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Opportunity Discovers Clays Favorable to Martian Biology and Sets Sail for Motherlode of New Clues

Opportunity established a new American driving record for a vehicle on another world on May 15, 2013 (Sol 3309) and made history by driving ahead from this point at Cape York. This navcam mosaic shows the view forward to her next destinations of Solander Point and Cape Tribulation along the lengthy rim of huge Endeavour crater spanning 14 miles (22 km) in diameter.  Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Cape York and stands as the most favorable location for Martian biology discovered during her entire nearly 10 year long mission to Mars.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Kenneth Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover discovered clay minerals at Cape York ridge along the rim of Endeavour crater – seen in this photo mosaic – which stands as the most favorable location for Martian biology discovered during her entire nearly 10 year long mission to Mars. Opportunity also established a new American driving record for a vehicle on another world on May 15, 2013 (Sol 3309) and made history by driving ahead from this point at Cape York. This navcam photo mosaic shows the view forward to her next destinations of Solander Point and Cape Tribulation along the lengthy rim of huge Endeavour crater spanning 14 miles (22 km) in diameter.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)/Marco Di Lorenzo
Updated: Illustrated below with a collection of imagery, mosaics and route maps

Now nearly a decade into her planned 3 month only expedition to Mars, NASA’s longest living rover Opportunity, struck gold and has just discovered the strongest evidence to date for an environment favorable to ancient Martian biology – and she has set sail hunting for a motherlode of new clues amongst fabulous looking terrain!!

Barely two weeks ago in mid-May 2013, Opportunity’s analysis of a new rock target named “Esperance” confirmed that it is composed of a “clay that had been intensely altered by relatively neutral pH water – representing the most favorable conditions for biology that Opportunity has yet seen in the rock histories it has encountered,” NASA said in a statement.

The finding of a fractured rock loaded with clay minerals and ravaged by flowing liquid water in which life could have thrived amounts to a scientific home run for the golf cart sized rover!

“Water that moved through fractures during this rock’s history would have provided more favorable conditions for biology than any other wet environment recorded in rocks Opportunity has seen,” said the mission’s principal investigator Prof. Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

Opportunity accomplished the ground breaking new discovery by exposing the interior of Esperance with her still functioning Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) and examining a pristine patch using the microscopic camera and X-Ray spectrometer on the end of her 3 foot long robotic arm.

The pale rock in the upper center of this image, about the size of a human forearm, includes a target called "Esperance," which was inspected by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. Data from the rover's alpha particle X-ray spectrometer (APXS) indicate that Esperance's composition is higher in aluminum and silica, and lower in calcium and iron, than other rocks Opportunity has examined in more than nine years on Mars. Preliminary interpretation points to clay mineral content due to intensive alteration by water. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ

The pale rock in the upper center of this image, about the size of a human forearm, includes a target called “Esperance,” which was inspected by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. Data from the rover’s alpha particle X-ray spectrometer (APXS) indicate that Esperance’s composition is higher in aluminum and silica, and lower in calcium and iron, than other rocks Opportunity has examined in more than nine years on Mars. Preliminary interpretation points to clay mineral content due to intensive alteration by water. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ

The robot made the discovery at the conclusion of a 20 month long science expedition circling around a low ridge called “Cape York” – which she has just departed on a southerly heading trekking around the eroded rim of the huge crater named “Endeavour.”

“Esperance was so important, we committed several weeks to getting this one measurement of it, even though we knew the clock was ticking.”

Esperance stems from a time when the Red Planet was far warmer and wetter billions of years ago.

“What’s so special about Esperance is that there was enough water not only for reactions that produced clay minerals, but also enough to flush out ions set loose by those reactions, so that Opportunity can clearly see the alteration,” said Scott McLennan of the State University of New York, Stony Brook, a long-term planner for Opportunity’s science team.

Close-Up of 'Esperance' After Abrasion by Opportunity This mosaic of four frames shot by the microscopic imager on the robotic arm of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows a rock target called "Esperance" after some of the rock's surface had been removed by Opportunity's rock abrasion tool, or RAT. The component images were taken on Sol 3305 on Mars (May 11, 2013). The area shown is about 2.4 inches (6 centimeters) across. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/USGS

Close-Up of ‘Esperance’ After Abrasion by Opportunity
This mosaic of four frames shot by the microscopic imager on the robotic arm of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows a rock target called “Esperance” after some of the rock’s surface had been removed by Opportunity’s rock abrasion tool, or RAT. The component images were taken on Sol 3305 on Mars (May 11, 2013). The area shown is about 2.4 inches (6 centimeters) across. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/USGS

Esperance is unlike any rock previously investigated by Opportunity; containing far more aluminum and silica which is indicative of clay minerals and lower levels of calcium and iron.

Most, but not all of the rocks inspected to date by Opportunity were formed in an environment of highly acidic water that is extremely harsh to most life forms.

