While yesterday we focused on radiation measurements on Mars, and the RAD experiment, today we’ll look how Curiosity is going to measure the Martian atmospheric conditions, or Martian weather if you want to think about it that way. The instrument(s) that will make these measurements form the Rover Environmental Monitoring Stations (REMS).
The Martian atmosphere is both very thin and much lower pressure than the Earths (the average pressue is about 150 times lower than at sea level on Earth). The elemental composition is very different too, Mars’ atmosphere is dominated by carbon dioxide (95%) and there is only a tiny fraction of oxygen (0.1%). Combined with a variation of surface temperature from -87 C through to (very localized) highs of 30 C in the southern regions (although mean surface temps are around -60 C), Mars is expected to have some quite unique planetary weather.
For our weather forecasts on Earth we like to know temperature, wind speed, humidity, atmospheric pressure and some times the UV levels. So it will come as no surprise that’s pretty much what Curiosity is going to measure. In fact, Curiosity will measure the following six atmospheric parameters: wind speed/direction, pressure, relative humidity, air temperature, ground temperature, and ultraviolet radiation.
Anyone who has worked at a weather station knows that you need to put sensors measuring wind speed (for example) slightly above the ground to get away from surface effects. The two wind speed sensors thus sit on Curiosity’s Remote Sensing Mast (on two separate booms, one pointing forward and another at 120 degrees to the first), along with humidty and air & ground temperature sensors. Placing the booms at different angles ensures that at least one of them will record accurate wind data for any given wind direction. Note, even on the mast the wind measurements will still be slightly impacted by air flow around the mast itself. The wind speed measurements will be pretty accurate, with a resolution of around 0.5 m/s. The directional measurements are anticipated to be accurate to within 30 degrees or so, and it will even measure vertical variation in wind direction to within 10 degrees.
Even though the ground temperature sensor is up on the mast, it can still measure the temperature of the ground by pointing toward a patch to the side of the rover. The temperature sensor is an electrical one, a thermopile, and can record in a temperature range of 150-300K with an accuracy of around 10K. The air temperature measurements made on the boom itself will be twice as accurate (to within 5K) over the same temperature range. The pressure and humidity sensors complete the instrument suite on the mast.
Since the UV sensor is designed to measure the incoming UV from above the rover, it sits on top of the rover deck to the back. Much like the radiation assessment detector (RAD) the UV sensors are sensitive to incoming radiation across about a 60 degree cone above the rover. The sensor itself will be able to detect UV in six different wavelength ranges, (from UVA through to UVE, plus a “total dose” across the entire range) and will thus characterize the UV environment in great detail.
But really the great “value add” behind all these measurements is that Curiosity will make them systematically every hour. So for each hour of each Martian day, Curiosity will record 5 minutes of data from all the sensors. To do this REMS has been set up to work independently of the main power sources on Curiosity and can take data even when the rover is in a sleep mode.
From all this data we’ll be able to develop detailed models of Martian weather patterns, with a detailed focus both on large scale fronts and smaller, so called microscale weather systems. The microscale systems include small whirlwinds like dust devils. We’ll also uncover precisely how the Martian water cycle works, and it’s going to be seriously different from the Earth’s!
And to whet your appetite for all this new Martain weather data, here’s a beautiful Martian sunset taken by the Spirit Rover. Tomorrow: DAN.