Eroded mesas and buttes reminiscent of the U.S. Southwest shape part of the horizon in the latest 360-degree color panorama from NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. The layered geologic past of Mars is revealed in stunning detail in new color images returned by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, which is currently exploring the “Murray Buttes” region of lower Mount Sharp. These new images arguably rival photos taken in U.S. National Parks.
"Curiosity's science team has been just thrilled to go on this road trip through a bit of the American desert Southwest on Mars," said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
The rover used its Mast Camera (Mastcam) to capture dozens of component images of this scene in August and early September, four years after Curiosity's landing inside Gale Crater.
The visual drama of Murray Buttes along Curiosity's planned route up lower Mount Sharp was anticipated when the site was informally named nearly three years ago to honor Caltech planetary scientist Bruce Murray (1931-2013), a former director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. JPL manages the Curiosity mission for NASA.
The buttes and mesas are capped with rock that is relatively resistant to wind erosion. This helps preserve these monumental remnants of a layer that formerly more fully covered the underlying layer that the rover is now driving on.
The Martian buttes and mesas rising above the surface are eroded remnants of ancient sandstone that originated when winds deposited sand after lower Mount Sharp had formed. "Studying these buttes up close has given us a better understanding of ancient sand dunes that formed and were buried, chemically changed by groundwater, exhumed and eroded to form the landscape that we see today," Vasavada said.
The new images represent Curiosity's last stop in the Murray Buttes, where the rover has been driving for just over one month. As of this week, Curiosity has exited these buttes toward the south, driving up to the base of the final butte on its way out. In this location, the rover began its latest drilling campaign (on Sept. 9). After this drilling is completed, Curiosity will continue farther south and higher up Mount Sharp, leaving behind these spectacular formations.
Early in its mission on Mars, Curiosity accomplished its main goal when it found and examined an ancient habitable environment. In an extended mission, the rover is examining successively younger layers as it climbs the lower part of Mount Sharp. A key goal is to learn how freshwater lake conditions, which would have been favorable for microbes billions of years ago if Mars has ever had life, evolved into harsher, arid conditions much less suited to supporting life. The mission is also monitoring the modern environment of Mars.