NASA's Curiosity Rover reaches long-awaited region, captures 'awe-inspiring' pictures
Years before NASA's Curiosity rover landed on Mars in 2010, the space agency's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spotted a mineral-enriched region of Mount Sharp. Since then, scientists have been waiting to see the terrain up close.
Now, more than 10 years after Curiosity landed on Mars, the rover has finally arrived at the "sulfate-bearing unit," a "long-sought" region of Mount Sharp enriched with salty minerals, according to a press release by NASA. The region was believed to have formed as the Red Planet's climate was drying.
Upon landing, the rover discovered a very diverse array of rock types and signs of past water. Salty minerals such as magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt is one kind), calcium sulfate (including gypsum), and sodium chloride (ordinary table salt) were included. Scientists are hoping that the minerals will offer clues as to how and why Mars' climate changed from being more like Earth to the desert it is today.
Deciding the 36th drill sample
For the mission's 36th drill sample, the scientists chose a rock nicknamed "Canaima". The rover chose a percussive rotary drill at the end of its seven-foot (two-meter) arm to pulverize rock samples for analysis.
"As we do before every drill, we brushed away the dust and then poked the top surface of Canaima with the drill. The lack of scratch marks or indentations was an indication that it may prove difficult to drill," said Curiosity’s new project manager, Kathya Zamora-Garcia of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
The mission’s scientists will be analyzing portions of the sample with the Chemical and Mineralogy instrument and the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument.
The rover took more than 30 days to reach the sulfate-rich region
To reach the sulfate-rich region, Curiosity had to cruise through rough terrain, including, this past August, the sandy "Paraitepuy Pass". The rover took more than a month to safely navigate to reach its destination.
"While sharp rocks can damage Curiosity’s wheels (which have plenty of life left in them), and can be just as hazardous, potentially causing the rover to get stuck if the wheels lose traction. Rover drivers need to carefully navigate these areas," the press release said.
As the hills blocked Curiosity's view of the sky, the rover had to be careful while orienting itself in such a way that it could point its antennas toward Earth and communicate with orbiters passing overhead.
After it had positioned itself, the team received some of the "most inspiring" scenery of the mission, which the rover captured on August 14 using its Mast Camera, or Mastcam.
A new chapter brings new challenges
"We would get new images every morning and just be in awe," said Elena Amador-French of JPL, Curiosity’s science operations coordinator, who manages collaboration between the science and engineering teams. "The sand ridges were gorgeous. You see perfect little rover tracks on them. And the cliffs were beautiful – we got really close to the walls."
The rover, however, has a new set of challenges now. The rockier terrain makes it difficult for Curiosity to find a place where all six wheels are on stable ground. "The more and more interesting the science results get, the more obstacles Mars seems to throw at us," Amador-French said.
Curiosity and its team are ready to cruise through the next chapter.
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