug at whichever spot it finds itself on.

The team took engineering data beamed back by Curiosity ever since 2012, when it touched down on Mars. These readings were crunched to produce measurements of gravitational forces in more than 700 points across the rover’s track. The readings revealed that as Curiosity began ascending Mount Sharp, it started experiencing higher gravitational pulls. Which was expected.

But the increase was far weaker than what we’d expect to see in such a case, the authors report.

“The lower levels of Mount Sharp are surprisingly porous,” says lead author Kevin Lewis of Johns Hopkins University.

“We know the bottom layers of the mountain were buried over time. That compacts them, making them denser. But this finding suggests they weren’t buried by as much material as we thought.”

The findings help flesh out our understanding of how Mount Sharp came to be. Martian craters the size of Gale have central peaks raised by the very impact that scooped out the crater (Gale’s is Mount Sharp). So we know why Sharp is so tall. Its top layers also seem to be made out of wind-swept sediments, which are more easily eroded than rock. The prevailing theory up to now was that these sediments pressed down on the Mount and crater, compressing them into hardier rock, before eventually being swept away by the wind.

But the new findings suggest Mount Sharp’s lower layers have been compacted by only a half-mile to a mile (1 to 2 kilometers) of material — much less than if the crater had been completely filled.

“There are still many questions about how Mount Sharp developed, but this paper adds an important piece to the puzzle,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which manages the mission.

“I’m thrilled that creative scientists and engineers are still finding innovative ways to make new scientific discoveries with the rover.”

This is definitely an interesting find — one that points to even more secrets yet to be unlocked on the slopes of Mount Sharp. The study also produced a powerful technique that NASA can use with Curiosity and future rovers to investigate far-off worlds. In essence, it’s pretty much the same principle as that used in gravimetry, but I definitely like seeing how much creativity the team brought to this study.

The paper “A surface gravity traverse on Mars indicates low bedrock density at Gale crater” has been published in the journal Science.

Harbour seal.

The role of art in research with science illustrator Sarah Gluschitz

What is the common trait all scientists share? And what role does art play in research? Today we talk with scientific illustrator Sarah Gluschitz to find out.

Sarah Gluschitz.

Sarah alongside some very impressive anatomy illustrations.

One of the goals we set here at ZME Science is, understandably, to promote science in society. You gals and guys make that job quite easy for us; you’re curious, thirsty for knowledge and hungry for the latest, juiciest morsel of research. Driving people to make the next step, that of getting personally involved in science, however, proves to be a more elusive goal.

Most people with whom I’ve discussed this conundrum confess that they want to bring their own contribution — but that they feel outclassed. They say they don’t have something that will make a difference when brought to the research table. They feel they don’t have Einstein’s prowess in physics or Darwin’s eye for evolution, and that that bars them from pursuing science.

But guys — very few people do. Einsteins, Curies, Darwins, and Newtons stand out in history because (you won’t believe this) they were outstanding. Most scientists you’ll talk to look up to them as leviathans, and most suffer from impostor syndrome as a result. However, the small, incremental advances these scientists put in every day are what advances scientific knowledge. The leaps that people such as Curie or Newton made were built upon these efforts — and the overall contribution to science these figures made are relatively small compared to that of the first group.

So don’t sweat it; science would be very happy to have your brain on the team.

Harbour seal.

The other reason people offer up is competence in ‘hard’ topics: math, physics, computer languages, and so on. I can completely empathize with this. I’m trained as an engineer, and I loved every day at Uni — except those that involved math. Which was basically every day. I’m not good at calculus, I couldn’t do it to save my life, and this haunted me throughout my four years of university.

The current, wiser me wants you to know that it’s totally fine. You don’t have to be great at everything to be a researcher. It helps, sure, but it’s not a prerequisite. I figured out I was quite good at geometry while my colleagues weren’t; so they would handle calculus on group projects and I’d crunch the shapes. It worked out well.

Still, I was at a loss as to what to say to the friends, strangers, or readers who broached the subject with me. I knew the tools but not the engine of scientific pursuit, its trappings but not its source — so I didn’t have any wisdom to share.

I found my answer at this year’s European Science Open Forum in Toulouse in the shape of one Sarah Gluschitz. In a room of researchers holding talks and journalists holding recorders, Sarah was drawing. Not aimlessly — contours merged with keywords on topics being discussed. This fresh (if unorthodox) approach caught my eye and sparked a conversation that served me with a heaping of realization: The only thing you really need to be an asset to science is curiosity.

Sarah is about as far from the traditional image of a scientist as you can get, and yet she was there. With a background in arts, she was discussing science and science journalism. Her story helped me make better sense of my work and what I can bring to science.

Today, I’m sharing her story with you.

With Sarah’s permission, we’ll also get to enjoy some samples of her work.

Human Dissection.

Tell me a little about yourself. A short bio of sorts. Something to help our audience get to know you better.

My name is Sarah Gluschitz. I am a Scientific Illustrator and Artist based in the Netherlands. As long as I can remember I have been fascinated with a world hidden in plain sight. A world underneath our skin, one only visible to a small group of people. As a scientific Illustrator, I am fortunate to now be part of that world and to help to translate it for others.

After attending the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, graduating as a Bachelor in Interactive/Media/Design, I continued my studies at the ZUYD University of Applied Science and Maastricht University in Maastricht. There I have graduated cum laude in Scientific Illustration with my masters’ thesis “Corpse in the copse”, which focusses on the taphonomy [the study of how organisms fossilize] of the human skeleton in 2D and 3D for archaeological applications. This combines my passions for Archaeology, Forensics, Human Anatomy, and Illustration.

What was your first passion? Did you start with science, or with art? What made you mix the two together?

Work in progress.

Illustration in progress of the circulatory and respiratory system of the spiney dogfish (Squalus acanthias).

I have always been artistically inclined as well as having a great interest in getting to the bottom of things. During high school in Germany, it was mandatory to choose two subjects as the main focus point of your studies. I chose Arts and Biology which early on seemed to me like a natural combination of things.

I didn’t know about Scientific Illustration as a field just yet. Searching for a way to use my Arts degree on another level and satisfy my thirst for knowledge I came across Scientific Illustration. Once I got into contact with it for the first time it was as clear as day to me, that this is where I needed to be.

Do you regret your choice of career? Why or why not?

I absolutely adore my line of work. It gives me the possibility to express myself artistically, while also being in contact with science and the source of the knowledge I love so much.

