“This is an area on Mount Sharp where Curiosity will go”

More wondrous images from Nasa’s mobile Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), the 900kg rover Curiosity, now safely on the Martian surface in Gale Crater.  And it’s only warming up its instruments.  Here’s a panaroma of the landing site and the prime mission target, Mount Sharp.

Focusing in on Mount Sharp… [Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS]

But the images that have attracted attention are from the telephoto lens [Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS]

As the Nasa press release notes

The telephoto images beamed back to Earth show a scene of eroded knobs and gulches on a mountainside, with geological layering clearly exposed. The new views were taken by the 100-millimeter telephoto lens and the 34-milllimeter wide angle lens of the Mast Camera (Mastcam) instrument. Mastcam has photographed the lower slope of the nearby mountain called Mount Sharp.

“This is an area on Mount Sharp where Curiosity will go,” said Mastcam principal investigator Michael Malin, of Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego. “Those layers are our ultimate objective. The dark dune field is between us and those layers. In front of the dark sand you see redder sand, with a different composition suggested by its different color. The rocks in the foreground show diversity — some rounded, some angular, with different histories. This is a very rich geological site to look at and eventually to drive through.”

And here’s an annotated image of the lower slopes of Mount Sharp [Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS]

This image taken by the Mast Camera (MastCam) on NASA’s Curiosity rover highlights the interesting geology of Mount Sharp, a mountain inside Gale Crater, where the rover landed. Prior to the rover’s landing on Mars, observations from orbiting satellites indicated that the lower reaches of Mount Sharp, below the line of white dots, are composed of relatively flat-lying strata that bear hydrated minerals. Those orbiter observations did not reveal hydrated minerals in the higher, overlying strata.

The MastCam data now reveal a strong discontinuity in the strata above and below the line of white dots, agreeing with the data from orbit. Strata overlying the line of white dots are highly inclined (dipping from left to right) relative to lower, underlying strata. The inclination of these strata above the line of white dots is not obvious from orbit. This provides independent evidence that the absence of hydrated minerals on the upper reaches of Mount Sharp may coincide with a very different formation environment than lower on the slopes. The train of white dots may represent an “unconformity,” or an area where the process of sedimentation stopped.

The BBC report adds that ‘unconformity’ “refers to an evidently missing piece in the geological record, where one layer of sediment does not geologically neatly line up with that above it.”

[Curiosity] will eventually trundle to the base of Mount Sharp, the 5km-high peak at the centre of Gale Crater, in which the rover touched down just over three weeks ago.

For now it is examining the “scour marks” left by the rocket-powered crane that lowered the rover onto the planet’s surface, giving some insight into what lies just below it.

The rover will now employ its Dan instrument, which fires the subatomic particles neutrons at the surface to examine levels of hydrogen- and hydroxyl-containing minerals that could hint at Mars’ prior water-rich history.

Another tool in its arsenal, the ChemCam, which uses a laser to vapourise rock and then chemically examine the vapour, will also have a look at the scour marks.

And the Sample Analysis at Mars or Sam instrument, itself a package of three analysis tools, has now been switched on and is being run through its paces ahead of “sniffing” the Martian atmosphere; the tests include analysing a sample of Earth air that was left in it at launch.

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