Our beyond magnificent Curiosity rover has just finished her latest Red Planet drilling campaign – at the rock target called “Quela” – into the simply unfathomable alien landscapes she is currently exploring at the “Murray Buttes” region of lower Mount Sharp. And it’s all in a Sols (or Martian Day’s) work for our intrepid Curiosity!
“These images are literally out of this world.. I don’t think I have seen anything like them on Earth!” Jim Green, Planetary Sciences Director at NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C., explained to Universe Today.
The “Murray Buttes” region is just chock full of the most stunning panoramic vistas that NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover has come upon to date. Observe and enjoy them in our exclusive new photo mosaics above and below.
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“We always try to find some sort of Earth analog but these make exploring another world all worth it!” Green gushed in glee.
They fill the latest incredible chapter in her thus far four year long quest to trek many miles (km) from the Bradbury landing site across the floor of Gale Crater to reach the base region of humongous Mount Sharp.
And these adventures are just a prelude to the even more glorious vistas she’ll investigate from now on – as she climbs higher and higher on an expedition to thoroughly examine the mountains sedimentary layers and unravel billions and billions of years of Mars geologic and climatic history.
Drilling holes into Mars during the Red Planet trek and carefully analyzing the pulverized samples with the rovers pair of miniaturized chemistry laboratories (SAM and CheMin) is the route to the answer of how and why Mars changed from a warmer and wetter planet in the ancient past to the cold, dry and desolate world we see today.
The rock target named “Quela” is located at the base of one of the buttes dubbed “Murray Butte number 12,” according to the latest mission update from Prof. John Bridges, a Curiosity rover science team member from the University of Leicester, England.
It took two tries to get the drilling done due to a technical issue, but all went well in the end and it was well worth the effort at a place never before explored by an emissary from Earth.
“The drill (successful at second attempt) is at Quela.”
The full depth drilling was completed on Sol 1464, Sept. 18, 2016 using the percussion drill at the terminus of the outstretched 7-foot-long (2-meter-long) robotic arm – as confirmed by imaging and further illustrated in our navcam camera photo mosaic.
And that immediately provided valuable insight into climate change on Mars.
“You can see how red and oxidised the tailings are, suggesting changing environmental conditions as we progress through the Mt. Sharp foothills,” Bridges explained in the mission update.
Curiosity bore holes measure approximately 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter and 2.6 inches (6.5 centimeters) deep.
To give you the context of the Murray Buttes region and the drilling at Quela, the image processing team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo has begun stitching together wide angle mosaic landscape views and up close views of the drilling using raw images from the variety of cameras at Curiosity’s disposal.
The next steps after boring into Quela were to “sieve the new sample, dump the unsieved fraction, and drop some of the sieved sample into CheMin,” says Ken Herkenhoff, Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and an MSL science team member, in a mission update.
“But first, ChemCam will acquire passive spectra of the Quela drill tailings and use its laser to measure the chemistry of the wall of the new drill hole and of bedrock targets “Camaxilo” and “Okakarara.” Right Mastcam images of these targets are also planned.”
“After sunset, MAHLI will use its LEDs to take images of the drill hole from various angles and of the CheMin inlet to confirm that the sample was successfully delivered. Finally, the APXS will be placed over the drill tailings for an overnight integration.”
The rover had approached the butte from the south side several sols earlier to get in place, plan for the drilling, take imagery to document stratigraphy and make compositional observations with the ChemCam laser instrument.
Sol after Sol the daily imagery transmitted back to eager researchers on Earth reveal spectacularly layered Martian rock formations in such exquisite detail that they look and feel just like America’s desert Southwest landscapes.
“These are the landforms that dominate the landscape at this point in the traverse – The Murray Buttes,” says Bridges.
What are the Murray Buttes?
“These are formed by a cap of hard aeolian rock that has been partially eroded back, overlying the Murray mudstone.”
The imagery of the Murray Buttes and mesas show them to be eroded remnants of ancient sandstone that originated when winds deposited sand after lower Mount Sharp had formed.
Scanning around the Murray Buttes mosaics one sees finely layered rocks, sloping hillsides, the distant rim of Gale Crater barely visible through the dusty haze, dramatic hillside outcrops with sandstone layers exhibiting cross-bedding.
The presence of “cross-bedding” indicates that the sandstone was deposited by wind as migrating sand dunes, says the team.
Curiosity spent some six weeks or so traversing and exploring the Murray Buttes.
So after collecting all that great drilling data at Quela, the team is ready for even more spectacular new adventures!
“While the Murray Buttes were spectacular and interesting, it’s good to be back on the road again, as there is much more of Mt. Sharp to explore!” concludes Herkenhoff.
And the team is already commanding Curiosity to drive ahead in hot pursuit of the next drill target!
Ascending and diligently exploring the sedimentary lower layers of Mount Sharp, which towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky, is the primary destination and goal of the rovers long term scientific expedition on the Red Planet.
Three years ago, the team informally named the Murray Buttes site to honor Caltech planetary scientist Bruce Murray (1931-2013), a former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. JPL manages the Curiosity mission for NASA.
As of today, Sol 1470, September 24, 2016, Curiosity has driven over 7.9 miles (12.7 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater, and taken over 355,000 amazing images.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.