Quantitative topographic analysis as a guide to rover-based research on Mars

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Marisa C Palucis1, William E Dietrich1, Timothy J Parker2, Dawn Y Sumner3, Rebecca M. E. Williams4, Alexander Hayes5, Nicolas Mangold6 and Kevin W Lewis7, (1)University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, United States, (2)NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, United States, (3)University of California, Davis, Davis, CA, United States, (4)Planetary Science Institute Tucson, Tucson, AZ, United States, (5)Cornell University, Department of Astronomy, Ithaca, NY, United States, (6)LPGN Laboratoire de Planétologie et Géodynamique de Nantes, Nantes Cedex 03, France, (7)Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, United States
Satellite imagery of Mars now provides remarkable topographic data, often better than that on Earth in many countries. For decades, researchers have identified landforms on Mars that indicated the presence of gullies, rivers, deltas, fans, and lakes, pointing to the presence of surface waters, and the apparent necessity of an active hydrologic cycle involving rain or snow. Quantitative topographic analysis has provided a means to estimate volumes of runoff, sediment transport rates, and peak flow discharges, first using orbital imagery alone and then using laser altimetery coverage and higher resolution HiRISE (1 m/px), CTX (20 m/px) and HRSC (50 m/px) topography.

Our detailed topographic analysis of the Peace Vallis fan near the Curiosity rover landing site in Gale Crater (Mars) suggested that the fan entered into a pre-existing enclosed basin that would likely contain lake sediments; sedimentary, mineralogical, and chemical analysis of this region, now named Yellowknife Bay, later found this to be the case, though debate remains on the exact origin and history of the deposit. The rover is currently heading to a 5 km high sedimentary mound (Aeolis Mons) with mineral signatures hypothesized to be the result of planet-wide changes in climate. Topographic features on the mound, which correspond in elevation with other large depositional features around the crater, suggest that a succession of lakes developed post-Noachian. Within Gale, we are in a unique position to determine the extent at which topography can tell us the evolutionary history of a place on another planet, since our hypotheses can actually be tested as the Curiosity rover makes its ascent up Aeolis Mons. Along the rover’s traverse, we propose based on the geomorphic record that the sediments being examined were water soaked, perhaps several times under deep lakes, and that the rover will cross shorelines that may not be well-preserved, but are worth searching for. A quantitative topographic analysis of the fan and delta features and their source areas on the crater wall and Aeolis Mons suggest that mass is conserved, hence these features have experienced little modification since emplacement, but this also presents challenges for explaining the origin of the coarse sedimentary deposits Curiosity has recently encountered.