Curiosity kicked off its 2-year mission extension with a spectacular selfie on the lower slopes of Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons), leaving a geologically fascinating region called "Murray Buttes."
Using orbital data taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the mission's rover drivers will now begin a one-and-a-half-mile trek further up the 3.4-mile-high mountain to an area known to possess the iron-oxide mineral hematite and clay-rich bedrock, materials that were formed in Mars' ancient wet past.
"We continue to reach higher and younger layers on Mount Sharp," said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity Project Scientist of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in a statement. "Even after four years of exploring near and on the mountain, it still has the potential to completely surprise us."
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Curiosity's self portrait is compiled from a mosaic of 60 photographs captured by the rover's robotic arm-mounted MAHLI camera taken at the "Quela" drilling site in Murray Buttes on Sept. 17. Not only do these high-definition selfie panoramas provide a beautiful "postcard" documenting Curiosity's mission waypoints, mission engineers use the selfies to inspect the rover itself, keeping an eye out for any damage to the rover that has been exploring the harsh Martian landscape since 2012.
"Bidding good-bye to 'Murray Buttes,' Curiosity's assignment is the ongoing study of ancient habitability and the potential for life," said Michael Meyer, Curiosity Program Scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. "This mission, as it explores the succession of rock layers, is reading the 'pages' of Martian history -- changing our understanding of Mars and how the planet has evolved. Curiosity has been and will be a cornerstone in our plans for future missions."
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The Murray formation is a 180 meter-thick geological layer on the mountain's slopes composed primarily of mud stone, revealing that the region was formed by sediment on an ancient lake bed. Understanding how these kinds of features formed and how Mars transitioned from a wet -- and potentially habitable -- planet into the barren and dusty one it is today is key to Curiosity's studies.
On Oct. 1, Curiosity's mission got the go ahead for an extension that will allow the rover to climb higher, taking more drill samples for analysis hopefully adding more pieces to the puzzle of Mars' past.
"We will see whether that record of lakes continues further," said Vasavada. "The more vertical thickness we see, the longer the lakes were present, and the longer habitable conditions existed here. Did the ancient environment change over time? Will the type of evidence we've found so far transition to something else?"
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