Three billion years ago, during one of the last wet periods on Mars, powerful debris flows carried clay and rock down the side of a towering mountain. The debris was scattered in a wind-eroded fan to form a towering ridge, preserving an intriguing testimony to the red planet’s watery past.
Now, after three attempts, NASA’s Curiosity rover has reached the summit, capturing the formation in a 360-degree panoramic mosaic. “Crocodile-back” rocks and steep cliffs have hampered previous invasions. After one of the toughest climbs the mission has ever faced, Curiosity arrived on August 14 in an area where it could study the long-awaited ridge using its two-meter-long robotic arm.
“After three years, we finally found a point where Mars allowed Curiosity to safely reach steep hills,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “It is exciting to be able to reach out and touch rocks transported from places high on Mount Sharp that we would never be able to visit with curiosity.”
The long journey of the vehicle
The rover has been climbing the lower 3-mile (5-kilometer) section of Mount Sharp since 2014, discovering evidence of ancient lakes and streams along the way. The mountain’s different layers represent different eras of Mars’ history. As curiosity grows, scientists are learning more about how the landscape changes over time. The Gedes Valles mountain range was one of the last mountain features to form, making it one of the youngest geological time capsules Curiosity will ever see.
The rover spent 11 days on the ridge, taking images and studying the formation of dark rocks that clearly originated elsewhere on the mountain. Debris flows that helped form the Gediz Valles mountain range carried these rocks — and other downhill boulders, some the size of cars — down from the upper layers of Mount Sharp. These rocks provide a rare glimpse of material from the upper mountain that the curious can examine.
The rover’s arrival into the ridge also allowed scientists to see the eroded remains of a geological feature known as a debris flow fan, where debris flows downslope outward for the first time. Debris flow fans are common on both Mars and Earth, but scientists are still learning how they form.
“And this is what happened”
“I can’t imagine what it would be like to witness these events,” said geologist William Dietrich, a member of the UC Berkeley mission team who helped lead Curiosity’s study of the ridge. “Huge boulders broke off from the mountain above, rushed down and spread across a fan below. The results of this campaign will push us to better explain events of this kind not only on Mars, but also on Earth, where they pose a natural hazard.” “.
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