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.
Thanks to multiple robotic missions that have explored Mars’ atmosphere, surface, and geology, scientists have concluded that Mars was once a much warmer, wetter place. In addition to having a thicker atmosphere, the planet was actually warm enough that flowing water could exist on the surface in the form of rivers, lakes, and even an ocean that covered much of the northern hemisphere.
According to new research based on data collected by NASA’s Curiosity mission, it appears that the Gale Crater (where the rover has been exploring for the past eight years) experienced massive flooding roughly 4 billion years ago. These findings indicate that the mid-latitudes of Mars were also covered in water at one time and offers additional hints that the region once supported life.
Some very clever people have figured out how to use MSL Curiosity’s navigation sensors to measure the gravity of a Martian mountain. What they’ve found contradicts previous thinking about Aeolis Mons, aka Mt. Sharp. Aeolis Mons is a mountain in the center of Gale Crater, Curiosity’s landing site in 2012.
Gale Crater is a huge impact crater that’s 154 km (96 mi) in diameter and about 3.5 billion years old. In the center is Aeolis Mons, a mountain about 5.5 km (18,000 ft) high. Over an approximately 2 billion year period, sediments were deposited either by water, wind, or both, creating the mountain. Subsequent erosion reduced the mountain to its current form.
Now a new paper published in Science, based on gravity measurements from Curiosity, shows that Aeolis Mons’ bedrock layers are not as dense as once thought.
Ever since it landed on the Red Planet in 2012, the Curiosity rover has showed no signs of slowing down! For the past six years, it has ventured across the Gale Crater, scaled Mount Sharp, and taken numerous drill samples. And in the process, it has found evidence that liquid water (and possibly even life) once existed on the Martian surface.
It has also taken many breathtaking pictures that have catalogued its progress. Last month (on Aug. 9th), the rover took another 360-degree panoramic photo of its location. In addition to showing how the skies were still darkened by the fading dust storm and the rover’s dust-covered body, the picture also captured and the site where the latest drill sample was obtained.
In fact, back in January of 2018, the rover had spent a total of 2,000 Earth days on Mars. And as of March 22nd, 2018, NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover had reached its two-thousandth Martian day (Sol) on the Red Planet! To mark the occasion, NASA released a mosaic photo that previews what the rover will be investigating next (hint: it could shed further light on whether or not Mars was habitable in the past).
The image (shown at top and below) was assembled from dozens of images taken by Curiosity‘s Mast Camera (Mastcam) on Sol 1931 (back in January). To the right, looming in the background, is Mount Sharp, the central peak in the Gale Crater (where Curiosity landed back in 2012). Since September of 2014, the rover has been climbing this feature and collecting drill samples to get a better understanding of Mars’ geological history.
In the center of the image is the rover’s next destination and scientific target. This area, which scientists have been studying from orbit, is rich in clay minerals, which indicates that water once existed there. In the past, the Curiosity rover found evidence of clay minerals on the floor of the Gale Crater. This confirmed that the crater was a lake bed between 3.3 and 3.8 billion years ago.
Mount Sharp, meanwhile, is believed to have formed from sedimentary material that was deposited over a period of about 2 billion years. By examining patches of clay minerals that extend up the mountain’s side, scientists hope to gain insight into the history of Mars since then. These include how long water may have persisted on its surface and how the planet made the transition to the cold and desiccated place it is today.
The Curiosity science team is eager to analyze rock samples pulled from the clay-bearing rocks seen in the center of the image, and not just because of the results they could provide. Recently, the science team developed a new drilling technique to compensate for the failure of a faulty motor (which allows the drill to extend and retract). When the rover begins to drill again, it will be the first time since December 2016.
All told, the rover has spent a total of about 2055 Earth days (5 years and 230 days), which means Curiosity now ranks third behind the Opportunity (5170 days; 5031 sols) and the Spirit rovers (2269 days; 2208 sols) in terms of total time spent on Mars. Since it arrived on Mars in 2012, Curiosity has also traveled a total distance of 18.7 km (11.6 mi) and studied more than 180 meters (600 feet) vertical feet of rock.
But above all, Curiosity‘s greatest achievement has been the discovery that Mars once had all the necessary conditions and chemical ingredients to support microbial life. Based on their findings, Curiosity‘s international science team has concluded that habitable conditions must have lasted for at least millions of years before Mars’ atmosphere was stripped away.
