Sorry, been binging Luke Cage on Netflix. The hardy Martian rover continues to push forward. At least, for two more years. NASA’s Curiosity rover began its mission extension on October 1 and continues its trek up the 18,000-foot high Mount Sharp.
Curiosity recently wrapped up drilling in the ‘Murray Buttes’ area on lower Mount Sharp. And the view was stunning.
I can already hear the UFO community buzzing. Who took this picture of the rover? Sorry to disappoint E.T. fans. NASA stitched together several images taken by the MAHLI camera at the end of the rover’s arm.
The image taken above was captured at the same spot Curiosity used its drill to collect a rock-powder sample. The first attempt to drill came to an abrupt stop after a short-circuit issue. But four days later, September 18th, the rover successfully collected the sample. As it slowly cruised away, Curiosity delivered a portion of the sample to its internal laboratory for further study.
Curiosity gathered the sample at Quela last month.
So far, Curiosity has found the Murray formation consists mostly of mudstone, which formed as mud gathered at the bottom of ancient lakes. Curiosity scientists can use this as an indicator of how long water was present on Mars’ surface in this particular area.
“We will see whether that record of lakes continues further,” says Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada. “The more vertical thickness we see, the longer the lakes were present, and the longer habitable conditions existed here. Did the ancient environment change over time? Will the type of evidence we’ve found so far transition to something else?”
The rover team has already identified the next two targets past the Murray formation. Just over a mile ahead is a ridge home to material stuffed in iron-oxide mineral hematite. Past that, an exposure of clay-rich bedrock. Curiosity is off to a busy start in its new two-year campaign.
With a new two-year mission, Curiosity continues right where it left off. Investigating evidence of Mars’ ancient past (which was wetter) and how it contrasts with the arid landscape on the red planet today.
“Bidding goodbye to ‘Murray Buttes,’ Curiosity’s assignment is the ongoing study of ancient habitability and the potential for life,” said Curiosity Program Scientist Michael Meyer. “This mission, as it explores the succession of rock layers, is reading the ‘pages’ of Martian history — changing our understanding of Mars and how the planet has evolved. Curiosity has been and will be a cornerstone in our plans for future missions.”
The next two targets suggest different environments than what the rover observed in the Murray formation. Different, but still wet. Hematite and clay often form in wet environments.
“It will be interesting to see whether either or both were habitable environments,” Vasavada added.
1,520 days later and Curiosity is still going strong. Don’t be surprised if NASA approves another extension as the rover keeps traveling higher up the slopes of Mount Sharp. I don’t blame NASA for keeping most of the design for its Mars 2020 rover. Curiosity was expected to last two years. More than four years later and it’s still going strong. It’s no Opportunity (that rover is still going strong 12 years after landing), but it’s still impressive.