Curiosity Captures Spectacular Views of the Changing Landscape of Mars

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover captured this view of layered and crusty rocks that are believed to have formed in an ancient stream or small pond. The six images that make up this mosaic were taken using Curiosity’s Mast Camera, or Mastcam, on June 2, 2022, on Sol 3,492, or Sol. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

For the past year, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has been traveling through a transition region from an area rich in mud to an area filled with a salty mineral called sulfate. While the science team targeted the mud-rich region and the sulfate-rich region for clues they could each provide about Mars’ watery past, the transition region proved to be scientifically fascinating as well. In fact, this shift may provide a record of a major shift in the Martian climate billions of years ago that scientists are only just beginning to understand.

Clay minerals formed when lakes and streams rippled across the Gale Crater, depositing sediment at what is now the base of Mount Sharp, the 3-mile-high (5 kilometer) mountain whose slopes Curiosity has ascended since 2014. Higher on the mountain in the transitional region, shows Curiosity notes that the streams dried up into trains and sand dunes that formed over the lake sediments.

“We no longer see the lake sediments that we saw years ago low on Mount Sharp,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “Instead, we’re seeing a lot of evidence of drier climates, like dry sand dunes that sometimes had currents circling. That’s a big change from lakes that lasted probably for millions of years before that.”

As the rover climbs higher through the transition zone, it detects less mud and more sulfate. Curiosity will soon dig up the last rock sample it will take in this area, providing a more detailed glimpse into the changing mineral composition of these rocks.

Unique geological features also stand out in this region. The ridges in the area likely began in a dry environment of large, windswept sand dunes, which hardened into rock over time. Littered in the remains of these dunes are other water-borne sediments, probably deposited in ponds or small streams that were once spun between the dunes. These deposits now appear as mounds of unstable layers resistant to erosion, such as those called “The Prow”.

What makes the story even richer and more complex is the knowledge that there have been multiple periods when groundwater has been ebbing and flowing over time, leaving a jumble of puzzle pieces for Curiosity scientists to piece together into a precise timeline.

Ten years later, I’m strong

Curiosity will celebrate its 10th anniversary on Mars in August. 5. While the rover’s age appears after a decade of exploration, nothing has stopped it from continuing its ascent.

Curiosity Captures Spectacular Views of the Changing Landscape of Mars

NASA’s Curiosity Mars probe captured this 360-degree panoramic image near a location called Sierra Maigualida on May 22, 2022. The panorama consists of 133 individual images captured by Curiosity’s Mast Camera, or Mastcam. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

On June 7, Curiosity went into safe mode after detecting a temperature reading in the instrument control box inside the rover body was much warmer than expected. Safe mode occurs when a spacecraft senses a problem and automatically shuts down all but the most important functions so that engineers can assess the situation.

Although Curiosity exits safe mode and returns to normal operations after two days, JPL engineers are still analyzing the exact cause of the problem. They suspect safe mode is on after the temperature sensor provided an inaccurate measurement, and there is no indication that it would significantly affect rover operations since backup temperature sensors can ensure that electronics inside the rover’s body do not overheat.

The aluminum wheels of the vehicle also show signs of damage. On June 4, the engineering team ordered Curiosity to take new pictures of its wheels – something it was doing every 3,281 feet (1,000 metres) to check their overall health.

The team discovered that the left middle wheel had damaged one of its pants, the meander stomping along Curiosity’s wheels. This particular wheel has four broken pants, so five of her 19 pants are broken.

Curiosity Captures Spectacular Views of the Changing Landscape of Mars

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has picked up evidence of layers of wind-blown sand that have been swept away at a site called Las Claritas. This image was taken using Curiosity’s Mast Camera, or Mastcam, on May 19, 2022, which is Sol day 3,478, or the first day of the mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The previously damaged pants have grabbed attention online lately because some of the metallic “skin” between them appears to have fallen off the steering wheel in the past few months, leaving a gap.

The team decided to increase the wheel shots to every 1,640 feet (500 metres) — back to the original tempo. The traction control algorithm slowed wheel wear enough to justify increasing the distance between shots.

“We’ve demonstrated through ground testing that we can drive safely on wheel rims if necessary,” said Megan Lane, Curiosity project manager at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “If we get to the point where one wheel has broken the majority of its pants, we can take a controlled break to get rid of the remaining pieces. Given recent trends, it seems unlikely that we will need to take such action. The wheels hold together well, providing the traction we need to continue our climb. “.

Curiosity Mars Rover turns away from ‘alligator tail’ rocks

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