The now legendary robot has vastly exceeded everyone’s expectations. Back in 2003 the science team promised us a mere 90 day ‘warranty’ following the suspenseful airbag landing on Jan. 24, 2004 at Meridiani Planum.
Today is Martian Day (or Sol) 3360. That amounts to a life expectancy and exploration ‘bonus’ of more than 37 times beyond the design lifetime.
Opportunity’s twin sister Spirit blasted off three weeks earlier in June 2003 and continued functioning until 2010.
“I never thought we’d achieve nine months!” Principal Investigator Prof. Steve Squyres of Cornell University told me recently on the occasion of the rovers 9th anniversary on Mars in January 2013.
As you read this, the now decade old rover Opportunity is blazing a trail toward’s the oldest geological deposits she has ever explored – at a place called Solander Point, a raised ridge along the eroded rim of huge Endeavour Crater.
Opportunity has surpassed the halfway point in the traverse from the rim segment she has explored the past 22 months at ‘Cape York’ to her next rim segment destination at Solander.
From tip to tip, Cape York and Solander Point lie 1.2-mile (2-kilometer) apart along the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Both are raised portions of 14-mile-wide (22-kilometer-wide) Endeavour.
The rover has less than half a mile (800 meters) to go to finish the Martian dash from one rim segment to the next across an area called ‘Botany Bay’.
“We are making very good progress crossing ‘Botany Bay,’ said John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., who is project manager for the mission now entering its 2nd decade.
The flat terrain of fractured, light-toned bedrock is devoid of treacherous dunes and is easy to drive across, almost like a highway, which simplifies the daily planning by the rovers Earthly handlers.
“The surface that Opportunity is driving across in Botany Bay is polygonally fractured outcrop that is remarkably good for driving,” said Brad Joliff, an Opportunity science team member and long-term planner at Washington University in St. Louis. “The plates of outcrop, like a tiled mosaic pavement, have a thin covering of soil, not enough to form the wind-blown ripples we’ve had to deal with during some other long treks. The outcrop plates are light-toned, and the cracks between them are filled with dark, basaltic soil and our old friends the ‘blueberries.”
The “blueberries” are hematite-rich, erosion-resistant concretions about the size of BB’s that Opportunity discovered when she first opened her eyes at her Eagle crater landing site. During the multi year crater hopping tour that ensued, the rover continued finding patches of blueberries all the way to Endeavour crater.
Opportunity is expected to arrive at Solander’s foothills sometime in August – before the onset of the next southern hemisphere Martian winter, her 6th altogether.
Opportunity will scale Solander to continue the science quest in search of additional evidence of habitable environments with the chemical ingredients necessary to sustain Martian microbial life.
“Right now the rover team is discussing the best way to approach and drive up Solander,” Ray Arvidson told Universe Today. Arvidson is the mission’s deputy principal scientific investigator from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.
‘Solander Point’ offers roughly about a 10 times taller stack of geological layering compared to ‘Cape York.’
Solander also offers north facing slopes where Opportunity’s solar wings can more effectively soak up the sun’s rays to generate life giving electrical power.
The robot remains in excellent health.
The total driving distance exceeds 23 miles (37 kilometers). She has snapped over 181,000 images.
Meanwhile on the opposite side of Mars at Gale Crater, Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity also discovered a habitable environment originating from a time when the Red Planet was far warmer and wetter billions of years ago.