Curiosity Rover’s View Of Mt. Sharp Sharpens

Curiosity spies the layered flanks of Mt. Sharp in this photo taken on Sept. 7. Click for larger version. Contrast has been increased to show the layering more clearly. Credit: NASA

I enjoy dropping in on the Curiosity Rover’s raw image archive to see what’s up. Since NASA’s only updates now once every week or two, I like to know what the rover’s been eyeballing on Mars.

Oblique view of Mount Sharp made with images and elevation data from three Mars orbiters.  Gale Crater is 96 miles (154 kilometers) in diameter. The landing location (ellipse) and possible path (in blue) to Mt. Sharp are seen in the foreground. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS

The past couple weeks have seen Curiosity making steady progress toward its ultimate destination, the 3.4-mile-high (5.5 km) Mt. Sharp in the center of Gale Crater. The mountain is really a layer cake of deposits that were laid down in the crater after it was gouged out by an asteroid impact billions of years ago. Likely sources for the deposits are volcanic ash falls, windblown sand and dust and of course silts and sands settled out from ancient lakes and seas. Each layer is a page in the story of Mars’ climate and geological history.

A dark strip of potentially hazardous sand dunes lies between Curiosity and the base of Mt. Sharp. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA

After the longest one-day drive in the mission – 464 feet (141.5 meters) – the rover stopped on a crest with a vista called Panoramic Point on Sept. 8. From there it examined a section of exposed bedrock in detail and photographed its next destination, “Waypoint 1”. This more distant rock outcrop lies one-fifth of the way along the approximately 5.3-mile (8.6-kilometer) route to Mt. Sharp.

The rock formation informally called Darwin in the Waypoint 1 area photographed on Sept. 10. Darwin appears to expose layers of rock that could reveal the inner makeup and history of the plains on the floor of Gale Crater, including any flows of water that laid these materials down in the past. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

Five miles sounds like pleasant morning hike on the trail for you and I, but it’s a journey that will last almost a year for the rover. Hazards along the way include the dark strip of potentially dangerous sand dunes at the base of the mountains. The Spirit Rover got stuck in soft soil in May 2009 and despite mission controllers’ many attempts to free it, it remained trapped until the end. No one wants to see that happen to Curiosity.

A curious shallow trench photographed by Curiosity on Sept. 9. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

12 Responses

  1. caralex

    Bob, that shallow trench looks as if it was made recently! Do you think it would have been covered up by blowing sand by now, if it was ancient? Or has water been flowing much more recently than we think?

    1. astrobob

      Intriguing, isn’t it? It’s possible it may have once been covered but more recently blown free of sand by the wind. I wish I knew.

      1. caralex

        It would be nice if the one-way travellers found flowing water when they arrive there in the not-too-distant future!

        1. astrobob

          We can only hope, but chances are slim for surface water given the extremely low atmospheric pressure. Still, in the right places, maybe a short-lived seepage.

  2. billy

    If you click on the picture of the dark river, look at the sky. Particularly the corners. Are those the outline of some kind of Mars dust rainbow or sun dog? Also, for kicks, and I realize it’s probably just a digital artifact or anomoly, but that dark (black) figure in the distance sure could pass for a Martian Bigfoot.

    1. astrobob

      Nope. The corners are darkened because I increased the contrast in the image – just an artifact. And you’re right, the Martian Bigfoot is just an anomaly. Almost looks like a bad pixel since it’s sharper than the rest of the image.

  3. Giorgio Rizzarelli

    Re comments: The shallow trench was made by Bigfoot.

    Jokes apart, that of the trench is a very remarkable photo, congrats for your finding. Curious that JPL doesn’t publish it outside the raw photos. If it’s something recent, excluding seasonal water streams (which if I’m right are impossible at such equatorial latitude), the only natural cause I can think about is a “dust devil” wind tornado.

    Superb imagery.

      1. Giorgio Rizzarelli

        Thanx Bob. If the cause is natural of course. Can we exclude that the trench is provoked by the rover itself (like a wheel, the robotic arm or a part of it moving on the surface, etc)? I suppose you deduce this by comparing the trench with typical rover’s tracks?

        1. astrobob

          I’d say definitely natural. The rover’s tracks are very distinctive. It also looks rather “filled-in” and smoothed probably by wind-deposited dust.

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