Clay minerals typically form in potentially drinkable, neutral water that is not extremely acidic or basic.

Previously at Cape York, Opportunity had found another outcrop containing a small amount of clay minerals formed by exposure to water called “Whitewater Lake.”

“There appears to have been extensive, but weak, alteration of Whitewater Lake, but intense alteration of Esperance along fractures that provided conduits for fluid flow,” said Squyres.

Opportunity rover discovered phyllosilicate clay minerals and calcium sulfate veins at the bright outcrops of ‘Whitewater Lake’, at right, imaged by the Navcam camera on Sol 3197 (Jan. 20, 2013, coinciding with her 9th anniversary on Mars.  “Copper Cliff” is the dark outcrop, at top center. Darker “Kirkwood” outcrop, at left, is site of mysterious “newberries” concretions. This panoramic view was snapped from ‘Matijevic Hill’ on Cape York ridge at Endeavour Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Opportunity rover discovered phyllosilicate clay minerals and calcium sulfate veins at the bright outcrops of ‘Whitewater Lake’, at right, imaged by the Navcam camera on Sol 3197 (Jan. 20, 2013, coinciding with her 9th anniversary on Mars. “Copper Cliff” is the dark outcrop, at top center. Darker “Kirkwood” outcrop, at left, is site of mysterious “newberries” concretions. This panoramic view was snapped from ‘Matijevic Hill’ on Cape York ridge at Endeavour Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Cape York is a hilly segment of the rim of Endeavour crater which spans 14 miles (22 km) across – where the robot arrived in mid-2011 and will spend her remaining life.

Opportunity has now set sail for her next crater rim destination named “Solander Point”, an area about 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers) away – due south from “Cape York.”

“Our next destination will be Solander Point,” Squyres told Universe Today.

Along the way, Opportunity will soon cross “Botany Bay” and “Sutherland Point”, last seen when Opportunity first arrived at Cape York.

Eventually she will continue further south to a rim segment named ‘Cape Tribulation’ which holds huge caches of clay minerals.

The rover must arrive at “Solander Point” before the onset of her 6th Martian winter so that she can be advantageously tilted along north facing slopes to soak up the maximum amount of sun by her power generating solar wings. She might pull up around August.

On the other side of Mars, Opportunity’s new sister rover Curiosity also recently discovered clay minerals on the floor of her landing site inside Gale Crater.

Curiosity found the clay minerals – and a habitat that could support life – after analyzing powdery drill tailings from the Yellowknife Bay basin worksite with her on board state-of-the-art chemistry labs.

Just a week ago on May 15 (Sol 3309), Opportunity broke through the 40 year old American distance driving record set back in December 1972 by Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt.

But she is not sitting still resting on her laurels!

This past week the robots handlers’ back on Earth put the pedal to the metal and pushed her forward another quarter mile during 5 additional drives over 7 Sols, or Martian days. Thus her total odometry since landing on 24 January 2004 now stands at 22.45 miles (36.14 kilometers).

Opportunity will blast through the world record milestone of 23 miles (37 kilometers) held by the Lunokhod 2 lunar rover (from the Soviet Union), somewhere along the path to “Solander Point” in the coming months.

Opportunity captures the eerie Martian scenery looking south across Botany Bay from the southern tip of Cape York to her next destination - Solander Point,  about 1 mile (1.6 km) away. This navcam photo mosaic was taken on Sol 3317, May  23, 2013.    Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell//Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Opportunity captures the eerie Martian scenery looking south across Botany Bay from the southern tip of Cape York to her next destination – Solander Point, about 1 mile (1.6 km) away. This navcam photo mosaic was taken on Sol 3317, May 23, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell//Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Endeavour Crater features terrain with older rocks than previously inspected and unlike anything studied before by Opportunity. It’s a place no one ever dared dream of reaching prior to Opportunity’s launch in the summer of 2003 and landing on the Meridiani Planum region in 2004.

Signatures of clay minerals, or phyllosilicates, were detected at several spots at Endeavour’s western rim by observations from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

“The motherlode of clay minerals is on Cape Tribulation. The exposure extends all the way to the top, mainly on the inboard side,” says Ray Arvidson, the rover’s deputy principal investigator at Washington University in St. Louis.

Stay tuned for the continuing breathtaking adventures of NASA’s sister rovers Opportunity and Curiosity!

And don’t forget to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013

Ken Kremer

…………….
Learn more about Mars, Curiosity, Opportunity, MAVEN, LADEE and NASA missions at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations:

June 4: “Send your Name to Mars” and “CIBER Astro Sat, LADEE Lunar & Antares Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, 8:30 PM

June 11: “Send your Name to Mars” and “LADEE Lunar & Antares Rocket Launches from Virginia”; NJ State Museum Planetarium and Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton (AAAP), Trenton, NJ, 8 PM.