It is multi-layered and diverse as I am not confined to any specific field, but get the possibility to dive into a large variety of topics. This summer, for example, I have illustrated Drones for the ENAC, the French National Civil Aviation School in Toulouse, while only a few months before that I was a research assistant at a forensic decomposition facility in the US.

My favorite thing about my job is being able to translate the researcher’s knowledge to a new audience and making both ends enthusiastic about the topic. I strongly believe that a visual language is one of the universal mediums we can use to reach an audience free of spoken language barriers.

Tell me something you love and something you hate about your line of work.

There is nothing I would like to change about my line of work. I would like to be part of bringing it into the spotlight and showing people the amazing world of Scientific Illustration.

Many people imagine ‘science’ as being strictly something you do with beakers in a lab. But art has a very important part to play in science and the process of gathering knowledge. Illustrations such as yours have graced the pages of encyclopedias for decades, even centuries.

What advice would you give to someone who has an artistic inclination and a passion for science, but feels like they lack ‘hard’ skills like maths, physics, so on?

I believe there is a niche for every one of us, that fits our interest and skillset. Being artistically inclined doesn’t necessarily have to lead to a career in arts, nor should a lack of hard skills hinder us from being in touch with science. Scientific Illustration is one way of combining both, so is journalism.

I believe that a symbiotic relationship between science and art will elevate research and help it outgrow the confinements of the scientific community. The community is often separated, through their own language, from the general public. Utilizing a visual language breaks down the walls and helps create spaces for open communication. Everyone who feels like neither arts nor science is a perfect fit should start exploring at what point they could come in and be the link between the two worlds they love.

Once you find that intersection it will come naturally as how to proceed.

What is your view on the relationship between art and science? Should they be more separated, or should they play together more often?

Like many things, art and science would be even greater combined. Both fields have their own mentality, research methods and ways of thinking. This sometimes leads to places where each is stuck. A fresh view, that might seem unorthodox at first, can open up new pathways for each field to continue growing.

Both science and art are very complimentary to each other.

Can art help us make better science? What about the other way around?

Within the Arts, the field of ArtScience is continuously growing and welcomed with open arms, while within the Science community there still is some resistance towards having Arts distort the nature of Science; the accuracy and the objectiveness.

In Scientific Illustration, we make sure that that accuracy and objectiveness is guarded, while still offering a different perspective and approach to a problem, such as the reconstruction of Archaeological findings. Reconstruction of archaeological finds has several layers and goals, one being to understand a past society. But can you truly understand the creation of an art object from the past, when you don’t engage artist with their unique way of thinking into the process of reconstruction?

All image credits to Sarah Gluschitz. You can see more of her work on her Instagram page or her website.

Opportunity dusty.

Rumors of Opportunity’s death “very premature”, despite three-weeks silence

NASA’s last contact with the Opportunity Rover took place over three weeks ago. Despite this, the agency believes it’s too early to assume the worst case scenario — the rover’s demise.

Opportunity dusty.

Opportunity covered in dust on Mars.
Image credits NASA / JPL.

We’ve been talking a lot about the huge dust storm that’s engulfed Mars of late, and of how NASA’s two rovers — Opportunity and Curiosity — are weathering the event. Out of the two, Curiosity has been served the much sweeter side of the dish: powered by a nuclear reactor and sitting out of the storm’s way, it’s been free to leisurely capture pics of the weather (and itself).

The older and solar-powered Opportunity, however, is stuck in the massive storm. Besides getting pelted by dust that may harm its scientific instruments, the rover is also unable to recharge. Dust blocks so much of the incoming sunlight that Opportunity’s solar panels just can’t create a spark. Bereft of battery charge, the rover stands a real chance of freezing to death on — fittingly– Mars’ Perseverance Valley.

Tough as old (ro)boots

Opportunity has been on duty for some 14 years now. It’s a veteran space explorer that relayed treasure troves of data for researchers back here on Earth. I’m rooting for the bot to weather the storm. By this point, however, it’s been three weeks since it last established contact with NASA — enough to make even the most resolute worry about its fate.

Dr. James Rice, co-investigator and geology team leader on NASA projects including Opportunity, says we shouldn’t assume the worst just yet.

Talking with Space Insider, Dr. Rice explains during its last contact with NASA, Opportunity also sent back a power reading. It showed the rover managed to scrape a meager 22 Wh of energy from its solar panels. For context, the rover managed to collect 645 Wh of energy from its panels just ten days before. This chokehold on energy is the NASA’s main concern at the moment.

However, he adds that the same storm which prevents Opportunity from recharging its batteries may ultimately also be its salvation.

One of the reasons NASA was caught offguard by the storm is that they simply don’t generally form around this time of the Martian Year. It’s currently spring on the Red Planet’s Southern Hemisphere, but dust storms usually form during summer. The only other dust event NASA recorded during the Martian Spring formed in 2001, and even that one came significantly later in the season than the current storm.

Mars storm.

The first indications of a dust storm appeared back on May 30. The team was notified, and put together a 3-day plan to get the rover through the weekend. After the weekend the storm was still going, with atmospheric opacity jumping dramatically from day to day.

Still, at least it’s not winter — so average temperatures aren’t that low on Mars right now. The dust further helps keep Opportunity warmer, as it traps heat around the rover.

“We went from generating a healthy 645 watt-hours on June 1 to an unheard of, life-threatening, low just about one week later. Our last power reading on June 10 was only 22 watt hours the lowest we have ever seen” Dr. Rice explained.

“Our thermal experts think that we will stay above those low critical temperatures because we have a Warm Electronics Box (WEB) that is well insulated. So we are not expecting any thermal damage to the batteries or computer systems. Fortunately for us it is also the Martian Spring and the dust, while hindering our solar power in the day, helps keep us warmer at night,” he added.

The storm has reached 15.8 million square miles (41 million square kilometers) in size this June. It poses a real risk to Opportunity’s wellbeing, but ground control remains optimistic. Mars Exploration Program director Jim Watzin believes that the massive storm may have already peaked — but, considering that it took roughly a month for it to build up, it could take a “substantial” amount of time before it dissipates completely.

“As of our latest Opportunity status report Saturday (June 30) this storm shows no sign of abating anytime soon. We had a chance to conduct an uplink last night at the potential low-power fault window. We sent a real-time activate of a beep as we have done over the past two weeks. We had a negative detection of the beep at the expected time,” Dr Rice added.

