NASA’s new Perseverance rover hasn’t even been on the red planet long enough to get dusty, so everything it does is still big news. However, the Curiosity rover is still there as well, plugging along as it sojourns up the side of Mount Sharp. NASA recently released a new panorama image from Curiosity to celebrate the rover’s ninth year exploring Mars. The expansive snapshot shows where the robot has been as well as where it’s going.
Curiosity famously touched down in Gale Crater on August 5, 2012. It utilized an impressive rocket sled to land gently on the surface, a technique that Perseverance used eight and a half years later to begin its mission in Jezero Crater. It began its investigation on the floor of the crater but has spent most of the last nine years climbing higher on the crater’s central peak, known as Mount Sharp.
From its perch 1,500 feet above the landing site, Curiosity can see all the way to the rim of the crater some 20 miles away. That’s possible because it’s currently winter on Mars when there is less dust in the air. Looking down the mountainside on one side of the panorama, you can see the smoother clay-bearing deposits that the rover has spent most of its mission analyzing. Those materials probably have a watery past, but the robot is now transitioning to a region defined by salty minerals called sulfates. Studying samples from this region could help scientists understand how and why Mars dried up in the distant past. Prior to losing its surface water and atmosphere, Mars may have had conditions necessary to foster the development of life.
The panorama does a particularly good job of showing off the veiny texture of the sulfate materials around the rover. Scientists believe these nodules and ripples are the results of groundwater in the planet’s early history. Curiosity collected a sample from this region, the 32nd of its mission. Further analysis could help verify the formation mechanisms.
The robot has traveled an impressive 16 miles (26 kilometers) since its landing, and it’s not done yet. In the coming months, Curiosity will head into a narrow valley between an outcropping called Rafael Navarro Mountain and a hill the size of a four-story building. The team expects to see more geological formations that shed light on how Mars lost its water. These discoveries will feed into the ongoing Perseverance mission, which is just getting underway in another part of the red planet.