Spaceflight Insider

Curiosity rover begins extended mission

This September 2016 self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the "Quela" drilling location in the scenic "Murray Buttes" area on lower Mount Sharp. The panorama was stitched together from multiple images taken by the MAHLI camera at the end of the rover's arm. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

This September 2016 self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the “Quela” drilling location in the scenic “Murray Buttes” area on lower Mount Sharp. The panorama was stitched together from multiple images taken by the MAHLI camera at the end of the rover’s arm. (Click to enlarge) Image & Caption Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has started an uphill drive from the scenic “Murray Buttes” area and toward new destinations as part of its two-year mission extension that began on Oct. 1. These objectives include a ridge about a mile-and-a-half (two-and-a-half kilometers) ahead, topped with material rich in the iron-oxide mineral hematite, and an exposure of clay-rich bedrock beyond that.

Both destinations are important exploration sites on lower Mount Sharp – the layered, Mount Rainer-sized mound where Curiosity has been studying evidence of ancient water-rich environments that were vastly different from the cold and dry conditions on Mars today.

“We continue to reach higher and younger layers on Mount Sharp,” said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “Even after four years of exploring near and on the mountain, it still has the potential to completely surprise us.”

This 360-degree panorama was acquired on Sept. 4, 2016, by the Mast Camera on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover while the rover was in a scenic area called 'Murray Buttes' on lower Mount Sharp.

This 360-degree panorama was acquired on Sept. 4, 2016, by the Mast Camera on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover while the rover was in a scenic area called “Murray Buttes” on lower Mount Sharp. The flat-topped mesa near the center of the scene rises to about 39 feet above the surrounding plain. (Click for full view) Image & Caption Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity has taken more than 180,000 images including several hundred taken in recent weeks amid the mesas and buttes of the Murray Buttes area. Highlights of these recent photos include a “selfie” taken with the color camera at the end of the rover’s arm and a scenic vista taken with the color camera at the top of its mast.

“Bidding good-bye to ‘Murray Buttes’, Curiosity’s assignment is the ongoing study of ancient habitability and the potential for life,” said Curiosity Program Scientist Michael Meyer. “This mission, as it explores the succession of rock layers, is reading the ‘pages’ of Martian history – changing our understanding of Mars and how the planet has evolved. Curiosity has been and will be a cornerstone in our plans for future missions.”

The self-portrait was taken near the base of one of the Murray Buttes, at the same location where the rover drilled to acquire a sample of rock powder on September 18. A previous attempt to drill four days earlier was halted due to a short-circuit issue that Curiosity has experienced before.

The second attempt successfully reached full depth and collected sample material. Curiosity transferred some of the rock samples to its internal laboratory for analysis after departing the buttes.

Curiosity’s latest drilling site, its 14th, is in a geological layer nearly 600 feet (180 meters) thick, named the Murray formation. So far, Curiosity has climbed almost half of the formation’s height and discovered that it is made mostly of mudstone, formed from mud that had accumulated at the bottom of ancient lakes. The rover team expects to be investigating the upper half of the Murray formation for roughly the first half of the two-year mission extension.

“We will see whether that record of lakes continues further,” Vasavada said. “The more vertical thickness we see, the longer the lakes were present, and the longer habitable conditions existed here. Did the ancient environment change over time? Will the type of evidence we’ve found so far transition to something else?”

The “Clay Unit” and the “Hematite Unit” above the Murray formation were both identified by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) before Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012. The two areas were designated as high-priority targets because both clay and hematite typically form in wet environments.

Vasavada said, “The Hematite and the Clay units likely indicate different environments from the conditions recorded in older rock beneath them and different from each other. It will be interesting to see whether either or both were habitable environments.”

The two-year extension of Curiosity‘s mission was approved by NASA during this summer on the basis of plans presented by the rover team. NASA may consider further extensions for exploring further up Mount Sharp in the future.

Video courtesy of NASA

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Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

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