Mountain on Mars -- a 'Curious' New Perspective


When the first images from Curiosity arrived from Mars last night, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission scientists were surprised at the amount of dust caking the protective covers of the front hazard cameras. John Grotzinger, project scientist and manager of MSL at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, says aside from the volumes of dust, “the other interesting observation is rear haz cam showed the wheels are on relatively firm ground and we didn’t get any sinkage there. The material has pretty substantial bearing strength, and from that perspective we may want to drive off and get a scoop (of the soil for sampling) where it is softer.”

Curiosity came to rest oriented northwest to southeast, with the ‘front’ of the craft pointing towards the 18,000 ft. tall Mount Sharp. Even though it was tough to see through the dust and the wide-angle view of the front haz cam, it soon became clear that the initial images from that direction included the looming white bulk of the mountain (outlined roughly in red) in the center of Gale Crater. The clue came from a thin black line (in blue) running across the image from left to right which was identified as the field of black sand dunes lying between the rover and Mount Sharp.

The cleaned up image, although relatively low resolution and still in black and white, now shows a clearer image to the southeast. The shadow of the rover reaches up the horizon where the black sand dunes clearly mark the demarcation between the crater floor and the foothills of Mount Sharp.

For comparison to Earthly mountains here is NASA’s graphic showing the Martian peak relative to Rainier, McKinley and Everest.

..and here is Rainier, pictured during a recent flight from Seattle.

Mission planners also discounted potential thoughts of sending Curiosity to the impact crater created yesterday by the abandoned lander which lowered the rover to the surface. "We’d prefer to avoid the impact crater because of the hydrazine,” says Grotzinger referring to the 140 kg of unspent fuel that was onboard the lander when it completed its task and performed a pre-programmed ‘fly-away’ maneuver to the north. The thought of investigating newly-created holes has, however, remained intriguing. Regarding the blocks of tungsten ballast that were ejected to re-balance the craft for parachute deployment :“I was hoping maybe for fresh exposure without contamination,” Grotzinger says. However he says the blocks, each weighing 55 lb., fell too far away from the landing site to ever be realistically considered for this role.

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