Small blue dot on a red planet

CuriosityOn Wednesday April 16th, NASA JPL released a remarkable image captured using the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

The image reveals the the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity parked alongside the multi-layered rock formation dubbed “The Kimberley”, as it prepares to undertake a range of science studies in the area.

The image was captured by MRO on April 11th during an overflight of the rover’s position as it sits at the foot of a rocky butte mission scientists have dubbed “Mount Remarkable”, and which forms a part of a multi-layered rocky location which has been dubbed “the Kimberley” due to its resemblance to a similar confluence of rock types found in Western Australia.

A rover’s progress: Curiosity, the blue form just off-centre in this false-colour image, sits at the foot of “Mount Remarkable”, a butte located in the area mission scientists have dubbed “the Kimberley”. the rover’s tracks can be seen leading back toward the top left corner of the image, where it entered the region on March 12th, 2014.

“The Kimberley” is an area of four distinguishable rock types exposed close together in a decipherable geological relationship to each other.  As such, they should provide further clues about ancient environments that may have been favourable for life. It is of particular interest to Scientists because like “Yellowknife Bay”, where the rover spent several months analysing and drilling rocks, “the Kimberley” demonstrates features which suggest that some of the rocks have only been exposed for a short time, geologically speaking.

This matters because Mars doesn’t have a magnetosphere and thick atmosphere like Earth’s, which protect us from energetic particles from space that break down organic material. So, rocks that have been exposed or close to the surface for a very long time are less likely to contain complex organic material, which might either be the remnants of past life, or help inform scientists about past habitability, the potential to support life in an area – as was the case with “Yellowknife Bay”.

A mosaic of images captured by Curiosity’s Navcam system showing the rocks immediately in front of the rover and the butte dubbed “Mount Remarkable”. The butte stands about  5 metres (16 feet) high. Its informal name comes from a mountain and national park in Australia. The images used in this picture were all captured on mission Sol 597, April 11th, 2014, the day when the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter observed Curiosity parked at the location while passing overhead (click for full size)

Of particular interest to scientists is the flatter area of rock visible in the middle foreground to the mosaic show above. This is referred to as the “middle unit” because its location is intermediate between rocks that form buttes in the area and lower-lying rocks that show a pattern of striations. Initial analysis of this rock is currently underway using some of the turret-mounted instruments on the rover’s robot arm, including the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera. The rock has also be subjected to “zapping” by the rover’s ChemCam laser, all of which is intended to analyse the rock’s chemical elements.

Then, depending on what is learned as a result of this work, the rock may become the third site selected for sampling using Curiosity’s drill, powder from which will be collected, sifted and sorted for delivery to the rover’s on-board laboratory for detailed analysis. The mission’s first two drilled samples, taken in 2013 while the rover was in “Yellowknife Bay”, close to Curiosity’s landing site, yielded evidence last year for an ancient lakebed environment with available energy and ingredients favorable for microbial life.

A closer viewer of Curiosity as captured on May 11th by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). To give an idea of scale, the wheel tracks for the rover are some 2.7 metres (9 feet) apart and the area visible in the image is approximately 300 metres (975 feet) across. “the Kimberley” large occupies the left side of the image (click for full size).

The false colour use in the image captured from orbit by MRO helps to make differences in Mars surface materials more apparent, assisting scientists in analysing the rocks. A side-effect of this false colour is that it makes Curiosity appear to be blue in colour.

Curiosity is liable to remain in “the Kimberley” region for a number of weeks engaged in studies and analysis, prior to resuming the drive down to point at which it can pass around a line of sand dunes between it and “Mount Sharp”, the large mound at the centre of Gale Crater. Once this has been done, the rover will commence an exploration of the foothills of “Mount Sharp”.

A raw image captured by Curiosity’s left Navcam camera on April 15th, 2014 (Sol 601), looking out over “the Kimberley”

All images courtesy of NASA JPL.