“A formal listening strategy is in development for the next several months.”

Among all this, or rather also because of all that’s happening to Opportunity, I can’t help but feel genuine admiration for it as well as the people who helped put it together. Opportunity was first launched in 2004 and along its sister craft Spirit, was supposed to perform a 90-day mission. Spirit kept going until 2010, and Opportunity is still going strong today (and hopefully for longer). That’s a level of dedication I can only dream of.

Based in part on the rover’s rugged track record, Dr. Rice believes that “rumors of Opportunity’s death are very premature at this point.”

Curiosity mars.

Mars’ huge dust storm is now a “global” storm

The dust storm battering Opportunity is now a global storm, NASA reports.

Curiosity Mars.

Curiosity approaching Mars in December 2012.
Image credits NASA / JPL-Caltech.

Mars hasn’t been enjoying the fairest weather as of late. A massive dust storm has engulfed Perserverence Valley, pinning NASA’s Opportunity rover in place; all the dust is blocking out sunlight, preventing the bot from recharging its batteries — so much so that ground control fears it might freeze out, as its dwindling power supply can’t feed the rover’s inbuilt heaters.

According to NASA, the weather is only getting worse. The dust storm has grown in size and is inching in even on the Curiosity rover, half a Mars away from the beleaguered Opportunity. The storm has officially become a “planet-encircling” or “global” dust event.

Mars Stormborn

NASA reports that dust is rapidly and steadily settling down on Curiosity. The quantity of dust settling on the rover has more than doubled over the weekend, they note. The storm’s light-blocking factor, or “tau”, has grown to over 8.0 above Gale Crater (where Curiosity is currently rovering about) — the highest value the bot has ever recorded during its mission. For context, Opportunity is experiencing 11 tau, a value high enough to prevent its instruments from making any accurate measurements.

However, NASA is confident Curiosity will remain unaffected by the grime. Unlike its cousin, it draws power from a nuclear reactor, so the lack of light isn’t really a big issue. Curiosity’s cameras are having a hard time, however, as the lack of light means it has to use long exposure times. NASA is having it point its cameras down at the ground after each use to reduce the amount of dust blowing at its lenses.

However, there’s a silver lining. Because Curiosity can keep functioning in the storm, NASA hopes to use the rover to understand the phenomenon better. One of the main questions they want to answer is why some Martian dust storms remain small and stall before a week has passed, while others grow and grow and last for months.

“We don’t have any good idea,” said Scott D. Guzewich, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, leading Curiosity’s dust storm investigation.

Together with the craft in orbit around Mars, Curiosity will collect data on the storm to help patch up our understanding.

Mars dust storm.

This animation, pieced together from pictures taken by Curiosity’s Mast Camera, shows the weather darkening over Mars. The rover is currently standing inside Gale Crater, and peeking its camera over its rim. The photos were taken over a few weeks, with the first one snapped before the storm appeared.
Image credits NASA.

The images above were taken roughly 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) away from the storm. The haze is about six to eight times thicker than what’s usual for this time of the Martian year, NASA estimates.

Dust storms on Mars are actually quite commonplace. Surprising for a dusty planet, I know. They’re especially frequent in the southern hemisphere during both spring and summer months (Mars’, not the ones on Earth). These are the months during which Mars is closest to the Sun, and the temperature imbalances in the atmosphere generate winds that mobilize dust grains (this dust is about as fine as talcum powder). Carbon dioxide ice (dry ice) embedded in the planet’s polar ice caps also evaporates during these months, making the atmosphere extra-thick — this increased pressure helps suspend dust in the air. Dust clouds have been spotted up to 60 kilometers (40 miles) high.

However, Martian dust storms don’t usually cause a ruckus. They tend to hang out in a confined area and dissipate within a week. By contrast, the current storm is bigger than North America and Russia combined, according to Guzewich. It’s even more impressive when you consider the size of Mars relative to Earth:


Mars (diameter 6790 kilometers) is only slightly more than half the size of Earth (diameter 12750 kilometers). The image shows the true relative size between the two planets.
Image credits Viking Orbiter Views of Mars, NASA SP-441, p. 14.

The size difference is one of the elements that allows Martian dust storms to grow to such immense sizes. Earth’s gravitational pull is almost double that of Mars, which helps settle the dust. Vegetation also binds the soil, preventing particles from getting airborne, and rain washes whatever gets in the atmosphere back down.

Curiosity selfie.

Curiosity’s taking selfies as Opportunity braves the storm

While Opportunity is beset by the worst Martian dust storm we’ve ever seen, Curiosity is busy taking selfies.

Curiosity selfie.

Image credits NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill, via Kevin M. Gill / Flickr.

Last week, we’ve told you about the massive dust storm that’s battering Mars and the hapless Opportunity rover. The solar-powered bot is in danger of freezing to (electronic) death, as its solar panels can’t generate any charge in the night-like conditions inside the dust. The venerable rover (already 15 years old) shut down most activity on June 10 to conserve battery charge.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Red Planet, NASA’s Curiosity is enjoying a leisurely life complete with the selfies to show for it.

The fortunate son

“The storm is one of the most intense ever observed on the Red Planet,” NASA said in a statement last week. “As of June 10, it covered more than 15.8 million square miles (41 million square kilometers) – about the area of North America and Russia combined.”

“It has blocked out so much sunlight, it has effectively turned day into night for Opportunity, which is located near the center of the storm, inside Mars’ Perseverance Valley.”

In a twist of martian irony, the storm isn’t nearly as intense half a planet away from Opportunity. While the dust storm’s effects can still be felt there, the sunlight is enough for solar panels to generate energy. A twist of irony because Curiosity, which is currently roving about Mars in this area, doesn’t really need the light — it’s powered by a nuclear reactor.

The car-sized rover first landed on Mars in 2012, and, unlike its older cousin, relies on plutonium-238 instead of solar cells for energy. It’s currently camping in the Gale Crater, a 96-mile-wide valley that researchers once believed housed a giant lake.

Also unlike its older cousin, Curiosity seems to be having a whale of a time. NASA recently released some selfies it beamed back Friday, showcasing the rover’s activity on Mars, while Opportunity braves the storm.

The images were taken with an instrument called the Mars Hand Lens Imager. This instrument — probably the most expensive selfie stick humanity ever produced — is a robotic arm that sports a camera. It can’t capture all of Curiosity in one shot, however, so it sent back several — around 200 images. Over the weekend Kevin M. Gill, a NASA software engineer who likes to process spacecraft photos in his spare time, collaged all the images together into a single panorama.

