Curiosity Mars Rover’s Summer Road Trip Has Begun


After more than a year in a clay-rich region, Curiosity is making a mile-long journey around some deep sand so that it can explore higher up Mount Sharp.


NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has started a road trip that will continue through the summer across roughly a mile (1.6 kilometers) of terrain. By trip’s end, the rover will be able to ascend to the next section of the 3-mile-tall Martian (5-kilometer-tall) mountain it’s been exploring since 2014, searching for conditions that may have supported ancient microbial life.

Located on the floor of Gale Crater, Mount Sharp is composed of sedimentary layers that built up over time. Each layer helps tell the story about how Mars changed from being more Earth-like – with lakes, streams and a thicker atmosphere – to the nearly-airless, freezing desert it is today.

The rover’s next stop is a part of the mountain called the “sulfate-bearing unit.” Sulfates, like gypsum and Epsom salts, usually form around water as it evaporates, and they are yet another clue to how the climate and prospects for life changed nearly 3 billion years ago.

But between the rover and those sulfates lies a vast patch of sand that Curiosity must drive around to avoid getting stuck. Hence the mile-long road trip: Rover planners, who are commanding Curiosity from home rather than their offices at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, expect to reach the area in early fall, although the science team could decide to stop along the way to drill a sample or study any surprises they come across.

Depending on the landscape, Curiosity’s top speeds range between 82 and 328 feet (25 and100 meters) per hour. Some of this summer road trip will be completed using the rover’s automated driving abilities, which enable Curiosity to find the safest paths forward on its own. Rover planners allow for this when they lack terrain imagery. (Planners hope for more autonomy in the future; in fact, you can help train an algorithm that identifies Martian drive paths.)

“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.”

In journeying to the “sulfate-bearing unit,” Curiosity leaves behind Mount Sharp’s “clay-bearing unit,” which the robotic scientist had been investigating on the lower side of the mountain since early 2019. Scientists are interested in the watery environment that formed this clay and whether it could have supported ancient microbes.

Extending across both the clay unit and the sulfate unit is a separate feature: the “Greenheugh Pediment,” a slope with a sandstone cap. It likely represents a major transition in the climate of Gale Crater. At some point, the lakes that filled the 96-mile-wide (154-kilometer-wide) crater disappeared, leaving behind sediments that eroded into the mountain we see today. The pediment formed later (though whether from wind or water erosion remains unknown); then windblown sand blanketed its surface, building into the sandstone cap.

The northern end of the pediment spans the clay region, and though the slope is steep, the rover’s team decided to ascend Greenheugh back in March for a preview of terrain they’ll see later in the mission. As Curiosity peeked over the top, scientists were surprised to find small bumps along the sandstone surface.

“Nodules like these require water in order to form,” said Alexander Bryk, a doctoral student at University of California, Berkeley who led the pediment detour. “We found some in the windblown sandstone on top of the pediment and some just below the pediment. At some point after the pediment formed, water seems to have returned, altering the rock as it flowed through it.”

These bumps may look familiar to Mars rover fans: One of Curiosity’s predecessors, the Opportunity rover, found similar geologic textures dubbed “blueberries” back in 2004. Nodules have become a familiar sight throughout Mount Sharp, though these newly discovered ones are different in composition from what Opportunity found. They suggest water was present in Gale long after the lakes disappeared and the mountain took its present shape. The discovery extends the period when the crater hosted conditions capable of supporting life, if it ever was present.

“Curiosity was designed to go beyond Opportunity’s search for the history of water,” said Abigail Fraeman of JPL, who has served as deputy project scientist for both missions. “We’re uncovering an ancient world that offered life a foothold for longer than we realized.”

