The Curiosity Rover: How to measure gravity on Mars

Image of the Curiosity Rover used to measure gravity on Mars
A selfie of the Mars Curiosity rover taken in mid January 2019 © NASA-JPL-Caltech-MSSS

A research team have published a new paper in the journal Science, detailing how they repurposed data from navigational sensors on the NASA Curiosity Rover to measure gravity on Mars.

The sensors were essentially turned into gravimeters, which measure changes in gravitational pull. The research team have been able to use this to measure the pull from rock layers on the lower slopes of Mount Sharp, which is a peak rising over three miles up from the cemter of Gale Crater on Mars.

The Curiosity Rover

The Curiosity rover carries accelerometers and gyroscopes as seen in a smartphone. In a phone, the sensors determine the phone’s location and orientation using the movement of the phone. Sinmilarly to this, the Curiosity Rover’s sensors do this with more precision and enable it to navigate the surface of Mars. Now, the team have been able to assess the pull of gravity on Mars using the Curiosity Rover as an instrument to help them.

Measuring the levels of Mount Sharp

The study’s lead author Kevin Lewis of Johns Hopkins University, commented: “The lower levels of Mount Sharp are surprisingly porous. We know the bottom layers of the mountain were buried over time. That compacts them, making them denser. But this finding suggests they weren’t buried by as much material as we thought.”

Their findings suggest that these rock layers are much less dense than originally prected by scientists. A competing theory that the Gale Crater was previously filled with sediment which was later excavated by erosion, leaving only Mount Sharp behind, comes under question byu this new research.

Mars: the uncanny valley of the Earth?

Ashwin Vasavada, the Curiosity Rover’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, added: “There are still many questions about how Mount Sharp developed, but this paper adds an important piece to the puzzle. I’m thrilled that creative scientists and engineers are still finding innovative ways to make new scientific discoveries with the rover.”

Lewis concluded:  “To me, Mars is the uncanny valley of Earth. It’s similar but was shaped by different processes. It feels so unnatural to our terrestrial experience.”

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