NASA’s Curiosity Rover usually looks down at the ground, studying nearby rocks and craters. But sometimes, it looks up and sees something wonderful.
A new image released by Curiosity shows beautiful sun rays, called crepuscular rays, streaming through a bank of clouds on Mars at sunset. While relatively common here on Earth, they have never been seen on Mars. Crepuscular comes from crepusculum, the Latin word for twilight.
Another image from the rover shows a feather-shaped iridescent cloud in the high atmosphere on Mars.
MSL Curiosity is going about its business exploring Mars. The high-tech rover is currently exploring the sulphate-bearing unit on Mt. Sharp, the central peak in Mars’ Gale Crater. Serendipity placed a metal meteorite in its path.
The Curiosity rover has now reached its primary target on Mount Sharp on Mars, the mountain in the middle of Gale Crater the rover has been climbing since 2014. This target is not the summit, but a region over 600 meters (2,000 feet) up the mountain that planetary geologists have long anticipated reaching.
Known as the “sulfate-bearing unit,” the region is a boundary between the rocks that saw a lot of water in their history and those that didn’t; a possible shoreline, if you will. That boundary is already providing insights into Mars’ transition from a wet planet to dry, filling in a key gap in the understanding of the planet’s history.
For a spacecraft that’s traveled millions of kilometers across space and driven on the surface of Mars, Curiosity is holding up pretty darned well. That’s the assessment from the operations team at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This week they celebrated ten years of the rover’s exploration across one of the more forbidding terrains in the solar system.
We are carbon-based life forms. That means the basis for the chemical compounds that forms our life is the element carbon. It’s crucial because it bonds with other elements such as hydrogen and oxygen to create the complex molecules that are part of life. So, when we look for evidence of life elsewhere in the solar system, we look for carbon. That includes Mars.
Since 2012, NASA’s Curiosity rover has been exploring the Gale Crater for clues about Mars’ past and possible evidence that it once supported life. For the past year, this search has centered on the lower levels of Mount Sharp, a transitional zone between a clay-rich region and one filled with sulfates (a type of mineral salt). These regions can offer insight into Mars’ warm, watery past, but the transition zone between them is also of scientific value. In short, the study of this region may provide a record of the major climatic shift that took place billions of years ago on Mars.
For example, this region has unique geological features that include clay minerals that appear as flaky layers of sedimentary rock. One in particular, “The Prow,” was recently imaged by Curiosity and had the mission science teams buzzing. These features formed when water still flowed into the Gale Crater, depositing sediment at the base of Mount Sharp. Higher on the mountain, the hill was likely covered in wind-swept dunes that hardened into rock over time. In between them is where the flaky layers formed, possibly as a result of small ponds or streams that wove them among the dunes.
In August 2012, the Curiosity rover landed in the Gale Crater on Mars and began exploring the surface for indications of past life. The rover made some profound discoveries during that time, including evidence that the crater was once a huge lakebed and detecting multiple methane spikes. The rover has also taken images of several interesting terrain features, many of which went viral after the photos were shared with the public. Time and again, these photos have proven that the tradition of seeing faces or patterns in random objects (aka. pareidolia) is alive and well when it comes to Mars!
On Sol 3474 (May 15th, 2022), the Curiosity rover’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) snapped a particularly interesting picture showing spikes protruding from the ground. The prongs are likely to be material that survived the erosion of the surrounding sedimentary rock, which is consistent with other evidence obtained by Curiosity that shows how erosion and sedimentary deposits were common in the Gale Crater (and still are). That being said, the pareidolia crowd (fresh off the “Doorway” hoax) is sure to have a field day with this one!
Remember all the fuss about the “doorway on Mars” from just last week? Well, this week, NASA issued some more information about the rock mound where the Curiosity rover snapped a pic showing a fracture hole in the rock. It looks like a door, but it’s not.
NASA has granted mission extensions to eight different planetary missions, citing the continued excellent operations of the spacecraft, but more importantly, the sustained scientific productivity of these missions, “and the potential to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the solar system and beyond.” Each mission will be extended for three more years.
Right now, the Curiosity rover continues to climb Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons), the central peak within the Gale Crater on Mars. This massive pile of rock and sediment was created over the course of 2 billion years by liquid water that flowed into the crater, creating a layered structure that stands around 5.5 km (18,000 ft) tall. Many of these layers were deposited when the crater is thought to have been a lakebed, which makes it a prime location to search for evidence of past life (and maybe present) on Mars.
Climbing this feature is hard work and can cause severe wear on Curiosity’s metal wheels. The rover began climbing the southern edge of “Greenheugh Pediment,” a gentle slope topped by sandstone rubble that scientists want to learn more about. A few weeks ago, the rover suddenly encountered a huge patch of wind-sharpened rocks known as ventifacts (aka. “gator back” terrain). This forced the mission team to plot an alternate route so that Curiosity can continue to get more life out of its wheels.