'Mount Sharp' Inside Gale Crater, Mars
Curiosity, the big rover of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, will land in August 2012 near the foot of a mountain inside Gale Crater. The mission's project science group is calling the mountain Mount Sharp. This informal naming pays tribute to geologist Robert P. Sharp (1911-2004), a founder of planetary science, influential teacher of many current leaders in the field, and team member for NASA's early Mars missions.
This oblique view of Mount Sharp, is derived from a combination of elevation and imaging data from three Mars orbiters. The view is looking toward the southeast. Gale Crater is 96 miles (154 kilometers) in diameter.
Stratification on Mount Sharp suggests the mountain is a surviving remnant of an extensive series of deposits that were laid down after a massive impact that excavated Gale Crater more than 3 billion years ago. The layers offer a history book of sequential chapters recording environmental conditions when each stratum was deposited.
During a prime mission lasting nearly two years after landing, Curiosity will use 10 instruments to investigate whether this area of Mars has ever offered conditions favorable for life, including the chemical ingredients for life. Some lower layers of Mount Sharp might tell of a lake within Gale Crater long ago, or wind-delivered sediments subsequently soaked by groundwater. In those layers, Mars orbiters have detected minerals that formed during wet conditions. Liquid water is a starting point in describing conditions favorable for life, but just the beginning of what Curiosity can investigate.
Techniques for improved landing precision give Curiosity about a 99 percent probability of landing within the ellipse outlined in black in this image. That ellipse is 12.4 miles (20 kilometers) by 15.5 miles (25 kilometers). The blue line shows one possible route the rover could take onto the lower flank of Mount Sharp. The actual route will depend on where the rover lands within the ellipse and on decisions to be made by scientists and engineers after the landing.
The image combines elevation data from the High Resolution Stereo Camera on the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter, image data from the Context Camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and color information from Viking Orbiter imagery. There is no vertical exaggeration in the image.
Mount Sharp rises about 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) above the floor of Gale Crater. Fig. 2, prepared by Curiosity science team collaborator Tanya Harrison, shows the size of Mount Sharp (in elevation above the crater floor) in comparison to the size of three large mountains on Earth, whose heights are indicated in kilometers above Earth's sea level.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory mission for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington.
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Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS