NASA's Curiosity rover to explore bizarre Martian mountain (+video)
The three-mile-tall Mount Sharp is an inviting target for investigation by NASA's one-ton Mars rover, which is scheduled to touch down on the Red Planet on Aug. 5.
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Mount Sharp rises 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the center of Mars' huge Gale Crater, where the car-size Curiosity rover will touch down on the night of Aug. 5. Curiosity scientists are eager to study the mountain, whose many layers preserve a record of the Red Planet's changing environmental conditions going back perhaps a billion years or more.
Curiosity's rovings could also help the team understand how Mount Sharp formed, because they're not entirely sure.
"In one go, you have flat-lying strata that are 5 kilometers thick. There's nothing like that on Earth," said Curiosity lead scientist John Grotzinger, of Caltech in Pasadena. "We don't really know what's going on there." [Curiosity - The SUV of Mars Rovers]
Exploring Mount Sharp
The 1-ton Curiosity rover is the centerpiece of NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, which launched in late November. MSL's main goal is to determine if the Gale Crater area is, or ever was, capable of supporting microbial life.
To get at this question, Curiosity will investigate the different layers of Mount Sharp, which is taller than any peak in the continental United States.
Life as we know it depends on liquid water. So the rover will probably spend a lot of time poking around Mount Sharp's lower reaches, where Mars-orbiting spacecraft have spotted signs of minerals that form in the presence of water, such as clays and sulfates.
But there are reasons to climb higher. If Curiosity gets about 2,300 feet (700 meters) up the mountain, for example, it will cross a boundary, encountering layers that don't show signs of hydrated minerals. Higher still are strata that appear to have been deposited by the wind in a rhythmic pattern, perhaps indicating climate cycles, Grotzinger said.
Studying these higher layers could help scientists better understand why Mars shifted from a relatively wet world billions of years ago to the dry and desolate planet we know today — a transition marked by what Grotzinger dubbed the "Great Desiccation Event."