The past week has seen NASAs Curiosity rover return more amazing images of the Gale crater, fire up its DAN and SAM instruments, and take its first steps towards Mt. Sharp.
The new images, captured using the 100mm telephoto lens of the Mastcam, provide a glimpse of the geological treats that await scientists at the base of Mt. Sharp. Of particular interest has been the identification of an unconformity, where two rocks in contact but of different ages indicate a break in the geological record. Satellite data suggests that the rocks lying below the unconformity contain hydrous minerals whilst those above are “dry”. It appears these rock units formed under very different environmental conditions.
Next, Curiosity had another driving lesson, this time positioning itself over one of the scour marks created during landing. This allowed the rover to continue testing the ChemCam and turn on the Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) instrument, which will be used to search for water below the Martian surface. The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, comprising of a mass spectrometer, gas chromatograph and tunable laser spectrometer, was also gently woken up. SAM can measure the abundance of C compounds, H, N and O, elements associated with life, in atmospheric and powdered rock samples. A quick test of some Earth air trapped in the instrument since launch confirmed that it is working well and should soon be ready for Martian samples.
Curiosity has now completed four drives and is heading for Mt. Sharp. However, the first target is Glenelg, a rock outcrop 400m to the east of the Bradbury landing site, where it’s hoped Curiosity will start using its drill. Although the journey will take several weeks, Glenelg contains at least three different rock types that will help scientists piece together the geological history of Gale crater.