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NASA's Curiosity Rover explores Mars ridge with intriguing watery past

In an extraordinary accomplishment, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has successfully navigated its way to Gediz Vallis Ridge, an area believed to be the remnants of powerful ancient debris flows on the Red Planet. 

This significant achievement offers an intriguing glimpse into Mars’s watery history.

Valuable clues

Approximately three billion years ago, during one of Mars’s last wet phases, powerful debris flows transported mud and boulders down a massive mountain. 

This material then settled into a fan formation, which, over time, was eroded by Martian winds into the ridge that stands today. The ridge now holds valuable clues about the past existence of water on the planet.

Treacherous terrain

The journey to Gediz Vallis Ridge wasn’t without challenges. Curiosity made three attempts to reach this elusive destination. 

Its previous endeavors were thwarted by treacherous “gator-back” rocks and prohibitively steep terrains. 

However, on August 14, after one of its most arduous climbs, Curiosity finally stationed itself at an area offering a prime view of the ridge. From here, the rover could expertly study the area using its 7-foot robotic arm.

Thrilling accomplishment

“After three years, we finally found a spot where Mars allowed Curiosity to safely access the steep ridge,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 

“It’s a thrill to be able to reach out and touch rocks that were transported from places high up on Mount Sharp that we’ll never be able to visit with Curiosity.”

Mount Sharp 

Since 2014, the rover has been on a scientific trek, ascending the 3-mile-tall Mount Sharp, unearthing evidence of ancient lakes and streams during its journey. 

Each layer of this mountain symbolizes distinct periods in Martian history. Gediz Vallis Ridge, one of the last formations on the mountain, offers an invaluable snapshot of one of the youngest Martian epochs.

Curiosity’s 11-day expedition at the ridge was nothing short of prolific. The rover photographed and analyzed the composition of dark rocks that unmistakably came from other regions of the mountain. 

The debris flows responsible for shaping Gediz Vallis Ridge transported these rocks, some as gigantic as automobiles, from the higher terrains of Mount Sharp, offering an unparalleled peek into the upper mountain’s material.

Debris flow fan 

Intriguingly, the rover’s presence at the ridge also provided scientists with the first intimate views of a geologic formation called a debris flow fan. 

While such features are prevalent on both Mars and Earth, the precise mechanics of their formation remain a subject of study.

“I can’t imagine what it would have been like to witness these events,” said William Dietrich, a mission team member at the University of California, Berkeley, who has helped lead Curiosity’s study of the ridge. 

“Huge rocks were ripped out of the mountain high above, rushed downhill, and spread out into a fan below. The results of this campaign will push us to better explain such events not just on Mars, but even on Earth, where they are a natural hazard.”

Curiosity’s journey

On August 19, Curiosity’s Mastcam captured 136 images at Gediz Vallis Ridge. When assembled into a mosaic, these images present a comprehensive 360-degree panorama of the vicinity, chronicling Curiosity’s journey, including its passage through the “Marker Band Valley” where traces of an ancient lake were found.

As scientists continue to sift through the extensive data and imagery from Gediz Vallis Ridge, Curiosity is already gearing up for its next mission: pinpointing a route to the channel atop the ridge to further unravel the mysteries of water’s past presence on Mount Sharp.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/University of Arizona/JHUAPL/MSSS/USGS Astrogeology Science Center

Video Credit: Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/UC Berkeley

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