Stunning New Images Of Mars From The Curiosity Rover

Since its deployment in 2012 to the surface of Mars, the Curiosity rover has sent back many breathtaking images of the Red Planet. In addition to snapping photos of the comet Siding Spring and Earth from the surface, not to mention some wonderful panoramic selfies, the rover has also taken countless images that show the geology and surface features of Mars’ in stunning detail.

And with the latest photos to be released by NASA, the Curiosity rover has provided us with a wonderful look at the “Murray Buttes” region, which is in the lower part of Mount Sharp. These images were taken by the Curiosity Mast Camera (Mastcam) on Sept. 8th, and provide some lovely insight into the geological history of the region.

Using these images, the Curiosity team hopes to assemble another impressive color mosaic that will give a detailed look at the region’s rocky, desert-like landscape. As you can see from the images provided, the region is characterized by mesas and buttes, which are the eroded remnants of ancient sandstone. Much like other spots around Mount Sharp, the area is of particular interest to the Curiosity team.

Sloping buttes and layered outcrops within the “Murray formation” layer of lower Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA

For years, scientists have understood that the rock layers that form the base of Mount Sharp accumulated as a result of sediment being deposited within the ancient lake bed billions of years ago. In this respect, the geological formations are similar to those found in the desert regions of the southwestern United States.

Ashwin Vasavada, the Curiosity Project Scientist of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Universe Today via email:

” The Murray Buttes region of Mars is reminiscent of parts of the American southwest because of its butte and mesa landscape. In both areas, thick layers of sediment were deposited by wind and water, eventually resulting in a “layer cake” of bedrock that then began to erode away as conditions changed.  In both places, more resistant sandstone layers cap the mesas and buttes because they protect the more easily eroded, fine-grained rock underneath. 

“Like at Monument Valley near the Utah-Arizona border, at Murray Buttes there are just small remnants of these layers that once covered the surface more completely.  There were wind-driven sand dunes at both places, too, that now appear as cross-bedded sandstone layers.  There are of course many differences between Mars and the American Southwest.  For example, there were large inland seas in the Southwest, while at Gale crater there were lakes.”

These sediment layers are believed to have been laid down over the course of 2 billion years, and may have completely filled the crater at one time. Since it is widely believed that lakes and streams existed in the Gale Crater 3.3 – 3.8 billion years ago, some of the lower sediment layers may have originally been deposited on a lake bed.

A hillside outcrop with finely layered rocks within the “Murray formation” layer of lower Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA

For this reason, the Curiosity team also took drill samples from the Murray Buttes area for analysis. This began on Sept. 9th, after the rover was finished taking pictures of the area. As Vasavada explained:

“The Curiosity team is drilling regularly as the rover ascends Mount Sharp. We are drilling into the fine-grained rock that was deposited within lakes in order to see how the lake chemistry, and therefore the environment, changed over time. Curiosity drilled into the coarser sandstone that forms the upper layers of the buttes when the rover crossed the Naukluft Plateau earlier in 2016.”

After the drilling is completed, Curiosity will continue farther south and higher up Mount Sharp, leaving behind these spectacular formations. These pictures represent Curiosity‘s last stop in the Murray Buttes, where the rover has been spending the past month.

And as of this past September 11th, 2016, Curiosity has been on the planet Mars for a total of 4 years and 36 days (or 1497 Earth days; 1458 sols) since it landed on August 6th, 2012.

One has to wonder how the pareidolia folks are going to interpret these ones. After “seeing” a rat, a lizard, a doughnut, a coffin, and so forth, what’s left? Might I suggest that the top image kind of looks like a statue-column?

Further Reading: NASA – Solar System Exploration

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a space journalist and science communicator for Universe Today and Interesting Engineering. He's also a science fiction author, podcaster (Stories from Space), and Taekwon-Do instructor who lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and family.

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