Death Valley Acts as Rehearsal Space for Upcoming Mars Landing Project

Practice makes perfect, and when it comes to examining far off lands on distant planets scientists are not taking any chances with the Curiosity rover—NASA’s “robot geologist” which is set to arrive on the surface of Mars within the next 100 days, on August 5th.  It is with this preparation in mind that researchers, headed by Caltech’s John Grotzinger, set off to California’s vast (and devastatingly hot) Death Valley.

If the name is any suggestion, Death Valley may not be anyone’s idea of a perfect vacation, but for scientists looking to get a real feel for what the geology and landscape of Mars may be like, it is a great place to start.  While a major hotspot for researchers throughout the decades, Death Valley has become a treat for geologists looking to tap into to the earth’s deepest and longest held secrets.  And it is precisely this that NASA is hoping to accomplish with the as-of-yet still unknown Mars terrain. 

The massive $2.5 billion undertaking that is NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission is hoping to crack open a bit of Mars history, specifically seeking dirt and rock samples taken from the planet’s Gale Crater and its memorable Mount Sharp, the unusual mountain situated in the middle of the crater and extending three miles high into the air.  With Curiosity, which has its course set for the crater, NASA officials are hoping to gather enough samples from the crater in order to help them determine whether or not the area was ever able to support microbial life. 

Back in Death Valley, Grotzinger (with a trail of researchers and journalists behind him) moves from site to site, pointing out aged rock formations in the distance as he goes.  At one point, stopping to draw attention to an area sprinkled with fossilized stromatolites—“structures created by sticky, sediment-trapping microbial mats”—believed to be approximately 1 billion years old.  Characteristically, stomatolites are tell-tale signs of microbial life, as they are formed by sediment trapped by abiotic methods.  These particular formations, if found on Mars, could mean big news for those looking to prove that life at least at one point existed on the planet.  To find these on the planet would truly be groundbreaking.

And since Mars does not have the added difficulty of tectonic plates, an element that proves difficult when trying to crack through the layers of Earth’s history, scientists have high hopes of their potential findings.  “These are some of the best stromatolites you’ll see in western North America,” explains Grotzinger, who also doubles as Curiosity’s lead scientist. “If we ever found anything like this with MSL, we would stop and study it.  And it might be a really good place to come back and do sample-return.”

With already so much hope placed in Curiosity, not to mention a newly devised landing technique that involves the craft being lowered to the surface by cables connected to a rocket-powered skycrane (pictured), it is no wonder why so many involved are getting geared up for the main event.  And until August 5th, at least we will all have Death Valley.


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