June 12: “Send your Name to Mars” and “LADEE Lunar & Antares Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Franklin Institute and Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, Philadelphia, PA, 8 PM.

Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2013 to Record Setting Drive on May 15. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during more than 9 years and over 3318 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location heading south to Solander Point from  Cape York ridge at the western rim of Endeavour Crater.  On May 15, 2013 Opportunity drove 263 feet (80 meters) southward - achieving a total traverse distance on Mars of 22.22 miles (35.76 kilometers) - and broke the driving record by any NASA vehicle that was previously held by the astronaut-driven Apollo 17 Lunar Rover in 1972. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2013 to Record Setting Drive on May 15. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during more than 9 years and over 3318 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location heading south to Solander Point from Cape York ridge at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. On May 15, 2013 Opportunity drove 263 feet (80 meters) southward – achieving a total traverse distance on Mars of 22.22 miles (35.76 kilometers) – and broke the driving record by any NASA vehicle that was previously held by the astronaut-driven Apollo 17 Lunar Rover in 1972. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Opportunity Heads Toward Next Destination, 'Solander Point' This map of a portion of the western rim of Endeavour Crater on Mars shows the area where NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity worked for 20 months, "Cape York," in relation to the area where the rover team plans for Opportunity to spend its sixth Martian winter, "Solander Point." Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Opportunity Heads Toward Next Destination, ‘Solander Point’
-This map of a portion of the western rim of Endeavour Crater on Mars shows the area where NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity worked for 20 months, “Cape York,” in relation to the area where the rover team plans for Opportunity to spend its sixth Martian winter, “Solander Point.” Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

About 

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, scientist, freelance science journalist (Princeton, NJ) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calanders including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, BBC, SPACE.com, Spaceflight Now and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral and NASA Wallops on over 40 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - www.kenkremer.com. Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Aqua4U May 25, 2013, 11:02 PM

    YO! You GO OPPORTUNITY! Get on down with your long lived sojourning self! Every inch has been part of an incredible journey… and now part of my life… I LIKE!

    • Ken Kremer May 26, 2013, 1:51 AM

      Indeed. Live Long and Prosper !!

      • Planemo May 29, 2013, 12:12 PM

        Well said Ken: Short, simple, and all Spock. There will be nothing close to the very 1st series of Star-Trek. Gene Roddenberry. The master mind. He induced, implemented, and combined many life lessons with moral values in certain situations. He was brilliant. Mr. Roddenberry shaped minds and aspects of some of us baby boomers perceptions. Even scientists like yourself. Spock is planted and etched into your creative mind. Excuse me, it is Mr. Spock to us…. :-).

  • Zoutsteen from Holland May 25, 2013, 11:07 PM

    8 year olds hearing about opportunity don’t know better than that “thing” has been driving on Mars their whole lifes. I tried picturing something of a likewise experience, and I have to say, its the new things that awe.
    But that something with the power of about an electric razor is doing basic science observations and still going on without maintenance and is heading towards a full marathon … Who ever crafted opportunity may love himself for his job well done.

    • Ken Kremer May 26, 2013, 1:50 AM

      well said – in all respects !!

    • Jim Cochran May 26, 2013, 3:10 PM

      You’ve got that right. For something that would hopefully run for 6 months, it has been a wonderful exploration device.

  • enthrense May 26, 2013, 1:05 PM

    Stay tuned for the continuing breathtaking adventures of NASA’s sister rovers Opportunity and Curiosity!

    spybubble francais

  • Torbjörn Larsson May 26, 2013, 1:48 PM

    Thanks for covering the grounds of what Opportunity has covered! It’s starting to sum up to a lot to keep on top of.

    Speaking of which, I don’t know how to compare Opportunity’s habitability finds with Curiosity re “the strongest evidence to date for [ancient habitability]“. It is important to see long time neutral water alteration, but Curiosity found that today’s redox states are heterogenous and hence should admit viable neutral patches even today as I understand it.

    Without better understanding of the science, which isn’t forthcoming yet, I would see these results as complementary. Opportunity adds to resolving a better view of past habitability, Curiosity adds to resolving a better view of overall habitability.

    The upshot of the article, in my mind, is that both rovers have ahead the best yet science targets! Let us hope we will have the opportunity to satisfy our curiosity in the coming years.

    • Ken Kremer May 26, 2013, 2:45 PM

      absolutely – the best is yet to come! luv that last line

      • Torbjörn Larsson May 27, 2013, 1:18 PM

        Thank you!

  • Jim Cochran May 26, 2013, 3:12 PM

    I just love this Rover. what a workhorse.

  • Planemo May 27, 2013, 7:27 AM

    NASA & ESA and the etc’s have been looking for.Microbial life. Just about every human being on earth knows it is out there on planets. Evidence is their conquest.

