NASA’s Curiosity rover is climbing a mountain in the middle of Gale Crater on Mars and helping researchers better understand how the mountain may have formed over three billion years ago.
Despite the observations of surface rovers, there remains a lot more mystery than knowledge about the Red Planet. Now researchers are hoping to gain new insight into how a particularly interesting feature may have formed. NASA is sending its Curiosity rover up a mountain, not simply because it is there but because the way it formed seems to be so peculiar.
Researchers believe that the 96-mile depression along the Martian equator called Gale Crater was formed from a meteor impact some 3.5 billion years ago, during a time when meteors of all sizes were pummeling Mars, Earth, and other bodies in our inner solar system. What is remarkable about Gale Crater, however, is that smack in the middle of it sits three-mile high mountain that seems to consist of layer after layer of sedimentary rock.
Experts debate as to how the mountain was formed, and that is where NASA researchers are hoping Curiosity comes in. Gale Crater was specifically chosen for a Curiosity landing two years ago. Now, the scientists are sending the compact car-sized mobile laboratory up the mountain so that they can gather samples and observations at multiple stops along the way.
Sedimentary rock contains information about a site in a way that the pages of a book tell a story. Each layer holds information about the time when it formed, and the researchers at the controls of Curiosity hope that the information the rover gathers tells the story of how the once warmer and wetter Mars turned cold and dry.
The mountain itself is officially called Aeolis Mons, but Curiosity mission scientist refer to it as Mount Sharp, a name that pays tribute to the late Robert P. Sharp, a prominent Mars expert who worked at the California Institute of Technology before he died in 2004.
“The fact we have this mountain, and it’s not all the same stuff — the mineralogy is changing from one layer to the next — that gives us the hope that maybe those minerals are recording the interaction of the water and the atmosphere and the rocks,” said Ralph E. Milliken, a geologist at Brown University who earlier demonstrated the possible presence of water in the history of Gale Crater.
Milliken and others suggest that the mountain was formed by winds that slowly emptied Gale Crater of sediments that once filled it to its brim. Some of the sediments hardened and remained behind while the wind cleared out the rest.
“We’re finally beginning the scientific exploration of Mount Sharp,” said Milliken. “That was the goal.”