Curiosity photographs layer cake hills on Mars

Wow, look at that layering! The base of Mt. Sharp taken with Curiosity’s 100 mm telephoto lens. These mounds and knobs are the rover’s main destination. They’re about 10 miles away. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity hasn’t been idle. NASA released several exciting new images beamed back from the surface of Mars by the happy rover. They’re high resolution, full-color photos taken with the wide angle 34mm and telephoto 100mm Mastcam cameras. Those are the ones perched on the 7 foot-high mast that sticks out of Curiosity like the head of one of those mean Mars saucers in the original 1953 “War of the Worlds” movie.

Curiosity’s Mastcams focus on a next scene ahead in this NASA illustration.

Some of the wonderful layering at the base of Mt. Sharp was almost certainly deposited by lakes, rivers or flood plains that once sloshed around inside the crater. Orbiting satellites have detected signs of clays and other water-fashioned rocks within these very foothills.

I can’t help but recall the South Dakota Badlands, where sediment deposition by water happened over a period of more than 40 million years beginning 69 million years ago.

Bands of red sandstone in these Badlands hills mark the course of ancient rivers. Credit: NPS photo by Larry McAfee

During the last half million years, water and wind erosion carved the Badlands, revealing layer upon layer of sediments stacked high like an uber-Viennese torte cake. Years ago, while hiking there with my wife, we came across the fossil teeth and jaws of extinct oreodonts eroding out of the mudstone mounds. What might be hidden in the Mars hills?

Volcanic ash, lava flows and windblown sands can also accumulate in beds, so Mt. Sharp’s layers likely have multiple origins just as the hills of the Badlands do.

While the hills look relatively close in the photo, it will take the rover many months to reach them as the team of rover drivers figure out a safe way through swales and sand dunes along the way. For additional new Mars pix, check out the Curiosity gallery.

New panorama made with Curiosity’s wide-angle Mastcam showing Mt. Sharp in the distance. Click to see the hi-res view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The moon looks pregnant lately. Tonight it will be only a few days from full and very close to a pair of bright binocular double stars in Capricornus the Sea Goat.

The view through binoculars tonight when the gibbous moon will hover only 1 degree from Beta Cap and 3 degrees from Alpha Cap. All three will fit in the same binocular field of view. Map created with Stellarium

All you have to do is point your glass at the moon and look one degree (two moon diameters) to its upper right to find 3rd magnitude Beta Capricorni.  Beta is a true double star with a 6th magnitude companion orbiting close by to the west.

Don’t expect to see either star move anytime soon – they’re so far apart they require nearly a million years to orbit about their common center of gravity.

Above Beta you’ll see the even wider pair Alpha 1 and Alpha 2. While this duo looks like a convincing double star, it’s really a fake. It only appears double because we see the two stars along the same line of sight. Alpha 2, the brighter star, is 109 light years away; Alpha 1 is over 6 times farther at 690 light years. Fake sure, but still pretty.

While the two Alphas should be easy to see even with the bright moon so close, Beta’s fainter companion will be harder. Holding the binoculars as steady as possible will help.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

4 thoughts on “Curiosity photographs layer cake hills on Mars

  1. Hi Bob, has there ever been a proof of flowing water on Mars yet? I’ve heard about lava that can make river-like chanels or lava fields looking like dissecation.
    I hope Curiosity finds peebles sometimes soon! This would be my proof for flowing water.

    • Sebastien,
      Yes, I’d say based on the evidence from the ground and in orbit, there’s a powerful case to be made that Mars once had flowing water. The Pathfinder Rover landed in a large outwash area that was the site of a ancient catastrophic flood. Many of the boulders there show evidence of having been tumbled and rolled about in a flood. There are also valleys in the walls of Gale Crater, where Curiosity sits, that were likely created by water flowing down the crater’s walls. There’s also some excellent evidence of possibly current flows here (http://1.usa.gov/RVHqI7) but no direct detection of flowing water yet. The Phoenix lander photographed what might be droplets of briny water that condensed on one of the vehicle’s struts. Water percolating through Martian soil is also what created the zillions of tiny, spherical “blueberries” that seem to litter the surface everywhere.

  2. hi Bob, certainly looks a lot like the sed rocks that I have seen here on the third rock out. this could get really interesting.

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