Curiosity basks in view of sunset, studies ancient valley

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – @BednarChuck

NASA’s Mars Rover Curiosity has also recently taken some time to enjoy the sights of the planet, taking a detour to explore an ancient valley and capturing an image of a Martian sunset that it sent back to Earth last week.

The event was captured by the rover using its Mast Camera on April 15, and shows the sun dipping beneath the horizon while blue-tinged skies are visible in the background. Curiosity took the images between dust storms, but some dust particles remained visible suspended in the higher parts of the atmosphere.

“The colors come from the fact that the very fine dust is the right size so that blue light penetrates the atmosphere slightly more efficiently,” explained science-team member Mark Lemmon from of Texas A&M University, who planned the rover’s observations.

“When the blue light scatters off the dust, it stays closer to the direction of the sun than light of other colors does,” he added. “The rest of the sky is yellow to orange, as yellow and red light scatter all over the sky instead of being absorbed or staying close to the sun.”

Taking a detour

Also last week, NASA revealed that Curiosity had taken a slight detour from its planned path to take a closer look at a hillside location that was home to an ancient valley. The valley had been carved out and refilled, and the rover conducted observations and collected data to see how it was formed.

Curiosity recently spent the past several months looking at the lowest levels of the mountain’s basal geological unit, the Murray formation, at an outcrop called Pahrump Hills. Afterwards, it set off en route to a site known as Logan Pass, where scientists believe they will be able to use contact-science instruments onto a darker geological unit for the first time ever.

Pictures taken along the route from Pahrump Hills toward Logan Pass revealed a feature which looked like a feature known as an incised valley fill, “which is where a valley has been cut into bedrock and then filled in with other sediment,” explained Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Thus, in late April, the team chose to change course “to investigate what cut into the mudstone bedrock, and what process filled it back in,” he added. “The fill material looks like sand. Was the sand transported by wind or by water? What were the relative times for when the mudstone formed, when the valley was cut into it, when the cut was filled in?” Will we ever know?! Stay tuned.

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