Curiosity rover takes its first taste of Martian mountain
Friday, September 26, 2014, 12:48 PM - It's an exciting time for NASA's Curiosity rover team! Sitting at the base of Mount Sharp, the rover has now drilled into her first rock there and is preparing to ingest a sample of it for study. The data she returns from it will finally, after three years of waiting, give team scientists a look at the mountain whose "scientific allure" drew them to send Curiosity to that part of the planet in the first place.
It's been over two Earth years since Curiosity set wheels on the Martian surface and the rover made headlines last week by finally reaching the base of Aeolis Mons, also known as Mt. Sharp. This large mountain, which lies at the centre of the crater the rover landed in, is the primary target of its mission on the Red Planet. While some impact craters - known as 'complex craters' - can have a central peak that forms as the edges of the crater collapse and force the middle to be pushed upwards, Mt. Sharp is different. Based on observations from orbit, it is composed of many different layers of sediments, thus it more likely formed as sediments that were laid down in the crater long ago were gradually eroded away over time by water and wind.
"This drilling target is at the lowest part of the base layer of the mountain, and from here we plan to examine the higher, younger layers exposed in the nearby hills," Curiosity Deputy Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada said in a JPL news release. "This first look at rocks we believe to underlie Mount Sharp is exciting because it will begin to form a picture of the environment at the time the mountain formed, and what led to its growth."
At the base of the mountain, Curiosity is at the level of the one of the oldest sediment layers that's currently exposed to the surface, and as she works here way up the side of the mountain from here, the layers will be younger and younger. Drilling each of these layers will give the scientists here on Earth a geologic timeline of Mt. Sharp, and a picture of how the environment changed over time. Although it's still speculation at the moment, the rover could even find organic compounds preserved in the layers, which would hint at the possibility of past life on Mars.
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Curiosity Mars Rover's Approach to 'Pahrump Hills'
This southeastward-looking vista from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the "Pahrump Hills" outcrop and surrounding terrain seen from a position about 20 meters northwest of the outcrop.