Curiosity Rover Examines Spectacular Layered Buttes, Closes In on Mount Sharp

Curiosity near Murray Buttes, on first approach. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/James Sorenson

Curiosity near Murray Buttes, on first approach. Panoramic image processing by James Sorenson. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/James Sorenson

Mars has often been compared to deserts on Earth, and for good reason: It is pretty much a barren landscape with a lot of sand and rocks everywhere. Sometimes the similarities can be quite striking, and the terrain in Gale crater where the Curiosity rover is roaming around is a good example. The rover is currently in a region of stunning scenery, consisting of buttes and mesas that are very reminiscent of ones on Earth. This area could easily be mistaken for the American southwest if it weren’t for the dusty, pinkish sky and complete lack of vegetation. Curiosity is now getting a close-up look at these formations, which are not only beautiful but record a long and fascinating geological history.

For the past few weeks, Curiosity has been traveling through the Murray Buttes, a collection of buttes near the base of Mount Sharp. They were one of the prime destinations for the rover as it heads closer to the mountain. The foothills of Mount Sharp are also a maze of buttes, mesas, and canyons, which the rover will be moving toward next.

“Curiosity’s science team has been just thrilled to go on this road trip through a bit of the American desert Southwest on Mars,” said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

A closer view of the top of one of the buttes in Murray Buttes. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

A closer view of the top of one of the buttes in Murray Buttes. Image processing by Paul Hammond. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Paul Hammond

A closer view of the top of one of the buttes in Murray Buttes. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

A closer view of the top of one of the buttes in Murray Buttes. Image processing by Paul Hammond. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Paul Hammond

These sandstone buttes and mesas are remnants of once larger formations which have been eroded over time; they were first created by sand deposited by winds after the lower part of Mount Sharp had already formed.

“Studying these buttes up close has given us a better understanding of ancient sand dunes that formed and were buried, chemically changed by groundwater, exhumed and eroded to form the landscape that we see today,” Vasavada said.

The rover is now almost ready to leave these buttes behind, but right now it is at the base of one of them, preparing to conduct another drilling session. So far, Curiosity has drilled into the rocks in 13 previous locations. After that, Curiosity will continue south, roving ever closer to the foothills of Mount Sharp.

Studying these formations, which often exhibit many thin layers of rock, will help scientists better understand the geological history of Mars in this region. Apart from the buttes, Curiosity has also found abundant evidence that Gale crater was once a lake or series of lakes earlier in the planet’s history. There are also ancient streambeds cutting through the crater’s walls, where water once emptied into the basin. Indeed, Curiosity has even examined old riverbed gravel up close. While bone dry now, this place used to be very wet, and potentially habitable for at least primitive organisms of some kind.

Region between two buttes. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Region between two buttes. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Rock-covered slope on one of the buttes. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Rock-covered slope on one of the buttes. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Very fine, thin layering on a steep side of one of the buttes. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Very fine, thin layering on a steep side of one of the buttes. A geologist’s dream. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

More fine layering. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

More fine layering. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Boulders and more layers. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Boulders and more layers. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Prior to reaching Murray Buttes, Curiosity had been traveling across Naukluft Plateau, a remnant plateau of fractured sandstone which used to be more extensive in this area. While on the plateau, the rover completed its 12th drilling campaign, in mudstone bedrock, as well as re-examining its 1oth and 11th drill holes, to repeat an experiment which compared material within and away from pale zones around fractures. Curiosity also took additional “self-portraits” while in this region. Before that, the rover skirted some massive sand dunes, part of the Bagnold Dunes, which partially surround the base of the mountain.

Naukluft Plateau covers part of the Murray Formation of bedrock; it is in this region and others that drilling of rock samples provided the evidence for past lakes and rivers.

“The story that the Murray formation is revealing about the habitability of ancient Mars is one of the mission’s surprises,” Vasavada said. “It wasn’t obvious from pre-mission data that it formed in long-lived lakes and that its diverse composition would tell us about the chemistry of those lakes and later groundwater.”

Murray Buttes as seen from above, by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Murray Buttes as seen from above, by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Some of the large dark sand dunes can also be seen on the left and right sides of the image. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Now, the rover will leave the buttes behind and keep heading south toward Mount Sharp. The scenery has been incredible so far and should be even better when Curiosity starts ascending the slope into the foothills. Large rounded mesas, buttes, and valleys dominate this landscape.

“Now that we’ve skirted our way around the dunes and crossed the plateau, we’ve turned south to climb the mountain head-on,” said Vasavada. “Since landing, we’ve been aiming for this gap in the terrain and this left turn. It’s a great moment for the mission.”

Curiosity has also recently found evidence for the mineral tridymite as well as much more oxygen in the Martian atmosphere a long time ago. The tridymite discovery was exciting as it was unexpected on Mars. On Earth, it is produced by silicic volcanoes, such as Mount St. Helens in Washington. Volcanoes on Mars, however, tend to be of the basaltic type, like the ones in Hawaii, so it’s not clear yet just how the mineral formed in Gale crater.

“I always tell fellow planetary scientists to expect the unexpected on Mars,” said Doug Ming, ARES chief scientist at Johnson and co-author of the paper. “The discovery of tridymite was completely unexpected. This discovery now begs the question of whether Mars experienced a much more violent and explosive volcanic history during the early evolution of the planet than previously thought.”

