A Canyon in Gale Crater, Mars, and Implications for Exploration by the Curiosity Rover

Post contributed by Divya M. Persaud, University College London, UK/NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, USA.

This canyon, Sakarya Vallis, cross-cuts the central mound of Gale Crater, Mars, and was probably formed by fluvial erosion. Gale Crater, the exploration site of the Curiosity rover, has undergone a complex geologic history of aqueous and aeolian processes. The central mound is a topographic high in the center of the crater, on which the ~5.2 km peak Aeolis Mons is situated. This feature sports several canyons (which cut through it), yardangs, and spectacular exposed layers, and its origins are uncertain (likely aeolian and/or fluvio-lacustrine). Image 1 shows the largest canyon on the mound, at 26 km long, up to 3.5 km wide, and up to 400 m deep. The hundreds of meters of exposed layers in this canyon provide a glimpse into the depositional history of the central mound of Gale crater.

Image 1: A 3D perspective view of the interior of the channel, visualized from HiRISE Digital Terrain Model DTEEC_006855_1750_007501_1750_A01 and HiRISE image PSP_007501_1750. This view shows the exposed layers and a possible fracture on the eastern wall (left), while the topography of the bright, inverted feature can be seen on the floor of the canyon. The floor of the canyon is overlaid by ripples. The scalebar is oriented north.

The center of Sakarya Vallis is approximately 27 km from and 700 m higher in elevation than the base of Gediz Vallis, the approximate location of the Curiosity rover (as of February 2021, sol 3038). The layers exposed in Sakarya Vallis therefore represent later depositional events than those encountered by Curiosity to date. As the rover ascends the mound towards Aeolis Mons, this geology could help contextualize rover observations and constrain lateral differences in palaeoenvironment.

The canyon cross-cuts layered hydrated sulfates in the lower mound, while spectra of the upper mound point to a dust composition. The surface of the upper unit (Image 2) is an etched, yardang unit. Yardangs are streamlined features eroded by the wind.

Image 2: A) An overview of the canyon on the central mound from CTX imagery. The slope of the canyon is to the northwest. The surface of the mound is etched by yardangs and in-filled craters. B) A close-up view of the northern, lower half of the canyon, from HiRISE image PSP_007501_1750. The extent of the inverted feature can be seen on the floor.

Within the canyon are possible point bars formed by past rivers (Image 2), mass-wasting features (Image 3), ripples (Image 1), and boulder-scale lag deposits along the floor and clifftops. A bright, topographic feature resembling an inverted channel or meander belt (Image 1) extends along much of the canyon floor and may represent later flow of liquid water, and subsequent topographic inversion by erosion of materials surrounding the channel.

Image 3: Layers exposed in the northern part of the canyon in a possible mass-wasting feature (HiRISE image PSP_007501_1750). These layers are sub-horizontal and dip gently to the northwest. The ripples on the floor have wavelengths of 10-20 m.

Further Reading

Anderson, R. B., et al. 2018. Complex Bedding Geometry in the Upper Portion of Aeolis Mons, Gale Crater, Mars. Icarus 314: 246–64.

Fairen, A. G., et al. 2014. A Cold Hydrological System in Gale Crater, Mars. Planetary and Space Science, 93–94: 101–18.

Fraeman, A. et al. 2016. The Stratigraphy and Evolution of Lower Mount Sharp from Spectral, Morphological, and Thermophysical Orbital Data Sets. Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets 121 (9): 1713–36.

Grotzinger, J. P., et al. 2014. A Habitable Fluvio-Lacustrine Environment at Yellowknife Bay, Gale Crater, Mars. Science 343, 6169.

Hughes, M. N., et al., Mass Movements and Debris Deposits in the Grand Canyon and Gediz Vallis, Gale Crater, Mars, 51st Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, 2020.

Kite, E. S., et al. 2016. Evolution of Major Sedimentary Mounds on Mars: Buildup via Anticompensational Stacking Modulated by Climate Change. Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets 121: 2282–2324.

Palucis, M. C., et al. 2016. Sequence and Relative Timing of Large Lakes in Gale Crater (Mars) after the Formation of Mount Sharp. Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets 121 (3).

Thomson, B. J., et al. 2011. Constraints on the Origin and Evolution of the Layered Mound in Gale Crater, Mars Using Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Data. Icarus 214 (2): 413–32.

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