Curiosity Captures Breathtaking Views of a Changing Landscape of Mars

NASA’s Curiosity rover captured this view of layered scaly rocks believed to have formed in an ancient creek bed or small lake. The six images that make up this mosaic were captured using Curiosity’s Mast Camera, or Mastcam, on June 2, 2022, the 3,492nd Martian day, or sun, of the mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

For the past year, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has been traveling through a transition zone from a region rich in clay to one filled with a salty mineral called sulfate. While the science team targeted both the clay-rich region and the sulfate-laden region for evidence that each can offer about Mars’ aquatic past, the transition zone is proving to be scientifically fascinating as well. In fact, this transition could provide the record of a major change in the climate of Mars billions of years ago that scientists are just beginning to understand.

Clay minerals formed when lakes and streams rippled through Gale Crater, depositing sediment at what is now the base of Mount Sharp, the 5-kilometer-tall mountain whose foothills Curiosity has been climbing since 2014. Highest on the mountain in the transition zone , Curiosity observations show that streams dried up in trickles and sand dunes formed above the lake sediments.

“We no longer see the lake deposits that we saw years ago on Mount Sharp,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “Instead, we see a lot of evidence for drier climates, such as dry dunes that occasionally had streams running around them. This is a big change from lakes that persisted for perhaps millions of years before.”

As the rover climbs higher through the transition zone, it detects less clay and more sulfate. Curiosity will soon drill through the last rock sample it will collect in this zone, providing a more detailed glimpse into the change in the mineral composition of these rocks.

Unique geological features also stand out in this area. The hills in the area likely started out in a dry environment of large windswept sand dunes, hardening into rock over time. Interspersed with the remains of these dunes are other sediments carried by the water, perhaps deposited in ponds or small streams that once weaved between the dunes. These sediments now appear as piles of erosion-resistant scaly layers, like one nicknamed “The Prow”.

Making the richer story even more complicated is the knowledge that there were multiple periods when groundwater ebbed and flowed over time, leaving a jumble of puzzle pieces for Curiosity scientists to assemble into an accurate timeline. .

Ten years later, going strong

Curiosity will celebrate its 10th year on Mars on August 5th. As the rover shows its age after a full decade of exploration, nothing has stopped it from continuing its ascent.

Curiosity Captures Breathtaking Views of a Changing Landscape of Mars

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover captured this 360-degree panorama near a location dubbed the Sierra Maiigualida on May 22, 2022. The panorama is made up of 133 individual images captured by Curiosity’s Mast Camera, or Mastcam. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

On June 7, Curiosity entered safe mode after detecting a temperature reading on an instrument control box inside the rover’s body that was hotter than expected. Safe mode occurs when a spacecraft detects a problem and automatically shuts down all but the most essential functions so engineers can assess the situation.

Although Curiosity came out of safe mode and back to normal operations two days later, JPL engineers are still analyzing the exact cause of the problem. They suspect that safe mode was triggered after a temperature sensor provided an inaccurate measurement, and there is no sign that this will significantly affect the rover’s operations, as the backup temperature sensors can ensure that the electronics inside the rover rover’s body do not get too hot.

The rover’s aluminum wheels are also showing signs of wear. On June 4, the engineering team ordered Curiosity to take new pictures of its wheels – something it had been doing every 3,281 feet (1,000 meters) to check its overall health.

The team found that the middle left wheel had damaged one of its claws, the zigzag steps along Curiosity’s wheels. This particular wheel already had four claws broken, so now five of its 19 claws are broken.

Curiosity Captures Breathtaking Views of a Changing Landscape of Mars

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover captured evidence of layers that built up like accumulated windblown sand and was swept away at a location dubbed “Las Claritas”. This image was captured using Curiosity’s Mast Camera, or Mastcam, on May 19, 2022, the 3,478th Martian day, or sun, of the mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The previously damaged claws have attracted attention online recently because some of the metal “skin” between them appears to have fallen off the wheel in recent months, leaving a gap.

The team decided to increase their wheel images to every 1,640 feet (500 meters) – a return to the original cadence. A traction control algorithm reduced the wear on the wheels enough to justify increasing the distance between images.

“We’ve proven through ground tests that we can safely drive on the wheel rims if necessary,” said Megan Lin, Curiosity’s project manager at JPL. “If we ever got to the point where a single wheel had broken most of its grips, we could do a controlled break to loosen the pieces that were left over. Given recent trends, it seems unlikely that we need to take such action. The wheels are holding up well, providing the traction we need to continue our climb.”

Curiosity Mars Rover Dodges ‘Alligator Back’ Rocks

Provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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