The thin atmosphere of Mars only contains a trace amount of oxygen now, so where the previously abundant oxygen came from is also unknown. On Earth, most of it is produced by life, but it can be generated other ways as well, although usually in smaller amounts, such as ultraviolet radiation from the Sun breaking down carbon dioxide, the electrolysis of water, or the photolysis of ozone. While actually being dangerous to some forms of life, it is also produced in abundance by others. As interestingly noted by Damien Loizeau of the University of Lyon in France, “O2 is bad for life as we know it, but we only know life to be able to create large amounts of O2.”

“We found 3 percent of rocks have high manganese oxide content,” said Agnès Cousin of the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology in Toulouse, France, at the European Geophysical Union meeting in Vienna, Austria, last April, and reported in New Scientist. “That requires abundant water and strongly oxidising conditions, so the atmosphere may have contained much more oxygen than we thought.”

The discovery of high amounts of silica in some of the rocks examined by Curiosity as well as the manganese oxides also point to a more life-friendly environment millions or billions of years ago, with more abundant water and oxygen. In some cases, at least on Earth, manganese oxides can even be created directly by microbes. However, making that kind of link with these manganese deposits would require a lot more evidence.

Moving on: after leaving Murray Buttes, Curiosity will continue towards the foothills of Mount Sharp, a region of more buttes, mesas and canyons. Panoramic image processing by Paul Hammond. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Paul Hammond

Moving on. After leaving Murray Buttes, Curiosity will continue toward the foothills of Mount Sharp, a region of more buttes, mesas, and canyons. Panoramic image processing by Paul Hammond. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Paul Hammond

Curiosity technically reached the outermost portion of the mountain in 2014, but once it passes Murray Buttes, it will begin ascending up the lower flanks themselves and into the foothills. The long climb up the mountain itself will have finally begun.

The Murray Buttes, just like their earthly counterparts, are a record of extensive geological history in Gale crater. Along with other evidence they show that Mars has had a complex evolution and in many ways used to be much more like Earth than it is now. Whether the planet was ever inhabited by microbes (although probably not anything much more than that) is still unknown, but Curiosity and other missions are bringing us closer to finding an answer. And the scenery isn’t too bad, either.

More information about Curiosity is available on the mission website.

 

Want to keep up-to-date with all things space? Be sure to “Like” AmericaSpace on Facebook and follow us on Twitter: @AmericaSpace

3 comments to Curiosity Rover Examines Spectacular Layered Buttes, Closes In on Mount Sharp

  • These images are nothing short of spectacular! What incredible findings!

  • Tom's drinking game

    It’s a rock. Nothing there.

    • James

      Resources and opportunities are on Mars.

      However, the Moon is closer and has been collecting asteroids and their resources for over four billion years…

      And the Moon has frozen water, lots of useful volatiles, and offers frequent, much lower risk, and more affordable human mission opportunities for NASA, other space agencies, and maybe even some companies.

      If we cannot make good use of the Moon anytime soon, it is extremely doubtful that Mars will be useful anytime soon.

      Many countries would like to go to the Moon with the USA. Those governments know that tapping Lunar resources, and opportunities, will be the game changer that reduces the risks and costs of beyond LEO human missions.

      As for human Mars and beyond Mars missions anytime soon:

      “‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ was a phrase made popular by Carl Sagan. However, Laplace writes: ‘The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.'[1] Also, David Hume wrote in 1748: ‘A wise man … proportions his belief to the evidence’, and ‘No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.'[2] and Marcello Truzzi says: ‘An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.'”

      And, “Either way, the phrase is central to scientific method, and a key issue for critical thinking, rational thought and skepticism everywhere.”

      From: ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ at: RationalWiki

      Note the highly vocal wannabe Martian seems to have now decided to also aim for more distant spheres…

      “Rather than pausing after the loss of a Falcon 9 rocket and its payload during the run-up to a static fire test on September 1, and focusing on mastering access to low-Earth orbit, Musk appears to be pushing full steam ahead into deep space.”

      “‘Turns out MCT can go well beyond Mars, so will need a new name…’ he tweeted on Friday evening. By Saturday evening he had a new name dubbing the spacecraft the ‘Interplanetary Transport System,’ or ITS.”

      From: ‘Beyond Mars! —
      Elon Musk scales up his ambitions, considering going “well beyond” Mars
      Musk may soon detail the architecture he hopes will colonize the solar system.’
      Eric Berger – 9/19/2016, 5:45 AM
      At: http://arstechnica.com/science/2016/09/spacexs-interplanetary-transport-system-will-go-well-beyond-mars/

      Reliability should be an extremely important issue if we are launching humans into space on suborbital hop, LEO, or beyond LEO flights. In such cases a launcher’s performance reliability history is critically important.

      “OSIRIS-REx was ULA’s 111th straight successful launch, counting missions sent up by both Atlas V and Boeing-built Delta IV launch vehicles. Since ULA was formed in December 2006, it has yet to suffer a single mishap on any of its big rockets — a near-10-year streak of unbroken success.”

      And, “Airbus’ record at Ariane is nearly as stellar, and in some respects even better than ULA’s. The company’s previous launch vehicle, the Ariane 4, racked up 74 straight successes before its retirement in February 2003. Its current vehicle, the Ariane 5, has flown without a single incident since its inauguration in 2003. Ariane 5’s record of 73 straight successes stands within a whisker of beating Ariane 4’s record — and Ariane 5’s history of 13 straight years of flight without incident has already outpaced that of ULA (admittedly, mostly because ULA hasn’t yet existed for 13 years).”

      From: ‘It’s a Blowout: ULA 111, Ariane 73, SpaceX 0
      Space is a scary place, and one of the most expensive commodities in space is reliability.’
      By Rich Smith At: http://www.fool.com/investing/2016/09/17/its-a-blowout-ula-111-ariane-73-spacex-0.aspx