NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter discovered a mineral-rich area on Mount Sharp years before the Curiosity rover landed in 2010. Since then, scientists have been eagerly awaiting a closer look at the terrain.
According to a NASA press release, more than a decade after landing on Mars, the Curiosity rover has finally reached the “sulfate-bearing unit” of Mount Sharp. The ‘sought-after’ region, rich in salty minerals, was thought to have formed as the Martian climate dried out.
When the rover landed, it found a variety of rocks and signs from the past. Additionally, there were salty minerals such as magnesium sulfate (like Epsom salt), calcium sulfate (including gypsum), and sodium chloride (like table salt). Scientists hope the fossils will shed light on how and why the Martian climate changed from being more like Earth’s to its current desert state.
The ‘Canaima’ drill sample.
The scientists chose a rock called “Canaima” as the 36th drill sample for the project. The rover pulverized rock samples for examination using a rotary impact drill at the end of its two-meter (seven-foot) arm. “As we do before every drill, we removed the dust and then drilled the top surface of Canaima with the drill. The lack of scratches or dents indicated that it might prove difficult to pierce,” explained Kathia Zamora-Garcia, Curiosity’s new project manager from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
Mission scientists will examine parts of the sample using the Mars Sample Analysis instrument and the Chemical and Mineralogy instrument.
The rover traveled over a month to reach the sulfate-rich region
Curiosity had to navigate rough terrain to reach the sulfate-rich region, including the sandy “Paraitepuy Pass” last August. The rover took more than 30 days to reach its destination safely.
The press release highlighted the following:
“While sharp rocks can damage Curiosity’s wheels (which have plenty of life in them) and can be just as dangerous, potentially causing the rover to become stuck if the wheels lose traction. Rover drivers should navigate these areas with care.”
As the hills blocked Curiosity’s view of the sky, it had to be careful while orienting itself to point its antennas toward Earth and communicate with passing orbiters. After Curiosity found its rightful place, the rover’s Mast Camera, or Mastcam, was used on August 14 to capture some of the mission’s “most inspiring” landscapes.
A new phase brings new obstacles
Curiosity science operations coordinator Elena Amador-French of JPL, who oversees the collaboration between the engineering and science teams, said:
“We would get new images every morning and we were just in awe. The sand ridges were beautiful. You see perfect little rover tracks on them. And the rocks were beautiful – we got really close to the walls.”
However, the rover now faces a new set of difficulties. Curiosity struggles to find a location where all six wheels are on stable ground due to the more rugged terrain. According to Amador-French, “the more interesting the scientific results become, the more obstacles Mars seems to throw at us.”
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