NASA Repurposes Curiosity to Analyze Mount Sharp's Gravity

Hacking a Mars rover’s tools has unearthed new insights into the planet

Hacking a Mars rover’s tools has unearthed new insights into the planet

Scientists working with the Curiosity rover used a piece of its navigation equipment - an accelerometer like the one in your mobile phone-in order to make an important measurement about Mars' mysterious geology. Scientists now think the rock would have compacted more if that was the case.

"This allows us to get new information about the subsurface of Mars in ways the rover was never created to do".

Back in the Apollo mission days to the moon in 1972, the moon rover that the astronauts drove around had instruments on board to measure the gravity of the surface.

A team of researchers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, John Hopkins University, Carnegie Institution, University of Maryland, and Arizona State University, all in the U.S., were responsible for calibrating the Curiosity's accelerometers for gravimetry. The difference between the predicted and modeled measurements, the team determined, were the result of the additional downward pull of the mass of Mount Sharp itself, allowing the researchers to estimate the density of the rocks beneath the rover.

The Science paper uses over 700 measurements from Curiosity's accelerometers, taken between October 2012 and June 2017. The nuclear-powered rover has highly sensitive accelerometers, and the aforementioned boffins were able to repurpose these to measure gravity on Mars. Even when Curiosity is stationary, the accelerometers are constantly detecting the slight changes in gravity on Mars, as Curiosity rolls further up Mount Sharp. By examining variations in gravity, they can calculate the density of the underlying rock, revealing all sorts of things about its history.

"What we were able to do is measure the bulk density of the material in Gale Crater", says Travis Gabriel, a graduate student in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration.

First, the researchers took into account Mars' rotation to accommodate expected changes in acceleration.

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Using these "gravimetry" measurements, the researchers calculated the density of the rocks beneath Curiosity's wheels-about 1,680 kilograms per cubic meter.

"However, the bulk density that came out of our study is a lot less - 1680 kilogrammes per cubic metre", said Gabriel. It remains unclear how high they got-where the transition between lake sediments and windblown deposits lies on Mount Sharp's slopes.

This adds more evidence to the idea that Mount Sharp formed as a freestanding mound in the crater. All we have are hypotheses.

There are other craters on Mars with central peaks, raised by the impact that formed the crater.

Did these sediments once fill the entire bowl of Gale Crater? Pictured: In this handout provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS A sweeping panorama combining 33 telephoto images into one Martian vista presents details of several types of terrain visible on Mount Sharp from a location along the route of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. But if this was the case, then the weight of all that sediment would have squashed down the bottom layers. Now, Curiosity will study clay minerals that may have helped form the lower levels of Mount Sharp.

And this probably won't be the last time we hear about Curiosity "new" gravity instrument.

If these deposits had once been buried under 3 miles (5 km) of other sediments, they would nearly certainly be much denser, he added. However, the low subsurface density Lewis' team found along Curiosity's traverse at the base of Mount Sharp suggests that it was never buried very deeply and that the layers of Mount Sharp never completely filled the crater.

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