The final image shows Curiosity and its Martian surroundings, including a rock the rover drilled and a smattering of orange dust.

Curiosity drill.

Curiosity, the rock it drilled (lower left), and the resulting dust (the lower middle bit of the image).
Image modified after NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill, via Kevin M. Gill / Flickr.

Beyond helping us keep tabs on Curiosity’s adventures, the image also showcases its recovery. Back in 2016, its drill instrument was taken offline due to mechanical problems. As the picture shows, however, NASA’s efforts to work around the issue have paid off. The agency first tested the drill in May 2018, when Curiosity bore a two-inch-deep hole in the rock. In a subsequent test, it dropped the drilled dust on the ground, so the agency could get an idea of how much dirt the drill could collect for sampling.

Not everything is rosy for Curiosity, though. The image also shows the damage its aluminum wheels incurred after five years’ time of roving around Mars. It could also probably stand to benefit from a thorough scrubbing.

Curiosity still has some fight left in it, however. Last week, it made headlines around the world by discovering organic molecules, billion-years old, on the Red Planet. In 2013, a rock sample collected by the vehicle revealed that ancient Mars could have supported living microbes. In 2014, the rover measured a tenfold spike in methane, an organic chemical, in the atmosphere around it. At that time, the robotic laboratory also detected other organic molecules in a rock-powder sample collected by its drill.

New panorama shows just how amazing Curiosity’s journey has been on Mars

Curiosity has only traveled 11.26 miles (18.13 kilometers) on the surface of Mars, but it’s already been an amazing journey, giving us an unprecedented view of the Red Planet and allowing researchers to understand our planetary neighbor better than ever before. Now, the brave little rover looks back to where it’s been — and what a view it is!

The sheer fact that this a view from another planet is breathtaking

The Curiosity Rover touched down on Mars on 6 August 2012. It landed right beside Mount Sharp, the central peak within Gale crater, which geologists believe to be a former lake. Initially, the team’s intention was to study the lower parts of Mount Sharp, learning about the mountain’s slopes, which feature layers formed over millions of years in the presence of water. Curiosity has moved more and more up the slopes of Mount Sharp, finally reaching a vantage point that allows it to see all its previous locations.

“Even though Curiosity has been steadily climbing for five years, this is the first time we could look back and see the whole mission laid out below us,” says Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity Project Scientist. “From our perch on Vera Rubin Ridge, the vast plains of the crater floor stretch out to the spectacular mountain range that forms the northern rim of Gale Crater.”

The mosaic of images was stitched together from 16 individual photos, and the result is a stunning, goosebump-inducing panorama. From an altitude of 1,073 feet (327 meters), Curiosity can see the crater rim, which spans 96 miles (154 km) in diameter, along with its impressive geological features. The images were taken on October 25th, 2017 during the 1,856th “sol” (Martian day), during an unusually clear day which allowed the Rover’s cameras to see more than 50 miles away. The image has been slightly modified to look more Earth-like. NASA explains:

“The scene spans from southwest on the left to northeast on the right, combining 16 side-by-side images taken by the left-eye, wider-angle-lens camera of Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam). It has been white-balanced so the colors of the rock materials resemble how they would appear under daytime lighting conditions on Earth.”

What a view! Image credits: NASA / JPL.

NASA also released an annotated version of the images, which identifies some of the sites it has investigated along the way (such as “Yellowknife Bay,” “The Kimberley,” “Namib Dune” and “Murray Buttes”) and points out other geological features visible in the scene

It has now been just over 2,000 days since Curiosity has been on Mars. In that time, it sent back a whopping 468,926 images back to Earth. But it’s not about the images, Curiosity is all about the science. Its array of scientific instruments — including lasers, drills, chemical testers, and radiation detectors — have sampled the Red Planet in unprecedented detail.

This map shows the route driven by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity through the 1949 Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission on Mars. Image via NASA.


Curiosity's crystals.

What Curiosity found on Mars are probably just crystals — not fossils

If you were excited about the signs of life reportedly spotted on Mars, it’s might be time to reign in your expectations. The tube-like structures identified by Curiosity were probably formed by geology, not biology, mission team members say.

Curiosity's crystals.

The troublesome structures captured by Curiosity on Jan. 2, 2018, using its Mars Hand Lens Imager. The tubular structures were likely created by crystalline growth, mission team members said.
Image credits NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

News that Curiosity stumbled upon fossilized traces of life took the Internet by storm a few days ago. And I get it — Mars is just so tantalizingly right for our first encounter with extraterrestrial life, no matter how dead the latter may be. The planet’s dry as a brick now, but we know it used to have water and a proper atmosphere. It’s relatively close-by, enough so that we actually stand a chance of getting there in the mid-future, but it’s still largely unexplored and mysterious as of now. I too, if I may use a cliche, want to believe.

NASA however, as they tend to do, comes to nip those hopes in the bud. The tubular structures spotted on Mars were probably formed by growing crystals, not burrowing creatures, members of the Curiosity mission said.

“When we looked at these things close up, they’re linear, but they’re not tubular in the sense of being cylinders; they’re actually quite angular,” said Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“They have kind of a square or a parallelogram sort of cross section and form at angles to each other when there’s multiple of them together. And all of that’s pretty reminiscent of crystalline growth.”

The team suspects that the structures are either crystals or molds left in the rock when sediments hardened around pre-existing crystals. While that’s less exciting than finding life, it’s not an inconsequential find at all — both scenarios (the second one a bit more) would require quite a lot of liquid water, suggesting that the area Curiosity is roaming around right now was abundantly wet in Mars’ past. The whole area, a flank of the towering Mount Sharp, is pretty elevated as well — over 300 meters (1,000 feet) vertically above the rover’s initial landing site on Gale Crater.

Curiosity found ample evidence for the existence of a (now dry) groundwater network and an ancient lake-and-stream system on the crater’s floor and along the mountain’s lower slopes. The team is confident that evidence of Mars’ transition from a warm and wet world to the cold, dry place it is today remained locked in the mountain’s rocks. The rover is still to find that transition zone, however, and will continue its ascent until it does so.