For more about Curiosity:

https://mars.nasa.gov/msl/home/

https://nasa.gov/msl/

News Media Contact

Andrew Good
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-393-2433
andrew.c.good@jpl.nasa.gov

Alana Johnson
NASA Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1501
alana.r.johnson@nasa.gov

2020-122

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    A former investment manager was charged in an indictment unsealed today for his alleged participation in a scheme to defraud a North Carolina-based life insurance company out of over $34 million.
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    A Rocky Mount, North Carolina, tax return preparer pleaded guilty today to conspiring to defraud the United States, announced Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard E. Zuckerman of the Justice Department’s Tax Division and U.S. Attorney Robert J. Higdon, Jr. for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
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  • Aviation Sanitation: FDA Could Better Communicate with Airlines to Encourage Voluntary Construction Inspections of Aircraft Galleys and Lavatories
    In U.S GAO News
    Most commercial aircraft undergo voluntary inspections to ensure that galleys and lavatories are constructed and assembled to meet the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) sanitation standards, according to industry representatives. Twenty-seven percent of the inspections FDA conducted between fiscal years 2015 and 2019 found objectionable conditions. But in nearly all of these instances, the conditions identified, such as the need for additional sealant in areas where there was a gap or seam, were corrected by the airline or aircraft manufacturer during the inspection. However, some regional airline representatives told GAO that their aircraft do not receive these construction inspections, either because larger airlines with which they have contracts told them the inspections were unnecessary or because they did not believe the inspections were relevant to them. FDA provides these inspections free of charge, upon request of aircraft manufacturers or airlines, and aircraft passing inspection receive a certificate of sanitary construction. Representatives of one aircraft manufacturer said they view the certificate as beneficial because their customers see it as a guarantee that the aircraft was constructed in a way that decreases the likelihood of microbial contamination, pests, and insects. While the construction inspections are important, they are not required, and FDA does not proactively encourage airlines to request them. By developing a process for communicating directly to all U.S.-based commercial airlines, including regional airlines, to encourage them to receive construction inspections, FDA could better ensure that aircraft meet FDA sanitation standards to protect passenger health. An Airline Representative Applying Additional Sealant in Response to an FDA Inspection FDA faces several challenges in providing construction inspections and is taking steps to address these challenges. For example, the demand for inspections by manufacturers and airlines is unpredictable, and FDA inspectors are responsible for inspections at multiple locations. To help mitigate these challenges, officials we interviewed from four FDA field offices said they usually request advance notice from industry to allow the agency time to allocate the necessary resources for construction inspections. Voluntary construction inspections are the primary mechanism by which FDA oversees compliance with its required sanitation standards for the construction of aircraft galleys and lavatories. A report accompanying the House 2019 Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill included a provision for GAO to review FDA's process for ensuring proper sanitation in aircraft galleys and lavatories. This report (1) examines the extent to which aircraft are inspected to ensure compliance with FDA's sanitation standards, and (2) discusses challenges FDA faces in providing aircraft inspections and how FDA is addressing such challenges. GAO reviewed FDA guidance, interviewed FDA officials in headquarters and four selected field offices with high volumes of construction inspections, conducted site visits to meet with FDA inspectors, and interviewed representatives of selected aircraft manufacturers and airlines. GAO recommends that FDA develop a process for communicating directly with all U.S.-based commercial airlines to encourage them to request construction inspections. FDA generally agreed with our recommendation. For more information, contact Steve Morris (202) 512-3841 MorrisS@gao.gov.
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  • Alabama Man Sentenced to Prison for Tax Evasion
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    An Alabama man was sentenced to serve 12 months in prison for tax evasion, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard E. Zuckerman of the Justice Department’s Tax Division and U.S. Attorney Prim Escalona for the Northern District of Alabama announced today.
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  • Bangladeshi National Sentenced for Conspiracy to Bring Aliens to the United States
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    A Bangladeshi national formerly residing in Monterrey, Mexico, was sentenced to 46 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release for his role in a scheme to smuggle aliens from Mexico into the United States.
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  • Missile Defense: Assessment of Testing Approach Needed as Delays and Changes Persist
    In U.S GAO News
