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NASA's Curiosity rover spotted from Mars orbit

Elizabeth Howell, News Writer
Feb 6, 2015, 2:12 UTC

Sen—A NASA spacecraft circling Mars has spotted the Curiosity rover busily working at the base of Mount Sharp. A picture taken late last year and released this week shows the machine shining in the sunlight at Pahrump Hills, an outcrop that is expected to shed light on the geological history of the area.

High-resolution pictures such as this are possible due to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), which is usually used to track seasonal and ongoing changes on the Red Planet.

In fact, MRO is often used to guide the way of the rovers working below, because its view of the terrain allows for path planning by the rover drivers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which the California Institute of Technology manages for NASA.

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Zooming in reveals Mars Curiosity (within the box) working at Pahrump Hills at Gale Crater, as seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Curiosity arrived at the base of Mount Sharp (NASA's informal name for Aeolis Mons) late last year after driving hard towards it for more than an Earth year. The mountain is considered key to unravelling the geologic history of the area because the layers of sediment, rock and other materials show changes over time. With luck, Curiosity may also be able to find evidence of past water in this region to add to the numerous examples of the liquid flowing in the past on Mars.

In recent weeks, Curiosity attempted a drill campaign at a site nicknamed Mojave, and also received a software update to make its operations more efficient. For example, the new software is supposed to help the rover better figure out when the drill may be slipping during work. Curiosity's ability to pick a good path across the terrain will also be improved.

The rover has done multiple "rounds" of examining the Pahrump Hills since its arrival. It began with a simple survey, doing imaging of several sites, then looked at a few of those in more detail (including with its dust-removal brush). The drilling is considered the most intensive of these steps, and is used for the most promising sites.

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Mars Curiosity working on drilling at a rock nicknamed Mojave on Jan. 13, 2015. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

While Curiosity continues its mission at the equator of Mars, at another equatorial site called Meridiani Planum there is another rover just entering its 12th year of operations. The Opportunity rover is nearing a marathon's worth of driving on Mars and has been battling problems with its Flash memory lately, requiring JPL to work on an update to store information while the rover sleeps every night.

Opportunity, however, has not received any money in NASA's fiscal 2016 budget for operations. The agency is eager to push ahead with its plans to explore Europa (a moon of Jupiter) and also to finish the Mars 2020 rover, which will search for signs of habitability on the Red Planet.

In an update to the press earlier this week, however, NASA officials emphasized that the budget request is not final. Opportunity similarly received no funds for the 2015 budget, but money was eventually found for the historic rover to continue its work.