Aug. 27, 2012 - A year from now, if all goes as planned, NASA's Mars rover Curiosity will be in the hills and valleys of Mount Sharp, a three-mile high mound of layered rock rising from the floor of Gale Crater where the probe landed on Aug. 6.
The first high-resolution, focused images of Mount Sharp, released Monday, surprised scientists who realized that the mound has tilted layers of rock on top of layers that are positioned relatively horizontal.
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"The cool thing here is that the cameras have discovered something that we were ignorant about," lead scientist John Grotzinger, with the California Institute of Technology, told Discovery News during a press conference Monday. "This thing just kind of jumped out."
Places like the Grand Canyon on Earth have similar features, but the tilted layers are mostly beneath, not above, the flat ones, a result of plate tectonics that rotate the planet's older layers.
On Mount Sharp, scientists suspect the tilted layers are due to the physical processes, such as wind or water, that built up the deposits.
"One day, we we hope to go across and check it out," Grotzinger said.
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While the angles of the layers are interesting, scientists are more focused on what they contain. The older, relatively flat layers appear from orbital imagery to contain clays and minerals which on Earth form in the presence of water.
That's a starting point for the $2.5 billion Mars Science Lab mission, NASA's first astrobiology mission since the 1970s-era Viking probes. Curiosity's goal is to dig down in the chemistry of Mount Sharp to determine if it has the ingredients and conditions to support and preserve life.
-- by Irene Klotz