Engineers pored over data to figure out precisely where the spacecraft landed Sunday — and determined that Curiosity’s science, which has the potential to transform deep-space exploration, won’t start at the base of a mountain four miles away, but right under its nose.
Curiosity landed in a geological feature called an alluvial fan, a plain of rocks and dirt likely deposited by a river during Mars’ ancient, watery past. When it comes to Curiosity’s primary mission, the search for evidence that Mars is or was able to foster life, the fan could be “a jackpot,” said Caltech geologist John Grotzinger, the mission’s lead scientist….
Curiosity is known in engineer-speak as a “go-to” mission, meaning it was designed to land in one place and then go to another.
The ultimate target, and the reason Gale Crater was selected as a landing zone, is the towering and unusual mountain in the center of the crater. Known as Mt. Sharp, it is taller than any in the Lower 48 United States, and scientists believe its walls were eroded over millions of years, either by wind or water, and contain a preserved record of Mars’ history and evolution.
Curiosity could have wound up anywhere in its landing target, an ellipse measuring 12 miles by 4 miles. Scientists had long been attracted to the fan in addition to the mountain, but there were no guarantees that Curiosity would land on or even near the fan.
Now, Curiosity doesn’t have to “go-to” much of anywhere any time soon because there’s too much science to do right in the neighborhood, where running water appears to have swept debris from the northern rim of the crater into its bowl. The spot is at about the 11 o’clock position in the crater, a little more than a mile east of the center of the landing ellipse, and about 14 miles from the north wall of the crater.
Space scientists are so fascinated by the possibility of taking a close look at an alluvial fan on Mars that they very nearly chose a different spot — a site that appeared to be the petrified remnants of a river delta, similar to where the Mississippi River spills into the Gulf of Mexico.