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Posted at 07:01 AM ET, 08/28/2012

Mars rover Curiosity beams back first human voice from another planet, takes first ‘sniff’


An image of the Mars landscape, showing the base of Mount Sharp, Curiosity's destination. The image was taken by the rover's Mast Camera (MastCam). (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS )

NASA has broadcast the first human voice from another planet. The speaker: NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. The announcement came during a news conference at Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Monday afternoon.

Here is Bolden’s message in full:

Hello. This is Charlie Bolden, NASA Administrator, speaking to you via the broadcast capabilities of the Curiosity Rover, which is now on the surface of Mars.
Since the beginning of time, humankind’s curiosity has led us to constantly seek new life … new possibilities just beyond the horizon. I want to congratulate the men and women of our NASA family as well as our commercial and government partners around the world for taking us a step beyond to Mars.
This is an extraordinary achievement. Landing a rover on Mars is not easy — others have tried — only America has fully succeeded. The investment we are making … the knowledge we hope to gain from our observation and analysis of Gale Crater, will tell us much about the possibility of life on Mars as well as the past and future possibilities for our own planet. Curiosity will bring benefits to Earth and inspire a new generation of scientists and explorers, as it prepares the way for a human mission in the not too distant future.
Thank you.

The transmission, aside from making history, helped the team exercise some of the rover’s new adaptive communication systems.

“As Curiosity continues its mission, we hope these words will be an inspiration to someone alive today who will become the first to stand upon the surface of Mars. And like the great Neil Armstrong, they will speak aloud of that next giant leap in human exploration,” said Solar System Exploration Program executive Dave Lavery.

Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the surface of the moon, died Saturday at the age of 82.


A color, white-balanced panorama released by NASA on Aug. 27, 2012, shows a 360-degree view of the Mars rover Curiosity's landing site, including a highest point of Mount Sharp in Gale Crater, estimated to be 12 miles away from the rover. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS )

Project leaders also revealed a new panorama image of the Martian surface, as well as other white-balanced images. The pictures showed the planet’s surface in even greater detail, including images of the distant cliff faces that the rover will be driving toward. Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems and the principal investigator of the Mastcam system, introduced one image, with an inset close-up of a dark spec deemed to be roughly the size of the rover. It could take as long as a year for the rover to reach the boulder.


An image of the Mars landscape showing the base of Mount Sharp. The inset shows a dark spec, a boulder, that is roughly the same size as Curiosity. The mound above the boulder is estimated to be 1,000 feet across and 300 feet high. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS )

“You get this feeling: ‘That’s what I’m talking about,’” Curiosity project scientist John Grotzinger said of looking at the close-up of the cliffs and boulder. The geology professor at the California Institute of Technology described the landscape as “something that comes out of a John Ford movie.”

“Everything in that image there is a science target for us,” Grotzinger said.


An image taken by the Mars Rover Curiosity's Mast Camera (Mastcam). The images show the geology of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater. The white dots show where there is a change in the strata, with the area above the dots being more highly inclined than the lower region. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS )

Grotzinger also outlined evidence of clinoforms, or s-shaped sedimentary deposit on the Martian surface. ”We can sense there’s a big change up Mount Sharp,” he said, with the area beyond the dots in the image above being steeper than the lower, darker area.

Then came the update on the Sample Analysis at Mars, or SAM, which SAM principal investigator Paul Mahaffy described as “the nose of Curiosity.”


An image of the Sample Analysis at Mars, or SAM, system. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Curiosity attempted its first “sniff” of Mars with SAM, but the first sample was not so much a measure of Mars’s atmosphere, but rather of Florida air and other non Martian gases, which had been stored in the system from when Curiosity departed Earth. Subsequent tests are expected to reveal more.

“We’re happy with this test and we’re looking forward to the next run in a few days when we can get Mars data,” Mahaffy said.

Chad Edwards, chief telecommunications engineer for the Mars Exploration Program, introduced how Curiosity, which has limited communications ability, is able to deliver back far greater amounts of data than it could on its own.


The illustration shows the telecommunications network around Mars, which allows Curiosity to talk to Earth, sending back data more efficiently than the rover could on its own. (NASA/JPL-Caltech )

“We have a telecommunications network around Mars,” Edwards said. This network includes Odyssey, Mars Express and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), with Odyssey and the MRO doing most of the heavy lifting. “We set a record for the amount of data we were able to bring back for a single pass” of each orbiter, Edwards said. Curiosity has already brought back in excess of 7 gigabits of data — more than any other rover.


An image of the tracks left by the Mars rover Curiosity after its first drive for the purposes of science. The drive places the rover over one of the scorch marks left during the rover's landing. (NASA/JPL-Caltech )

The conference also provided some “late breaking news,” in the form of an image showing the tracks of the rover’s most recent drive — the first for the purpose of science. The drive places the rover over one of the scour marks left in the wake of the landing. The data from the scorched rocks is currently being collected. “We’re going to be collecting quite a broad range of measurements over this feature before, in a few days time, we drive away,” Grotzinger said.

Ultimately, Lavery said, the events of the past few days produced “the first time we have the sounds, the sights and the smells of Mars.”

Update 8:30 p.m.: In a phone call Tuesday, Lavery said the decision to ask Bolden to deliver the first address was made about a year ago when the executive team decided to ask the NASA administrator to make the recording. It was, said Lavery, “a pretty straightforward choice.”

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By  |  07:01 AM ET, 08/28/2012

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