News from Mars: Curiosity Arrives at Mount Sharp

curiosity-mars-self-portrait-crop-640x353After two years exploring the Martian surface, the Curiosity Rover has finally reached its primary science destination – the foot of Mount Sharp, officially known as Aeolis Mons. Now that it’s there, it will begin its ascent of the rock formation, drill into rocks and analyze the different strata in the hopes of learning more about the history of the Red Planet. This is an event a long time in the making, and may prove to yield some of the greatest scientific discoveries ever made.

Located in the heart of the Gale Crater, Mount Sharp is like a layer cake, holding a chronology of past events reaching back billions of years. Because of this, it is an ideal place to find evidence that the Martian surface and atmosphere were once capable of supporting life. It took two years and one month for Curiosity reach the foot of this mountain, which lies some 5500 meters (18,000 feet) above the floor of Gale Crater.

MarsCuriosityTrek_20140911_AThe mountain is the central peak in a crater that measures 154 km/96 miles in diameter and which was formed when a meteor impacted the surface between 3.5 and 3.8 billion years ago. Beyond a certain size, and depending on the gravity of the planet, craters like this all have a central peak. But Mount Sharp represents something much more, otherwise NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory wouldn’t be bothering with it.

Basically, Mars scientists believe that after its creation, the Gale crater was completely filled with sedimentary material from a series of huge floods, or by dust and ice deposits like those that happened at the Martian polar caps. The deposition over 2 billion years left a series sedimentary layers that filled the crater. Following the deposition of the layers, there was a long period of erosion which has finally led to the condition of the crater today.

mountsharp_galecraterThe erosion by some combination of aeolean (wind) forces and water (additional flooding), scooped out the huge crater, re-exposing most of the original depth. However, covering the original central peak are many sedimentary layers of debris. Gale crater’s original central peak actually remains completely hidden and covered by sedimentation. And it is this that attracted scientists with the Curiosity rover to the base of Mount Sharp.

Within the sedimentary layers is a sequential record of the environmental conditions on Mars going back over 2 billion years. While at the base, Curiosity will be able to examine the oldest sedimentary layers; but as it climbs the flanks of the mountain, it will be able to step forward in time. Each layer and its age will reveal information such as how much water was present, whether the water was alkaline or acidic, if there is any organic compounds.

john_klein_curiosity-2The discovery of organic compounds on Mount Sharp could be “Earth shaking”, since the discovery of organics is of very high importance to this mission. Already, over the two year trek, Curiosity has seen numerous signs of the flow of water and sedimentation. Interestingly enough, evidence began to turn up way back in Yellowknife Bay — one of its first destinations, which it visited almost two years ago. But as of yet, signs of organic compounds have remained illusive.

What’s more, Curiosity sadly lacks the necessary equipment to look for evidence of microbial fossils or other signatures of life. Fortunately, the next rover – the Mars 2020 rover – will be equipped with the necessary tools to work out whether Mars ever harbored life. In any case, because of the lack of organic compounds in Yellowknife, NASA decided to continue to Mount Sharp, which is currently the best place to dig up scientific data about Mars’ past.

MSL_TraverseMap_Sol0743-2048Curiosity is currently at the base of Mount Sharp, in a region called the Pahrump Hills, where it will continue on to the Murray Formation. Once there, it will take a drill sample of some rock and then continue up Mount Sharp towards the Hematite Ridge where two drill sites await. This farthest site is about 8 km (5 mi) away from its present position, and Curiosity has driven only 9 km since it landed in 2012. So there’s plenty of trekking and work ahead!

One of the greatest challenges is finding a path that will reduce the stress on Curiosity’s wheels, which have been put through some serious wear and tear in the past two years. Because of this, the rover is being driven in reverse for the time being, and the team is looking the path with the least amount of sharp rocks. However, the Mars Curiosity remains confident that the mobility system will be capable of surviving the ten year life span of the rover’s power supply.

And be sure to check out this “Curiosity Rover Report” that talks about this historic accomplishment, courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

Sources: universetoday.com, extremetech.com, jpl.nasa.gov, space.com

News From Mars: Curiosity Celebrates 2 Years!

curiosity_peakEarlier this month, Curiosity marked its second year on the Red Planet, and this anniversary comes amidst plenty of exciting news and developments. Ever since the rover touched down at the Bradbury Landing site inside the Gale Crater on August 5, 2012 at 10:31 pm PDT (August 6, 05:31 GMT), it has been busily searching for signs that life once existed on Earth’s neighbor. And as it enters into its third year of exploration, it is getting closer to accomplishing this lofty goal.

