Curiosity has disproved 'old idea of Mars as a simple basaltic planet'

August 9, 2016, University of Leicester
This artist's concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) celebrates four years on the Red Planet Leicester planetary scientist Professor John Bridges recounts the mission's success and explains what is next for the one-ton nuclear-powered science robot.

The Curiosity rover hit the dusty surface of Mars on 6 August 2012 - and began its mission of finding evidence about whether ancient Mars offered environmental conditions conducive for microbial life.

In March 2013 NASA reported that it had achieved its primary objective after scientists found evidence of oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, sulphur, phosphorous and carbon – all essential for supporting living organisms.

Now, the mission, which was scheduled to end this year, has recently been given a two-year extension, with the University of Leicester's Professor John Bridges continuing as part of the extended NASA science team.

He said: "It's been a great four years – from the excitement of landing we have now had 1421 Martian days of operations and driven 13.6 km.

"We have learnt an enormous amount about Mars.

"The old idea of Mars as a simple basaltic planet that experienced a few catastrophic floods has been disproved.

"We have encountered ancient lakes and a silica rich crust.

"Our laser – ChemCam – has made over 350,000 shots on Mars and we are busily interpreting the data.

"Our plutonium power source can keep us going for years to come.

"For the next few years we will gradually climb further up Mount Sharp, at the moment we are in foothills called Murray Buttes."

As part of the fourth year celebration NASA has released a smartphone game, which lets users control their own MSL across the rugged terrain of Mars searching for water.

The app is aimed at increasing the popularity of science, said Michelle Viotti, manager of Mars public engagement initiatives at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California.

She said: "The interest that is shared through gameplay also helps us open a door to deeper literacy in science, technology, engineering and mathematics."

Curiosity landed inside Mars' Gale Crater on 6 August 2012, with a touchdown technique called the sky-crane manoeuvre.

During the rover's first Earth year on Mars, the mission accomplished its main goal when it found and examined an ancient habitable environment.

Researchers determined that a freshwater lake at the Yellowknife Bay site billions of years ago offered the chemical ingredients and energy favourable for supporting microbial life, if life has ever existed on Mars.

Explore further: NASA rover game released for Curiosity's anniversary

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3.9 / 5 (7) Aug 10, 2016
Water then, like now, was presumed to either be frozen at the surface, or as permafrost in the upper layers of the regolith. Mars eccentricity and tilt are highly variable. At some epochs it would be warmer than others. Hence why there would be periods of floods.

Sedimentary rocks were an assumption, before we had a roving lab. They weren't even that, when I did my degree.

Valles Marineris almost certainly wasn't initially caused by flowing water. It may have been further shaped by it, but unlikely to have caused it. Crustal stretching due to the rise of the enormous Tharsis bulge is a more probable scenario for its genesis. Or the lava therefrom.
3.9 / 5 (7) Aug 10, 2016
Should have added:
Tectonics is not required for volcanic activity. There is *possible* evidence of limited tectonic activity on Mars. However, hot spot volcanism, due to long-lived mantle plumes, would do it. The size of the Tharsis volcanoes suggests they were from such a process. You don't get that big unless you stay in the same place for a very long time.
5 / 5 (3) Aug 10, 2016
Moreover, models of differentiated planets that cool to much to generate plate tectonics often generate one first large mantle plume that freeze in, unless you balance the cooling "just so".

AFAIK the Tharsis bulge has long been thought to be such. There is a similar first-and-last plume theory that attempts to model the wander of the Moon's largest magnetic anomaly.

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