In a press conference yesterday, NASA officials revealed the latest data from the Curiosity rover mission on Mars. The data shows that the Rover’s current location, at the base of Mount Sharp in the Gale Crater, was once deep underwater, part of a vast lake filling the entire crater.
The results suggest that ancient Mars had a climate that could sustain large lakes across the planet over millions of years.
“If our hypothesis for Mount Sharp holds up, it challenges the notion that warm and wet conditions were transient, local, or only underground on Mars,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity deputy project scientist. “A more radical explanation is that Mars’ ancient, thicker atmosphere raised temperatures above freezing globally, but so far we don’t know how the atmosphere did that.”
One of the big questions the Curiosity mission was tasked with answering was why there was a 5 Km tall mountain inside this giant crater, and it has found the answer: Continuous sedimentary deposits from rivers running into the crater.
Since its landing in 2012, the rover has drilled into several rock layers along its 8 Km journey to mount sharp, including at the crater floor, where it found ancient river deltas of sediment stacked on top of one another. Over time these layers of sediment hardened into rock, and eventually wind erosion built up mount sharp by piling up the rock between the edge of the crater and the base of the mountain.
The next step is for Curiosity to climb Mount Sharp, taking samples of the rock layers along the way. “As Curiosity climbs higher on Mount Sharp, we will have a series of experiments to show patterns in how the atmosphere and the water and the sediments interact. We may see how the chemistry changed in the lakes over time.” said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger. “This is a hypothesis supported by what we have observed so far, providing a framework for testing in the coming year.”
Even though there is plenty of evidence to suggest Mars had a warm, wet climate in the past, there is currently no model of the ancient Martian climate that explains how these conditions arose.
As the Curiosity mission continues, it will give more information to scientists who hope to send a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s. Through continued study of Mars, we will start to formulate hypotheses that will require a manned mission to the red planet. Slowly the pieces of the puzzle are being revealed.