NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover Approaches Kimberly Region

Astronomy News – 2014/03/25

NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover could be traversing terrain similar to large grained sandstone deposits found on Earth scientists studying images taken of the region surrounding the spacecraft believe.

The 160 degree landscape panorama below photographed by Curiosity’s Navigation Camera (Navcam) on February 19, 2014 during a stop on the missions 574th day shows an eroded sandstone outcrop called Junda and Mount Sharp on the horizon. The panoramic image below is centered on “the Kimberley”, a region 282 feet south from the rovers location, NASA scientists are heading Curiosity toward.

The 160 degree panorama here was taken by the Curiosity Mars Rover.
The 160 degree panorama here was taken by the Curiosity Mars Rover.

The 360-degree panorama below is also centered on the Kimberley region to the south. The outcrop of eroded sandstone in the foreground is the same one seen in the 160 degree panorama above.

The 360 degree panorama here is south of the Kimberley
The 360 degree panorama here is south of the Kimberley

The Kimberley region and Mount Sharp were chosen as prime targets of interest for NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover due to study of images taken from orbit of the region last year. Planetary scientists want to take a look at the Kimberley region because four types of sandstone with different textures intersect there.

“The orbital images didn’t tell us what those rocks are, but now that Curiosity is getting closer, we’re seeing a preview,” said Curiosity Deputy Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “

The contrasting heights of sandstone here indicates varying erosion resistance
The contrasting heights of sandstone here indicates varying erosion resistance

The contrasting textures and durabilities of sandstones in this area are fascinating. While superficially similar, the rocks likely formed and evolved quite differently from each other.”

The resistance to erosion of different rock types in a location 400 meters north-northwest of the Kimberley results in the different elevations and surfaces shades seen here. Higher elevations indicates more erosion resistant rock, while the flat, tanned surface is a sandstone with low resistance to erosion. This means the medium height rocks to the right center are less resistant to erosion than the taller rocks at the top of the image.

In earth geology sand is defined as fragmentary sediment smaller than 2 mm and 0.062 mm in diameter. Sandstone is the second most abundant sedimentary rock (20-25%) on Earth. The environment of deposition of surface rocks is generally related to mineral composition. A study of erosion of surface rocks and their mineral composition could provide planetary scientists with clues concerning the environment sandstone was formed in millions of years ago.

In geology the material between grains of sand in sandstone is called cement, whatever it’s composition. On earth the particular characteristics of cement varies quite a bit, depending on the environmental and geophysical history of the sandstone formation studied. Sandstones with a high percentage of clay-minerals are generally soft and will readily crumble when hit with a hammer. Sandstone with quartz cement is usually hard and rings when struck with a hammer.

Planetary scientists are hoping to have time in the planned schedule of Curiosity to study the sandstone in the Kimberly region. The results would be very interesting and could tell us a lot about the geological history of the Red Planet.

For the most part, the surface terrain NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover has travelled over thus far was finer grained mud stone, rather than the coarser-grained sandstone outcroppings they expect to discover once they reach the Kimberley region of Mars. Sandstone has been seen in a number of different forms on planet Earth and some earth scientists were probably expecting forms to exist on other planets. Time permitting, planetary scientists are hoping to grab a sample of the terrain in the Kimberley region, they can study in depth using laboratory instruments inside Curiosity.

As with earth geology, an understanding of the process that created the different sandstone formations and outcrops in the Kimberly region, could help explain terrain found in Mars Gale Crater and the reason it has a large layered mountain, Mount Sharp, near its center.

“A major issue for us now is to understand why some rocks resist erosion more than other rocks, especially when they are so close to each other and are both likely to be sandstones,” said Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego.

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