    In fiscal year 2019, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) delivered many of the Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) assets it planned and conducted key flight tests, but did not meet all of its goals for the year. For example, MDA successfully delivered interceptors for use by warfighters and conducted a salvo test (which involves launching two interceptors at an incoming target) for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense program. However, MDA did not meet all of its goals for delivering assets or testing. For example, MDA completed only two of seven planned flight tests, plus eight additional flight tests that were later added for fiscal year 2019. MDA did not fully execute its fiscal year 2019 flight testing, continuing a decade-long trend in which MDA has been unable to achieve its fiscal year flight testing as scheduled. Although MDA revised its approach to developing its annual test plan in 2009 to ensure the test plan was executable, over the past decade MDA has only been able to conduct 37 percent of its baseline fiscal year testing as originally planned due to various reasons including developmental delays, range and target availability, or changing test objectives. In addition, MDA has not conducted an assessment to determine whether its current process for developing and executing its annual test plan could be improved to help ensure its executability. Without an independent assessment, MDA will continue down the same path, increasing the risk of the same outcomes from the past decade—less testing than originally planned, resulting in less data to demonstrate and validate capabilities. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) Cumulative Flight Test Planning, Fiscal Years 2010-2019 Note: This graphic is a compilation of each individual fiscal year's flight test schedule. As such, if a flight test was planned for a particular fiscal year but then delayed to a later fiscal year, it would be counted both times. MDA is currently at a pivotal crossroads, needing to balance its ability to pursue new and advanced efforts while also maintaining its existing portfolio of BMDS elements that have not transferred to the military services as originally planned. The new and advanced efforts, such as the Next Generation Interceptor—a new interceptor for homeland defense—are research and development-intensive tasks, which carry significant technical risks and financial commitments. As MDA takes on these new efforts, it is increasingly important that the agency establish and maintain a sound and disciplined acquisition approach for these efforts to be successful and within anticipated costs and timeframes. For over half a century, the Department of Defense (DOD) has funded efforts to defend the United States from ballistic missile attacks. From 2002 through 2018, MDA has received about $152 billion to develop the BMDS and requested about $47 billion from fiscal year 2019 through fiscal year 2023. The BMDS consists of diverse and highly complex land-, sea-, and space-based systems and assets located across the globe. Congress included a provision in statute that GAO annually assess and report on MDA's progress. This, our 17th annual review, addresses for fiscal year 2019 (1) the progress MDA made in achieving delivery and testing goals; (2) the extent to which MDA's annual test plan is executable; and (3) broad challenges that could impact MDA's portfolio. GAO reviewed the planned fiscal year 2019 baselines, along with test plans since 2010, and other program documentation and assessed them against program and baseline reviews. GAO also interviewed officials from MDA and DOD agencies, including the office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, and the BMDS Operational Test Agency. GAO recommends that MDA ensure an independent assessment is conducted of its process for developing and executing its annual BMDS flight test plan. DOD concurred with the recommendation. For more information, contact William Russell at (202) 512-4841 or Russellw@gao.gov.
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  • USAJOBS Website: OPM Has Taken Actions to Assess and Enhance the User Experience
    In U.S GAO News
    The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) uses a variety of sources to assess the user experience with USAJOBS, the central website for posting federal job openings. GAO found that OPM's assessments generally track key measures in accordance with selected government-wide guidance. Specifically, OPM collects data on most of the website performance measures recommended by selected guidance from Digital.gov, including the number of times pages were viewed, the percentage of users who use the USAJOBS search box, and overall customer experience. Additionally, consistent with guidance from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), OPM surveys USAJOBS users about their experiences with the site. OPM also assesses user experience through usability testing, focus groups, and analysis of data on questions submitted to the USAJOBS help desk. Through these assessments, OPM found variations in user experience across the job search and application process, including variations in how people find job announcements and how long it takes them to complete job applications. Since the agency's redesign of USAJOBS in 2016, OPM has taken a number of actions in an effort to address feedback from these assessments and improve the USAJOBS user experience. For example, in 2017, OPM created a set of categories, called Hiring Paths, that describe who is eligible to apply for specific federal jobs and guide job seekers to positions for which they are eligible. Other OPM actions taken from 2016 to 2020 include implementing a new process for logging in to the system to improve website security; updating job search filters and adding a keyword autocomplete function, which suggests search terms as a job seeker types in the search box; revising its job announcement template for hiring agencies to help eliminate duplicative language, increase clarity, and avoid jargon; adding guidance to help job seekers complete federal applications and understand federal hiring authorities; and highlighting jobs related to COVID-19 