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Secrets of 3 billion years: NASA’s Curiosity rover reaches the ridge of Mars where water left the accumulation of debris

NASA’s Curiosity captured this 360-degree panorama while parked beneath Gediz Vallis Ridge (seen at right), a formation that preserves a record of one of the last wet periods observed in this part of Mars. After previous attempts, the rover finally reached the ridge on its fourth attempt. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Believed to be a remnant of powerful ancient debris flows, Gediz Vallis Ridge is a long-sought destination by the rover’s science team.

Three billion years ago, in the midst of one of the last wet periods in Mars, powerful debris flows carried mud and rocks down the side of a huge mountain. The debris spread out in a fan that was then eroded by wind into a towering ridge, preserving an intriguing record of the Red Planet’s aquatic past.

The journey from curiosity to the crest

Now after three tries, POTThe Mars rover Curiosity has reached the ridge, capturing the formation in a 360-degree panoramic mosaic. Previous raids were hampered by crocodile shaped rocks and too steep slopes. Following one of the most difficult climbs The mission it has ever faced, Curiosity arrived on August 14 in an area where it could study the long-sought ridge with its 7-foot (2-meter) robotic arm.

Drag your cursor over this 360-degree video to explore the view captured by NASA’s Curiosity Mastcam while the Mars rover was stopped next to Gediz Vallis Ridge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/UC Berkeley

“After three years, we finally found a place where Mars allowed Curiosity to safely access the steep ridge,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “It’s exciting to be able to reach out and touch rocks that were transported from high places on Mount Sharp that we will never be able to visit with Curiosity.”

Discoveries at Mount Sharp

The rover has been ascending the bottom of the 5km-high Mount Sharp since 2014, uncovering evidence of ancient lakes and streams along the way. The different layers of the mountain represent different eras of Martian history. As Curiosity ascends, scientists learn more about how the landscape changed over time. Gediz Vallis Ridge was one of the last mountain features to form, making it one of the youngest geologic time capsules Curiosity will see.

Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater, Mars

Mount Sharp rises approximately 5.5 kilometers (3.4 mi) above the floor of Gale Crater. This oblique view of Mount Sharp is derived from a combination of elevation data and images from three Mars orbiters. The view looks southeast. Gale Crater is 154 kilometers (96 miles) in diameter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS

Uncommon Ideas and Future Endeavors

The rover spent 11 days on the ridge, busy taking photographs and studying the composition of dark rocks that clearly originated from other parts of the mountain. Debris flows that helped form the Gediz Vallis ridge carried these rocks (and others lower on the ridge line, some as large as cars) from layers high on Mount Sharp. These rocks provide a rare view of the upper mountain material that Curiosity can examine.

ChemCam Mosaic of the Gediz Valley Ridge

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used its ChemCam instrument to observe rocks on the Gediz Vallis Ridge from November 15 to 17, 2022, the 3,653 to 3,655 Martian days, or sols, of the mission. These boulders are believed to have been carried by debris flows in the ancient past and are likely some of the most recent evidence of liquid water that Curiosity will see at Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/CNRS/IRAP/IAS/LPG

The rover’s arrival at the ridge has also provided scientists with the first close-up views of the eroded remains of a geological feature known as a debris flow fan, where debris flowing downhill spreads out in a fan shape. Debris flow fans are common on both Mars and Earth, but scientists are still learning how they form.

“I can’t imagine what it would have been like to witness these events,” said geologist William Dietrich, a member of the mission team at the University of California, Berkeley, who has helped lead Curiosity’s study of the ridge. “Huge boulders were torn from the mountain above, rushed down the slope, and spread out in a fan below. The results of this campaign will push us to better explain these events not only on Mars, but even on Earth, where they are a natural hazard.”

NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover Route Lower Mount Sharp

The route NASA’s Curiosity rover took on Mars as it drove along the bottom of Mount Sharp is shown here as a pale line. Different parts of the mountain are labeled by color; Curiosity is currently near the top of the Gediz Vallis Ridge, which appears in red. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/University of Arizona/JHUAPL/MSSS/USGS Astrogeology Science Center

On August 19, the rover’s Mastcam captured 136 images of a scene on Gediz Vallis Ridge that, when stitched together into a mosaic, provide a 360-degree view of the surrounding area. In that panorama you can see the path that Curiosity took along the mountainside, including through the “Marker Band Valley”, where evidence of an ancient lake it was discovered.

While scientists are still poring over images and data from Gediz Vallis Ridge, Curiosity has already tackled its next challenge: finding a path to the channel over the ridge so scientists can learn more about how and where it once flowed. the water down Mount Sharp.

More about the mission

Curiosity was built by JPL, managed by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California. JPL is leading the mission on behalf of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

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