Opportunity Approaching Mountain Climbing Goal and Signs of Habitable Martian Environment

by Ken Kremer on June 29, 2013

Opportunity rover captures spectacular view ahead to her upcoming mountain climbing goal, the raised rim of “Solander Point” at right, located along the western edge of Endeavour Crater. It may harbor clay minerals indicative of a habitable zone.  This pancam photo mosaic was taken on Sol 3335, June 11, 2013.   Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)   See full panoramic scene below

Opportunity rover captures spectacular view ahead to her upcoming mountain climbing goal, the raised rim of “Solander Point” at right, located along the western edge of Endeavour Crater. It may harbor clay minerals indicative of a habitable zone. This pancam photo mosaic was taken on Sol 3335, June 11, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
See full panoramic scene – below
Your last chance to “Send Your Name to Mars aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter” – below

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.”

Solander Point mosaic captured by high resolution pancam camera on Sol 3334, June 10, 2013.  Opportunity will scale Solander after arriving in August 2013 in search of chemical ingredients to sustain Martian microbes  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Solander Point mosaic captured by high resolution pancam camera on Sol 3334, June 10, 2013. Opportunity will scale Solander after arriving in August 2013 in search of chemical ingredients to sustain Martian microbes Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

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.

'Esperance' Target Examined by Opportunity in May 2013.  The  pale rock called "Esperance," has a high concentration of clay minerals formed in near neutral water indcating a spot favorable for life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

‘Esperance’ Target Examined by Opportunity in May 2013. The pale rock called “Esperance,” has a high concentration of clay minerals formed in near neutral water indcating a spot favorable for life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

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.

Opportunity captures spectacular panoramic view ahead to her upcoming mountain climbing goal, the raised rim of “Solander Point” at right, located along the western edge of Endeavour Crater. It may harbor clay minerals indicative of a habitable zone.  The rise at left is "Nobbys Head" which the rover just passed on its southward drive to Solander Point from Cape York.  This pancam photo mosaic was taken on Sol 3335, June 11, 2013 shows vast expanse of the central crater mound and distant Endeavour crater rim.   Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com) See full panoramic scene below

Opportunity captures spectacular panoramic view ahead to her upcoming mountain climbing goal, the raised rim of “Solander Point” at right, located along the western edge of Endeavour Crater. It may harbor clay minerals indicative of a habitable zone. The rise at left is “Nobbys Head” which the rover just passed on its southward drive to Solander Point from Cape York. This pancam photo mosaic was taken on Sol 3335, June 11, 2013 shows vast expanse of the central crater mound and distant Endeavour crater rim.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

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

Ken Kremer

Wide angle view of Endeavour Crater showing Solander Point and Cape Tribulation in this photo mosaic captured by navcam camera on Sol 3335, June 11, 2013.  Opportunity will scale Solander after arriving in August 2013 in search of chemical ingredients to sustain Martian microbes.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Wide angle view of Endeavour Crater showing Solander Point and Cape Tribulation in this photo mosaic captured by navcam camera on Sol 3335, June 11, 2013. Opportunity will scale Solander after arriving in August 2013 in search of chemical ingredients to sustain Martian microbes. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2013.  This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during more than 9 years and over 3351 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.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2013. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during more than 9 years and over 3351 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. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

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

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