Paparazzo Curiosity Snaps Photos Of Martian Rock Stars

Curiosity took this photo of several rocks with fascinating, wind-sculpted textures at the Rocknest site on Oct. 24, 2012. Click this and the other images for large versions. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Hungry for fresh photos from Mars, I went digging around the Curiosity mission’s raw image archive this weekend and found some amazing portraits of rocks. The rover remains parked next to a ripple of sand at the “Rocknest” site as it chemically analyzes samples of Martian soil scooped up earlier this week.

Two very pitted, chunky-textured Mars rocks photographed by Curiosity’s mastcam. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Intense erosion by wind-blown sand is apparent in some of the rocks as fluting, parallel grooves and severe abrasion. We see similar markings on boulders subjected to steady, same-direction winds here on Earth. We’ve all noticed trees that grow bent in one direction from prevailing winds, often from the west. Steady, uni-directional winds leave their mark in many ways.

Closeup of the 2-inch trough left in the sand by Curiosity’s scoop. A Mars sand sample is being analyzed inside the rover this week. Mars’ soil, which is largely composed of eroded volcanic rock, is covered in a powdery layer of reddish oxidized iron dust that formed when the planet was wetter than it is now. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scientists hypothesize that Mars was much warmer and wetter several billion years ago. Rivers likely coursed across its surface including the now dry Peace Vallis, an ancient stream that winds down the wall of Gale Crater where Curiosity sits. Over geologic time, flowing river watercourses and lapping waves from lakes or oceans erode rocks into sand and clay. When the rivers went dry, sand would have been picked up by the whistling Martian winds and blown across the landscape, abrading rocks. By studying erosion patterns in the boulders pictured, scientists can learn something about the prevailing winds of the planet’s long-ago climate.

These rocks, photographed on Oct. 19, 2012, show evidence of layering, possibly from ancient lava flows. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

How old are the grooves and pits we’re seeing? Hard to say without further study, but using the meteorology instruments on Curiosity, scientists can compare current wind speeds and wind direction with that inferred from the rocks to see whether they’re related or not.

More fluting on rocks likely carved by windblown sand. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Even though “they’re only rocks” it’s satisfying to get one’s nose right into the Martian landscape. They photos are high enough quality it’s not hard to imagine being there provided you bundle up. Although it’s still late winter at Gale Crater, air temperatures as measured by Curiosity’s Remote Environment Monitoring Station (REMS) have passed the freezing mark on more than half of the Martian days. The hottest temperature recorded to date is 43 degrees F, four degrees warmer than my thermometer registered at noon today and warmer than expected for Martian late winter. At this rate highs could reach into the 60s or 70s by summer.

A wind-sand chiseled boulder in Death Valley (left) and a similar wind-worked rock on Mars photographed by the Spirit Rover. Rocks sculpted by wind-blown sand or ice are called ventifacts. Credit: Daniel Mayer (left) and NASA

Just make sure you get your rock hunting done in daylight. Temperatures drop rapidly after sundown in the planet’s thin atmosphere, bottoming out around -94 F at dawn at Rocknest. On Tuesday Oct. 30 starting at 1:30 p.m. (CDT) NASA will host a live media teleconference with the latest update from the Curiosity mission. Hopefully mission science staff will have information on the composition of the first soil sample.

7 Responses

  1. lynn

    Hi Bob

    Now please don’t roll your eyes around when I ask this question to you AGAIN. But I don’t know if you ever remember the private e- mail I sent you away back in June this year it was about one of your readers that wrote to you asking if the story that was printed in Universe Today about that guy who was supposed to have found that green glowing asteroid on google sky was real and you kindly replied back to me saying it wasn’t true, well this has stuck in my head from away back then and what I can’t get round in my head is why has people that have typed in the co ordinates seeing the same thing so what I am trying to work out is if that isn’t an asteroid what else can it be and even if it was well surely it would of been here by now anyway, would that be right. I’m so sorry asking you alk this again Bob but I am petrified of asteroids they scare me so much and I don’ know who else to turn to, but even if it had been there surely we would all have known about it now.

    Thanks Bob i’m just so scared and would just loved to know what it could of been if its not an asteroid or if it had been going by his pics surely we would have seen it all by now since he posted that in June. Thanks Bob and yeh I know i’ m a pest but U do say nice things about you too :-).

    1. astrobob

      It’s some sort of artifact that was introduced in the handling and stitching of numerous databases to create Google Sky. If it were an asteroid it would be extremely large and close to take up as much sky as it does (approx. 30 arc seconds which is bigger than Mars ever gets in a telescope from Earth). Something that large would also be very bright and easily discovered. It wasn’t. Also, if were that big it would be moving quickly and show up in a time exposure photo as a streak or trail not a sharply-defined object. The picture it’s in includes very faint stars and galaxies implying a fairly long exposure. It’s way too sharp.

  2. azzteke

    “Paparazzi Curiosity”
    They didn’t teach you the difference between Singular and Plural at school?

    1. astrobob

      I went with common usage but you’re right, ideally it should be “paparazzo”. OK – I was going to let myself off with poetic license but since you mentioned it, it’s been driving me nuts, so I had to make the change.

  3. lynn

    Ok thanks Bob looking forward to see what you will write about these artifacts but as long as its not something that scares me and as long as I knew that ‘asteroid’ wasn’t real as some of it is quite confusing as a lot of people say the image’s in google sky are years old and others say there not and they are not in real time but still images and that you can add on your own data to these pics. I just hate people that try and frighten people by putting these silly videos on youtube and gullible people like me fall for there lies. Thanks Bob 🙂

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