NASA’s intrepid Mars rovers continue setting spectacular records for roving across the fourth rock from the Sun, even as they make marvelous science observations on the rocks they pass virtually every Sol (day) they survive the harsh environmental extremes of the alien Red Planet in search of signatures of habitability and microbes past and present, if they ever existed.
The Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover has been making tracks and science observations while on the move this month on a southerly bearing, and she just passed the 10 kilometers (6.214 miles) mark on Sol 957 (April 16) for total driving since its touchdown in August 2012.
Just this month alone, Curiosity has notched more than about a fifth of a mile (310 meters) trundling across Gale Crater at the foothills of mammoth Mount Sharp, and she’s moving right now toward her next target of opportunity, called “Logan’s Run.” See map below.
The layered mountain towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky and dominates the center of the Gale Crater landing site where Curiosity safely touched down on Aug. 5, 2012, after the unprecedented sky crane maneuver delivered her in helicopter-like fashion safely to the surface.
Mount Sharp is comprised of sedimentary rock layers that record the history of ancient Martian environments and is the primary destination of the mission.
“We’ve not only been making tracks, but also making important observations to characterize rocks we’re passing, and some farther to the south at selected viewpoints,” said John Grant of the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, in a statement. Grant is a Curiosity science team member who has been the team’s long-term planner in recent days.
For the past six months, Curiosity has been investigating an enticing area called the “Pahrump Hills” outcrop at the base of Mount Sharp, including most recently a beautiful patch of water-altered mineral veins she discovered at the “Garden City” outcrop in late-March, on her epic trek now around the foothills of Mount Sharp, as detailed here.
And the sharp-eyed robot has just spotted her next science destination named “Logan’s Run,” located in a Martian pass dubbed “Logan Pass.”
“Logan’s Run,” which is also the title of a well-known science fiction movie, lies beyond a valley named “Artist’s Drive” and is still about 200 meters ahead, toward the southwest.
“After cruising through Artist’s Drive, Curiosity set her sights on the next pass, known as ‘Logan Pass’,” said Lauren Edgar, MSL and USGS mission scientist in the newest mission update on Wednesday.
“However, the science team realized that there’s an interesting outcrop to west of ‘Logan Pass’, which may help us to understand how these rocks relate to the section that we investigated at the Pahrump Hills. So we decided to make a run for it and take a quick trip over to ‘Logan’s Run’ to image those rocks first.”
The one-ton robot is now driving west to “Logan’s Run” with all deliberate speed, except of course for a short stop at a small rock target called “Apple”—exhibiting “variable tones” where she’ll acquire ChemCam and Mastcam observations.
The team also plans a detailed set of wheel images using the MAHLI camera on the robotic arm to assess the buildup of wear and tear on the rover’s six aluminum wheels. They have suffered some significant damage, rips, and holes caused by numerous sharp edged rocks encountered along her circuitous path along the crater floor.
Curiosity had been working around the “Pahrump Hills” outcrop area since she arrived there in September 2014 and conducted a “walkabout” to scout out the best locations for contact science and drilling.
“Telegraph Peak” was the third and last planned rock sample drilled at the “Pahrump Hills” outcrop, following the “Confidence Hills” and “Mojave 2” drill campaigns in September 2014 and January 2015.
The “Pahrump Hills” outcrop belongs to the bedrock exposure of the Murray formation that forms the basal geological layer at the base of Mount Sharp, at the center of Mars’ Gale Crater.
“Nearby, high-standing buttes are examples of terrain called the Washboard unit, from its corrugated appearance as seen from orbit,” say NASA officials.
Now she is trekking through a series of shallow valleys between the “Pahrump Hills” outcrop toward “Logan Pass” at the base of Mount Sharp.
Curiosity is examining the lower slopes of Mount Sharp, to investigate how the region’s ancient environment evolved from lakes and rivers to much drier conditions.
“The trough we’re driving through is bounded by exposures of the Washboard unit, with gaps at some places that allow us to see farther south to higher exposures of it,” Grant noted.
“At Logan Pass, we hope to investigate the relationship between the Murray formation and the Washboard unit, to help us understand the ancient depositional setting and how environmental conditions were changing. The observations we’re making now help establish the context for what we’ll see there.”
“The rover’s mobility has been crucial, because that’s what allows us to get to the best sites to investigate. The ability to get to different sections of the rock record builds more confidence in your interpretation of each section.”
“Understanding the Washboard unit and what processes formed it could put what we’ve been studying into a wider context,” Grant concluded.
As of today, Curiosity’s odometer totals over 6 miles (10 kilometers) since landing inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012. She has taken some 233,274 images during over 963 Sols of exploration.
Stay tuned here for continuing updates from Mars and throughout our Solar System!
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