Finding the evidence of this, and how the transition occurred, will not only advance our understanding of the history of Mars, but of the Solar System itself. It also might provide clues as to how Mars could be made into a warmer, wetter environment again someday!
On August 5th, 2012, after spending over 8 months in space, NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars. As part of the NASA Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, and the latest in a series of rovers deployed to the Martian surface, Curiosity had some rather ambitious research goals. In addition to investigating Mars’ climate and geology, the rover was also tasked with revealing more about Mars’ past and determining if it ever supported microbial life.
And recently, the Curiosity rover hit another major milestone in its exploration of the Red Planet. As of January 26th, 2018 the rover has spent a total of 2,000 days on Mars, which works out to 5 years, 5 months and 21 days – or 1947 Martian days (sols). That’s especially impressive when you consider that the mission was only meant to last 687 days (668 sols), or just little under 2 years.
In all that time, the Curiosity rover has accomplished some major feats and has the scars to prove it! Some of it’s wheels have become teared, holed and cracked and its drill has been pushed almost to the point of breaking. And yet, Curiosity is still hard at work pushing itself up a mountain – both literally and figuratively! The rover has also managed to exceed everyone’s expectations.
As Ashwin Vasavada, the MSL Project Scientist, told Universe Today via email:
“In terms of challenges, the first 2000 days of Curiosity’s mission went better than I could have hoped. For much of the time, the rover remained as capable as the day it landed. We had a scare in the first year when a memory fault triggered additional problems and nearly resulted in the loss of the mission. We famously wore down our wheels pretty early, as well, but since then we’ve kept that under control. In the last year, we’ve had a major problem with our drill. That’s the only major issue currently, but we believe we’ll be back to drilling in a month or so. If that works out, we’ll amazingly be back to having all systems ready for science!”
As of the penning of this article, the rover is climbing Mount Sharp in order to collect further samples from Mars’ past. Also known as Aeolis Mons, this mountain resides in the center of the Gale Crater where Curiosity landed in 2012 and has been central to Curiosity’s mission. Standing 5,500 meters (18,000 ft) above the valley floor, Mount Sharp is believed to have formed from sediment that was slowly deposited by flowing water over billions of years.
This is all in keeping with current theories about how Mars once had a denser atmosphere and was able to sustain liquid water on its surface. But between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago, this atmosphere was slowly stripped away by solar wind, thus turning Mars into the cold and desiccated place that we know today. As a result, the study of Mount Sharp was always expected to reveal a great deal about Mars’ geological evolution.
In it’s first year, Curiosity achieved a major milestone when the rover obtained drill samples from low-lying areas that indicated that lakes and streams existed in the Gale Crater between 3.3 to 3.8 billion years ago. In addition, the rover has also obtained ample evidence that the crater once had all the chemical elements and even a chemical source of energy needed for microbial life to exist.
“NASA’s charge to our mission was to determine whether Mars ever had conditions suitable for life,” said Vasavada. “Success was not a foregone conclusion. Would we arrive safely? Would the scientific instruments work? Would the area we chose for the landing site hold the clues we were looking for? For me, meeting each of these objectives are the highlights of the mission. I’ll never forget witnessing the launch, or nervously waiting for a safe touchdown. Discovering an ancient, freshwater lake environment at Gale crater was profound scientifically, but also was the moment that I knew that our team had delivered what we promised to NASA.”
Basically, by scaling Mount Sharp and examining the layers that were deposited over the course of billions of years, Curiosity is able to examine a living geological record of how the planet has evolved since then. Essentially, the lower layers of the mountain are believed to have been deposited 3.5 billion years ago when the Gale Crater was still a lakebed, as evidenced by the fact that they are rich in clay minerals.
The upper layers, meanwhile, are believed to have been deposited over the ensuing millions of years, during which time the lake in the Gale Crater appears to have grown, shrunk, disappeared and then reappeared. Basically, by scaling the mountain and obtaining samples, Curiosity will be able to illustrate how Mars underwent the transition from being a warmer, wetter place to a frozen and dry one.
As Vasavada explained, this exploration is also key to answering a number of foundational questions about the search for life beyond Earth:
“Curiosity established that Mars was once a suitable home for life; it had liquid water, key chemical building blocks, and energy sources required by life in the lake and groundwater environment within Gale crater. Curiosity also has detected organic molecules in ancient rocks, in spite of all the degradation that could have occurred in three billion years. While Curiosity cannot detect life itself, knowing that Mars can preserve organic molecules bodes well for missions that will explore ancient rocks, looking for signs of past life.”