Everything considered the chances that this will be our first taste of alien life look slim. It’s not impossible that the tubes are trace fossils of life on Mars, it’s just not very likely given what we know so far. And, as someone who’s gone fossil-hunting in the field, I can confirm that it’s really hard to distinguish trace fossils from weird, but random, shapes left over as geology does its stuff. So making a bullet-proof case that these really are fossils would be extremely difficult on Mars.

“We just, unfortunately, may not have the ability with Curiosity to tell that,” Vasavada said.

The rover has two instruments it can use to analyze the structures. The first is a laser-touting ChemCam, supplemented with the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS). These devices can be used to gauge the little tubes’ chemical make-up, but they’ve proven themselves difficult targets. The structures are only about 1 millimeter (0.04 inches) wide by 5 millimeters (0.2 inches) long. Still, Vasavada is confident we’ll have the results within the next week, and with them, we could get the answers we so crave.

Untill then, as the rover tweeted, science continues.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s new 2020 rover will look a lot like Curiosity but with some important tweaks

Just a few years from now, NASA expects to land a new rover mission on the red planet. The Mars 2020 mission will feature a rover which is very similar in terms of specs and appearance to its predecessor, the Curiosity rover. There will be some marked improvements, however, that will make landing the rover safer but also enhance its alien-life-hunting features, which is the mission’s main objective.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Artist impression of NASA’s Mars 2020 rover studying a Mars rock outrcrop. Credit: Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Landing a 2,000-pound science experiment on wheels more than 55 million miles away is quite the achievement in itself. In a maneuver that had never been tried before on another planet, a rocket-powered sky crane lowered Curiosity to the Martian surface on cables, then flew off and crash-landed intentionally a safe distance away.

Since it first touched down on Martian soil in 2012, Curiosity has provided researchers with a trove of data and new science. Thanks to Curiosity, we now have a far clearer and accurate image of the Martian environment including its radiation levels, geology, soil chemical composition, and much more. It has beamed back high-resolution photos of ancient streambeds and drilled martian rocks on site, around Mars’ 96-mile-wide (154 kilometers) Gale Crater. Here, the rover found evidence that a nearby area known as Yellowknife Bay was part of a lake that could have supported microbial life.

Big wheels to fill

The upcoming Mars 2020 mission aims to further Curiosity’s legacy. Much of it will be, in fact, based on Curiosity, with about 85 percent of the new rover’s mass being based on “heritage hardware” — system designs and spare hardware employed by Curiosity.

“The fact that so much of the hardware has already been designed—or even already exists—is a major advantage for this mission,” said Jim Watzin, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. “It saves us money, time and most of all, reduces risk.”

Of course, there will also be new cutting-edge tech onboard, like instruments designed to identify biosignatures on a microbial scale. A ground-penetrating radar will now be able to ‘see’ under the surface of Mars, mapping layers of rock, water, and ice up to 10 meters (30 feet) deep. The rover will also feature new imaging equipment including color cameras and a zoom lens. To top things off, a laser will vaporize rocks and soil to analyze their chemistry.

“Our next instruments will build on the success of MSL, which was a proving ground for new technology,” said George Tahu, NASA’s Mars 2020 program executive. “These will gather science data in ways that weren’t possible before.”

For the mission, NASA plans to drill at least 20 rock cores, possibly up to 40, and return them to Earth. These samples might help answer one of the most important questions on scientists’ minds right now: Are we alone in the Universe?

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is also working on new landing tech, like terrain-relative navigation. As the descent stage carrying the 2020 rover approaches the Marian surface, instruments will compare what they ‘see’ with pre-loaded terrain maps such that the rover is guided to its landing site as safely as possible. Another related tech called the range trigger uses location and velocity to determine the optimal time to fire the spacecraft’s parachute.

“Terrain-relative navigation enables us to go to sites that were ruled too risky for Curiosity to explore,” said Al Chen of JPL, the Mars 2020 entry, descent and landing lead. “The range trigger lets us land closer to areas of scientific interest, shaving miles—potentially as much as a year—off a rover’s journey.”

We don’t exactly where Mars 2020 will land but we will likely soon find out by the end of next year. In February, the potential drop sites were narrowed down from eight to three: an ancient lakebed called Jezero Crater; Northeast Syrtis, where warm waters may have chemically interacted with subsurface rocks; and possible hot springs at Columbia Hills. All of these sites are varied and very different from Gale Crater, but they all have great potential for finding signs of past or present alien life.

“In the coming years, the 2020 science team will be weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each of these sites,” Farley said. “It is by far the most important decision we have ahead of us.”

Learning Graffiti.

Knowing for the sake of knowing: algorithm developed to hardwire curiosity into robots

To better flesh out artificial intelligence (AI), computer scientists have put together an algorithm that makes machine curious to explore and learn simply for the sake of learning. In the long run, such programs could even take bots out of the factories and put them side-by-side with researchers.

Learning Graffiti.

Sage advice.
Image credits Gerd Altmann.

The concepts of intelligence and curiosity feel so deeply entwined to us that it’s almost impossible to imagine one going very far without the other. And yet even the most powerful machine brains we’ve built up to now have had to make do without any kind of curiosity — computing and returning an answer when instructed to, going to the screensaver in the absence of input.

It’s not like we’re only figuring this out now. Scientists have been working on various ways to imbue our silicone friends with curiosity for quite some time now, but their efforts have always fallen far under the benchmark set by our innate inquisitiveness. One important limitation, for example, is that most curiosity algorithms can’t determine whether something will be interesting or not — because, unlike us, they can’t assess the sum of data the machine has in store to see potential gaps in knowledge. By comparison, you could tell with a fairly high confidence if a book will be interesting or not without reading it first.

Judging books by their cover

But Todd Hester, a computer scientist currently working with Google DeepMind in London, thinks that robots should actually be able to go against this morsel of folk wisdom. To that end, he teamed up with Peter Stone, a computer scientist at the University of Texas at Austin to create the Targeted Exploration with Variance-And-Novelty-Intrinsic-Rewards / TEXPLORE-VENIR algorithm.

“I was looking for ways to make computers learn more intelligently, and explore as a human would,” he says. “Don’t explore everything, and don’t explore randomly, but try to do something a little smarter.”

The way they did so was to base TEXPLORE-VENIR on a technique called reinforcement learning. It’s one of the main ways humans learn, too, and works through small increments towards an end goal. Basically, the machine or human in question tries something, and if the outcome brings is closer to a certain goal (such as clearing all the board in Minesweeper) it receives a reward (for us it’s dopamine) to promote that action or behavior in the future.

