NASA researchers have now thoroughly vetted Curiosity and its 10 science instruments, which are designed to help the rover seek signs of microbial life. Curiosity has also hit the road recently, traveling a total of about 950 feet from its landing site so far. The rover now sits about 660 feet from its first major science destination, a site called Glenelg where three different types of Martian terrain come together.
Curiosity will spend the next several days more or less stationary, gearing up to perform its first contact science operations on a pyramidal rock that mission scientists have named “Jake Matijevic,” after a rover team member who died shortly after Curiosity landed.
The rover will investigate the 16-inch-high rock with its Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer, which measures elemental composition, and its Mars Hand Lens Imager close-up camera. Curiosity will also zap “Jake Matijevic” with the laser on its ChemCam instrument, which reads rock composition from the vaporized bits.
Richard Cook, project manager for the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission, said the rock’s name pays tribute to Jacob Matijevic, a leading engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who was involved in NASA’s rover missions since Mars Pathfinder and the Sojourner rover in 1997. Matijevic was a Chicago native who earned his Ph.D. in mathematics and came up with the Matijevic Theorem, which was once described as “one of the most beautiful results of recent years in commutative algebra.”
Matijevic’s obituary in the Chicago Tribune notes that he came to JPL in 1981 and took on a variety of assignments. Eventually, he came to specialize in systems engineering for the Mars rover designs as well as rover surface operations. “He was probably one of the top one or two experts on surface operations here at JPL,” Cook said.
Matijevic played a key role in the Spirit and Opportunity rover missions, which were originally planned to last just 90 days on Mars. Grotzinger recalled that Matijevic once said “if this rover lasts six months, it’ll probably last six years.”
“He seems to have come pretty close,” Grotzinger observed. Spirit lasted six years. Opportunity is now into its 8th year of operation.
The engineer switched over from Opportunity to the Mars Science Laboratory mission, but passed away at the age of 64 on Aug. 20, after battling respiratory problems, the Tribune reported.
Grotzinger said Matijevic would have loved dealing with the complexities involved in studying the rock that’s named after him. “All that activity and all those considerations are what honor Jake Matijevic so well,” he said.
While researchers are looking forward to reaching Glenelg, Curiosity’s ultimate destination is the base of Mount Sharp, a 3.4-mile-high mountain. Mars-orbiting spacecraft have spotted signs that Mount Sharp’s foothills were exposed to liquid water long ago.
Mount Sharp’s interesting deposits lie about 6 miles away. Curiosity — which is currently covering about 100 feet on a big driving day but should eventually kick that up to 330 feet or so — could be ready to head toward Mount Sharp around the end of the year.
In its spare time last week Curiosity photographed a partial Solar eclipse. Mars doesn’t have much in the way of moons — just two small, lumpy objects called Phobos and Deimos. But those tiny natural satellites can still make their presence felt.
Curiosity rover documented a brief passage of Phobos, the larger of the Martian moons, in front of the sun. Phobos just grazed the edge of the solar disk from Curiosity’s vantage point, but the rover clearly captured the moon’s shadow in a series of photographs.
Scientists will use these photos to nail down the orbits of Phobos and Deimos precisely, and to determine how much they have changed over the last few years. This information, in turn, could yield key insights about the interior of Mars and its gravitational pull on these moons, which remains largely mysterious.