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NASA’s Curiosity begins long-anticipated study of Mars’ unique terrain features

The Mars Curiosity rover recently begun its study of an iron-bearing ridge forming a distinctive layer on one of the Red Planet’s mountain slopes. The area was named by scientists “Vera Rubin Ridge,” and is seen as one of four unique terrains on lower Mount Sharp and therefore a key mission destination.

“Our Vera Rubin Ridge campaign has begun. Curiosity is driving parallel to the ridge, below it, observing it from different angles as we work our way toward a safe route to the top of the ridge,” Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, said.

According to a NASA Jet Propultion Laboratory news release, Vera Rubin Ridge stands about eight stories tall, with a trough behind it where clay minerals await. Curiosity is now near the downhill face, which forms an impressive wall for much of the ridge’s length of about 4 miles (6.5 kilometers).


A major appeal of the ridge is an iron-oxide mineral, hematite, which can form under wet conditions and reveal information about ancient environments. Hematite-bearing rocks elsewhere on Mars were the scientific basis for choosing the 2004 landing site of an older and still-active rover, Opportunity. Studies of Mount Sharp with the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars, on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, identified hematite in the ridge and also mapped water-related clay and sulfate minerals in layers just above it.

The Curiosity mission will be watching for clues about whether a gradient in oxidation levels was present, as that could have provided a potential energy source for microbial life.

But the mission has its challenges, as the terrain near the base of the ridge is rife with boulders and sand, creating rough conditions for navigation.

During the first year after its landing on Aug. 5, 2012, the Curiosity mission accomplished a major goal by determining that billions of years ago, a Martian lake offered conditions that would have been favorable for microbial life. Curiosity has since traversed through a diversity of environments where both water and wind have left their imprint.

The name “Vera Rubin Ridge” is Curiosity’s team’s way of commemorating astronomer Vera Cooper Rubin (1928-2016).

John Beckett