At this juncture, its not clear how much longer Curiosity will last. Considering that it has already lasted over twice as long as originally intended, it is possible the rover will remain in operation for years to come. However, unlike the Opportunity rover – who’s mission was intended to last for 90 days, but has remained in operation for 5121 days (4984 sols) – Curiosity has a shelf life.
Whereas Opportunity is powered by solar cells, Curiosity is dependent on its Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG). Eventually, this slow-fission reactor will exhaust its supply of nuclear fuel and the rover will be forced to come to a halt. And considering how the rover has been put through its paces in the past 5 years, there’s also the chance that it will suffer a mechanical failure.
But in the meantime, there’s plenty of work to be done and lots of opportunities for vital research. As Vasavada put it:
“Curiosity won’t last forever, but in the years we have left, I hope we can complete our traverse through the lowermost strata on Mount Sharp. We’re well over halfway through. There are changes in the composition of the rocks ahead that might tell us how the climate of Mars changed over time, perhaps ending the era of habitability. Every day on Mars still counts, perhaps even more than before. Now every new discovery adds a piece to a puzzle that’s more than halfway done; it reveals more given all the other pieces already around it.”
And be sure to check out this retrospective of the Curiosity rover’s mission, courtesy of NASA:
You can catch a glimpse of what its like to see NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover simultaneously high overhead from orbit and trundling down low across the Red Planet’s rocky surface as she climbs the breathtaking terrain of Mount Sharp – as seen in new images from NASA we have stitched together into a mosaic view showing the perspective views; see above.
Earlier this month on June 5, researchers commanded NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to image the car sized Curiosity rover from Mars orbit using the spacecrafts onboard High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) telescopic camera during Sol 1717 of her Martian expedition – see below.
HiRISE is the most powerful telescope ever sent to Mars.
And as she does nearly every Sol, or Martian day, Curiosity snapped a batch of new images captured from Mars surface using her navigation camera called navcam – likewise on Sol 1717.
Since NASA just released the high resolution MRO images of Curiosity from orbit, we assembled together the navcam camera raw images taken simultaneously on June 5 (Sol 1717), in order to show the actual vista seen by the six wheeled robot from a surface perspective on the same day.
The lead navcam photo mosaic shows a partial rover selfie backdropped by the distant rim of Gale Crater – and was stitched together by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.
Right now NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover is approaching her next science destination named “Vera Rubin Ridge” while climbing up the lower reaches of Mount Sharp, the humongous mountain that dominates the rover’s landing site inside Gale Crater.
“When the MRO image was taken, Curiosity was partway between its investigation of active sand dunes lower on Mount Sharp, and “Vera Rubin Ridge,” a destination uphill where the rover team intends to examine outcrops where hematite has been identified from Mars orbit,” says NASA.
“HiRISE has been imaging Curiosity about every three months, to monitor the surrounding features for changes such as dune migration or erosion.”
The MRO image has been color enhanced and shows Curiosity as a bright blue feature. It is currently traveling on the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. Curiosity is approximately 10 feet long and 9 feet wide (3.0 meters by 2.8 meters).
“The exaggerated color, showing differences in Mars surface materials, makes Curiosity appear bluer than it really looks. This helps make differences in Mars surface materials apparent, but does not show natural color as seen by the human eye.”
See our mosaic of “Vera Rubin Ridge” and Mount Sharp below.
Curiosity is making rapid progress towards the hematite-bearing location of Vera Rubin Ridge after conducting in-depth exploration of the Bagnold Dunes earlier this year.
“Vera Rubin Ridge is a high-standing unit that runs parallel to and along the eastern side of the Bagnold Dunes,” says Mark Salvatore, an MSL Participating Scientist and a faculty member at Northern Arizona University, in a new mission update.
“From orbit, Vera Rubin Ridge has been shown to exhibit signatures of hematite, an oxidized iron phase whose presence can help us to better understand the environmental conditions present when this mineral assemblage formed.”
Curiosity will use her cameras and spectrometers to elucidate the origin and nature of Vera Rubin Ridge and potential implications or role in past habitable environments.
“The rover will turn its cameras to Vera Rubin Ridge for another suite of high resolution color images, which will help to characterize any observed layers, fractures, or geologic contacts. These observations will help the science team to determine how Vera Rubin Ridge formed and its relationship to the other geologic units found within Gale Crater.”
