Mars Mountain Named After Planetary Scientist

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A huge mountain on Mars that NASA’s Mars Curiosity will explore after it lands in August now has a name: Mount Sharp.

The Curiosity science team announced the new name for the mountain March 28. The moniker was picked to honor the late geologist Robert Sharp (1911-2004), a pioneer planetary scientist, influential teacher of many current leaders in the field and team member for NASA’s first few Mars missions, researchers said.

“Bob Sharp was one of the best field geologists this country has ever had,” Michael Malin of Malin Space Systems, principal investigator for two of Curiosity’s 10 science instruments and a former student of Sharp’s, said in a statement. “We don’t really know the origins of Mount Sharp, but we have plans for how to go there and test our theories about it, and that’s just how Bob would have wanted it.”

The 1-ton Curiosity rover — the centerpiece of NASA’s $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission — blasted off in November and is slated to land at Gale Crater on the night of Aug. 5. Its main mission is to determine if the Gale Crater area is, or ever was, capable of supporting microbial life.

Mount Sharp rises from the center of the crater, looming 5 kilometers above the surrounding terrain. Its layered rocks preserve a record of Mars’ changing environmental conditions going back a billion years or more, providing an inviting exploration target for Curiosity.

Mars orbiters have detected minerals near Mount Sharp’s base that only form in water. So some of its lower layers might tell of a lake within Gale Crater long ago, or they might indicate wind-delivered sediments later soaked by groundwater, researchers said.

Higher layers, on the other hand, may represent wind-blown dust deposited after Mars shifted from a relatively wet world to the dry and frigid planet we know today.

“Mount Sharp is the only place we can currently access on Mars where we can investigate this transition in one stratigraphic sequence,” said John Grotzinger of Caltech, MSL’s chief scientist. “The hope of this mission is to find evidence of a habitable environment; the promise is to get the story of an important environmental breakpoint in the deep history of the planet. This transition likely occurred billions of years ago, maybe even predating the oldest well-preserved rocks on Earth.”