March 30, 2012

Martian Rover Heads Towards Crater-Mountain

Mars Science Laboratory mission will send its one-ton rover, Curiosity, to Mount Sharp, a martian mountain inside a crater. Once there, NASA researchers hope to learn more about the mountain, how it formed, and hopefully learn more about the history and geology of Mars.

Larger than any Rocky Mountain found in the Centennial State, Mount Sharp has been a subject of interest ever since it was discovered in the 1970s. It sits in a peculiar place; in the middle of a crater, and NASA researchers hope it will be a treasure trove of information about the red planet.

This August, Curiosity will be NASA´s first attempt to study Mount Sharp up close. They hope to land the rover right at the base of the mountain, an area of flat ground that until now would have been too narrow to be considered a safe target for touchdown. New, safe precision-landing innovations deployed on Curiosity will help the rover arrive in one piece, ready to study the crater-mountain.

NASA plans on the study to last upwards of two years as Curiosity explores the mountain and its surroundings. The mission´s international Project Science Group has decided to name the mountain “Mount Sharp” as a tribute to geologist Robert P. Sharp (1911-2004), a founder of planetary science.

Launched on November 26, 2011, the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is slated to land at the foot of Mount Sharp on the evening of August 5, 2012, ending a trip of 8 months and 10 days. While on Mars, Curiosity will investigate if life had ever or will ever inhabit Mars, as well as environmental conditions near the mountain.

Rising nearly 3 miles high (5 kilometers) from the landing target, Mount Sharp stands higher than Mount Rainier in Seattle. NASA researchers do not believe Mount Sharp is a rebound peak from the asteroid impact of Gale Crater.

The Gale Crater features a large mound of debris at its center, created as a result of impact.

There may be a rebound peak at its core, but the researchers have found hundreds of flat-lying geological layers, suggesting the mountain has a complex history of more than a billion years.

Much like the colorful formations found in the Grand Canyon, only twice as tall, Mount Sharp has stacks of layers resulting from a changing environment. As time passes, layers upon layers are deposited in these formations, younger on top of older. Parts of these layers are eventually eroded away, creating these colorful bands.

Other mountains and mesas on Mars´ surface may be like Mount Sharp in the ways they were created, and other craters have since been filled by debris or rock layers. Some of these examples, like Gale, have a mound higher than the crater itself, suggesting the mounds are what remains from a once completely filled crater. These craters pose a mystery to be solved to NASA researchers on how Mars´ environment evolves.

In a press release from NASA, Ken Edgett of Malin Space Sciences, principal investigator for one of Curiosity's instruments said, “This family of craters that were filled or buried and then exhumed or partially exhumed raises the question of what changed.”

”For a long time, sedimentary materials enter the crater and stay. Then, after they harden into rock, somehow the rock gets eroded away and transported out of the crater."

Some explanations for the way erosion shaped the mountain include swirling winds and wet periods, carving channels and pathways on the side of the mountain.


Image Caption: Curiosity, the big rover of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, will land in August 2012 near the foot of a mountain inside Gale Crater. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS)


On the Net: