Scientists target 3-mile-high Martian mountain
An oblique view of Mount Sharp, where Curiosity is expected to land in August 2012.
March 30th, 2012
04:11 PM ET

Scientists target 3-mile-high Martian mountain

There's a formation on Mars that's been enticing scientists since it was first observed in the 1970s: Mount Sharp, in the middle of Gale Crater. If Gale Crater sounds familiar, it's because that's where the Mars Science Laboratory - Curiosity - is slated to land in August of this year.

Curiosity is the first Mars rover to even attempt to land on the narrow strip of flatter ground at the foot of Mount Sharp, thanks to precision-landing technology on the one-ton rover.

So why is Mount Sharp such an interesting target? Scientists hope that by studying the roughly 5-kilometer-high formation, (3.1 miles) Curiosity will be able to shed more light on whether conditions were ever favorable for life on Mars. Just to give you an idea how tall this thing is, the Grand Canyon is only a mile (1.6 kilometers) deep according to the National Park Service.

Georgia Tech's James Wray, a science team collaborator for the Curiosity mission, tells us that Mount Sharp has kilometers of sedimentary layers that could reveal clues to millions of years of Martian geologic history. As on Earth, where geologists study formations to understand how they fit into the stratigraphic - that is, chronologic - history of the planet, Mount Sharp presents an opportunity to do the same on Mars.

"Mount Sharp is the only place we can currently access on Mars where we can investigate this transition in one stratigraphic sequence," said Caltech's John Grotzinger, chief scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory, in a statement. Wray likens it to "reading thousands of successive pages from an encyclopedia of Martian history."

Mount Sharp is an apt name - in the tradition of naming Martian features after scientists (Gale Crater was named for Australian astronomer Walter Gale), the mountain is named after a geologist, Robert P. Sharp, who was at the forefront of planetary science and a member of NASA's first few Mars missions.

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soundoff (60 Responses)
  1. dozedoff

    I would have rather them landed at the foot of the face on mars !!

    April 6, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  2. Michael

    The peak being higher is the major reason and to think that the outer rim would erode at a faster rate than mt, would that not mean the material of mt harder. less dense? Internal pressure?

    April 5, 2012 at 1:37 am |
  3. lazurite

    Can't wait to see the photos. Gonna be AWESOME!

    April 3, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  4. Adam

    3 mile high mountain??? that sounds like a challenge to me!

    April 3, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  5. 2bits

    Why not try something more ambitious and land in the 2500 x 4 mile deep canyon in Mars (Valles Marineris canyon system)?

    With such a deep scar your bound to find something interesting.

    Maybe even Martians bugs washed into the canyon biliions of years ago.

    April 3, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • Judas Priest

      That is much more ambitious. It;s a very difficult landing target. More likely to be explored with the mars flyer, if it ever gets off the ground. (Gets off the ground! HA! I slay me!)

      April 4, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  6. mobius88

    Has anyone taken a really close look(or stepped back a pace) at the surface of MARS? Can't you people see them? From all of the pictures NASA has released to the public, there are so many CLUES in the photos. I'm not a rocket scientist, but even I can see them. Come on people, they were put there on purpose for your viewing pleasure. Clue: FACES!!

    April 3, 2012 at 12:20 am |
    • PallasAthene

      There is also a 'face' in the moon. Should we be aware of some message there, too?

      April 3, 2012 at 12:54 am |
      • Sybaris

        Yeah, the message is that aliens are fans of Rod Stewart.

        April 3, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • Gumby

      *facepalm*

      April 3, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • MLeRoy

      The face on Mars is trying to send us a message! You have to lip-read, but what it is saying is this:

      You Earthlings are messing up your own planet! Beware!

      Actually, the face said something different than 'messing', but this is a family-oriented web-site!

      April 3, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
  7. lawrencewinkler

    Recently I heard a scientist speak on this landing, and he added some interesting details not present in this article.

    One, the radiation bombarding Mars has certainly destroyed any possible fossils on the surface, so trying to drill from the surface will be a waste of time.

    Two, the drill being carried is relatively short, so the drilling on the surface would not be able to drill deep enough to get to a depth where fossils might exist.

    Three, therefore, the purpose of landing in a deep crater is to allow a small drill to drill sideways into the layers of Martian soil that due to the angle will have been shielded from damaging radiation that would have destroyed fossils on or near the surface.

    April 2, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
    • HamsterDancer

      You know what will happen if we build a prison there? The president or his daughter will visit and get held hostage and we'll have to send Snake Plissken in to rescue them!

      Escape from Mars! In IMAX 3D. (Rated R : extreme low-gravity violence and harsh language. Some scenes may be too intense for pre-teenagers.)

      April 3, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • Judas Priest

      Thanks for sharing that really interesting, actual information! Rare on this blog...

      April 4, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  8. gstlab3

    Let's send all these dumb and criminal politicians there along with lets say some convicted child murders and rapists and they can start a prison colony there and work to supply earth with martian gold and silver and maybe some martian weed!!!!

    April 2, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
  9. Wobbles

    John Carter has climbed to the top of this mountain and reports that Woola was unable to accompany him as Woola is deathly afraid of heights.

    April 2, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • Gumby

      Why ruin a good science article by mentioning such a terrible movie?

      April 3, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
  10. SixDegrees

    Excellent mission. I've been pining for a Mars mission that looks at sedimentary deposits for several years for exactly these reasons. It's the best place to examine the planet's past over a huge swath of time, and – if we're very lucky – it might be a place where fossils could be found, although it isn't clear to me that the mission could effectively prospect for them.

