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NASA : NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover Arrives at Martian Mountain
This image shows the old and new routes of NASA's
Mars Curiosity rover and is composed of color strips taken by the High
Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance
Orbiter. This new route provides excellent access to many features in the Murray
Formation. And it will eventually pass by the Murray Formation's namesake,
Murray Buttes, previously considered to be the entry point to Mt.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
Mars Curiosity rover has reached the Red Planet's Mount Sharp, a
Mount-Rainier-size mountain at the center of the vast Gale Crater and the rover
mission's long-term prime destination.
"Curiosity now will begin a new chapter from an already outstanding
introduction to the world," said Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science
Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "After a historic and innovative
landing along with its successful science discoveries, the scientific sequel is
Curiosity’s trek up the mountain will begin with an examination of the
mountain's lower slopes. The rover is starting this process at an entry point
near an outcrop called Pahrump Hills, rather than continuing on to the
previously-planned, further entry point known as Murray Buttes. Both entry
points lay along a boundary where the southern base layer of the mountain meets
crater-floor deposits washed down from the crater’s northern rim.
"It has been a long but historic journey to this Martian mountain,” said
Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of
Technology in Pasadena. “The nature of the terrain at Pahrump Hills and just
beyond it is a better place than Murray Buttes to learn about the significance
of this contact. The exposures at the contact are better due to greater
After 2 years and nearly 9 kilometers of driving,
NASA’s Mars Curiosity has arrived at the base of Mount Sharp.
The decision to head uphill sooner, instead of continuing to Murray Buttes,
also draws from improved understanding of the region’s geography provided by the
rover’s examinations of several outcrops during the past year. Curiosity
currently is positioned at the base of the mountain along a pale, distinctive
geological feature called the Murray Formation. Compared to neighboring
crater-floor terrain, the rock of the Murray Formation is softer and does not
preserve impact scars, as well. As viewed from orbit, it is not as well-layered
as other units at the base of Mount Sharp.
Curiosity made its first close-up study last month of two Murray Formation
outcrops, both revealing notable differences from the terrain explored by
Curiosity during the past year. The first outcrop, called Bonanza King, proved
too unstable for drilling, but was examined by the rover’s instruments and
determined to have high silicon content. A second outcrop, examined with the
rover's telephoto Mast Camera, revealed a fine-grained, platy surface laced with
While some of these terrain differences are not apparent in observations made
by NASA's Mars orbiters, the rover team still relies heavily on images taken by
the agency’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to plan Curiosity’s travel routes
and locations for study.
For example, MRO images helped the rover team locate mesas that are over 60
feet (18 meters) tall in an area of terrain shortly beyond Pahrump Hills, which
reveal an exposure of the Murray Formation uphill and toward the south. The team
plans to use Curiosity's drill to acquire a sample from this site for analysis
by instruments inside the rover. The site lies at the southern end of a valley
Curiosity will enter this week from the north.
Though this valley has a sandy floor the length of two football fields, the
team expects it will be an easier trek than the sandy-floored Hidden Valley,
where last month Curiosity's wheels slipped too much for safe crossing.
Curiosity reached its current location after its route was modified earlier
this year in response to excessive wheel wear. In late 2013, the team realized a
region of Martian terrain littered with sharp, embedded rocks was poking holes
in four of the rover’s six wheels. This damage accelerated the rate of wear and
tear beyond that for which the rover team had planned. In response, the team
altered the rover’s route to a milder terrain, bringing the rover farther south,
toward the base of Mount Sharp.
"The wheels issue contributed to taking the rover farther south sooner than
planned, but it is not a factor in the science-driven decision to start
ascending here rather than continuing to Murray Buttes first," said Jennifer
Trosper, Curiosity Deputy Project Manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
(JPL) in Pasadena, California. "We have been driving hard for many months to
reach the entry point to Mount Sharp," Trosper said. "Now that we've made it,
we'll be adjusting the operations style from a priority on driving to a priority
on conducting the investigations needed at each layer of the mountain."
After landing inside Gale Crater in August 2012, Curiosity fulfilled in its
first year of operations its major science goal of determining whether Mars ever
offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. Clay-bearing
sedimentary rocks on the crater floor, in an area called Yellowknife Bay,
yielded evidence of a lakebed environment billions of years ago that offered
fresh water, all of the key elemental ingredients for life, and a chemical
source of energy for microbes.
NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Project continues to use Curiosity to assess
ancient habitable environments and major changes in Martian environmental
conditions. The destinations on Mount Sharp offer a series of geological layers
that recorded different chapters in the environmental evolution of Mars.
The Mars Exploration Rover Project is one element of NASA's ongoing
preparation for a human mission to the Red Planet in the 2030s. JPL built
Curiosity and manages the project and MRO for NASA's Science Mission Directorate