Tag Archives: Mt. Sharp

Mars rover update: January 18, 2017


Curiosity's location, Sol 1582

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

In the past month, since my last rover update on December 22, 2016, Curiosity has begun moving again, carefully picking its way through the dune-filled flats in the foothills at the base of Mount Sharp. The route taken, shown on the image on the right, corresponds to the easternmost of the possible routes I noted in my November 14, 2016 update. This route is also the most direct route, which I think is smart considering that the rover’s life on Mars certainly uncertain and the higher they can climb the more geological information they will get.

I have also annotated the likely route into the near future, including a possible side trip to the base of the mesa up ahead. It appears to me that they are now a little more than halfway through the flats, with Mt. Sharp directly ahead, as shown by the panorama below, taken near the end of December. The goal is a canyon just out of view to the right of this panorama.

Looking at Mount Sharp

The flats the rover is presently traversing, and visible in the foreground of the panorama above, is strewn with dark sand that often piled into large sand dunes. Where the ground is exposed, it is made up of a scattering of pavement-like rocks. As noted in a press release yesterday, many of these flat rocks have polygonal cracks and boxwork similar to that seen in dried mud here on Earth, suggesting that this area was once wet and then dried. This geology helps confirm the theory of planetary scientists that Gale Crater was once filled with water that slowly evaporated away. As the rover climbs, it leaves the lakebed and begins to move through the lake’s various shores, each one older than the last.


For the overall context of Opportunity’s travels at Endeavour Crater, see Opportunity’s future travels on Mars.
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Curiosity heads for the dunes

Bagnold Dunes

The Curiosity science team has decided to send the rover towards some large active dunes, visible in its journey ahead up Mt. Sharp.

On its way to higher layers of the mountain where it is investigating how Mars’ environment changed billions of years ago, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover will take advantage of a chance to study some modern Martian activity at mobile sand dunes.

In the next few days, the rover will get its first close-up look at these dark dunes, called the “Bagnold Dunes,” which skirt the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. No Mars rover has previously visited a sand dune, as opposed to smaller sand ripples or drifts. One dune Curiosity will investigate is as tall as a two-story building and as broad as a football field. The Bagnold Dunes are active: Images from orbit indicate some of them are migrating as much as about 3 feet (1 meter) per Earth year. No active dunes have been visited anywhere in the solar system besides Earth.

In the image on the right the target dune is in the center beyond the dark ridge line in the foreground. It looks kind of like a pointed mesa. the dark sandy area on the center right just below the dark ridge line in the center of the image. (Newer images released today gave me a more correct idea of the dunes as shown in this image.) Click here to see the full image. The rover is presently about 200 yards from the first dune, and should reach it in the next few days.

Curiosity looks ahead at its future travels

The future terrain at Mt Sharp

Cool image time! The above image is a cropped version of a full resolution image taken by Curiosity of the terrain the rover will be traveling in the coming years.

I have also enhanced the contrast slightly to bring out the details. The terrain is rugged and very diverse, from rounded buttes to rocky outcrops.

Gravel and sand ripples fill the foreground [not shown in my cropped version above], typical of terrains that Curiosity traversed to reach Mount Sharp from its landing site. Outcrops in the midfield are of two types: dust-covered, smooth bedrock that forms the base of the mountain, and sandstone ridges that shed boulders as they erode. Rounded buttes in the distance contain sulfate minerals, perhaps indicating a change in the availability of water when they formed. Some of the layering patterns on higher levels of Mount Sharp in the background are tilted at different angles than others, evidence of complicated relationships still to be deciphered.

Traversing this rugged terrain will be a challenge but it is necessary to obtain data that will help decipher its origins. The immediate goal will be to reach the light brown terrain in the distance. In the full image, that region gently slopes upward to the left to the mountain summit, providing a route to the rover’s eventual goal.

Curiosity to begin climbing

Scientists have decided to begin Curiosity’s climb of Mount Sharp immediately rather than continue a planned traverse along the base of the mountain prior to heading uphill.

Curiosity’s trek up the mountain will begin with an examination of the mountain’s lower slopes. The rover is starting this process at an entry point near an outcrop called Pahrump Hills, rather than continuing on to the previously-planned, further entry point known as Murray Buttes. Both entry points lay along a boundary where the southern base layer of the mountain meets crater-floor deposits washed down from the crater’s northern rim.

The issues with Curiosity’s wheels also played a part in this decision.

Images from Curiosity have spotted some unexpected geology in Gale Crater.

Images from Curiosity have spotted some unexpected geology in Gale Crater.

A mosaic of high-definition images of Mount Sharp, the central peak dominating the landing site at Gale Crater, reveals tilted strata never before seen on Mars. The strata dip downwards at an angle close to that of the slope of the foothills of the 18,000-ft. tall mountain within which they are formed.

“The cool thing is the cameras have discovered something we were unaware of,” says mission chief scientist John Grotzinger. “This thing jumped out at us as being very different to what we expected,” he adds. Lying in the low-lying foothills beyond the dune field between the rover and the base of Mount Sharp, the inclined layers are a “spectacular feature” that could not be seen from orbit.

I think there are two reasons these tilted layers are puzzling scientists.
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NASA scientists in a battle with astronomers over who gets to name things on Vesta and Mars.

A rose by any other name: NASA scientists are in a battle with astronomers over who gets to name things on Vesta and Mars.

This is not a new problem. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has maintained its power over naming everything in space since the 1960s, even though the IAU has sometimes ignored the wishes of the actual discoverers and explorers and given names to things that no one likes. For example, even though the Apollo 8 astronauts wanted to give certain unnamed features on the Moon specific names, the IAU refused to accept their choices, even though those astronauts were the first human beings to reach another world and see these features up close.

Eventually, the spacefarers of the future are going to tell the IAU where to go. And that will begin to happen when those spacefarers simply refuse to use the names the IAU assigns.