What is Curiosity looking for on Mars

(ORDO NEWS) — Giant Gale Crater Keeps Martian Secrets

Now that Curiosity is roaming the red Martian dust, safely landing on the surface of Mars on August 6, scientists are holding their breath for more news from the six-wheeled rover.

Gale Crater, where Curiosity landed on the morning of August 6 (see space news for August 2012 ), is a unique and mysterious place where great scientific deeds await the robot in the next few years, researchers and NASA officials say.

“We want to give ourselves the opportunity to make at least a few new discoveries,” Doug McQuiston, director of NASA’s Mars exploration program, said after Curiosity landed. “And this place – Gale Crater – is exactly what we need.”

Gale Crater, which was announced as the destination of Curiosity back in July 2011, lies a few degrees south of the Martian equator. Although the crater is 154 kilometers in diameter, size is not its most interesting feature. The main thing in it is Mount Sharp, a giant peak that rises right in the center of the funnel.

With a height of about 5 kilometers, Mount Sharp is actually only slightly short of the height of Elbrus (5642 m). Scientists think it is the remnant of a much larger piece of rock that once filled Gale Crater, although there is no exact data yet on how this piece of rock was formed.

“One! And we have flat layers 5 kilometers thick,” says John Grotzinger, Curiosity mission scientist, a geologist at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California. “You won’t see anything like this on Earth.”

These layers hold records of Martian history spanning perhaps a billion years or more, the researchers say. The Martian orbiter noted the presence of clays and sulfates at the base of Mount Sharp, an indication that the base of the mountain may have been exposed to liquid water many years ago.

On Earth, life tends to evolve wherever liquid water exists. Therefore, Curiosity, whose main task is to determine whether Mars was ever suitable for supporting microbial life, is likely to spend a lot of time at the foot and slopes of Mount Sharp.

But Grotzinger and his team also hope to send the $2.5 billion rover higher up the gentle slopes of the mountain. At an altitude of about 700 meters, Curiosity will cross a conditional line, below which hydrated minerals will remain, and above layers will begin to come across, telling about the drier periods of the history of the Red Planet.

“Something happened on Mars, and it dried up and turned into what we see today,” says Grotzinger. – The question is what kind of event it was. What started it? What happened to the environment? I hope we can delve a little deeper into understanding this “Great Drying”.

Curiosity’s main mission is scheduled for about two Earth years, but the nuclear-powered rover could continue to function much longer if key mechanisms don’t fail, the robot’s operators say. Durability is very important to the mission, as it looks like it could take a long time to unravel all the mysteries of Gale Crater and explore all the layers of Mount Sharp.

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