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NASA’s nearly decade old Opportunity Mars rover is sailing swiftly on a southerly course towards her first true mountain climbing destination – named “Solander Point” – in search of further evidence of habitable environments with the chemical ingredients necessary to sustain Martian life forms.
At Solander Point, researchers have already spotted deep stacks of ancient rocks transformed by flowing liquid water eons ago. It is located along the western rim of huge Endeavour Crater.
“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 may harbor clay minerals in the rock stacks indicative of a past Martian habitable zone.
“One idea is to drive part way up Solander from the west side of the rim, turn left and then drive down the steeper north facing slopes with the stratographic sections,” Arvidson told me.
“That way we don’t have to drive up the relatively steeper slopes. The rover can drive up rocky surfaces inclined about 12 to 15 degrees.”
“We want to go through the stratographic sections on the north facing sections.”
The science team hopes that by scaling Solander, Opportunity will build on her recent historic discovery of a habitable environment at a rock called “Esperance” that possesses a cache of phyllosilicate clay minerals.
These aluminum rich clay minerals typically form in neutral, drinkable water that is not extremely acidic or basic and therefore could support a path to potential Martian microbes.
“Esperance ranks as one of my personal Top 5 discoveries of the mission,” said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., principal investigator for NASA’s rover mission at a recent media briefing.
Using high resolution CRISM spectral data collected from Mars orbit, the rover was specifically directed to Esperance, Arvidson explained. The rock was found about a kilometer back on Matijevic Hill at ‘Cape York’, a rather low hilly segment of the western rim of giant Endeavour crater which spans 14 miles (22 km) across.
‘Solander Point’ offers roughly about a 10 times taller stack of geological layering compared to ‘Cape York.’ Both areas are raised segments of the western rim of Endeavour Crater.
The team is working now to obtain the same type of high resolution spectral evidence for phyllosilicate clay minerals at Solander as they had at Cape York to aid in targeting Opportunity to the most promising outcrops, Arvidson explained.
Opportunity is snapping ever more spectacular imagery of Solander Point and the eroded rim of Endeavour Crater as she approaches closer every passing Sol, or Martian Day. See our original photo mosaics herein by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.
The long lived robot arrived at the edge of Endeavour crater in mid-2011 and will spend her remaining life driving around the scientifically rich crater rim segments.
On June 21, 2013, Opportunity marked five Martian years on Mars since landing on Jan 24, 2004 with a mere 90 day (Sol) ‘warranty’.
This week Opportunity’s total driving distance exceeded 23 miles (37 kilometers).
The solar powered robot remains in excellent health and the life giving solar arrays are producing plenty of electrical power at the moment.
Solander Point also offers northerly tilled slopes that will maximize the power generation during Opportunity’s upcoming 6th Martian winter .
The rover handlers want Opportunity to reach Solander’s slopes by August, before winter’s onset.
As ot today (tosol) Opportunity has trekked about halfway from Cape York to Solander Point – tip to tip.
On the opposite side of Mars at Gale Crater, Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity also discovered clay minerals and a habitable environment originating from a time when the Red Planet was far warmer and wetter billions of years ago.
And this is your last chance to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013. Launch: Nov. 18, 2013