Beyond the drilling and scientific analysis of Mars’ surface, Curiosity rover is helping out astronomers on Earth to keep an eye on the sunspots on the face of the sun that is directly opposite to Earth.
Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) is capable of keeping an eye on large sunspots and when astronomers here on Earth have no means of keeping an eye on the side of the Sun facing away from Earth, they rely on the imaging capabilities of the rover on Mars.
The sun completes a rotation about once a month — faster near its equator than near its poles. Information about sunspots that develop before they rotate into view of Earth and Earth-orbiting spacecraft is helpful in predicting space-weather effects of solar emissions related to sunspots.
One such sunspot or cluster that rotated out of Curiosity’s view over the July 4 weekend showed up by July 7 as a source area of a solar eruption observed by NASA’s Earth-orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory. Another such sunspot is being tracked by Curiosity, which is going to face Earthward next week.
NASA scientists primarily use the agency’s STEREO-A spacecraft to monitor the sun; however that spacecraft is also currently almost exactly behind the sun from Earth’s perspective because of which the communications have been temporarily been suspended.
“Tracking the sunspot activity on the far side of the sun is useful for space-weather forecasting,” said Yihua Zheng, project leader for NASA Space Weather Services at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. “It helps us monitor how the sunspots evolve and grow before they become visible from this side.”
According to NASA, solar storms are one of the key components of space weather forecasting and keeping an eye out for any possible storms is needed to take possible precautions against possible effects of solar storms on spacecraft orbiting Earth and elsewhere in the solar system.
Intense space weather can degrade telephone communications, broadcasting and other electronic technology on Earth.
The main purpose for most imaging of the sun by Curiosity and other Mars rovers has been to monitor how its apparent brightness is affected by dust in Mars’ atmosphere above the rovers. Mark Lemmon of Texas A&M University, College Station, is a Mastcam team member who studies the Martian atmosphere. Three months ago, he coordinated sunset imaging by Curiosity for a Martian evening when Mercury was passing directly in front of the sun from Mars’ viewpoint.
“We saw sunspots in the images during the Mercury transit, and I was trying to distinguish Mercury from a sunspot,” Lemmon said. “I checked with heliophysicists who study sunspots and learned that STEREO-A was out of communications, so there was no current information about sunspots on that side of the sun. That’s how we learned it would be useful for Curiosity to monitor sunspots.”
In addition to its sunspot viewing, Curiosity is examining rocks near “Marias Pass.” A test is planned this month for the percussion mechanism of the rover’s sample-collecting drill, which exhibited a transient short circuit during transfer of sample material collected four months ago. The test is designed to provide diagnostic information for use in planning the rover’s next drilling operation, possibly in the Marias Pass area.
Curiosity has been working on Mars since early August 2012. It reached the base of Mount Sharp last year after fruitfully investigating outcrops closer to its landing site and then trekking to the mountain. The main mission objective now is to examine successively higher layers of Mount Sharp.