    April 2, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
  11. not too smart

    how is there a mountain inside a crater? crater=impact
    impact=no more mountain????????

    April 2, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
    • Timothy C

      It's probably a rebound peak. When the crater was formed, most of the energy radiated outward, forming the crater. At the center of the impact the crust was forced directly downward then rebounded upward, creating the peak. This is a common feature on the moon as well.

      April 2, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
      • Gumby

        Which is exactly why they want to go to this crater. The layers of sediment will no doubt be boundless.

        April 3, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
    • Jac999

      What if the crater were really a caldera.....e.g. there are mountains in the Caldera at Yellowstone. Just sayin'.

      April 3, 2012 at 1:14 am |
      • Arkady

        Actually, that is why they're going there. It shouldn't be taller than the crater rim. Yes, normally, there is a rebound peak in the center of large craters, but it is by definition not as tall as the rim. The fact that it is taller than the now eroded rim of the crater means when the rim was taller, the mountain was laid down as sediments. It was left behind later, when the rim and the rest of the crater partially eroded away, leaving an awesome mountain of sediments – like a 3 mile storybook of martian history for the area which could tell scientists a lot.

        April 3, 2012 at 4:17 am |
  12. geogria

    have fun the vioce of reason

    April 2, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  13. Taylor

    I think that sounds like Its going to be cool. The only thing that I want is for them just to send a man up there. Gale Crater I hope is as strong as Curitosity. NASA don't be fibbing

    April 2, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  14. intothemoonbeam

    Mars is such an interesting planet, I wish we would hurry and send a manned mission there.

    April 2, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • qq

      Humor–send Newt Gingrich (of moon colony fame.) Seriously, can we afford this? If so, space missions do result in research gains with spillover benefits.

      April 2, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
      • Gumby

        NASA's yearly budget typically amounts to 0.4% of the total annual federal budget. Or, think about it this way: The total budget for NASA over its 50+ year history amounts to about what we have spent on the Iraq war.

        I'd say we get our money's worth out of what we spend on NASA.

        April 3, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
    • Gumby

      I'm guessing that if it weren't for stupid politicians and their stupid wars, we'd already have been there by now.

      April 3, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
  15. Tom

    I don't know about that precision landing system. The descriptions I have read of it make it sound a lot more like a rube goldberg landing system. I do hope it works, but it seems to me the design includes a near infinite number of things that can go wrong. I thought mars landing technology reached its peak with the crash baloons they used on Spirit and Opportunity🙂.

    April 2, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • NASA-nerdling

      The baloon system was very good, but the mass of this lander is far greater than Spirit/Opportunity, so the baloons were not be feasible.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
      • Gumby

        Plus, the balloons resulted in the landers going many miles off course, because of the bouncing around. They need this new system to have the new rover land in a relatively small ring around that huge mountain (and still be in the crater).

        April 3, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
  16. portland tony

    Your point is?

    April 1, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  17. José M. Tirado

    I have a question. In this article, Mt. Sharp is listed as 3.1 miles, or 5 kilometers tall. Then its compared to the Grand Canyon in the US which is "only a mile (1.6 kilometers) deep". Why was this confusing exercise in apple/orange comparing done in the first place? As I remember my math, a mile is 5280 ft, right? Mt. Everest is 29.028 ft. Why couldn´t the author have simply written, "Mt. Sharp on Mars, at 3.1 miles or 5 kilometers tall is a little over half the size of Mt. Everest." Much simpler, no?

    March 31, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • portland tony

      Yours is a good point. But Mtns on Mars would measure differently than earth mtns since ours are measured from sea level...and last time I checked Mars had no sea level. Perhaps a calculated one?

      April 1, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
      • José M. Tirado

        Well, let´s see..."ground level" would be a place to start, no? The point is that comparing DOWN makes no sense when comparing mountains which rise UP.

        April 1, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • portland tony

      I agree... I just wonder how researchers define Martian ground or sea level.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
      • José M. Tirado

        Yes...however, they list Mt. Sharp as "5 kilometer high"...Higher than what? Obviously they have a measuring scale.

        April 2, 2012 at 5:37 am |
      • Chad Wolfe

        It's actually called the Datum. It is comprised of an "Average" of all the heights on Mars. So "Sea Level" would be called Datum.

        April 2, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
      • portland tony

        Datum makes sense.....It's just a base line where every thing is measured from. It is primarily used in engineering to tell a machinist that all demensions start at the datum surface of the part to be machined.

        April 3, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
      • MLeRoy

        You no fool me, Chad! Datum is the android on Star Trek!

        April 3, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • irunner

      Or better yet "the hightest point in the lower 48 states, Mt Whitney, is14,495' tall – about 900' shorter than Mt Sharp".

      April 2, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
      • José M. Tirado

        See...that´s exactly the kind of better comparison which is far more evocative (to USAmericans, anyway) Excellent! For a more world applicable example, they could have chosen any similarly sized 14-15K ft. peak and done the same.

        April 2, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • JaeB

      I totally agree with you. Science writers try to be too cute with comparisons, which, I'll admit, are useful. And, occasionally even the comparisons have to be complex. This was a simple apples to apples situation that was totally flubbed.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
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    March 31, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
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      Seriously, do crazies like you just pick random articles to spout nonsense at?

      April 1, 2012 at 12:52 am |
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