The Martian Landscape

Just about every news source in the world featured amazing photos of the Martian landscape earlier this week taken by the Mars rover Curiosity. NASA has sent the $2.5 billion rover to the Red Planet in hopes of getting a better sense of the history of water there and whether the planet could ever have hosted life. Using its 100mm telephoto lens, Curiosity captured photos of an “intriguing geological ‘unconformity,'” reported BBC News, which may provide more clues about how watery its past was.

Above we see an image taken by Curiosity’s mast camera, which highlights the geology of 5-km-high Mount Sharp, a mountain that actually sits within the Gale Crater, the spot where Curiosity landed. NASA writes that earlier satellite coverage of the area, below the white dots, indicated the area bears “hydrated minerals,” perhaps the residue of water that once existed on the planet. However, earlier satellite overpasses weren’t able to capture the incline above the white dots, which, interestingly doesn’t contain these minerals.

According to NASA, this “provides independent evidence that the absence of hydrated minerals on the upper reaches of Mount Sharp may coincide with a very different formation environment than lower on the slopes. The train of white dots may represent an ‘unconformity,’ or an area where the process of sedimentation stopped.” 

Another shot below shows just how similar parts of Mount Sharp are to the Grand Canyon in the western U.S., which was carved by ancient rivers. 

The next stop for the rover will be Glenelg (who names these places?), some 400 meters to the east, which is an “intersection” between different rich geological zones.

And now that NASA has gotten Curiosity warmed up, the sturdy, plutonium-powered rover will make its way to the base of Mount Sharp over the course of the next six months or so. (Interestingly, the rover is powered by plutonium from an old Soviet nuclear weapons plant).

At the base of the Mount Sharp, the rover will fire “subatomic particles neutrons at the surface to examine levels of hydrogen- and hydroxyl-containing minerals that could hint at Mars’ prior water-rich history,” writes BBC News. Another tool in its extensive kit is the ChemCam, a laser that will be used to vapourize rocks and then chemically examine the vapour. To get a closer look at the atomic makeup of rocks and soils, Curiosity will scoop up Martian materials and move them to an internalized lab for examination. 

On Monday, the rover received and then sent back a recorded message by NASA administrator Charles Bolden. Then, a song by was broadcast from Mars as part of an educational event. That marks the “first voice recording to be sent from another planet.”  

See more images and learn more about what NASA is after in their tour of the Red Planet.

Image credits: NASA

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