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Curiosity faces the mountains

A cropped section from Perseverance's 1st panorama
A cropped section from Perserverance’s 1st panorama.
Click for full image.

Though the present excitement over the spectacular images and sounds coming down from Perseverance is certainly warranted, what must be understood is that this rover is presently only at the beginning of its journey, and is thus sitting on relatively boring terrain, from a merely visual perspective. The scientists might be excited, but to the general public, all we really are seeing is a flat dusty desert with some scattered rocks on the floor. In the far distance can be seen some hills and mountains (Jezero Crater’s rim), but they are very far away.

Curiosity, which the press and the public has largely forgotten about, is actually just beginning what will likely be the most breath-taking part of its journey. As I noted in my last rover update last week, Curiosity is now at the very base of Mount Sharp, and is about to enter the mountain’s canyons and initial slopes. For its past eight-plus years of roving it has been on the flat floor of Gale Crater, followed by some weaving among the smallest foothills of Mount Sharp. The views have been intriguing and exciting from a research perspective, but hardly breath-taking from a picture-taking point of view.

That is now changing. The picture below, taken by Curiosity just this week, gives us a taste of what is to come.

Curiosity looks out at the mountain
Click for full image.

Overview map

The photo to the right, reduced to post here, shows a close-up of a small cliff, the base of which Curiosity presently sits. The rover is about to drill at this cliff’s base, getting its first samples of Mt. Sharp’s next geological layer, dubbed the sulfate unit. The rover is also taking a close look at the boulder perched at the top of that cliff to see if it is made up of the same material as the cliff itself. The answer to that question will help explain how that boulder got there.

The cliff face itself gives us a hint at utter complexity of the geological history that created Mount Sharp. Look at all the layers. Every single one of them represents a different climatic or geological event. They might represent single years, or eons of time. We don’t yet know.

The point is that as the rover works its way into the mountains beyond, we are likely to see a similar complexity on all cliff faces. Contemplate that for a moment as you look at the overview map to the right. The arrow points to the same distant butte seen on the horizon in the above photo, a little over a mile away. Curiosity is about to start its journey among similar buttes to the west, all of which will likely be as complex geologically as this small cliff in the foreground.

Understanding the past geological history of Mars will require disentangling the meaning of every single one of those layers. And we must expect similar geology across the entire planet.

There is a lot of exploring on Mars yet to do. Right now the rovers are having all the fun. Someday humans will have that chance.

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

 
Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.

11 comments

  • janyuary

    Questions, just to make sure I’m seeing it right:

    1. The top of the butte is about a mile away from where the camera sits, correct?

    2. The angle of the shot from which it was taken is on the map, as it charts the course of the Rover? The photo was taken from the location of the little white dot beneath the balloon?

    So far, Mars looks like a sci-fi movie director’s dream location … for actors! {^) Seriously, the photos are amazing and fascinating.

  • janyuary: To answer your questions:

    1. Yes.
    2. The rovers sits at the little white dot below the balloon. The rover however is not heading to that butte in the picture. It will actually retrace its steps going to the west and then turn south into the mountains, in a different canyon to the west. The route is shown in my past rover update, with a wide overview map with Curiosity sitting at this same spot.

  • Lee Stevenson

    I was born and raised in a part of England blessed with sandstone, limestone, and coal…. My father pointed out and explained the meaning and the timescales of the sedimentary layers, and how they had been pushed and pulled by tectonics, glaciers, and many other forces over the millennia.. what we see when looking at that outcrop is a record of the history of a world untouched by anything much more then weather for perhaps billions of years… Oh to go and have a bit of a tap around with my father’s rock hammer!
    Cheers for the update Bob… Anyone have any bets on when the first fossil will be found?

  • Lee Stevenson

    On a Perciverance related note…. I understand that the ESA foolishly have a much more restrictive attitude towards free use of the Mars express data… But here is a link to a stunning color image of Jezero crater and the delta…. ( I’m European, and I don’t know why… So no point in asking… By oh my, the image is stunning!)
    https://mars.nasa.gov/resources/25264/jezero-crater-as-seen-by-esas-mars-express-orbiter/

  • janyuary

    Thanks, Robert.

  • milt

    In answer to Lee’s question about finding fossils on Mars —

    Check out https://www.amazon.com/Fossil-Hunters-Guide-Mars/dp/1450720633

    If there is evidence, but you deliberately DO NOT LOOK AT IT, can it be said to “exist”?

    I am not saying that what Sir Charles believes he has found is “true” — although I have my suspicions — but why has NASA, at least thus far, been so adamant about not acknowledging it? (If we ignore it, it will go away…)

  • Milt: I have not looked at this thing, but then, I am also aware that the planetary scientists doing research on Mars have made many attempts to identify potential life. All have been weak finds, with enough uncertainty to eventually put aside.

    Based merely on the website’s claims, this guy in turn appears to belong to the Art Bell crowd, who sees a fossil under every strange rock. That is not how science is done.

  • wayne

    Art Bell
    July 1998
    Interview with “Single Seven” aka Jonathon
    https://youtu.be/DguFVJ7jBMw
    1:06:40
    (“a Rogue Agent from the year 2063 on a mission to save the future”)

  • Lee Stevenson

    @ milt, firstly, anyone speaking in capitals to re-enforce a point, other than in humour is ALWAYS wrong, secondly, wondering why NASA has not admitted to something you that just said you do not say is true, is kinda answered your own question…, ( a horrible sentence, but I think it’s correct!), Thirdly, I prefer to get my science from the sciencnticic community, which has at least some self oversight, rather than some guy selling DVDs.

  • Spectrum Shift

    I’m intrigued by the consistent thickness of the layers, especially in the lower half of the cliff. It will be interesting to find other similar layers on the journey into the higher hills.

  • DrC

    Someone took these photos and made an amazing video:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIN1wZDajjk

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