response. OPM continues to update and refine these efforts. OPM also expects to take a number of additional actions intended to help enhance the USAJOBS website. For example, according to OPM officials, in early fiscal year 2021 they expect to add a “job status” indicator for each job announcement posted on USAJOBS. The job status indicator would provide information such as the number of applicants and when the job has been filled. According to OPM, this would improve transparency and accountability and also provide applicants with updates at each stage of the hiring process. GAO provided a draft of this report to OPM for review and comment. OPM stated that it did not have comments. The USAJOBS website, which is managed by OPM, is the entry point to the federal hiring process for most agencies. It facilitates hiring of new employees as well as the movement of talent across government through merit-based promotions and transfers. OPM uses USAJOBS to help achieve the agency's mission to recruit and retain a world-class government workforce. OPM is responsible for ensuring the usability of USAJOBS and collecting feedback on the user experience. Hiring agencies are responsible for the content of job opportunity announcements. Report language accompanying the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill, 2020, and the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020 included provisions for GAO to review the user experience on USAJOBS. This report examines (1) the extent to which OPM assesses the user experience with USAJOBS and the results of OPM's assessments; and (2) actions OPM has taken to improve the user experience with USAJOBS. GAO reviewed OPM data and documentation, interviewed OPM officials, and compared OPM's assessments of user experience to OMB guidance for federal service providers and selected guidance from Digital.gov on performance measures for federal websites. For more information, contact Michelle B. Rosenberg at (202) 512-6806 or rosenbergm@gao.gov.
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  • Electricity Grid Cybersecurity: DOE Needs to Ensure Its Plans Fully Address Risks to Distribution Systems
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The U.S. grid's distribution systems—which carry electricity from transmission systems to consumers and are regulated primarily by states—are increasingly at risk from cyberattacks. Distribution systems are growing more vulnerable, in part because their industrial control systems increasingly allow remote access and connect to business networks. As a result, threat actors can use multiple techniques to access those systems and potentially disrupt operations. (See fig.) However, the scale of potential impacts from such attacks is not well understood. Examples of Techniques for Gaining Initial Access to Industrial Control Systems Distribution utilities included in GAO's review are generally not subject to mandatory federal cybersecurity standards, but they, and selected states, had taken actions intended to improve distribution systems' cybersecurity. These actions included incorporating cybersecurity into routine oversight processes and hiring dedicated cybersecurity personnel. Federal agencies have supported these actions by, for example, providing cybersecurity training and guidance. As the lead federal agency for the energy sector, the Department of Energy (DOE) has developed plans to implement the national cybersecurity strategy for the grid, but these plans do not fully address risks to the grid's distribution systems. For example, DOE's plans do not address distribution systems' vulnerabilities related to supply chains. According to officials, DOE has not fully addressed such risks in its plans because it has prioritized addressing risks to the grid's generation and transmission systems. Without doing so, however, DOE's plans will likely be of limited use in prioritizing federal support to states and industry to improve grid distribution systems' cybersecurity. Why GAO Did This Study Protecting the reliability of the U.S. electricity grid, which delivers electricity essential for modern life, is a long-standing national interest. The grid comprises three functions: generation, transmission, and distribution. In August 2019, GAO reported that the generation and transmission systems—which are federally regulated for reliability—are increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks. GAO was asked to review grid distribution systems' cybersecurity. This report (1) describes the extent to which grid distribution systems are at risk from cyberattacks and the scale of potential impacts from such attacks, (2) describes selected state and industry actions to improve distribution systems' cybersecurity and federal efforts to support those actions, and (3) examines the extent to which DOE has addressed risks to distribution systems in its plans for implementing the national cybersecurity strategy. To do so, GAO reviewed relevant federal and industry reports on grid cybersecurity risks and analyzed relevant DOE documents. GAO also interviewed a nongeneralizable sample of federal, state, and industry officials with a role in grid distribution systems' cybersecurity.
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  • Former DoD Employee Sentenced for Violently Assaulting Two Neighbors While Living Overseas
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    A criminal complaint was unsealed today in federal court in Brooklyn charging Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi, also known as “Lotfolah Kaveh Afrasiabi,” with acting and conspiring to act as an unregistered agent of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Afrasiabi was arrested yesterday at his home in Watertown, Massachusetts, and will make his initial appearance this morning in federal court in Boston, Massachusetts, before United States Magistrate Judge Jennifer C. Boal.
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