The Curiosity Mars rover captured this view of its surroundings on the slopes of Mount Sharp on 9 April. The composite image, made up of 28 photos, shows a clay-bearing region at centre and the floor of Gale Crater beyond. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has started a road trip that will continue through the summer across 1.6 kilometres (roughly 1 mile) of terrain. By trip’s end, the rover will be able to ascend to the next section of the 5-kilometre-tall (3-mile-high) martian mountain it’s been exploring since 2014, searching for conditions that may have supported ancient microbial life.
Located on the floor of Gale Crater, Mount Sharp is composed of sedimentary layers that built up over time. Each layer helps tell the story about how Mars changed from being more Earth-like – with lakes, streams and a thicker atmosphere – to the nearly-airless, freezing desert it is today.
The rover’s next stop is a part of the mountain called the “sulfate-bearing unit.” Sulfates, like gypsum and Epsom salts, usually form around water as it evaporates, and they are yet another clue to how the climate and prospects for life changed nearly 3 billion years ago.
But between the ...