NASA’s Curiosity Rover reaches Mars Ridge, where water left debris piled up | Brasarr

NASA's Curiosity Rover reaches Mars Ridge, where water left debris piled up

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

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

Three billion years ago, in the middle of one of the last wet periods Mars, powerful debris flows carried mud and boulders down the side of a giant mountain. The debris spread into a fan that was later eroded by the wind into a towering ridge, preserving an intriguing record of the Red Planet’s watery past.

Curiosity’s Journey to the Ridge

Now, after three attempts, NASA‘s Curiosity Mars rover has reached the ridge and is capturing the formation in a 360-degree panoramic mosaic. Previous forays were hampered by knife-cut “gator-back” cliffs and too-steep slopes. After one of the most difficult climbs the mission has ever faced, Curiosity arrived on August 14 at an area where it could study the long-sought ridge with its 7-foot (2-meter) robotic arm.

Drag your cursor around this 360-degree video to explore the view captured by the Mastcam on NASA’s Curiosity 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 access the steep ridge,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “It’s a thrill to be able to reach out and touch rocks that were 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 part of the 5-kilometer-high Mount Sharp since 2014, discovering evidence of ancient lakes and streams along the way. Different layers of the mountain represent different eras of Mars’ history. As curiosity grows, researchers learn more about how the landscape changed over time. The Gediz Vallis Ridge was among the last features on the mountain to form, making it one of the youngest geologic time capsules that Curiosity will see.

Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater, Mars

Mount Sharp rises about 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) 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 orbits. The view faces southeast. Gale Crater is 96 miles (154 kilometers) in diameter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS

Rare insights and future endeavors

The rover spent 11 days on the ridge, where he was busy taking pictures and studying the composition of dark rocks that clearly originated elsewhere on the mountain. The debris flows that helped form the Gediz Vallis Ridge carried these rocks—and others further down the ridge, some as large as cars—down from layers high on Mount Sharp. These rocks provide a rare glimpse of material from the upper mountain that Curiosity can examine.

ChemCam mosaic of the Gediz Vallis Ridge

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used its ChemCam instrument to view boulders on the Gediz Vallis Ridge on Nov. 15-17, 2022, the 3,653. to 3,655. Mars days, or sols, of the mission. These boulders are believed to have been washed down in a debris flow in the ancient past and are likely some of the youngest evidence of liquid water that Curiosity will see on Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/CNRS/IRAP/IAS/LPG

The rover’s arrival at the ridge has also given scientists the first close-up images of the eroded remains of a geological feature known as a debris flow fan, where debris flowing down the slope spreads out in 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 have been like to witness these events,” said geologist William Dietrich, a mission team member at University of California, Berkeley, who has helped lead Curiosity’s investigation of the ridge. “Giant rocks were torn out of the mountain high above, tumbled downhill and scattered in a fan below. The results of this campaign will push us to better explain such events, not just on Mars, but even on Earth, where they form a natural hazard.”

NASA Curiosity Mars Rover Route Lower Mount Sharp

The route taken by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover while passing through the lower part of Mount Sharp is shown here as a pale line. Different parts of the mountain are labeled by color; Curiosity is currently near the upper end of the Gediz Vallis Ridge, which is 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 a scene at the Gediz Vallis Ridge that, when stitched together into a mosaic, provide a 360-degree view of the surrounding area. Visible in that panorama is the path Curiosity took up the mountainside, including through the “Marker Band Valley,” where evidence of an ancient lake was discovered.

While scientists are still poring over the images and data from Gediz Vallis Ridge, Curiosity has already turned to its next challenge: finding a way to the channel above the ridge so 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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