On July 3, 2021, NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover captured astonishing panoramic photos of the Red Planet’s unique landscape on Mount Sharp. The images, later assembled into a tour-like video, reveal that Curiosity had cruised into a region consisting of salty sulfates that transition into another area enriched with clay minerals. The varying layers on Mount Sharp, located in the Gale Crater, may help researchers uncover how Mars became the arid environment it is today, reports Mike Wall for Space.com.
NASA stitched together 129 individual images taken with the rover’s Mast Camera to create 360-degree panoramic vistas that showcase Mars’ landscape history, per Gizmodo’s Alyse Stanley. NASA also color-balanced the photos to display how Mars would look if it had similar light conditions to those on Earth.
Since landing on the Red Planet in August 2012, Curiosity has explored the Gale Crater for nine years to see if Mars had the right conditions to support microbial life at some point in its history. The rover has observed sediment patterns that suggest the Gale Crater housed a lake and stream system billions of years ago. In 2014, Curiosity reached the base of Mount Sharp and, since then, has been climbing the five-mile-tall mountain and exploring its rounded hills for clues as to how the lake system dried up, Space.com reports.
“The rocks here will begin to tell us how this once-wet planet changed into the dry Mars of today, and how long habitable environments persisted even after that happened,” says Abigail Fraeman, Curiosity’s deputy project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, in a statement.
Sulfates form in drier conditions, so NASA researchers suspect that this area on Mount Sharp may explain how Mars’ climate changed over time, Space.com reports. Around July on Earth, Mars experiences winter, so the planet’s signature red, hazy dust settled enough for Curiosity to snap clear views of the Gale Crater’s floor and the 16-mile trek it took to get to where it is now, Gizmodo reports.
Curiosity’s power source was designed to last for a minimum of 14 Earth years, so it has plenty of time to keep exploring Mount Sharp and other areas. Next year, Curiosity will explore other Martian features, like the Rafael Navarro Mountain, and revisit the Greenheugh Pediment, per Gizmodo.