3-Billion-Year-Old Secrets: NASA’s Curiosity Rover Reaches Mars Ridge Where Water Left Debris Pileup

Gediz Vallis Ridge Curiosity Mars Rover Panorama

NASA’s Curiosity captured this 360-degree panorama while parked below Gediz Vallis Ridge (seen at right), a formation that preserves a record of one of the last wet periods seen on this part of Mars. After previous attempts, the rover finally reached the ridge on its fourth try. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Believed to be a remnant of powerful ancient debris flows, Gediz Vallis Ridge is a destination long sought by the rover’s science team.

Three billion years ago, amid one of the last wet periods on Mars, powerful debris flows carried mud and boulders down the side of a hulking mountain. The debris spread into a fan that was later eroded by wind into a towering ridge, preserving an intriguing record of the Red Planet’s watery past.

Curiosity’s Journey to the Ridge

Now, after three attempts, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has reached the ridge, capturing the formation in a 360-degree panoramic mosaic. Previous forays were stymied by knife-edged “gator-back” rocks and too-steep slopes. Following one of the most difficult climbs the mission has ever faced, Curiosity arrived on August 14 at an area where it could study the long-sought ridge with its 7-foot (2-meter) robotic arm.

Drag your cursor around within this 360-degree video to explore the view captured by the Mastcam on NASA’s Curiosity while the Mars rover was stopped next to Gediz Vallis Ridge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/UC Berkeley

“After three years, we finally found a spot where Mars allowed Curiosity to safely access the steep ridge,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “It’s a thrill to be able to reach out and touch rocks that were transported from places high up on Mount Sharp that we’ll never be able to visit with Curiosity.”

Discoveries on Mount Sharp

The rover has been ascending the lower part of 3-mile-tall (5-kilometer-tall) Mount Sharp since 2014, discovering evidence of ancient lakes and streams along the way. Different layers of the mountain represent different eras of Martian history. As Curiosity ascends, scientists learn more about how the landscape changed over time. Gediz Vallis Ridge was among the last features on the mountain to form, making it one of the youngest geological time capsules Curiosity will see.

Mount Sharp Inside Gale Crater, Mars

Mount Sharp rises about 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) above the floor of Gale Crater. 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. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS

Rare Insights and Future Endeavors

The rover spent 11 days at the ridge, busily snapping photos and studying the composition of dark rocks that clearly originated elsewhere on the mountain. The debris flows that helped form Gediz Vallis Ridge carried these rocks – and others lower on the ridgeline, some as large as cars – down from layers high on Mount Sharp. These rocks provide a rare insight into material from the upper mountain that Curiosity can examine.

ChemCam Mosaic of Gediz Vallis Ridge

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used its ChemCam instrument to view boulders on Gediz Vallis Ridge on November 15 to 17, 2022, the 3,653rd to 3,655th Martian days, or sols, of the mission. These boulders are thought to have been washed down in a debris flows in the ancient past and are probably some of the youngest evidence of liquid water Curiosity will see on Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/CNRS/IRAP/IAS/LPG

The rover’s arrival at the ridge has also provided scientists the first up-close views of the eroded remnants of a geologic feature known as a debris flow fan, where debris flowing down the slope spreads out into a fan shape. Debris flow fans are common on both Mars and Earth, but scientists are still learning how they form.

“I can’t imagine what it would have been like to witness these events,” said geologist William Dietrich, a mission team member at the University of California, Berkeley, who has helped lead Curiosity’s study of the ridge. “Huge rocks were ripped out of the mountain high above, rushed downhill, and spread out into a fan below. The results of this campaign will push us to better explain such events not just on Mars, but even on Earth, where they are a natural hazard.”

NASA Curiosity Mars Rover Route Lower Mount Sharp

The route NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has taken while driving through the lower part of Mount Sharp is shown as a pale line here. Different parts of the mountain are labeled by color; Curiosity is currently near the top end of Gediz Vallis Ridge, which appears in red. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/University of Arizona/JHUAPL/MSSS/USGS Astrogeology Science Center

On August 19, the rover’s Mastcam captured 136 images of a scene at Gediz Vallis Ridge that, when pieced together into a mosaic, provide a 360-degree view of the surrounding area. Visible in that panorama is the path Curiosity took up the mountainside, including through “Marker Band Valley,” where evidence of an ancient lake was discovered.

While scientists are still poring over the imagery and data from Gediz Vallis Ridge, Curiosity has already turned to its next challenge: finding a path to the channel above the ridge so that scientists can learn more about how and where water once flowed down Mount Sharp.

More About the Mission

Curiosity was built by JPL, which is managed by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California. JPL leads the mission on behalf of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

1 Comment on "3-Billion-Year-Old Secrets: NASA’s Curiosity Rover Reaches Mars Ridge Where Water Left Debris Pileup"

  1. If little red Rover snapped a picture of an empty soda bottle; that’s mine, but to be honest, I have no intention of going back there to pick it up.🥺

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