To reach Vera Rubin Ridge, Curiosity is driving east-northeast around two small patches of dunes just to the north. She will then turn “southeast and towards the location identified as the safest place for Curiosity to ascend the ridge. Currently, this ridge ascent point is approximately 370 meters away.”
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.
“Lower Mount Sharp was chosen as a destination for the Curiosity mission because the layers of the mountain offer exposures of rocks that record environmental conditions from different times in the early history of the Red Planet. Curiosity has found evidence for ancient wet environments that offered conditions favorable for microbial life, if Mars has ever hosted life,” says NASA.
As of today, Sol 1733, June 21, 2017, Curiosity has driven over 10.29 miles (16.57 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater, and taken over 420,000 amazing images.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Learn more about the upcoming SpaceX launch of BulgariaSat 1, recent SpaceX Dragon CRS-11 resupply launch to ISS, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:
June 22-24: “SpaceX BulgariaSat 1 launch, SpaceX CRS-11 and CRS-10 resupply launches to the ISS, Inmarsat 5 and NRO Spysat, EchoStar 23, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity and Opportunity explore Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings
Since it landed on August 6th, 2012, the Curiosityrover has spent a total of 1644 Sols (or 1689 Earth days) on Mars. And as of March 2017, it has traveled almost 16 km (~10 mi) across the planet and climbed almost a fifth of a kilometer (0.124 mi) uphill. Spending that kind of time on another planet, and traveling that kind of distance, can certainly lead to its share of wear of tear on a vehicle.
That was the conclusion when the Curiosity science team conducted a routine check of the rover’s wheels on Sunday, March 19th, 2017. After examining images taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), they noticed two small breaks in the raised treads on the rover’s left middle wheel. These breaks appeared to have happened since late January, when the last routine check of the wheels took place.
To get around, the Curiosity rover relies on six solid aluminum wheels that are 40 cm (16 in) wide. The skin of the wheels is thinner than a US dime, but each contains 19 zigzag-shaped treads that are about 0.75 cm (three-quarters of an inch) thick. These “grousers”, as they are called, bear most of the rover’s weight and provide most of the wheel’s traction.
Ever since the rover was forced to cross a stretch of terrain that was studded with sharp rocks in 2013, the Curiosity team has made regular checks on the rover’s wheels using the MAHLI camera. At the time, the rover was moving from the Bradbury Landing site (where it landed in 2012) to the base of Mount Sharp, and traversing this terrain caused holes and dents in the wheels to grow significantly.
However, members of Curiosity’s science team emphasized that this is nothing to be worried about, as it will not affect the rover’s performance or lifespan. As Jim Erickson, the Curiosity Project Manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a recent NASA press statement:
“All six wheels have more than enough working lifespan remaining to get the vehicle to all destinations planned for the mission. While not unexpected, this damage is the first sign that the left middle wheel is nearing a wheel-wear milestone.”
In addition to regular monitoring, a wheel-longevity testing program was started on Earth in 2013 using identical aluminum wheels. These tests showed that once a wheel got to the point where three of its grousers were broken, it had passed about 60% of its lifespan. However, Curiosity has already driven more than 60% of the total distance needed for it to make it to all of its scientific destinations.
“This is an expected part of the life cycle of the wheels and at this point does not change our current science plans or diminish our chances of studying key transitions in mineralogy higher on Mount Sharp.”
At present, Curiosity is examining sand dunes in the geographical region known as the Murray Buttes formation, which is located on the slope of Mount Sharp. Once finished, it will proceed up higher to a feature known as “Vera Rubin Ridge”, inspecting a layer that is rich in the mineral hematite. From there, it will proceeded to even higher elevations to inspect layers that contain clays and sulfates.
Getting to the farthest destination (the sulfate unit) will require another 6 km (3.7 mi) of uphill driving. However, this is a short distance compared to the kind of driving the rover has already performed. Moreover, the science team has spent the past four years implementing various methods designed to avoid embedded rocks and other potentially hazardous terrain features.
It is expected that this drive up Mount Sharp will yield some impressive scientific finds. During its first year on Mars, Curiosity succeeded in gathering evidence in the Gale Crater that showed how Mars once had conditions favorable to life. This included ample evidence of liquid water, all the chemical elements needed for life, and even a chemical source of energy.
