Ever since first landing in August 2012, the Curiosity rover has helped to revolutionize our understanding of Mars and has seen some incredible scenery along the way. It has travelled across an ancient lakebed and gazed at towering sand dunes and buttes, and now it is ready to begin the next phase in its mission: gradually ascending the lower slopes of Mount Sharp, the massive mountain sitting in the middle of Gale crater. The layers in the mountain will provide more clues as to how the Martian environment changed from being much wetter than it is now, to the dry but cold desert we see today. This next chapter in the rover’s mission is part of a two-year extension which began Oct. 1, 2016.
Mars has often been compared to deserts on Earth, and for good reason: it is pretty much a barren landscape with a lot of sand and rocks everywhere. Sometimes, the similarities can be quite striking, and the terrain in Gale crater where the Curiosity rover is roaming around is a good example. The rover is currently in a region of stunning scenery – buttes and mesas which are very reminiscent of ones on Earth. This area could easily be mistaken for the American southwest if it weren’t for the dusty, pinkish sky and complete lack of vegetation. Curiosity is now getting a close-up look at these formations, which are not only beautiful but record a long and fascinating geological history.
The Curiosity rover is continuing to travel through the ancient and eroded buttes and mesas which are part of the Murray Buttes formation. Very reminiscent of the terrain in the desert regions of the American southwest. Included are a couple new panoramas, processed by Thomas Appéré. All images are available on the mission website.
The Curiosity rover has been sending back some beautiful images of the Murray Buttes which it has now reached, near the base of Mount Sharp, on Mars. There are many buttes and mesas in this region, including in the foothills of the mountain itself. The current header graphic for the blog is also part of a new panoramic image of the buttes, processed by James Sorenson. All images are available on the mission website.
NASA’s current rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, are continuing to explore their respective regions of Mars, with new findings that are providing yet more clues as to the geological history and potential past habitability of this fascinating world. They have also both just completed significant steps in their journeys and are now entering new and exciting phases of their missions. Both missions have found yet more evidence that the Mars we see today – cold and dry – was once much wetter and potentially habitable, at least for microorganisms.
Mars’ atmosphere is thin and cold, composed primarily of carbon dioxide along with other trace gases and some water vapour. Evidence has continued to mount, however, that the rarified atmosphere we see today once used to be much thicker and possibly warmer, making it potentially more life-friendly early on. Just how thick and how warm is still a subject of much debate, but there is also another interesting aspect to all of this: New evidence from the Curiosity rover has shown that the Martian atmosphere also used to have a lot more oxygen in it than it does now. Today, only very small traces of oxygen can be found, as opposed to Earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere. So what does this mean? Could there be biological implications?
This image from the Curiosity rover on sol 1294 shows some very delicate rock formations on Naukluft Plateau, shaped by blowing Martian sand. The thin atmosphere and lower gravity also help in the formation of such spindly protrusions. Similar ones have also been seen before by the rover.
Since landing in 2012, the Curiosity rover has seen a lot of varied terrain within Gale crater, including ancient riverbed gravel, sandstone and mudstone rock outcrops, sand ripples finely sculpted by the Martian wind, and, of course, Mount Sharp looming above. Now the rover has reached a new type of landform previously only seen from orbit: a field of huge sand dunes.
Mars is often referred to as a desert world, being bone-dry for the most part, with dust and sand blanketing most of the surface. Some regions are covered in vast sand dunes, reminiscent of deserts like the Sahara on Earth, only much colder. Gale crater, where the Curiosity rover landed in 2012, features extensive dune fields around the base of Mount Sharp, and the rover is now approaching some of them for the first time; their dark color makes them stand out starkly against the surrounding terrain. These dunes are also still active, meaning they are still mobile and shaped by the wind, not just old “fossil” (petrified) dunes which are no longer active.
Last week there was the exciting news that Mars still has flows of briny water occurring now, and this week there is more water-related news: additional findings from the Curiosity rover that the huge Gale crater was once a lake or series of lakes a long time ago. Curiosity had already found evidence that there used to be shallow lakes and streams in this area, but the new data confirms this and suggests that the lake(s) once filled Gale crater and were long-lasting, explaining the formation of Mount Sharp in the middle of the crater and also providing a potentially habitable environment for life.