NASA Robot seeks Goldmine of Science and Sun at Martian Hill along vast Crater

by Ken Kremer on November 4, 2011

Want to stay on top of all the space news? Follow @universetoday on Twitter

Opportunity - Panoramic view inside vast Endeavour Crater
This view snapped by NASA Martian robot looking south and ascending Cape York crater ridge on Sol 2754, October 23, 2011. Opportunity wheel tracks at right. Cape Tribulation and distant, far side Endeavour crater rim in background. Opportunity is now driving to the northern tip of Cape York in search of a winter haven to survive upcoming brutal Martian Antarctic winter temperatures. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell.
Update: See the entire panorama in 2 D and 3 D and Route Maps to current location below
Science team comments

NASA’s intrepid robogirl Opportunity is now swiftly scouting out locations at a Martian hill along gigantic Endeavour crater that would simultaneously proffer a goldmine of sun and science as her power level drops significantly in these waning days of Martian autumn ahead of the absolutely brutal and potentially deadly 6 month long Antarctic winter that’s fast approaching. Opportunity has just discovered a geologic vein possibly formed as a result of flowing water eons ago.

But, search time for a sunny exposure at the Martian hill known as Cape York is running out says the Mars rover team in new interviews with Universe Today. Recall that lack of power and utterly frigid temperatures killed her twin sister Spirit last winter.

Martian winter in the southern hemisphere starts on March 29, 2012 or Sol 2908. But, Solar power levels already begin dropping dramatically months before Martian winter starts,” said Alfonso Herrera to Universe Today, Herrera is a Mars rover mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

“Orbital imagery indicates that the northern-most tip of Cape York might have north facing slopes which Opportunity will need in order to generate enough solar power to sustain her comfortably throughout the winter,” Herrera explained to me.

The team is very excited about the science implications of the vein detection.

“The importance of veins is that often they occur from the deposition of material that was dissolved and transported by hot water in cracks deep underground,” said Bruce Banerdt to Universe Today. Banerdt is the Project Scientist for the Mars rover mission at JPL.

Traverse map showing the 7 Year Journey of Opportunity from Eagle Crater landing site Sol 1 (Jan. 24, 2004) to current location around Homestake on Sol 2763 (November 2011) at Cape York ridge at Endeavour Crater rim. Endeavour Crater is 14 miles or 22 kilometers in diameter. Opportunity has driven more than 21 miles (34 km). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer

Segments of Endeavour’s rim at Cape York and Cape Tribulation about 6 kilometers further south offers scientifically rich motherlodes of phyllosilicate clay minerals and other water bearing minerals that formed Billions of years ago on Mars and that could possibly point to habitats favorable for the genesis and support of Martian microbial life forms if they ever existed in the past or present.

Opportunity is currently traversing about the hilltops and slopes of Cape York where she recently made landfall after an epic three year trek across the plains of the Meridiani Planum region of Mars.

Initial reconnaissance around the southern tip and then climbing on top of the central ridge of Cape York have already yielded a bonanza of new science data at rock types never seen before on Mars, according to Steve Squyres, the Mars Rover Principal Investigator of Cornell University.

The rover is now driving north and back down around the base while searching for a “winter haven” with more potential for great science and a northerly inclined slope to more efficiently catch the sun’s rays.

“Opportunity is heading north to find the best winter site,” Ray Arvidson told Universe Today. Arvidson is the rover’s deputy principal investigator, of Washington University in St. Louis.

“We are more than halfway toward the northern part of Cape York where there are slopes steep enough to provide an energy-valid winter site and where science can take place. Now we are driving away from the predicted outcrops [of smectite clay minerals] on Cape York and onto the bench on the western side because we have run out of time to investigate these outcrops.”

Opportunity - Wide panoramic view inside vast Endeavour Crater snapped ascending Cape York crater ridge on Sol 2754, October 23, 2011. Opportunity wheel tracks at center. Cape Tribulation and distant, far side Endeavour crater rim in background. Opportunity is now driving to the northern tip of Cape York in search of a winter haven to survive upcoming brutal Martian Antarctic winter temperatures. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

However, the rover team was still hoping to catch a break for science opportunities along the way north and just chanced upon geologic veins potentially indicative of past flow of liquid water.

“The bench around the edge of Cape York looks like sedimentary rock that’s been cut and filled with veins of material possibly delivered by water,” says Arvidson.

