The strange Martian mountain known as Mount Sharp, which is the ultimate destination of NASA's Curiosity rover, was likely built primarily by wind rather than water, according to a new study.
Many scientists have postulated that the 3.4-mile high mountain formed primarily from layers of lakebed silt, which was one of the big reasons that the mountain was chose as the rover's ultimate destination. The new research, however, holds that wind likely did most of the building of Mount Sharp.
Study co-author Kevin Lewis of Princeton University said in a statement:
"Our work doesn't preclude the existence of lakes in Gale Crater, but suggests that the bulk of the material in Mount Sharp was deposited largely by the wind."
Curiosity landed inside the 96-mile-wide crater in August 2012, kicking off a two-year mission to research Mars' past and present potential to host microbial life. The rover has already accomplished its main goal of finding that a spot near the landing site known as Yellowknife Bay was once capable of supporting life billions of years ago Curiosity, however, still needs to make its trek to the base of Mount Sharp - a 6-mile journey to the rover's main science target.
Observations from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbitor (MRO) have suggested that the mountain's foothills were exposed to liquid water some time in the past. For the new study, researchers used other MRO observations to come up with the new wind-based theory of Mount Sharp's formation, determining that the mound's layers are not flat-lying stacks that would be expected in lakebed deposits. Instead, they fan outwards in an odd radial pattern from the mountain's center, which is consistent with results from the researchers' computer model that suggested that wind blowing down Gale's slopes could build a mound in the crater's center while at the same time leaving areas near the rim bare.