Spaceflight Insider

Curiosity rover begins climb of ‘Vera Rubin Ridge’

Researchers used the Mastcam on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover to gain this detailed view of layers in "Vera Rubin Ridge" from just below the ridge. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Researchers used the Mastcam on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover to gain this detailed view of layers in Vera Rubin Ridge from just below the ridge. (Click for full annotated view) Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has started the steep climb of an iron-oxide bearing ridge on the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp that has long been of interest to researchers. Vera Rubin Ridge, also known as Hematite Ridge, was informally named in early 2017 in memory of pioneering astrophysicist Vera Cooper Rubin, whose research provided evidence for the existence of dark matter.

“We’re on the climb now, driving up a route where we can access the layers we’ve studied from below,” said Abigail Fraeman in a press release.

This view of "Vera Rubin Ridge" from the ChemCam instrument on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows sedimentary layers and fracture-filling mineral deposits. Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / CNES / CNRS / LANL / IRAP / IAS / LPGN

This view of Vera Rubin Ridge from the ChemCam instrument on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows sedimentary layers and fracture-filling mineral deposits. (Click to enlarge) Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / CNES / CNRS / LANL / IRAP / IAS / LPGN

Fraeman is a Curiosity science-team member at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, and organized the rover’s ridge campaign.

“As we skirted around the base of the ridge this summer, we had the opportunity to observe the large vertical exposure of rock layers that make up the bottom part of the ridge,” Fraeman said. “But even though steep cliffs are great for exposing the stratifications, they’re not so good for driving up.”

Before the beginning its ascent, Curiosity made several telephoto observations of the ridge from just below it. These images show fine layering with extensive bright veins of varying widths cutting through the layers.

“Now we’ll have a chance to examine the layers up close as the rover climbs,” Fraeman said.

During the climb from the bottom to the top of the ridge, Curiosity will gain approximately 213 feet (65 meters) in elevation. The ascent will require a series of drives totaling just over a third of a mile (about 570 meters). Before starting this ascent in early September, Curiosity had gained a total of about 980 feet (almost 300 meters) in elevation in 10.76 miles (17.32 kilometers) from its 2012 landing site to the base of Vera Rubin Ridge.

“Using data from orbiters and our own approach imaging, the team has chosen places to pause for more extensive studies on the way up, such as where the rock layers show changes in appearance or composition,” said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada in a JPL press release. “But the campaign plan will evolve as we examine the rocks in detail. As always, it’s a mix of planning and discovery.”

In spectrometer readings taken by orbiters, the iron-oxide mineral hematite shows up more strongly at the ridge than anywhere else on lower Mount Sharp. Scientists are seeking a better understanding of why this ridge resists erosion, why its hematite is so concentrated and whether those factors are related.

“The team is excited to be exploring Vera Rubin Ridge, as this hematite ridge has been a go-to target for Curiosity ever since Gale Crater was selected as the landing site,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at the agency’s Washington headquarters.

During the first year after its landing in Gale Crater, Curiosity accomplished a major goal of its mission by determining that billions of years ago, a Martian lake offered conditions capable of supporting microbial life. The rover has since traveled through a variety of environments that have been shaped by both wind and water. Vera Rubin Ridge and the layers of Mount Sharp above it that contain clay and sulfate minerals offer opportunities to discover more about the history and habitability of ancient Mars.

Video courtesy of JPL



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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