Mars rover Curiosity arrives at sulphate-rich Mount Sharp • The Register

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NASA’s longtime Mars rover Curiosity has finally reached a destination it’s been heading towards since landing on the Red Planet a decade ago: Mount Sharp’s “sulfate unit”.

The region was first discovered by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been probing the Gale Crater region of Mars since 2006. NASA has flagged the area for study because of a high concentration of salty minerals that suggest it was once covered by water.

“Shortly after arrival, the rover discovered a variety of rock types and evidence of water in the past,” NASA said said. Signs included “popcorn-textured nodules” and minerals including magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts), calcium sulfate (gypsum), and sodium chloride (table salt).

Curiosity found the minerals by drilling into a rock named Canaima by NASA in the sulphate containing unit, which NASA said they initially struggled with concerns it was too heavy. Attempting to break it could have further damaged the rover’s arm due to worn brakes after taking 35 earlier drill samples, although the team said it was easier to pulverize than they initially thought.

Curiosity Canaima Well

Curiosity drill hole in Canaima

A long way

Curiosity has had its sights set on Mount Sharp since landing on Mars in 2012. The three-mile (5 km) high mountain can be seen in Curiosity’s photos of the Martian surface for yearsand in 2020 NASA began highlighting the rover’s journey up the mountain to the sulfate site.

In June was Curiosity close, but still had to negotiate the narrow “Paraitepuy Pass” where the pilots had to deal with hills that temporarily blocked Curiosity’s signal to orbiting satellites. Curiosity escaped the pass unscathed and with a series of photos that Curiosity’s scientific operations manager described as impressive.

“The sand ridges were beautiful,” said Elena Amador-French. “You see perfect little rover tracks on it. And the cliffs were beautiful – we got really close to the walls.”


Paraitepuy Pass, a treacherous region that Curiosity recently had to traverse

NASA hopes its research in the sulfate-rich unit will provide additional clues as to how Mars dried up and turned into the barren wasteland we think it is today. Curiosity found evidence of this earlier this year Methane-producing life may have existed on Marsand meanwhile, simulations of the environment around Mars may have provided a hypothesis that Curiosity can at least help solve.

Research led by the University of Arizona recently found that Mars’ environment was just enough different from Earth’s that early life – particularly the methane-emitting ones – could have cooled the planet by removing too much hydrogen, thinning the atmosphere and turning Mars into the inhospitable world that we know today .

NASA plans to spend the next few years exploring the sulfate-rich area, and has already done so new research goals keep in mind for the next stations of Curiosity. ®

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