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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