Mt. Sharp, and its clay rich that scientists hope will reveal a good deal about Mars’ history has finally been reached by the Curiosity rover, one of its original mission goals.
“We have finally arrived at the far frontier that we have sought for so long,” said project scientist and Caltech geologist John Grotzinger referring to the 25 month lead up to one of the rover’s original goals. It’s hoped that by studying the layered formations the rover will find parts of mars suitable to life on Mars.
Mars rover: Detours and more detours
On the way to Mount Sharp, scientists chose to divert Curiosity to study a spot that they deemed worth the diversion and named it Yellowknife Bay as if they were in Canada. Curiosity drilled in the area and found a number of chemical elements that could have supported microbial life in the past. Having identified this possibility, Curiosity now has to find these areas.
The rover is now approaching and area that also wasn’t on the planned trip, an area being called Pahrump Hills. The rover is expected to make it there in the next 10 days to two weeks and is a result of another detour that scientists decided on in order to avoid sharp rocks that could have done a good deal of damage to the rover’s thin wheels. It’s believed that this will be the location of the rover’s first official dig.
The Pahrump Hills will be, for all intents and purposes the gateway to Mt. Sharp and will take the rover to a stretch of rock they are calling the Murray Formation. This formation could, like Yellowknife Bay provide a glimpse into pass inhabitable environments on the Red Planet. While the Yellowknife Bay formation where curiosity dug was five meters thick, the Murray Formation is 200 meters thick.
“We potentially have millions to tens of millions of years of Martian history just waiting for us to explore,” said Curiosity scientist Kathryn Stack.
The appeal of the area is the distribution of silicon in the formation which could provide insight into the movement of water on Mars. The scientists are now tasked with determining how much time to have Curiosity spend in the area.
Mission officials have been forced to explain their decisions to a NASA Planetary Senior Review panel report that has criticized the decision to place such importance on Mt. Sharp with the report suggesting that it is “a poor science return for such a large investment in a flagship mission.”
“I think the principal recommendation of the panel is that we drive less and drill more,” Grotzinger said, while emphasizing that the team is well aware of his. “I think that the recommendations of the review and what we want to do as a science team are going to align, because we have now arrived at Mt. Sharp, we are going to do a lot more drilling.”