By scaling Mount Sharp and examining the layers that were deposited over the course of billions of years, Curiosity is able to examine a living geological record of how the planet has evolved since then. Luckily, the rover’s wheels seem to have more than enough life to make these and (most likely) other scientific finds.
Furthermore they whip up the dust more easily in the lower gravity field on Mars compared to Earth. Mars gravity is about one third of Earth’s.
Right now it’s summer inside the rovers southern hemisphere landing site at Gale Crater. And summer is the windiest time of the Martian year.
“Dust devils are whirlwinds that result from sunshine warming the ground, prompting convective rising of air that has gained heat from the ground. Observations of Martian dust devils provide information about wind directions and interaction between the surface and the atmosphere,” as described by researchers.
So now is the best time to observe and photograph the dusty whirlwinds in action as they flitter amazingly across the craters surface carrying dust in their wake.
Therefore researchers are advantageously able to utilize Curiosity in a new research campaign that “focuses on modern wind activity in Gale” on the lower slope of Mount Sharp — a layered mountain inside the crater.
Indeed, this past month Curiosity began her second sand dune campaign focusing on investigating active dunes on the mountain’s northwestern flank that are ribbon-shaped linear dunes.
“In these linear dunes, the sand is transported along the ribbon pathway, while the ribbon can oscillate back and forth, side to side,” said Nathan Bridges, a Curiosity science team member at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, in a statement.
These new dunes are different from those investigated during the first dune campaign back in late 2015 and early 2016 that examined crescent-shaped dunes, including Namib Dune in our mosaic below.
The initial dune campaign actually involved the first ever up-close study of active sand dunes anywhere other than Earth, as I reported at the time.
By snapping a series of targeted images pointed in just the right direction using the rovers mast mounted navigation cameras, or navcams, the researchers have composed a series of ‘Dust Devil’ movies – gathered together here for your enjoyment.
“We’re keeping Curiosity busy in an area with lots of sand at a season when there’s plenty of wind blowing it around,” said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
“One aspect we want to learn more about is the wind’s effect on sorting sand grains with different composition. That helps us interpret modern dunes as well as ancient sandstones.”
The movies amply demonstrate that Mars is indeed an active world and winds are by far the dominant force shaping and eroding the Red Planets alien terrain – despite the thin atmosphere less than 1 percent of Earth’s.
Indeed scientists believe that wind erosion over billions of years of time is what caused the formation of Mount Sharp at the center of Gale Crater by removing vast amounts of dust and sedimentary material — about 15,000 cubic miles (64,000 cubic kilometers) — as Mars evolved from a wet world to the dry, desiccated planet we see today.
Gale crater was originally created over 3.6 billion years ago when a gigantic asteroid or comet smashed into Mars. The devastating impact “excavated a basin nearly 100 miles (160 kilometers) wide. Sediments including rocks, sand and silt later filled the basin, some delivered by rivers that flowed in from higher ground surrounding Gale.”
Winds gradually carved away so much sediment and dirt that we are left with the magnificent mountain in view today.
The whirlwinds called “dust devils” have been recorded moving across terrain in the crater, in sequences of afternoon images taken several seconds apart.
The contrast has been enhanced to better show the dust devils in action.
Watch this short NASA video showing Martian Dust Devils seen by Curiosity:
Video Caption: Dust Devils On Mars Seen by NASA’s Curiosity Rover. On recent summer afternoons on Mars, navigation cameras aboard NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover observed several whirlwinds carrying Martian dust across Gale Crater. Dust devils result from sunshine warming the ground, prompting convective rising of air. All the dust devils were seen in a southward direction from the rover. Timing is accelerated and contrast has been modified to make frame-to-frame changes easier to see. Credit: NASA/JPL
The team is also using the probes downward-looking Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) camera for a straight down high resolution up-close view looking beneath the rover. The purpose is to check for daily movement of the dunes she is sitting on to see “how far the wind moves grains of sand in a single day’s time.”
These dune investigations have to be done now, because the six wheeled robot will soon ascend Mount Sharp, the humongous layered mountain at the center of Gale Crater.
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.
“Before Curiosity heads farther up Mount Sharp, the mission will assess movement of sand particles at the linear dunes, examine ripple shapes on the surface of the dunes, and determine the composition mixture of the dune material,” researchers said.
Curiosity is also using the science instruments on the robotic arm turret to gather detailed research measurements with the cameras and spectrometers.
