Curiosity looks Sharp

By Phil Plait | August 28, 2012 6:30 am

The Curiosity rover is still going through its shake down phase, using new equipment and making sure all is well. A few days ago, engineers fired up its 100 mm camera – a telephoto that has a bit more zoom to it than the cameras from which we’ve been seeing pictures. They pointed it to the base of Mount Sharp, the big mountain in the center of its new home of Gale Crater. And what it saw is, simply, breath-taking:

Holy moley. That’s fantastic! [Click to barsoomenate.]

It looks a lot like rock formations I’ve seen in Arizona and Utah… but then, the geologic processes that formed this region are similar. At some point in the past it was flooded with water, and looking at the layering this happened many, many times. The sediments built up and then were worn away over the eons, forming this gorgeous striped sedimentary rock.

Inset here is part of the same scene with distances to various landmarks labeled [click to embiggen]. It looks like there’s the edge of a hill 230 meters away, and then it’s up, up, up, to a series of broad, eroded buttes 16 km away. That would be a fun day’s bike ride here on Earth, but it’s a long way for the rover.

But that is the destination. And it’s not so much the goal as the journey that’s important here. The geology of this region is pretty interesting, and should reveal a lot about the history of the area including how it interacted with water (and what kind of water it was; probably very salty).

You should also take a look at this stunning hi-res wide-angle mosaic of Mount Sharp, too. It’s so wide that if I shrink it to fit the blog it would just look silly. So go look.

These pictures are really exciting. The thing is, the first few times we sent landers to Mars they had to go to relatively boring places – not that any site on Mars is boring, but they had to be relatively flat and free of dangers to the terrestrial machines. Curiosity is the first rover we’ve sent to a place that has real honest-to-Ares geology. I mean, look at it! It’s like the Grand Canyon. But it’s on Mars.

The next couple of years are going to be very cool.

Related Posts:

Curiosity rolls!
Curiosity spins its wheels!
Curiosity’s looking a little blue
Gallery – Curiosity’s triumphant first week on Mars

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures

Comments (39)

  1. Palpatim

    Amazing photo! I’ve noticed that most discussion of extraterrestrial rocks, etc, still uses the term “geology”, despite the Earth-centric “geo-” prefix. Is that the de-facto standard? I seem to remember at some point in the past that the term “selenology” was used for the study of Lunar processes.

  2. Larry

    Red rock country. Edward Abbey would have loved it.

  3. Mejilan

    That top shot really is beautiful.
    And you’re right. It’s just so much more INTERESTING than the typical Mars rover pic.

  4. George

    Amazing landscape indeed! Let’s hope the drivers will one day dare to put the pedal to the metal and make at least 100 m per day :)
    And, not wanting to sound too anal, but the complete disregard or should I even say disrespect for the official name of the mountain in Gale crater makes be slightly sad:

  5. Your enthusiasm is infectious. These are simply amazing.

  6. Bret Moore

    Hey, just a point of order, do we actually KNOW those are sedimentary rocks? I’m not so sure. FWIW, layers that look like that could be produced by other processes (igneous or metamorphic, even non-aqueous i.e. aeolian sedimentary), although w/r/t Mars, probably not metamorphic shearing/structural processes like we have on Earth. But, from what I understand, we really don’t yet KNOW that’s the case. We just assume Mars is too small to have had a dynamic lithosphere, which is probably part of the reason it slowly lost its water/oxygen to space. Anyway, all I’m wondering is, is it definitively known that these are indeed sedimentary rocks of the type deposited by water? I don’t think so.

    /geologist out

  7. Joel

    Ok, now I want to go do some hiking on Mars.

  8. Stephen Olander-Waters

    “I think we better get indoors. The Sand People are easily startled but they’ll soon be back, and in greater numbers.”

  9. Marc JX8P

    This mission just keeps on turning out cool stuff – and it’s not even properly started yet. What a fantastic achievement! I am curious about the smaller rocks all around the rover – they all seem relatively sharp edged. Does this mean they are relatively new, probably caused by impacts?

  10. Lielac

    Holy son of Ares. That picture seriously goes out to 16.2 km? Seriously? Wow. That’s the thinner atmosphere playing perspective tricks on poor ol’ geocentric me, then?

    Mars is beautiful and I love it and Curiosity is awesome.

  11. Thing


    Maybe specialists in the field use other terms, but I have never heard them used in any if the NASA briefings.

    I would say the purpose of language is to communicate and if you would confuse more people by saying ‘areology’ (?’) rather than ‘geology’ (with the context) then you should use the later, ‘correctness’ be damned. See ‘kibibyte’ v kilobyte.

  12. Bret Moore (6): Do we KNOW they’re sedimentary? Fair enough, it’s not 100%, but I poked around and found lots of studies suggesting strongly that’s the case.

  13. Dave M

    The way the rock is eroded reminds me of the wind sculpted formations in the Colorado National Monument.

  14. Keith Hearn

    If we were 100% sure exactly what those rocks were, why would we bother going there? We’re pretty sure, based on orbital data, but the only way to really be sure is to go there and examine them.

  15. EidLeWeise

    Just wondering, if I were standing on the surface of Mars, would the sky be the cloudy white we see in the photo? If so why? If not, what is it closer to?

  16. Shouldn’t that be “BarZOOMenate”?

  17. Messier Tidy Upper

    Mountains of Mars!
    All sediment lined rocks – with hidden blueberries lurking within?
    Formed through aeons of salty waters
    Perhaps topped with thick ice sprinkled over with outback red dust?
    On a planet topped with a crust of rust.
    The places our Curiosity takes us! 8)

    @16. EidLeWeise : I gather its a salmon (pinky-yellowy-orange) coloured sky – at least during the martian Sols (days) – martian night is as black as Earth’s although its sunsets make Mars skies turn blue or so I understand, could be mistaken. Could depend on dust levels too.

  18. Georg

    A mechanism
    which can produce such layered forms is by a retreating coastline.
    If the coastline varies in steps, precise horizontal coastlines
    are scuptured. But I think that are sediments.
    We will know soon.

  19. Brian Gonigal

    You know, if that pic were from Earth, I’d say it looked like the perfect spot to go hunting for fossils.

    Just sayin’.

  20. Georg

    Does anybody
    know by which mechanism that blueish-black sand
    making up the dunes is separated from other material of
    similar size?
    I guess that sand is made drom the same rock
    as “coronation” is made of, some basalt.

  21. Simply stunning.
    Jawdroppingly beautiful.

    And here is a little movie about the cats on Mars:

  22. CR

    I’ve said this before, and I’ll repeat it now: just call it geology! (And for that matter, call the landscape terrain.) While technically grammatically incorrect, we all know it means the study of rocks, minerals and landscapes and their properties & formation. Thing @ 11 is right… using a different term just because of the location (planet, asteroid, wherever) would just be confusing.

    Now that I’ve got that out of the way once again…

    Wow, what a cool photo! The distances involved surprised me a little, too. I hope that Curiosity has a decent time traversing the terrain. I’ll bet that this is going to be like the other rovers… just when it seems they’ve found the coolest thing yet on Mars, they traverse another hill or find a different outcropping and it’s “WOW” all over again. I can’t wait to see what the next few years bring us. (And while we’ve got that going on, in no time Pluto shall finally be revealed to us!)

  23. Apollo 17 had an Moonologist.

  24. CatMom

    I think I see Bantha tracks there off to the right.

  25. andy

    Aeolis Mons certainly seems to be the most spectacular landscape so far seen from the surface of Mars. Impressive that the technology now exists that can ensure a reasonable chance of a safe landing in such terrain at such a large distance from Earth.

  26. Has everyone located the 100mm camera picture site on the big panoramic? Gives a good indication of just how much detail we can expect over a huge area as Curiosity rolls.

    Any idea of the resolution at 9.3km spot indicated?

  27. Chris Winter

    Palpatim wrote: “I’ve noticed that most discussion of extraterrestrial rocks, etc, still uses the term “geology”, despite the Earth-centric “geo-” prefix. Is that the de-facto standard? I seem to remember at some point in the past that the term “selenology” was used for the study of Lunar processes.”

    Yes. So… Are we to use a planet-specific term for the study of each world’s terrain processes? Areology? Joviology? (I’m sure there are rocks down below those gas clouds somewhere.)

    The above is tongue-in-cheek. I guess the perfectly correct option is the somewhat unwieldy “planetology”, with “crustology” a far-distant second place. So I’ll side with CR and say just call it all geology.

  28. Luke Forrester

    Curiosity: “Well, I’m not going that way. It’s much too rocky. This way is much easier. “

  29. Hal

    You know …. these pictures look an awful lot like the quarry the BBC used to use for every alien planet ever.

  30. Nigel Depledge

    @ George (4) –

    I learned something new today. Thanks.

  31. Nigel Depledge

    Chris Winter (29) said:

    Joviology? (I’m sure there are rocks down below those gas clouds somewhere.)

    Well, kind-of, but not in the sense you mean.

    IIUC, the current understanding of Jupiter’s interior is that the (mostly H & He) atmosphere becomes more and more dense as one descends, to the extent that the term “gas” is no longer meaningful, even though technically correct. Beneath the atmosphere it is believed that there exists a substantial layer of liquid metallic hydrogen (a hypothetical state of hydrogen – which is, after all, a Group I metal – that can only exist at immensely-large pressures and is thought to be responsible for Jupiter’s magnetic field).

    Beneath this layer it is thought that Jupiter’s core contains many of the same elements that exist in Earth’s crust, mantle and core and so demand the term “rocky”. But they’d all be in a liquid or amorphous-solid state under pressures the magnitude of which we can barely imagine.

  32. James Evans

    Assuming those are indeed sedimentary strata, this picture should settle the Curiosity landing site debate for anyone still arguing there are better locations on Mars. Gale Crater/Mt. Sharp (or Aeolis Mons, as George points out) continues to look like the right choice.

  33. mikel

    Any plausible chance of finding banded iron formations? That would be truly awesome.

  34. Yoav

    Why so few pictures??
    And what about videos??
    I want live feed from Mars. No filtering
    NASA is keeping all the good stuff to itself.
    I don’t like them and don’t trust them.

  35. James Evans

    I want live feed from Mars. No filtering

    I demanded publicly-accessible PTZ cameras and a Web site for the rover, but I got thrown out of the first budget constraints meeting, Yoav. I didn’t even get to explain my solution for the delay between Earth commands, Mars actions, and viewable results.


  36. Matt B.

    @1 Palpatim – The prefix “geo-” means “earth”, not “Earth”. Get it?

  37. Might there be fossils in the rock layers?


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