Reinforcement learning works for us — by making stuff like eating feel good so we don’t forget to eat — and it works for machines, too — it’s reinforcement learning that allowed DeepMind to master ATARI games and Go, for example. But that was achieved through random experimentation, and furthermore, the program was instructed to learn the game. TEXPLORE-VENIR, on the other hand, acts similarly to the reward circuits in our brains by giving the program an internal reward for understanding something new, even if the knowledge doesn’t get it closer to the ultimate goal.

Robot reading Mythical Man.

Image credits Troy Straszheim / Wikimedia.

As the machine learns about the world around it, TEXPLORE-VENIR rewards it for uncovering new information that’s unlike what it’s seen before — exploring a novel patch of forest, or finding a new way to perform a certain task. But it also rewards the machine for reducing uncertainty i.e. for getting a deeper understanding of things it already ‘knows’. So overall, the algorithm works more closely to what we understand as curiosity than previous programs.

“They’re fundamentally different types of learning and exploration,” says Konidaris. “Balancing them is really important. And I like that this paper did both of those.”

Testing points

The researchers put TEXPLORE-VENIR to the test in two different scenarios. First, the program was presented with a virtual maze constructed of four rooms connected by locked doors. Its task was to find a key, pick it up, and then use this key to unlock a door. To score the algorithm’s efficiency, each time the simulated bot passed a door it earned 10 points and had a 3000 step cap during which to achieve the highest score possible. The bot was first allowed a 1000-step exploration phase to familiarize with the maze.

When this warm-up period was done under the direction of TEXPLORE-VENIR, the bot averaged 55 door point in the 3000-step phase. For other curiosity algorithms, it averaged anywhere between 0-35 points, with the exception of R-Max, a program which also scored 55 points. When the program had to explore and pass through doors simultaneously, TEXPLORE-VENIR averaged around 70 points, R-Max around 35, while the others clocked in at under 5 points, the researchers report.

The second round of testing was performed with a physical robot, the Nao. It included three separate tasks, during which the machine earned points for hitting a cymbal, for holding a pink tape (which was fixed on his hand) in front of his eyes, and finally for pressing a button on its foot. For each task, it was allowed 200 steps to earn points but was given an initial 400-step period to explore — either randomly or using TEXPLORE-VENIR.

Each method of exploration was used 13 times. Overall, Nao found the pink tape on his hand much faster using TEXPLORE-VENIR than the random approach. It pressed the button on 7 out of the 13 trials after using TEXPLORE-VENIR, compared to zero times after exploring randomly. Lastly, it hit the cymbal in one of five trials after using TEXPLORE-VENIR, but not once after exploring randomly. TEXPLORE-VENIR allowed the robot to better understand the basics about how its body, the environment, and the task at hand worked — so it was well prepared for the trials after the exploration period.

As the team notes, striking a balance between internal and external rewards is the most important thing when it comes to learning. Too much curiosity could actually impede the robot. If the intrinsic reward for learning something is too great, the robot may ignore extrinsic rewards (i.e. those from performing its given tasks) altogether. R-Max, for example, scored fewer points in the simultaneous exploration and door-unlocking phase because its curiosity distracted it from its task, which I guess you could chalk up as AI ADHD. Too little curiosity, on the other hand, can diminish the bot’s capacity for learning. We’ve probably all had that one test where the grade was more important than actually learning anything — so you memorize, take the test, and then your mind wipes everything clean.

Hester says the next step in their research is to better tailor the algorithm after our brain architecture and use deep neural networks to make bots “learn like a child would.”

The full paper “Intrinsically motivated model learning for developing curious robots” has been published in the journal Artificial Intelligence.

A selfie the rover took with its arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera showing the broken grousers.

Curiosity’s wheel grousers show damage after five years of off-roading on Mars

Five years of trekking on Mars have taken their toll on Curiosity, and on Tuesday NASA announced the first two fractures in the rover’s wheel treads.

A selfie the rover took with its arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera showing the broken grousers.

A selfie the rover took with its arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera showing the broken grousers.
Image credits NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS.

Carried forth by its six aluminum wheels measuring 20 inches in diameter and 16 inches across (50 cm/40.5 cm), Curiosity has been nosing about Mars since August of 2012 for us Earth-locked humans. But five years and 10 miles (16 km) on the maybe-red planet are taking their toll on the intrepid explorer, whose half-as-thin-as-a-dime aluminum wheels are starting to show signs of wear and tear, NASA said.

The damage consists of breaks in two of the bot’s zigzagy grousers/treads, 19 of which cover each wheel. These grousers extend from the wheel by roughly one quarter of an inch (0.6 cm), giving the wheels enough purchase in the Martial soil to carry the almost 2000-pound-heavy rover around. According to NASA, the grousers broke sometime between January and March, both on the left middle wheel.

Slow but steady

Ten miles seems like a short distance for a wheel to break, but it took the rover a few years to travel that much — a few years of super slow rolling over sharp, jagged rocks. In fact, Curiosity has already been at work for twice as long as the mission it was designed for, so if anything the rover is admirably sturdy. It’s due to this long operational history that NASA has been monitoring its wheels in the first place, as years of facing martian rocks has left them quite worse for wear.

So, is this how Curiosity meets its end? Forever turning sleek wheels in the red sands, praying/beeping for traction but finding none? Well, possibly. But not today! Wheel longevity testing on Earth “initiated after dents and holes in the wheels were seen to be accumulating faster than anticipated in 2013” by the agency shows that “when three grousers on a wheel have broken, that wheel has reached about 60 percent of its useful life.”  With only two damaged grousers, the wheel is probably around 50 percent into its lifespan, or roughly around that mark.

Overall, it’s not that bad. Curiosity is well beyond 50% of its journey, so one wheel on a 50% life bar is actually pretty good. Right now, the rover is climbing up Mount Sharp to obtain records of Mars’ climate from rock samples but if the ground tests are anything to go by, the wheels should still hold their own against the martian soil.

“This is an expected part of the life cycle of the wheels and at this point does not change our current science plans or diminish our chances of studying key transitions in mineralogy higher on Mount Sharp,” said JPL Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada.

Curiosity will stop on the way to check out some hematite formations (an important iron ore), a clay formation on top of that, and a structure rich in sulfates which tops the whole thing — formations whose chemistry might hold evidence of liquid water in Mars’ past or today. The journey should take less than five miles in total (an estimated 3.7 miles / 6 km,) so the rover will have some to spare after the climb.