    • Torbjörn Larsson May 27, 2013, 1:40 PM

      Well, we never know how science cross-correlates, but knowing more astrobiology would help knowing Earth biology better and vice versa.

      Else research into aging makes strides on its own. Last I heard, but it would need confirmation as per usual, is a result that neurons can live to double the current average lifetime of bodies (in mice). I don’t know how good that science is. And as neurons don’t renew as much the cancer problems with extended life lengths aren’t too bad, so however they do it that is only half the answer.*

      This is the generic problem if any technique adds more than a few decades. Whales can live long and beat cancers, birds can live energetically and beat oxidative damage, and the basic construction of cells point to lifetimes of millenniums. (Using death rates from 20 year old’s, before extraneous aging sets in.) Similarly bacteria can divide for ~ 200 generations before their oldest “cap” half, which gets all the accumulated cellular damage, dies.

      More longlived complex organisms use a shell principle. Plants grow around cancerous growths, and “colonial” type animals body plans grow new layers and abandon old. We can’t do any of that because of our central neural system (CNS).

      But if we beat cancers and fix totipotent stem cells, we could potentially live for tens or hundreds of millenniums as CNS life forms with totipotent stem cell regeneration. To go further we would need genetic therapy to fix any and all possible problems, which seems unrealistic.

      OTOH, we have yet to see one day added due to results from ageing research…

      *The ethics of making other somatic cells as long lived, if possible, while not cracking the cancer problem is iffy. But I’m sure we would see early attempts where they pawn off cancers to “future research”.

      • Planemo May 27, 2013, 4:28 PM

        Well, just like in your last reply email to me. You obviously cannot tell the difference between someone kidding or being serious or even just kicking the can around like I was. I was being lofty. Playful. Dreaming of extending my life (everyone’s) so I(we)can experience mankind land human beings on Mars and especially the vast beyond.

        I WAS being playful. Wishing for a dream to extend life. Everyone wants to live 1,000 years or even forever! Call it a dream. A wish. I do appreciate your bio lesson. It was honestly Interesting to me. I am a older man in life. Being into my 6th decade of life does not give me too much more time left to see the progress of near or deep space flights ahead of mankind.

        I have seen Sputnik cause my USA to freak out and take over the space race. I saw the first moon landing in July 1969 from Viet Nam/South Korea of all places. I want to see mankind discover WARP DRIVE and to go Alpha Centauri and Orion….NOW!…lol….and I want to go too!…lol.

        So Mr Larsson (from the Netherlands I believe) I do like your style. I am not a scientists in the sense of the word. I am considered a novice. But I so want to see the year 2413. Get it now?

        • Torbjörn Larsson May 28, 2013, 10:01 AM

          Right back at ya’. I couldn’t care less for the topic, since the research hasn’t resulted in anything yet.

          Of course, you have to read all the way to that last line…

          Curious, what email? You must be thinking of someone else.

          • Planemo May 28, 2013, 1:51 PM

            Yes my bad. I apologize. I did it again. What I did was I read yours and then started another reading another. I stopped half way through yours and started reading another. I assumed I was explaining to the other and started typing to you and combind the two. My bad. That is my 2nd time. You’d figure I learn by now…lol. To ass – u – me…I am the ‘ass’ – not ‘u’ – but ‘me’.

  • friv May 27, 2013, 7:29 AM

    everyday we discover more. Hopefully we will live on Mars in the near future

  • Poine May 27, 2013, 9:12 AM

    What can I say?

    Hell yeah!

  • Aqua4U May 27, 2013, 6:43 PM

    On you’re inspiration, I went to the MSL raw images and took a look thru the recent MastCam images. There was one image taken on Sol 283 where the background scattered rock almost looks like a flat sided salamanderish centipede like critter. Of course it isn’t a critter, instead simple pareidolia? But it got me thinking… Is it possible we may have driven by or taken images of Martian fossils and not known? ~@; )

    • Mpj May 28, 2013, 7:54 AM

      If your interest in the MSL imagery of Yellowknife Bay take a look here:
      http://gigapan.com/gigapans/126968

      or full collection of stitched MastcamR MSL observations so far: http://gigapan.com/users/MPJ/gigapans

      Viewers were already busy snapshotting interesting bits and pieces so regarding your question: I would say there are a lot of candidate fossil like shapes in all those images (MERs and MSL alike over the years that is).

  • Gavin Lang May 28, 2013, 2:05 PM

    I was saying to people 5 or 6 years ago that these rovers (opportunity and Spirit) represent one of the greatest human achievements in all our history and the teams that guide and work with these rovers should be given standing ovations. I stand in awe of these men and women and the designers and builders of the amazing little robots that could. And yet, so many people go about there lives ignorant to this wonder. These people and robots are hero’s of humanity and history will always remember them as pioneers and trail blazers. Three cheers to them all!

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