NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has rolled into a patch of ground that could shed considerable light on the Red Planet’s climate history.
Curiosity landed inside the 96-mile-wide (154 kilometers) Gale Crater in August 2012, on a mission to assess the region’s past potential to host Earth-like life. The car-sized robot soon found evidence that Gale hosted a habitable lake-and-stream system billions of years ago, and that this environment likely persisted for long stretches.
In September 2014, Curiosity reached the base of Mount Sharp, the 5-mile-high (8 km) massif that rises into the Martian sky from Gale’s center. Ever since, the rover has been climbing Mount Sharp’s foothills, reading the many rock layers for clues about how and when Gale’s lake — and the rest of the Martian surface — dried out.
Such clues could soon abound, mission team members suggest in a new video update.
“We spent the last several years investigating clay-rich rocks that formed in lakes,” Curiosity deputy project scientist Abigail Fraeman, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, said in the nearly three-minute video, which the space agency released on Tuesday (Aug. 17).
“But now we’re entering a region where rocks are filled with salty minerals called sulfates,” Fraeman said. “These minerals form in drier conditions, so we think this area might show us how the ancient Martian climate was changing.”
To date, Curiosity has traveled 16 miles (26 km) on Mars and climbed 1,500 feet (460 meters) above its landing site on Gale’s floor, Fraeman said. The rover recently drilled its 32nd rock sample, collecting material that could help the mission team better understand the planet’s ancient wet-to-dry transition, she added in the video.
Curiosity remains in good health despite its relatively advanced age, mission team members have said. And the six-wheeled robot’s nuclear power source was designed to last a minimum of 14 Earth years, so Curiosity could keep picking its way up Mount Sharp’s shoulder for quite some time.
“How long did conditions that were favorable to life last?” Fraeman said. “We’re looking forward to finding out.”
Curiosity isn’t the only robot exploring the Martian surface. For example, NASA’s stationary InSight lander has been hunting for marsquakes since its November 2018 touchdown. And the agency’s Perseverance rover, which is based heavily on Curiosity, landed on the floor of Jezero Crater this past February to hunt for signs of past Mars life and collect samples for future return to Earth. In addition, a tiny technology-demonstrating helicopter named Ingenuity flew to the Red Planet with Perseverance and has conducted 12 Mars flights to date.
And in May, the Zhurong rover, part of China’s Tianwen-1 Mars mission, touched down on the vast plain Utopia Planitia. Zhurong is characterizing the geology of its landing site and hunting for buried water ice, among other tasks.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.