As of today, Sol 1625, March 2, 2017, Curiosity has driven over 9.70 miles (15.61 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater, and taken over 391,000 amazing images.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
For over a year, the Curiosity rover has been making its way up the slopes of Mount Sharp, the central peak within the Gale Crater. As the rover moves higher along this formation, it has been taking drill samples so that it might look into Mars’ ancient past. Combined with existing evidence that water existed within the crater, this would have provided favorable conditions for microbial life.
And according to the most recent findings announced by the Curiosity science team, the upper levels of the mountain are rich in minerals that are not found at the lower levels. These findings reveal much about how the Martian environment has changed over the past few billion years, and are further evidence that Mars may have once been habitable.
The findings were presented at the Fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), which began on Monday, Dec. 12th, in San Fransisco. During the meeting, John Grotzinger – the Fletcher Jones Professor of Geology at Caltech and the former Project Scientist for the Curiosity mission – and other members of Curiosity’s science team shared what the rover discovered while digging into mineral veins located in the higher, younger layers of Mount Sharp.
To put it simply, mineral veins are a great way to study the movements of water in an area. This is due to the fact that veins are the result of cracks in layered rock being filled with chemicals that are dissolved in water – a process which alters the chemistry and composition of rock formations. What the rover found was that at higher layers hematite, clay minerals and boron are more abundant than what has been observed at lower, older layers.
These latest findings paint a complex picture of the region, where groundwater interactions led to clay-bearing sediments and diverse minerals being deposited over time. As Grotzinger explained, this kind of situation is favorable as far as habitability is concerned:
“There is so much variability in the composition at different elevations, we’ve hit a jackpot. A sedimentary basin such as this is a chemical reactor. Elements get rearranged. New minerals form and old ones dissolve. Electrons get redistributed. On Earth, these reactions support life.”
At present, no evidence has been found that microbial life actually existed on Mars in the past. However, since it first landed back in 2012, the Curiosity mission has uncovered ample evidence that conditions favorable to life existed billions of years ago. This is possible thanks to the fact that Mount Sharp consists of layered sedimentary deposits, where each one is younger than the one beneath it.
These sedimentary layers act as a sort of geological and environmental record for Mars; and by digging into them, scientists are able to get an idea of what Mars’ early history looked like. In the past, Curiosity spent many years digging around in the lower layers, where it found evidence of liquid water and all the key chemical ingredients and energy needed for life.
Since that time, Curiosity has climbed higher along Mount Sharp and examined younger layers, the purpose of which has been to reconstruct how the Martian environment changed over time. As noted, the samples Curiosity recently obtained showed greater amounts of hematite, clay minerals and boron. All of these provide very interesting clues as to what kinds of changes took place.
For instance, compared to previous samples, hematite was the most dominant iron oxide mineral detected, compared to magnetite (which is a less-oxidized form of iron oxide). The presence of hematite, which increases with distance up the slope of Mount Sharp, suggests both warmer conditions and more interaction with the atmosphere at higher levels.
The increasing concentration of this minerals – relative to magnetite at lower levels – also indicates that environmental changes have occurred where the oxidation of iron increased over time. This process, in which more electrons are lost via chemical exchanges, can provide the energy necessary for life.
In addition, Curiosity’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument has also noted increased (but still minute)) levels of borons within veins composed primarily of calcium sufate. On Earth, boron is associated with arid sites where water has evaporated, and its presence on Mars was certainly unexpected. No previous missions have ever detected it, and the environmental implications of it being present in such tiny amounts are unclear.
On the one hand, it is possible that evaporation within the lake bed created a boron-deposit deeper inside Mount Sharp. The movement of groundwater within could have then dissolved some of this, redepositing trace amounts at shallower levels where Curiosity was able to reach it. On the other hand, it could be that changes in the chemistry of clay-bearing deposits affected how boron was absorbed by groundwater and then redeposited.
Either way, the differences in terms of the composition of upper and lower levels in the Gale Crater creates a very interesting picture of how the local environment changed over time:
“Variations in these minerals and elements indicate a dynamic system. They interact with groundwater as well as surface water. The water influences the chemistry of the clays, but the composition of the water also changes. We are seeing chemical complexity indicating a long, interactive history with the water. The more complicated the chemistry is, the better it is for habitability. The boron, hematite and clay minerals underline the mobility of elements and electrons, and that is good for life.”
It seems that with every discovery, the long history of “Earth’s Twin” is becoming more accessible, yet more mysterious. The more we learn about it past and how it came to be the cold, desiccated place we know today, the more we want to know!