NASA’s Curiosity rover has reached Mars, where water has left debris piled up

NASA’s Curiosity captured this 360-degree panorama while parked below the Geddis Wallis Ridge (seen at right), which preserves a record of one of the last wet periods seen in this part of Mars. After previous attempts, the rover finally reached the mountain on its fourth attempt. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Believed to be the remnant of powerful ancient debris flows, Geddy’s Wallis is a long-sought destination by the Ridge rover’s science team.

Three billion years ago, in the midst of one of the last wet periods tuesday, powerful debris flows of mud and boulders on the side of a hulking mountain. Debris spread in a fan that was later eroded by wind into a high ridge, preserving an enigmatic record of the Red Planet’s watery past.

Curiosity’s Ridge Expedition

Now, after three attempts, NASAThe Curiosity Mars rover reached the ridge, capturing the formation in a 360-degree panoramic mosaic. Previous expeditions have been hampered by knife-edged “cater-back” rocks and very steep slopes. Following one of the most difficult climbs the mission has ever encountered, Curiosity arrived on Aug. 14 with its 7-foot (2-meter) robotic arm to study the long-sought mountain pass.

Drag your cursor into this 360-degree video and explore the view captured by the mastcam on NASA’s Curiosity, the Mars rover parked near the Geddis Wallis Ridge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/UC Berkeley

“After three years, we found a place on Mars that allowed Curiosity to safely approach steep ridges,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “It is a thrill that we can peer into and touch the rocks carried from the heights of Mount Sharp, which we cannot look upon with interest.”

Discoveries on Mount Sharp

The rover has climbed the 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) base of Mount Sharp since 2014, finding evidence of ancient lakes and streams along the way. Different layers of the hill represent different periods of Martian history. As interest grows, scientists learn more about how the landscape has changed over time. Gediz Vallis was one of the last features of the ridge, making it one of the youngest geologic time capsules Curiosity has ever seen.

Mount Sharp Inside Gale Crater, Tuesday

Mount Sharp rises about 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) above the floor of Gale Crater. This oblique view of Mount Sharp was obtained from a combination of elevation and imaging data from three Mars orbiters. The view is towards South East. Gale Crater is 96 miles (154 kilometers) in diameter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS

Rare insights and future endeavors

The rover spent 11 days on the ridge, taking photographs and studying the dark rock formations that appeared prominently elsewhere on the mountain. Debris that helped form the Geddys Wallis Ridge carried these rocks — others down on the ridgeline, some as large as cars — down from the high strata on Mount Sharp. Curiosity can study these rocks for a rare insight into the materials that come from the top of the mountain.

Chemcam mosaic of the Geddis Valley Ridge

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, using its SEMCAM instrument, looks at boulders on the Geddis Wallis Ridge from Nov. 15 to 17, 2022, 3,653 to 3,655 Martian days, or sols. These boulders are thought to have been washed down by a debris flow in the ancient past and are perhaps some of the youngest evidence of liquid water interest in Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/CNRS/IRAP/IAS/LPG

The rover’s visit to the ridge has given scientists their first close-up views of the eroded remains of a geological feature called a debris flow fan, where debris flowing down a slope spreads out in a fan shape. Debris flow fans are common on both Mars and Earth, but scientists are still learning how they form.

“I can’t imagine what it would have been like to see these events,” said geologist William Dietrich. University of California, Berkeley, who helped lead Curiosity’s study of the ridge. “Large rocks were removed from a high mountain, rushed down, and spread in a fan below. The results of this campaign will push us to better explain such phenomena not only on Mars, but also on Earth, where they are naturally endangered.

Mount Sharp under the path of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover

The path taken by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover as it drove through the lower part of Mount Sharp is shown here as a pale line. Different parts of the mountain are marked by color; Curiosity is currently near the upper end of the Geddis Wallis Ridge, which appears in red. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/University of Arizona/JHUAPL/MSSS/USGS Astronomical Science Center

On August 19, the rover’s Mastcam captured 136 images of a scene on the Gediz Vallis Ridge that, when stitched together into a mosaic, provide a 360-degree view of the surrounding area. The panorama shows Curiosity’s path up the mountainside, including the “Marker Band Valley,” where evidence of an ancient lake was discovered.

While scientists are still poring over images and data from the Gediz Vallis Ridge, Curiosity has already turned to its next challenge: tracing a path to the channel above the ridge, so scientists can learn more about how and where water once flowed on Mount Sharp.

More about the mission

Curiosity was built by JPL, managed by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California. JBL is leading the mission on behalf of NASA’s Science Operations Directorate in Washington.

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