Two Key Things to Watch for in NASA’s Curiosity Mars Mission: The Alluvial Fan and Mount Sharp

Now that Curiosity has landed, where did it land? Well, first and most obviously, it landed in a five billion-year-old meteor impact crater named Gale Crater. Gale Crater was, for a time, filled with sand and rock, but then wind and water eroded much of that sand and rock away, leaving as residue a mountain of sediment taller than Mount Wilson in California and akin to the Grand Canyon: it reveals, in distinct geological layers, Mars’ evolutionary history. That mountain of sediment has been dubbed Mount Sharp.

Curiosity has also landed, fortuitously, in an alluvial fan. That’s big news, for it’s the first thing to watch for news about in the coming weeks. Here’s the Los Angeles Times today:

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.

The second big thing to watch for is what Curiosity discovers at Mount Sharp:

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.

It’s an exciting time to be alive.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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10 Responses to Two Key Things to Watch for in NASA’s Curiosity Mars Mission: The Alluvial Fan and Mount Sharp

  1. Longtooth says:


    The technology that went into this mission is astonishing. The fact that it could be pulled off at all is astonishing. When I saw the Curiosity entry and landing process in simulation my first thought was, “Wow there sure is a lot to go wrong”. The fact that nothing substantial did go wrong is a triumph in robotics and long range flight direction beyond comparison. Although Curiosity’s prime mission is the geological history of mars and the discovery of life, either past and or present, would be scientifically and spiritually revolutionary, the identification of a substantial deposit of accessible water would really shake things up. With such a deposit the potential for a long term human occupied outpost if not eventual colonization would become realistically achievable. Are we witnessing the seed of a real version of the Martian Chronicles?


    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I think we are. My bet is that this mission will light a fire under the world to go to Mars, find out in more detail what life was once there, and to start colonizing the planet. Mars is the New America; the New West. China won’t be caught flat footed this time, as in the 15th century. There’s a new “continent conquering” race coming. It’s going to change everything.

      I don’t think I’m getting too far ahead of the facts here. It seems virtually impossible that the planet could be utterly sterile for 5 billion years and yet have so much water and earth-like activity for so long. I’ll stick my neck out and predict that within the next six months NASA announces evidence that life once existed on Mars. From that moment forward, the whole world will notice. It will be the intellectual equivelent to the discovery of gold in California: “There’s gold (life) in them thar hills!” Any country that shows incuriosity and isn’t prompted to start heading to that frontier will be rendered irrelevant by history. Mars, from Sunday forward, is going to increasingly invade the consciousness and imaginations of human beings. The smartest young people aspiring to be scientists will start gravitating to the subject and its related fields.

      Over the next century, Mars will orient the human spirit. Five centuries from now, Mars will be as highly populated as North and South America are today. We have begun a new age. This is 1492. Hopefully, America won’t prove to be the insular Chinese of 1492.


  2. Santi Tafarella says:


    I want to temper my enthusiasm and prediction with just one observation: if the alluvial fan is flat-out sterile of microfossil evidence, that would subdue me. It’s hard to imagine a living planet that didn’t send micro-organic material through the wind, landing on surfaces that would later get buried in mud and harden into rock. I want to know how old that alluvial fan is. If it dates to the time when Mars was most wet and potentially habitable, and there’s nothing there, then the mission might turn up empty poking around Mount Sharp as well. But I’m betting the minute the rover starts breaking rocks in the alluvial fan–a month or two from now?–and subjecting them to microscopic analysis, they’re going to show organic microfossil evidence. Once that is established, Mount Sharp is going to be a “gold rush.”

    I think of that scene in the Charlton Heston version of the Planet of the Apes (1969). Once the astronauts find a single living thing, a little tiny plant of any kind, they start running in search of the larger ecosystem from which it must have drifted into the desert.

    Personally, I want to find out all I can about alluvial fans on earth. If you find an interesting fact about them in relation to microfossils or fossils in general, let me know. They’ll provide the hints of what the NASA scientists will be looking for. I’ll do a post shortly of what I learn fishing around.


  3. Longtooth says:


    I’m with you on the quest for life. Given what is already known about Martian geology, it seems terribly unlikely that evidence for at least a few microbiological life forms won’t be found. Maybe even something more complex. This great drama harkens my thoughts back to the late 1950’s and then to the celebrated space race that took us to the Moon. Back then, to the consternation of some of my teachers, I was gobbling up science fiction novels like candy. Now, my mind dances with a host of possible scenarios for how the saga of Mars might unfold.

    Anyway, NASA says the alluvial fan where Curiosity is situated is about the same as those found in our local San Gabriel Mountains, “the same geological processes produced the fans in both places”. “NASA chose the crater as the destination for the rover in part because measurements from instruments orbiting Mars show that the bottom of the mountain contains layers of clay and sulphates — materials that form in water. Certain minerals found in clay and sulphates are good at preserving organic compounds that form the building blocks of life.”


    • Santi Tafarella says:


      That San Gabriel Mountains tip has my mind churning. I live, as you know, on the east side of the San Gabriel Mountains. I’m going to try to learn more about this. Thanks for that golden find. I’ll ask one of the geology professors at my college if he knows of a nearby place where alluvial fans can be visited.


  4. Longtooth says:


    Now that I think of it, there are alluvial fans nearby in the Mojave Desert where the desert boarders mountainous regions. They would probably afford a closer approximate to the Mars environment as it is now. I recall seeing at least one out on I-15 east of Barstow, but you would have to ask your geologist friend for exact locations and other particulars
    I stumbled across an easy reading synopsis of Curiosity’s technical capabilities and a few other significant tidbits that help put the unfolding data acquisition process in perspective. It’s available at:


    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Thanks for the link and the tip about Barstow. I’m trying to keep my daughters interested and taking them on a local field trip would be fun for all of us.

  5. Longtooth says:


    Every youngster I have known, including my six year old Tessie, love to hunt for special stones.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I’m curious to see if there is obvious rock varnish on the rocks in the alluvial fans locally. If such varnish is found on rocks on Mars, it’s a strong signal that there was once at least microorganisms there. I’m perplexed as to why the rover does not seem to have a microscope on it powerful enough to detect, visually and directly, fossilized single-celled organisms.

      And it seems intuitely hard to believe, if there were once single-celled microorganisms on Mars, why there wouldn’t be multicellular life as well. But perhaps this is just a bias of living on a planet with both. Maybe it’s too hopeful to think Mars made both the leap from nonlife to life AND from single-celled organisms to multi-cellular organisms.

      Still, what excites me is the thought that in the strata of Mount Sharp the rover will find a fossilized shell or the imprint of a leaf on stone–or even a fossilized bone. I think of the rough marble at the Getty museum with its imprints from shallow seas.


  6. Longtooth says:


    I would wager that payload restrictions prevented Curiosity from having that capability. A full up electron microscope evidently weighs in at 300 to 350 kilograms. Include all the additional weight from the supporting robotics and it figures to be a pretty hefty package. I would also wager that if the desired fossil is spotted with the photo capability that Curiosity does possess, or if the other instrumentation shows strongly positive results, a furious scramble to have electron microscopy on the following mission will ensue. If not, they will be looking for a way to get some rock samples back to Earth post haste and forthwith. Such findings would doubtlessly create strong political if not scientific justification for a manned mission.


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