3 D Opportunity Panorama - 3 D Wide panoramic view inside vast Endeavour Crater snapped ascending Cape York crater ridge on Sol 2754, October 23, 2011. Opportunity wheel tracks at center. Cape Tribulation and distant, far side Endeavour crater rim in background. Opportunity is now driving to the northern tip of Cape York in search of a winter haven to survive upcoming brutal Martian Antarctic winter temperatures. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

Opportunity has just driven to a light toned vein at a spot dubbed “Homestake” and will spend a few sols (martian days) investigating with all the tools on the terminus of the robotic arm – including some Microscopic Imager (MI) images of the vein and placing the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) on top for overnight integrations.

“Opportunity will then continue traveling on the outboard side of Cape York (i.e. facing the plains),” Herrera told Universe Today.

“Plans are subject to change, but currently, Opportunity will travel to the north end of Cape York and stay there for the winter if suitable north facing slopes are found.”

“Our hope is that once a winter haven is identified, Opportunity will have enough power to make brief forays for science gathering in the vicinity of the winter haven,” Herrera informed me.

Homestake vein close up on Sol 2765- November 3, 2011. RAT (Rock Abrasion Tool) at lower left will target Homestake. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

Opportunity Panorama at Cape York Ridge at Endeavour Crater - November 2011
Opportunity rover is exploring around the base of Cape York hill at the bench and vein features which may hold clues to the ancient flow of liquid water here on Mars. Opportunity drives North (ahead) from here in search of a sunny winter haven. Mosaic Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Kenneth Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

Opportunity’s power levels have dropped by nearly 25 percent in the past few months – as Martian dust builds up – and are hovering around 300 watts-hours , which is less than a third of the maximum output possible from her life giving solar arrays.

Her sparkling wing-like solar panels boasted an output of some 950 watt-hours upon landing on Mars nearly 8 years ago – for a mission warrentied to last a mere 90 Martian Days, or Sols. That equates to 31 times beyond the design lifetime !

Endeavour Crater Panorama from Opportunity, Sol 2681, August 2011
Opportunity arrived at the rim of Endeavour on Sol 2681, August 9, 2011 and climbed up the ridge known as Cape York. Odyssey crater is visible at left. Opportunity is now driving to the northern tip of Cape York (to the left) and is investigating a geologic vein that indicates flow of liquid water. Opportunity was photographed from Mars orbit on Sept. 10, 2011.
Mosaic Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer

Cape York is a low ridge that belongs to the rim of humongous Endeavour crater, some 14 miles or 22 kilometers in diameter that offers spectacular panoramic vistas peering into the vast and beautiful crater sporting a huge central mound and mountainous rim segments both near and far.

Opportunity arrived at Cape York and Endeavour Crater in August 2011 after an overland expedition of more than 21 miles (34 km).

NASA’s Curiosity rover is on course to liftoff for Mars on Nov. 25

Traverse map showing the 7 Year Journey of Opportunity from Eagle Crater landing site to current location at Cape York ridge at Endeavour Crater rim. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer

Read Ken’s continuing features about Opportunity starting here:
Opportunity spotted Exploring vast Endeavour Crater from Mars Orbit
Twin Towers 9/11 Tribute by Opportunity Mars Rover
NASA Robot arrives at ‘New’ Landing Site holding Clues to Ancient Water Flow on Mars
Opportunity Arrives at Huge Martian Crater with Superb Science and Scenic Outlook
Opportunity Snaps Gorgeous Vistas nearing the Foothills of Giant Endeavour Crater

Read Ken’s continuing features about Curiosity & Nov. 25 launch starting here:
Closing the Clamshell on a Martian Curiosity
Curiosity Buttoned Up for Martian Voyage in Search of Life’s Ingredients
Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action

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

Chandrashekhar November 4, 2011 at 7:08 AM

quite amazing what engineers can do.. hope the guys manning Opportunity find some good winter haven soon. would be bad if we lost her after all these awesome finds.

Anonymous November 4, 2011 at 8:58 PM

The journey continues! WOW! SUCCESS!

Anonymous November 4, 2011 at 8:58 PM

The journey continues! WOW! SUCCESS!

Anonymous November 4, 2011 at 8:58 PM

The journey continues! WOW! SUCCESS!

Anonymous November 9, 2011 at 11:56 AM

This is quite impressive. From launch to this present time, the Mars Rover continues to excite me with every passing discovery day. Ingenious!!

Ken Kremer November 12, 2011 at 3:37 AM

Indeed, after nearly 8 years the best science is yet to come

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: