After overcoming challenging terrain, NASA's Curiosity Rover has successfully reached a significant ridge on Mars. The area holds clues to the Red Planet's watery history.
Roughly three billion years ago, during one of Mars’ final wet spells, strong debris flows washed mud and rocks down a massive mountain. This torrent eventually spread into a fan-shaped deposit, which wind erosion later transformed into a commanding ridge. This natural archive encapsulates key details of Mars’ former water activity.
On its third try, NASA’s Curiosity Rover has finally reached this intriguing ridge, capturing the formation in an extensive 360-degree panorama. Prior efforts had been hindered by jagged “gator-back” rocks and steep inclines. Tackling one of its most arduous climbs yet, Curiosity successfully reached the area on August 14, now ready to probe the ridge using its 7-foot robotic arm.
“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 in Southern California. “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.”
Journey Up Mount Sharp
Since 2014, Curiosity has been scaling the lower parts of the 3-mile-high Mount Sharp, discovering remnants of ancient lakes and streams in its ascent. The varying layers of the mountain showcase different chapters in Martian history. The rover’s continuing climb helps scientists unravel how Mars’ features have transformed over time. The ridge, known as Gediz Vallis Ridge, is among the last formations to appear on Mount Sharp, marking it as a relatively young geological feature.
During its 11-day stay on the ridge, Curiosity took multiple photographs and examined the composition of dark rocks that clearly originated from other parts of Mount Sharp. These debris flows that helped sculpt Gediz Vallis Ridge transported these rocks—some of which are as large as automobiles—down from elevated layers of Mount Sharp. These specimens offer a unique opportunity to study material from higher elevations.
First-Hand Look at Debris Flow Fans
Curiosity’s arrival has also afforded researchers their first close-up glimpses of what’s known as a debris flow fan—a geological feature formed when flowing debris fans out across a slope. Although these structures occur on both Mars and Earth, their formation process is not yet fully understood.
“I can’t imagine what it would have been like to witness these events,” said geologist William Dietrich, a mission team member at the University of California, Berkeley. “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.”
On August 19, Curiosity’s Mastcam took 136 images at Gediz Vallis Ridge, which were then compiled into a 360-degree panorama. This view reveals Curiosity’s path up the mountain, including a trip through “Marker Band Valley,” where signs of an ancient lake were discovered.
While scientists continue to analyze the information gathered at Gediz Vallis Ridge, Curiosity is already focusing on its next mission: determining a route to the channel above the ridge to further study how and where water once flowed on Mount Sharp.
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