An annotated 360-degree view from the Curiosity mast camera. Dust remaining from an enormous recent storm can be seen on the platform and in the sky. And holes in the tires speak of the rough terrain Curiosity has traveled, but now avoids whenever possible. Make the screen bigger for best results and enjoy the show. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
When it comes to the search for life beyond Earth, I think it would be hard to point to a body more captivating, and certainly more studied, than Mars.
The Curiosity rover team concluded fairly early in its six-year mission on the planet that “habitable” conditions existed on early Mars. That finding came from the indisputable presence of substantial amounts of liquid water three-billion-plus years ago, of oxidizing and reducing molecules that could provide energy for simple life, of organic compounds and of an atmosphere that was thick enough to block some of the most harmful incoming cosmic rays.
Last year, Curiosity scientists estimated that the window for a habitable Mars was some 700 million years, from 3.8 to 3.1 billion years ago. Is it a coincidence that the earliest confirmed life on Earth appeared about 3.8 billion years ago?
Today’s frigid Mars, which has an atmosphere much thinner than in the planet’s early days, hardly looks inviting, although some scientists do see a possibility that primitive life survives below the surface.
But because it doesn’t look inviting now doesn’t mean the signs of a very different planet aren’t visible and detectable through instruments. The Curiosity mission has proven this once and for all.
The just released and compelling 360-degree look (above) at the area including Vera Rubin Ridge brings the message home.
Those fractured, flat rocks are mudstone, formed when Gale Crater was home to Gale Lake. Mudstone and other sedimentary formations have been visible (and sometimes drilled) along a fair amount of the 12.26-mile path that Curiosity has traveled since touchdown.
The area the rover is now exploring contains enough hematite — iron oxide — that its signal was detectable from far above the planet, making this area a prized destination since well before the Mars Science Laboratory and Curiosity were launched.
Like Martian clays and sulfates that have been identified and explored, the hematite is of great interest because of its origins in water. … Read more