Still, it’s a sad reminder that one day even our favorite rovers will break down. Until then stay strong buddy, we’ll find you some new wheels.

Curiosity finds weird metallic meteorite on Mars

While taking its usual stroll on Mars, the Curiosity Rover found something unexpected: a dark, smooth meteorite. That in itself wouldn’t be too strange because meteorites are quite common on the Red Planet – due to its thin atmosphere and relative proximity to the asteroid belt. But this one was unusual.


Based on its appearance, we can already say quite a lot about it. Its shape was what attracted the scientists. It’s unusually smooth, almost as if someone polished it. It also has two deep grooves — both things suggest that it melted almost completely at one point in its history. It seems to be made of iron-nickel, as are many objects in the asteroid belt.

The object was probably thrown out of the asteroid belt by Jupiter’s gravity at one point. As it hurdled towards Mars, it partially melt in the planet’s atmosphere, but still managed to reach the surface of the planet mostly intact – on Earth, this wouldn’t happen because our atmosphere is simply stronger and would completely disintegrate the rock. In fact, this is why astronomers and geologists are equally interested in studying Mars meteorites.

Not only is the atmosphere on Earth more likely to destroy meteorites, but even those which survive are much heavier oxidized, their chemistry altered by local processes. Mars, on the other hand, has much less oxidation and erosion, and meteorites on the Red Planet are much closer to their initial state and can, therefore, tell us more about the early stages of the solar system.

As for Curiosity, its valiant mission continues. The rover has already found evidence of flowing water and is now looking for evidence of habitability. Since it’s not really allowed to screen the water directly, it must look for evidence in rocks instead. Curiosity is currently roving around the base of Mount Sharp.

NASA released the most awesome pictures of Mars’ surface to date

Mars’ rock formations are oddly familiar, and their similarity to what we see on Earth has gotten scientists pretty excited.

This view from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) in NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows an outcrop of finely layered rocks within the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp.
Image credits NASA/JPL-Caltech.

NASA’s Curiosity rover has been busy poking around the lower slopes of Mount Sharp on Mars and has sent back some of the most striking color images of the Red Planet to date.

“Curiosity’s science team has been thrilled to go on this road trip through a bit of the American desert Southwest on Mars,” reports Ashwin Vasavada, a scientists working on the Curiosity project.

The pictures were taken on September 8th on the Murray Buttes area on the lower slopes of Mount Sharp — a towering peak rising 5.5 km (18,000 ft) in the center of Mars’ huge Gale crater. It was first identified in the 1970s and has all the makings of a heavily eroded sedimentary formation. While this is a pretty common occurrence here on Earth where there is a lot of wind and water to carry minerals from one place to another, it’s a surprising find on Mars. Researchers estimate that the peak took around 2 billion years to form, but have no idea where the sediments came from or what medium helped deposit them.

Murray Buttes is a relatively elevated area, littered with buttes (isolated hills with steep or vertical slopes and flat tops) and mesas. They’re pretty similar, with the only difference between them being size — buttes are like tiny flat-topped hills, and mesas are medium-sized flat-topped hills.

Sloping buttes and layered outcrops within the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp.
Image credits NASA / JPL-Caltech.

They were formed over millions of years by erosion working the crater’s sandstone floor. The new pictures Curiosity sent back gives us the best view we’ve ever seen of their shapes and the layers of rock from which they formed, a treasure trove of information for the team back home

“Studying these buttes up close has given us a better understanding of ancient sand dunes that formed and were buried, chemically changed by groundwater, exhumed and eroded to form the landscape that we see today,” says Vasavada.

The rover will conclude its month-long exploration of the Murray Buttes with a drilling campaign in the region’s southernmost buttes. After that, it will move higher up the slopes of Mount Sharp.

Image credits NASA / JPL-Caltech.

Image credits NASA / JPL-Caltech.

NASA said that they will piece the images together to assemble several large, color mosaics of the area in the near future — after they’re done learning all they can from these awesome snaps.


China Unveils 2020 Mars Mission and Rover

China has unveiled plans for the space probe and rover it will send to Mars four years from now.

A view taken by NASA’s Curiosity Rover. China might be getting views like this in 2021. Image via NASA.

China’s space program has been progressing fast, with the government infusing billions of dollars in an attempt to catch up to the US. Just a few days ago, China announced the launch of its quantum satellite with which it essentially hopes to teleport information, after revealing plans to land on the dark side of the Moon. Now, they want to take it to the next level and send a rover to Mars.

Zhang Rongqiao, chief architect of the project, said Tuesday they were targeting July or August, emphasizing the difficulties of the project:

“The challenges we face are unprecedented,” a report quoted him as saying.

Rongqiao said that a Long March-5 carrier rocket will be dispatched from the Wenchang space launch center. After seven months, the probe will reach Mars and the lander will separate from the orbiter, touching down near the Martian equator, where the rover will start exploring the Red Planet.

The rover itself will weigh 200-kilogramme (441 pounds), with six wheels and four solar panels, carrying 13 sets of equipment including a remote sensing camera and a ground-penetrating radar to study the soil. Ground Penetrating Radar sends out high-frequency waves to the ground and records their reflections, gathering information about the subsurface and looking for traces of water and ice.

The US has landed two rovers on Mars and the former Soviet Union and the European Space Agency have also sent missions to the planet. While China’s program is taking huge strides forward, they are still only replicating innovations pioneered by the US and Russian/Soviet program decades ago. India has also done the same thing, sending a low-cost probe around Mars in 2014.


NASA wants you to drive their Mars rover

NASA wants you to drive the Mars Rover on its quest to study the Red planet. The bad news is that I’ve already tried my hand at it and I’ve broken the rover’s wheels. Several times. Sorry, NASA.

Actual footage with the rovers, just moments before the terrible crash.
Image credits NASA.

The good news is that I’m talking about NASA’s addictive new mobile game, not the real multi-million dollar Curiosity. Teaming up with GAMEE, NASA put together a game with a simple premise but a surprisingly strong “just one more try” effect. Available for Android, iOS and desktop, the objective is to navigate Mars and gather as much data about it as you can while trying your best not to break the rover.

While the vehicle in the game isn’t named, it has similar capabilities (such as using radar to find underground bodies of water) as the Curiosity rover designed for the Mars 2020 mission.

