NASA’s Curiosity rover has reached a Martian ridge where water has left an accumulation of debris | Albiseyler

NASA's Curiosity rover has reached a Martian ridge where water has left an accumulation of debris

NASA Curiosity captured this 360-degree panorama parked beneath the Gediz Vallis Ridge (seen at right), a formation that preserves a record of one of the last wet periods observed on this part of Mars. After previous attempts, the rover finally reached the ridge on the fourth attempt. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The Gediz Vallis Ridge, believed to be a remnant of powerful ancient debris flows, is a long-sought target by the rover’s science team.

Three billion years ago, in the middle of one of the last wet periods MarsStrong debris flows carried mud and boulders down the side of the massive mountain. The debris spread into a fan that was later wind-disturbed into a towering ridge, preserving an interesting record of the Red Planet’s watery past.

Curiosity’s Journey to the Ridge

Now, after three tries, NASAThe Curiosity Mars rover reached the ridge and captured the formation in a 360-degree panoramic mosaic. Previous forays were thwarted by sharp-edged “gator-back” rocks and overly steep slopes. After one of the most difficult climbs the mission has ever faced, Curiosity arrived on August 14 in an area where it could study the long-sought ridge with its 7-foot (2-meter) robotic arm.

Drag your cursor over this 360-degree video to explore the view captured by NASA’s Curiosity Mastcam while the Mars rover was stopped next to the Gediz Vallis Ridge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/UC Berkeley

“After three years, we finally found a place on Mars that allowed Curiosity to safely reach a steep ridge,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “It’s an exciting opportunity to reach out and touch rocks that have been transported from places high up on Mount Sharp that we’ll never be able to visit with Curiosity.”

Discoveries at Mount Sharp

The rover has been climbing the lower 3 miles (5 kilometers) of Mount Sharp since 2014, discovering evidence of ancient lakes and streams along the way. Different layers of the mountain represent different eras of Martian history. As Curiosity climbs, scientists are learning more about how the landscape has changed over time. Gediz Vallis Ridge was one of the last features on the mountain to form, making it one of the youngest geologic timestamps Curiosity will see.

Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater, Mars

Mount Sharp rises about 5.5 km above the floor of Gale Crater. This oblique view of Mount Sharp is derived from a combination of elevation and image data from three Mars orbiters. The view is towards the southeast. Gale Crater is 96 miles (154 kilometers) in diameter. Acknowledgments: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS

Rare insights and future endeavors

The rover spent 11 days on the ridge, busily photographing and studying the composition of dark rocks that apparently came from elsewhere on the mountain. Debris flows that helped form the Gediz Vallis ridge carried these rocks—and others lower on the ridge, some as large as cars—down from strata high on Mount Sharp. These rocks provide a rare glimpse of material from the upper mountain that Curiosity can examine.

ChemCam Mosaic of Gediz Vallis Ridge

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used its ChemCam instrument to image boulders on the Gediz Vallis ridge on November 15-17, 2022, between 3,653 and 3,655 Martian days, or mission sols. These boulders are thought to have been washed into the debris in the distant past and are likely some of the youngest evidence of liquid water that Curiosity will see on Mount Sharp. Acknowledgments: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/CNRS/IRAP/IAS/LPG

The rover’s arrival at the ridge also gave scientists their first close-up views of the eroded remains of a geological feature known as a debris flow fan, where debris flowing down the slope spreads out into a fan shape. Debris flow fans are common on both Mars and Earth, but scientists are still learning how they form.

“I can’t imagine what it would be like to witness these events,” said geologist William Dietrich, a member of the mission team University of California, Berkeley, who helped guide Curiosity’s study of the ridge. “Huge rocks were torn from the mountain high above, hurled down, and spread out into the fan below. The results of this campaign will force us to better explain such events not only on Mars, but even on Earth, where they are a natural hazard.”

NASA Curiosity Mars Rover Route Lower Mount Sharp

The path taken by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover as it passes through the base of Mount Sharp is shown here as a pale line. Different parts of the mountain are marked by color; Curiosity is currently near the upper end of the Gediz Vallis ridge, shown in red. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/University of Arizona/JHUAPL/MSSS/USGS Astrogeology Science Center

On August 19, the rover’s Mastcam captured 136 images of the scene at Gediz Vallis Ridge, which when stitched together provide a 360-degree view of the surroundings. This panorama shows Curiosity’s path along the mountainside, including the “Marker Band Valley,” where evidence of an ancient lake was discovered.

While scientists are still poring over images and data from the Gediz Vallis ridge, Curiosity has already turned to its next challenge: finding a way to the channel above the ridge so that scientists can learn more about how and where water once flowed down Mount Sharp.

More about the mission

Curiosity was built by JPL, which is managed by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California. JPL is leading the mission on behalf of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

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