Friday, May 10, 2013
The Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, touched down on the surface of Mars on August 5, 2012. It was built to conduct an investigation of modern and ancient environments. Recent mission results will be discussed. Curiosity has a lifetime of at least one Mars year (~23 months) and drive capability of at least 20 km. The MSL science payload was specifically assembled to assess habitability and includes a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer and gas analyzer that will search for organic carbon in rocks, regolith fines, and the atmosphere, an x-ray diffractometer that will determine mineralogical diversity, focusable cameras that can image landscapes and rock/regolith textures in natural color, an alpha-particle x-ray spectrometer for in situ determination of rock and soil chemistry, a laser-induced breakdown spectrometer to remotely sense the chemical composition of rocks and minerals, an active neutron spectrometer designed to search for water in rocks/regolith, a weather station to measure modern-day environmental variables, and a sensor designed for continuous monitoring of background solar and cosmic radiation.
The 155-km diameter Gale Crater was chosen as Curiosity's field site based on several attributes including an interior mound of ancient flat-lying strata extending almost 5 km above the elevation of the landing site. The lower few hundred meters of the mound show a progression with relative age from clay-bearing to sulfate-bearing strata, separated by an unconformity from overlying likely anhydrous strata. The landing ellipse is characterized by a mixture of alluvial fan, high thermal inertia/high albedo stratified deposits, and a number of stratigraphically/geomorphically distinct fluvial features. Curiosity landed just below the base of the alluvial fan deposit and very close to the high thermal inertia unit. Gale's regional context and strong evidence for a progression through multiple potentially habitable environments, represented by a stratigraphic record of extraordinary extent, ensure preservation of a rich record of the environmental history of early Mars.