While much of the excitement surrounding the landing of NASA’s newest rover on Mars was about the thrill of interplanetary exploration or the prospect of finding life on the red planet, many of the discoveries uncovered by the Curiosity rover are most likely to be of interest to Geologists.
Today, for example, NASA announced that Curiosity has found evidence of a stream that once ran across the Martian surface. Satellite photos and other evidence have suggested the presence of water on Mars before, but these are the first images researchers have had of rocks containing ancient streambed gravels. Moreover, the size and shape of the stones can indicate the speed and distance of the ancient stream’s flow.
“From the size of gravels it carried, we can interpret the water was moving about 3 feet per second, with a depth somewhere between ankle and hip deep,” said Curiosity science co-investigator William Dietrich. “Plenty of papers have been written about channels on Mars with many different hypotheses about the flows in them. This is the first time we’re actually seeing water-transported gravel on Mars. This is a transition from speculation about the size of streambed material to direct observation of it.”
This is only days after Curiosity stopped to check out a rock named Jake Matijevic, and then continued on its way to the Glenelg area at the base of Mount Sharp. The varied terrain and dark streaks on rocks spotted there have marked it as Curiosity’s current destination.
The streambed discovery was made using Curiosity’s mast camera to photograph two outcrops NASA has named “Hottah” and “Link.”
“Hottah looks like someone jack-hammered up a slab of city sidewalk, but it’s really a tilted block of an ancient streambed,” said John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory Project scientist.
The Mars Rover science team might now use Curiosity to determine the composition of the material, which could reveal characteristics about the environment that formed the deposits.
“A long-flowing stream can be a habitable environment,” said Grotzinger. “It is not our top choice as an environment for preservation of organics, though. We’re still going to Mount Sharp, but this is insurance that we have already found our first potentially habitable environment.”
(Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)