NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover Climbing Toward Ridge Top

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has begun the steep ascent of an
iron-oxide-bearing ridge that’s grabbed scientists’ attention
since before the car-sized rover’s 2012 landing.

“We’re on the climb now, driving up a route where we can access
the layers we’ve studied from below,” said Abigail Fraeman, a
Curiosity science-team member at NASA’s Jet Propulsion
Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“Vera Rubin Ridge” stands prominently on the northwestern flank
of Mount Sharp, resisting erosion better than the less-steep
portions of the mountain below and above it. The ridge, also
called “Hematite Ridge,” was informally named earlier this year
in honor of pioneering astrophysicist Vera Rubin.

“As we skirted around the base of the ridge this summer, we had
the opportunity to observe the large vertical exposure of rock
layers that make up the bottom part of the ridge,” said
Fraeman, who organized the rover’s ridge campaign. “But even
though steep cliffs are great for exposing the stratifications,
they’re not so good for driving up.”

The ascent to the top of the ridge from a transition in
rock-layer appearance at the bottom of it will gain about 213
feet (65 meters) of elevation — about 20 stories. The climb
requires a series of drives totaling a little more than a third
of a mile (570 meters). Before starting this ascent in early
September, Curiosity had gained a total of about 980 feet
(about 300 meters) in elevation in drives totaling 10.76 miles
(17.32 kilometers) from its landing site to the base of the
ridge.

Curiosity’s telephoto observations of the ridge from just
beneath it show finer layering, with extensive bright veins of
varying widths cutting through the layers.

“Now we’ll have a chance to examine the layers up close as the
rover climbs,” Fraeman said.

Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of JPL said, “Using
data from orbiters and our own approach imaging, the team has
chosen places to pause for more extensive studies on the way
up, such as where the rock layers show changes in appearance or
composition. But the campaign plan will evolve as we examine
the rocks in detail. As always, it’s a mix of planning and
discovery.”

In orbital spectrometer observations, the iron-oxide mineral
hematite shows up more strongly at the ridge top than elsewhere
on lower Mount Sharp, including locations where Curiosity has
already found hematite. Researchers seek to gain better
understanding about why the ridge resists erosion, what
concentrated its hematite, whether those factors are related,
and what the rocks of the ridge can reveal about ancient
Martian environmental conditions.

“The team is excited to be exploring Vera Rubin Ridge, as this
hematite ridge has been a go-to target for Curiosity ever since
Gale Crater was selected as the landing site,” said Michael
Meyer, lead scientist of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at the
agency’s Washington headquarters.

During the first year after its landing near the base of Mount
Sharp, the Curiosity mission accomplished a major goal by
determining that billions of years ago, a Martian lake offered
conditions that would have been favorable for microbial life.
Curiosity has since traversed through a diversity of
environments where both water and wind have left their imprint.
Vera Rubin Ridge and layers above it that contain clay and
sulfate minerals provide tempting opportunities to learn even
more about the history and habitability of ancient Mars.

For more about Curiosity, visit:

https://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl

News Media Contact

Guy Webster
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-6278
guy.webster@jpl.nasa.gov

Laurie Cantillo / Dwayne Brown
NASA Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1077 / 202-358-1726
laura.l.cantillo@nasa.gov / dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov

2017-241