The nuclear-powered explorer is the largest, most advanced rover ever built. And since nothing like it had ever flown before and the maintenance facility was over 160 million kilometers (1oo million miles) away, the first months that Curiosity spent on Mars involved an array of system tests before it took it first tentative rolls across the Martian sands on its roundabout path to Mount Sharp.

curiosity_roadmap1Curiosity’s main mission was to find out if there are any places on Mars where life could have once existed – specifically, areas displaying minerals and geology that could have been produced by water. The Bradbury Landing site, where it touched down, turned out to be very close to an ancient dried lake bed in an area named Yellowknife Bay. According to NASA, this lake bed may have been able to sustain microbial life billions of years ago.

And then, barely six months after landing, the scientists struck gold when they drilled into a rock outcrop named “John Klein” at Yellowknife Bay and unexpectedly discovered the clay bearing minerals on the crater floor. This was the first instance of Curiosity finding clay-bearing minerals. or phyllosilicates, which are a key sign that organic molecules could exist on the planet.

Curiosity_drillingsAs Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the Caltech said in a statement to mark the anniversary:

Before landing, we expected that we would need to drive much farther before answering that habitability question. We were able to take advantage of landing very close to an ancient streambed and lake. Now we want to learn more about how environmental conditions on Mars evolved, and we know where to go to do that.

Compared to its first year, which was marked by many firsts – such as the first drilling operation on Mars, the first laser firing, and first UV night scans – Curiosity’s second year on the Red Planet has been more routine. However, it hasn’t been without its share of excitement. In February, the rover cleared a dune that blocked its progress and in July it negotiated a detour around rocky terrain at Zabriskie Plateau.

curiosity-2nd-year-2However, by far, the majority of the rovers second Earth year on the Red Planet has been spent driving as fast as possible towards a safe entry point to the slopes of Mount Sharp. To date, Curiosity’s odometer totals over 9.0 kilometers (5.5 miles) since landing inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012, and her on board camera has snapped over 174,000 images – many of which have been transformed into panoramic shots of the surface.

The desired destination for the rover is now about 3 kms (2 miles) southwest of its current location. This consists of a bedrock unit that for the first time is actually part of the humongous mountain known as Mount Sharp. As the primary destination on her ongoing mission, this layered mountain in the Gale Crater towers 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles) into the Martian sky, and is believed to hold the most compelling evidence of life yet.

mountsharp_galecraterThe sedimentary layers in the lower slopes of Mount Sharp are the principal reason why the science team specifically chose Gale Crater as the primary landing site. Using high resolution spectral observations collected by NASA’s powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), they were able to determine the presence of deposits of clay-bearing minerals. or phyllosilicates, a key sign that organic molecules could exist on the planet.

In late July of this year, the rover arrived in an area of sandy terrain called “Hidden Valley” which is on the planned route ahead leading to “Pahrump Hills”. Scientists anticipated that the outcrops here would offer a preview of a geological unit that is part of the base of Mount Sharp for the first time since landing. However, the sharp edged rocks caused significant damage to the rovers six aluminum wheels, forcing it to make a detour.

Mars_rovermapThis detour will take Curiosity to a similar site called “Bonanza King” to carry out its fourth drilling mission. According to NASA, this is no great loss because the two areas are geologically connected and the space agency is keen to look at a formation that is different from the crater floor formations encountered so far. Engineers are studying Bonanza King to see if its is suitable for drilling by assessing whether or not the plates seen on the surface are loose.

When drilling operations resume, NASA will study alternative routes to Mount Sharp and determine how well the rover’s wheels can handle sand ripples. However, as Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences, said during an interview during the rover’s second anniversary in Washington, DC : “Getting to Mount Sharp is the next big step for Curiosity and we expect that in the Fall of this year.”

Godspeed, little rover! And I do hope that it finds the long-sought-after organic particles it has been looking for since the mission began. This discovery will not only show that life once existed on Mars (and still does in some capacity) it will also be one of the greatest scientific finds of all time, and maybe even serve as the starting point for ensuring that it can exist again.

terraforming

Sources: universetoday.com, gizmag.com, (2)