Aeolis Mons rises from the middle of the crater - the green dot marks the Curiosity rover landing site in Aeolis Palus (click the image to expand, the dot is barely visible at this scale.) North is down in this image.
Colorized shaded relief map of the crater Gale. The general landing area for Curiosity on the northwestern crater floor, named Aeolis Palus, is circled. (HRSC data)
Gale, named for Walter F. Gale (1865-1945), an amateur astronomer from Australia, spans 154 km (96 mi) in diameter and holds a mountain, Aeolis Mons (informally named "Mount Sharp" to pay tribute to geologist Robert P. Sharp) rising 18,000 ft (5,500 m) from the crater floor, higher than Mount Rainier rises above Seattle. Gale is roughly the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island.
The crater formed when a meteor hit Mars in its early history, about 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago. The meteor impact punched a hole in the terrain, and the subsequent explosion ejected rocks and soil that landed around the crater. Layering in the central mound (Aeolis Mons) suggests it is the surviving remnant of an extensive sequence of deposits. Some scientists believe the crater filled in with sediments and, over time, the relentless Martian winds carved Aeolis Mons, which today rises about 5.5 km (3.4 mi) above the floor of Gale—three times higher than the Grand Canyon is deep.
At 10:32 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5, 2012 (1:32 a.m. EDT on Aug. 6, 2012), the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity landed on Mars at 4°30′S137°24′E / 4.5°S 137.4°E / -4.5; 137.4, at the foot of the layered mountain inside Gale. Curiosity landed within a landing ellipse approximately 7 km (4.3 mi) by 20 km (12 mi). The landing ellipse is about 4,400 m (14,400 ft) below Martian "sea level" (defined as the average elevation around the equator). The expected near-surface atmospheric temperatures at the landing site during Curiosity's primary mission (1 Martian year or 687 Earth days) are from −90 °C (−130 °F) to 0 °C (32 °F).
Scientists chose Gale as the landing site for Curiosity because it has many signs that water was present over its history. The crater's geology is notable for containing both clays and sulfate minerals, which form in water under different conditions and may also preserve signs of past life. The history of water at Gale, as recorded in its rocks, is giving Curiosity lots of clues to study as it pieces together whether Mars ever could have been a habitat for microbes. Gale contains a number of fans and deltas that provide information about lake levels in the past, including: Pancake Delta, Western Delta, Farah Vallis delta and the Peace Vallis Fan.
An unusual feature of Gale is an enormous mound of "sedimentary debris" around its central peak, officially named Aeolis Mons (popularly known as "Mount Sharp") rising 5.5 km (18,000 ft) above the northern crater floor and 4.5 km (15,000 ft) above the southern crater floor—slightly taller than the southern rim of the crater itself. The mound is composed of layered material and may have been laid down over a period of around 2 billion years. The origin of this mound is not known with certainty, but research suggests it is the eroded remnant of sedimentary layers that once filled the crater completely, possibly originally deposited on a lakebed. Evidence of fluvial activity was observed early on in the mission at the Shaler outcrop (first observed on Sol 120, investigated extensively between Sols 309-324). Observations made by the rover Curiosity at the Pahrump Hills strongly support the lake hypothesis: sedimentary facies including sub mm-scale horizontally-laminated mudstones, with interbedded fluvial crossbeds are representative of sediments which accumulate in lakes, or on the margins of lakes which grow and contract in response to lake-level. These lake-bed mudstones are refereed to as the Murray formation, and form a significant amount of the Mount Sharp group. The Siccar Point group (named after the famous unconformity at Siccar Point) overlies the Mount Sharp group, and the two units are separated by a major unconformity which dips toward the North. At present, the Stimson formation is the only stratigraphic unit within the Siccar Point group which as been investigated in-detail by Curiosity. The Stimson formation represents the preserved expression of a dry aeoliandune field, where sediment was transported towards the North East by palaeowinds within the crater.
Observations of possible cross-bedded strata on the upper mound suggest aeolian processes, but the origin of the lower mound layers remains ambiguous.
On December 9, 2013, NASA reported that, based on evidence from Curiosity studying Aeolis Palus, Gale contained an ancient freshwater lake which could have been a hospitable environment for microbial life.
On December 16, 2014, NASA reported detecting, by the Curiosity rover at Gale, an unusual increase, then decrease, in the amounts of methane in the atmosphere of the planet Mars; in addition, organic chemicals were detected in powder drilled from a rock. Also, based on deuterium to hydrogen ratio studies, much of the water at Gale on Mars was found to have been lost during ancient times, before the lakebed in the crater was formed; afterwards, large amounts of water continued to be lost.
On October 8, 2015, NASA confirmed that lakes and streams existed in Gale 3.3 to 3.8 billion years ago delivering sediments to build up the lower layers of Mount Sharp.
On June 1, 2017, NASA reported that the Curiosity rover provided evidence of an ancient lake in Gale on Mars that could have been favorable for microbial life; the ancient lake was stratified, with shallows rich in oxidants and depths poor in oxidants; and, the ancient lake provided many different types of microbe-friendly environments at the same time. NASA further reported that the Curiosity rover will continue to explore higher and younger layers of Mount Sharp in order to determine how the lake environment in ancient times on Mars became the drier environment in more modern times.
On June 7, 2018, NASA's Curiosity made two significant discoveries in Gale. Organic molecules preserved in 3.5 billion-year-old bedrock and seasonal variations in the level of methane in the atmosphere further support the theory that past conditions may have been conducive to life. It is possible that a form of water-rock chemistry might have generated the methane, but scientists cannot rule out the possibility of biological origins. Methane previously had been detected in Mars' atmosphere in large, unpredictable plumes. This new result shows that low levels of methane within Gale repeatedly peak in warm, summer months and drop in the winter every year. Organic carbon concentrations were discovered on the order of 10 parts per million or more. This is close to the amount observed in Martian meteorites and about 100 times greater than prior analysis of organic carbon on Mars' surface. Some of the molecules identified include thiophenes, benzene, toluene, and small carbon chains, such as propane or butene.
Curiosity's view of the "Rocknest" area - south is center/north at both ends; Mount Sharp at SE horizon (somewhat left-of-center); "Glenelg" at East (left-of-center); rover tracks at West (right-of-center) (November 16, 2012; white balanced) (raw color) (interactives).
^A., Watkins, J.; J., Grotzinger,; N., Stein,; G., Banham, S.; S., Gupta,; D., Rubin,; M., Stack, K.; S., Edgett, K. (March 2016). "Paleotopography of Erosional Unconformity, Base of Stimson Formation, Gale Crater, Mars". 47. Bibcode:2016LPI....47.2939W.