Curiosity Rover Captures Flaky Rocks on Mars from Past Climate Change

ASA’s Curiosity Mars rover captured this view of a sulfate-bearing region using its Mastcam on May 2, 2022, the 3,462nd Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Dark boulders seen near the center are thought to have formed from sand deposited in ancient streams or ponds.

For the past year, NASA’s Curiosity rover has been moving between two regions in order to look for evidence of water in Mars’s past. Surprisingly the target area has also provided interesting details.

The science team asked Curiosity for two areas to be examined, one that is rich in clay and the other one with a salty substance called sulfate. For the past year, it has been moving from the clay region en route to the sulfate one, yet the transition area between them has yielded photos that show a record of a major shift in the planet’s climate billions of years ago.

Photo from the Mars Curiosity Rover
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover captured this 360-degree panorama near a location nicknamed “Sierra Maigualida” on May 22, 2022, the 3,481st Martian day, or sol, of the mission. The panorama is made up of 133 individual images captured by Curiosity’s Mast Camera, or Mastcam.

The flakey rocks that are visible in the photos are believed to have been formed by an ancient stream or small pond.

Mars Curiosity Rover Photo of rocks
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover captured this view of layered, flaky rocks believed to have formed in an ancient streambed or small pond. The six images that make up this mosaic were captured using Curiosity’s Mast Camera, or Mastcam, on June 2, 2022, the 3,492nd Martian day, or sol, of the mission.

“We no longer see the lake deposits that we saw for years lower on Mount Sharp,” Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, says. We now see evidence of dry climates like dunes with streams that sometimes ran around them. This is a significant change from lakes that existed for millions of years prior to .”

NASA says that as Curiosity climbs through the transition zone, it is detecting less clay and more sulfate in addition to unique geologic features. The scientists say that the hills in the area likely began in a dry environment of what they describe as large, wind-swept sand dunes that hardened into rock over time. NASA believes that other sediments, including those found between them, were transported by water and deposited in streams or ponds.

Mars Curiosity Rover Photo of rocks
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover captured evidence of layers that built up as windblown sand both accumulated and was scoured away at a location nicknamed “Las Claritas.” This image was captured using Curiosity’s Mast Camera, or Mastcam, on May 19, 2022, the 3,478th Martian day, or sol, of the mission.

The result is stacks of erosion-resistant “flaky layers” like the photo below, named “The Prow.”

Mars Curiosity Rover Photo of rocks

Curiosity is Weathering the Test of Time

The Curiosity rover will celebrate its tenth anniversary on the Red Planet on August 5, and while it is still going strong there are definite signs of wear.

On June 7, the rover was switched into safe mode after a temperature reading logged a spike in the body that was warmer than expected. Engineers were able to return to normal operations two days later, but the exact cause of the issue isn’t yet known.

mars curiosity rover

The rover’s wheels are also showing signs of wear. One of its middle wheels has newly broken grousers — its triangular-shaped, zig-zagging treads — and now has broken five of the 19 grousers on that wheel. Curiosity has been taking more photos of its wheels to better track the problems.

Despite these issues, Curiosity continues on its mission and nothing yet has been able to prevent it from carrying forward.


Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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