“We’re excited about a new way for people on the go to engage with Curiosity’s current adventures on Mars and future exploration by NASA’s Mars 2020 rover too,” said manager of Mars public engagement initiatives at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Michelle Viotti.

So, wanna explore Mars? Now you can! Head over to NASA’s website and download the game here.

Rocks prove Mars used to resemble the Earth a lot — but no, that doesn’t mean there was life on it

Curiosity has discovered high concentrations of manganese oxides on Mars, leading scientists to believe that the planet was once very similar to Earth.

*Geological drum-roll intensifies.*
Image credits NASA/JPL.

Mars may have once had an Earth-like, oxygen-rich atmosphere enveloping it according to JPL’ Curiosity team. The rover found high concentrations of manganese oxides in the planet’s rocks while blasting through Gale Crater with its laser-firing ChemCam.

On Earth, these compounds first appear at a time when our atmosphere was going through a dramatic change: a microbe-powered oxygen enrichment.

“The only ways on Earth that we know how to make these manganese materials involve atmospheric oxygen or microbes. Now we’re seeing manganese oxides on Mars, and we’re wondering how the heck these could have formed?” says Los Alamos planetary scientists and lead study author Nina Lanza.

Finding these levels of manganese oxide deposits are a dead giveaway for an oxygen rich environment, Lanza adds.

“These high manganese materials can’t form without lots of liquid water and strongly oxidizing conditions. Here on Earth, we had lots of water but no widespread deposits of manganese oxides until after the oxygen levels in our atmosphere rose,” she said.

Curiosity found the samples in Gale Crater (the circled point in the top left.)
Image credits NASA/JPL

But without any bugs living on Mars, how did these rocks form? Lanza believes it comes down to Mars losing its magnetic field.

At one point, the planet had large amounts of liquid water and a protective magnetic bubble, just like our Earth does today. But, while our planet’s atmosphere was pumped full of oxygen by microorganisms, Mars gained its oxygen from water — as its magnetic field became weaker, it could no longer stave off the flow of cosmic ionizing radiation, which broke the liquid down into hydrogen and oxygen atoms.

Much of that oxygen was absorbed by the planet’s now-iconic iron-oxide rocks, gradually giving it the color of rust. Manganese-oxides require much more oxygen to form, however, suggesting that Mars had a lot more of it in its atmosphere than we previously believed.

So just because Mars once had both oxygen and water, that doesn’t mean there was ever life on the planet. Bummer, I know.

“It’s important to note that this idea represents a departure in our understanding for how planetary atmospheres might become oxygenated,” Lanza concludes.

Still, Lanza admits that the theory will be hard to prove. However, it’s the best one we have for now, or until Curiosity stumbles upon a Martian bug. Or a martian.

Would you be willing to take an electric shock in the name of curiosity? Science says yes, several actually

Curiosity is probably the single most powerful force behind our species’ scientific discoveries. It can drive us to explore and discover even if the outcome might be painful or harmful. But this need to discover and learn can also become a curse; a new study found that people are willing to face unpleasant outcomes with no apparent benefits just to sate their curiosity.

Curiosity; killer of cats and purveyor of great shots since the dawn of time.
Image credits flickr user Esin Üstün.

Previous research into curiosity found that it can drive humans to seek out miserable or risky experiences, such as viewing gruesome scenes or exploring dangerous terrain, in their search for information. Bowen Ruan and co-author Christopher Hsee from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business believe that our primal need to resolve uncertainty, regardless of personal harm or injury we might endure in the process, is the cornerstone upon which our curiosity is based.

So they designed a series of experiments exposing participants to several unpleasant outcomes, to see how far they would go to obtain a sense of certainty about their environment. In one of the studies, 54 college students were taken to a lab with electric shock pens supposedly left over from a previous experiment. They were told that they were free to pass the time by testing the pens while the experiment they were about to take part in was set up.

Image credits smartphotostock

Some of the participants had color coded pens — red stickers for the five pens that would deliver a shock, and green stickers for the five that wouldn’t. Others however only had pens with yellow stickers, meaning they didn’t have any certainty what would happen if they clicked them. They were also told that only some of these pens still had working batteries, compounding their level of uncertainty. In the meantime, the team counted how many times each participant clicked each type of pen.

While they waited, students who knew the outcome clicked one green pen and two red ones on average. But those that had no clue what was going to happen clicked noticeably more, around five pens each.

For the second study, another group of students were shown 10 pens of each color. Here too students clicked the pens with uncertain outcomes more than those which were clearly identified as safe or shock-inducing.

“Just as curiosity drove Pandora to open the box despite being warned of its pernicious contents, curiosity can lure humans–like you and me–to seek information with predictably ominous consequences,” explains study author Bowen Ruan of the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

For the third study, the researchers wanted to know how well their findings hold under different circumstances, and if satiating their curiosity would make participants feel worse. They designed a test involving exposure to both pleasant and unpleasant sound recordings. Participants had to choose between 48 buttons on a computer screen, each with a different sound recording attached to it. For example, the “nails” button would play a recording of nails on a chalkboard, buttons labeled “water” played a sound of running water, and buttons labeled “?” could play either sound.

On average, students who had to choose from mostly identified buttons clicked around 28 of them. In contrast, those who had mostly unidentified buttons clicked around 39 of them. Participants who clicked more also reported feeling worse at the end of the experiment. Those who had mostly uncertain buttons reported being less happy overall than those who faced mostly certain outcomes.

The team carried out a separate, online study in which participants were shown partially obscured pictures of unpleasant insects — centipedes, cockroaches, and silverfish for example — and were informed they could click the image to reveal the insect. As with the previous studies, participants clicked on more pictures, and felt worse overall, when faced with uncertain results.

But interestingly, when they were prompted to predict how they would feel about their choice first, their number of clicks went down (and they reported feeling happier overall). This suggests that predicting the consequences of your choice might dampen your curiosity.

So while curiosity is often seen as one of the more desirable human qualities, it can also be a curse. Many times our drive to seek information and satisfy our curiosity can become a huge risk.

“Curious people do not always perform consequentialist cost-benefit analyses and may be tempted to seek the missing information even when the outcome is expectedly harmful,” Ruan and Hsee write in their paper.

“We hope this research draws attention to the risk of information seeking in our epoch, the epoch of information,” Ruan concludes.

The full paper, titled “The Pandora Effect, The power and Peril of Curiosity” has been published online in the journal Psychological Science and can be read here.