Focus of Curiosity: Gale Crater

Gale Crater at sunrise (center). The Curiosity rover will land just to the north (left) of the central peak. This image was computer generated based on actual topographic and color information. See a video version.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Doug Ellison

After a spectacular launch and a dangerous, months-long cruise through the black reaches of space, the Mars Science Laboratory—better known as the Curiosity rover—will soon land on the surface of Mars.

Sending a robotic spacecraft to another planet is an audacious, expensive and dangerous adventure—so Curiosity won’t set down just anywhere. The target is Gale Crater, one of the most interesting places on the planet. And “most interesting” is not just some subjective label. Teams of scientists worked for years, poring over maps and surveys taken from orbit, analyzing and hotly debating with one another as they narrowed down the choices from more than 60 amazing sites down to just four, then down to the winner. This great lecture briefly reviews what the Mars explorers were looking for and how they finally made their decision.

They passed up some incredible spots in order to pick this one, because Gale Crater has it all. Named for an amateur astronomer, the crater is about 154 kilometers wide. Its central peak is 5.5 km high (more than than three miles), and is informally named Mt. Sharp after a pioneering Mars scientist. It contains exposed layers of rock with chemical signatures that hint at a time when the planet was a wetter and warmer potential home for life. Besides all that, there are dry stream beds, fields of dunes, and deep, winding canyons all within driving range of the landing site.

If you’d like a preview of what Curiosity might find when it arrives in August, here are some images to explore.

topo map of Gale Crater region

The lay of the land. Gale Crater sits on the border of Terra Cimmeria, part of the rugged southern highlands of Mars, and the Elysium Plane, part of the planet's northern flatlands. Credit: USGS

topo map of Gale Crater region

A closer view of the rough and mysterious country near Gale Crater. Credit: USGS

orbital view of Gale Crater

A photographic view of Gale from orbit. The ellipse in the northwest corner marks the target landing zone. This view clearly shows the wildly diverse and intriguing landscapes of Gale and its dry river beds, layered rock outcroppings, cliffs, and sub-craters. Rising higher than Earth's Mt. Shasta above the crater's center is Aeolis Mons, informally known as Mt. Sharp. The 'Grand Canyon' of Gale Crater cuts through its western flank. Credit: NASA/JPL/ASU

perspective view of Gale Crater

A computer-generated perspective view in natural color, this time looking toward the south. The landing ellipse is highlighted in yellow. Credit: NASA/JPL/ASU/UA

route

This computer-generated view marks a potential route for the rover to track from the landing area on the plains of Aeolis Palus, though the dark dune field, to the more challenging canyons of Mt. Sharp. The mission plan calls for two Earth years of wandering through this landscape. Credit: NASA/JPL/ASU/UA

Mars Express elevation map

This elevation map of the landing area and surrounding terrain comes from Europe's Mars Express orbiter. Credit: ESA/FU Berlin

Mars Express slope map

The same area, this time mapping the slope of the landscape--warmer colors are steeper inclines. Curiosity is a big, powerful machine fueled by nuclear isotopes, but its onboard computers and drivers on Earth will still need to carefully choose their routes to avoid rover traps. Credit: ESA/FU Berlin

ground view

Morning on a new world. A computer-generated take, based on actual topography and color, on what could be the first view the Curiosity rover sees after landing. Those hills are full of secrets to be uncovered. Credit: NASA/JPL/ASU/UA

A photographic cross section of the landing area, running north to south, with a part of Mt. Sharp near the bottom, taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The next few images will zoom in on this area. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

An extreme close-up (tight enough to see individual boulders) of a small section of Aeolis Palus, the relatively flat plain where Curiosity will land. Rover wheels may roll over this very spot. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Potential inverted stream beds in the landing area. Water probably flowed across this landscape in the distant past. Did anything ever wriggle through these streams? Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

A field of dunes that Curiosity might have to fight through in order to get to the good stuff. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Complex geological formations at the foot of Aeolis Mons, Mt. Sharp. Could these hills hold the key to finding signs of life? No matter what, past experience hints it will be something surprising. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Zooming in on small sections of the "Grand Canyon" of Gale Crater. The rover may or may not make it to this spot, but it will definitely be exploring similar canyons, looking for clues in the storybook rock layers. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Zooming in on small sections of the "Grand Canyon" of Gale Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

cruise

The spacecraft that will deliver Curiosity to the Red Planet is just a few weeks away from its destination! You can track its progress--in 3D and in real time--at the awesome Eyes on the Solar System site.

Curious About Curiosity?

Pictures and Videos

Pictures taken by attendees of the NASA-sponsored Curiosity launch Tweetup:

Rocket at Sunset

Official launch videos:

Videos

Official mission trailer:

Trailer Video

Video of the Tweetup briefings from top NASA scientists and engineers:

Tweetup video

My unofficial launch teaser video, based on behind-the-scenes NASA footage:

Launch teaser video

Why Go to Mars Anyway?

Other Robotic Missions Now in the Cruise Phase

About

Your lead robot rider since 2005. Writer, photographer, science advocate. billdunford.com

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