Giant Crater Gail Keeps Martian Secrets
Now that Curiosity is already confidently moving through the red Martian dust, safely landing on the surface of Mars on August 6, scientists with bated breath are waiting for new news from the six-wheeled all-terrain vehicle.
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 matters await the robot over the next few years, say NASA researchers and representatives.
“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 landing Curiosity. “And this place – Gale Crater is just what we need.”
Gale Crater, which was declared Curiosity as far back as July 2011, lies a few degrees south of the Martian equator. Although the diameter of the crater is 154 kilometers, 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.
At a height of about 5 kilometers, Mount Sharp is actually only slightly below the height of Elbrus (5642 m). Scientists think that it is the remnant of a much larger piece of rock that once filled Gale Crater, although there is as yet no precise data on how this piece of rock was formed.
“One time! And we’re having flat layers 5 kilometers thick,” says John Grotzinger, research director at Curiosity, a geologist at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California. “You won’t see anything like this on Earth.”
These strata hold records of Martian history spanning perhaps a billion years or more, the researchers say. The Martian orbiter noticed the presence of clays and sulfates at the foot of Mount Sharp, a sign that the base of the mountain could have been exposed to liquid water many years ago.
On Earth, life seeks to evolve wherever liquid water exists. Therefore, Curiosity, whose main task is to determine whether Mars has ever been able to maintain 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 a rover worth $ 2.5 billion higher up the gentle slopes of the mountain. At an altitude of approximately 700 meters, Curiosity will cross the conditional line, below which hydrated minerals will remain, and above, layers will begin to come across that tell about more arid periods of the history of the Red Planet.
“Something happened on Mars, and it is completely dry, and has become what we see today,” says Grotzinger. – The question is what kind of event it was. What laid the foundation for this? What happened to the environment? I hope that we can penetrate a little deeper into the understanding of this “Great Drying.”
The main mission of Curiosity is planned for about two Earth years, but an all-terrain vehicle with a nuclear reactor can continue to function much longer if key mechanisms fail, the robot operators say. Longevity is very important for the mission, since it seems that it may take a lot of time to solve all the mysteries of Gale Crater and explore all the layers of Mount Sharp.
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