Opportunity Finds its Heat Shield

After six fruitful months exploring the interior of “Endurance Crater,” the Opportunity rover has successfully climbed out of the crater onto the surrounding flatland of Meridiani Planum. Once out, the rover examined some of its own tracks that it had laid down prior to entering the crater. It compared them side-by-side with fresh tracks in order to observe any weathering effects in the intervening 200 sols. Opportunity is now making its way toward an engineering examination of its heat shield, which is located about 200 meters (220 yards) from the edge of Endurance. Now that the vehicle is on the relatively flat plain rather than tilted toward the Sun on the north-facing inner slope of the crater, electrical output from its solar array has declined by about 15 percent. Opportunity remains in excellent health as it begins a new phase of exploration.

Sol 312 and 313 were planned in a single planning cycle. Opportunity was still inside Endurance Crater. On sol 312 the plan began with backing up and using the panoramic camera and miniature thermal emission spectrometer to observe a rock target called “Wharenhui,” which had been treated with the rock abrasion tool on earlier sols. Subsequent commands were to turn cross-slope, drive 7 meters (23 feet), turn upslope, and drive an additional 6 meters (20 feet) uphill. Opportunity performed the drive perfectly, ending up approximately 5 meters (16.4 feet) from the rim of Endurance Crater. Opportunity’s tilt went from 25 degrees pre-drive to 19 degrees post-drive.

Sol 313 was a restricted sol because results from the sol 312 drive were not available for planning sol 313. That meant that no driving or robotic-arm activities were permitted. So Opportunity performed about two hours of observations using the panoramic camera and miniature thermal emission spectrometer and then went to sleep in the early afternoon. The rover woke up to support late-afternoon and early-morning communication relays by the orbiting Mars Odyssey.

Sols 314 through 316 were planned in another single planning cycle. The plan was to complete the egress from Endurance Crater on sol 315, so sol 314 was another remote sensing sol. This would be the last full sol inside Endurance. Opportunity spent about two and a half hours observing with the panoramic camera and miniature thermal emission spectrometer. It also performed a nighttime observation with the miniature thermal emission spectrometer just before midnight. To ensure that Opportunity had adequate power, the early-morning communication-relay session with Odyssey was canceled and Opportunity went into a modified deep sleep after completing the late-night observation.

Sol 315 was the big day for Opportunity. The rover was finally going to leave Endurance Crater after spending 181 sols there! Opportunity was instructed to drive 7 meters (23 feet) up and out of the crater. It was a textbook drive. Everything went as planned and Opportunity had finally, successfully completed a long and detailed series of observations inside Endurance. Opportunity ended up on the plains of Meridiani ready to begin the next chapter of its adventures.

Sol 316 was the third sol of a three-sol plan, and because Opportunity had driven on sol 315, sol 316 was restricted to remote-sensing observations. The rover performed about two hours of remote sensing and went to sleep. Out on the plains, Opportunity went from a northerly tilt that is very good for solar exposure, to a southerly tilt that is not so good for solar exposure. The tilt was expected to be as high as 10 degrees, but Opportunity’s actual tilt was about 5 degrees. Daily output from the solar panels went from 840 watt-hours in the crater, to 730 watt-hours on the plains.

Since the team continues to be operating in restricted sol mode, sols 317 and 318 were planned together as a two-sol plan. For sol 317, the science team elected to drive toward wheel tracks that Opportunity had made before entering Endurance Crater. The rover backed up about 5 meters (16.4 feet), performed some mid-drive imaging, and then continued another 10 meters (33 feet) to put the old rover tracks into the work volume of the robotic arm. Sol 318 was another remote-sensing sol, during which Opportunity imaged its still-distant heat shield and conducted a miniature thermal emission spectrometer observation of the tracks.

After the drive, both old and new tracks were directly in front of the rover. On sol 319 Opportunity captured microscopic imager mosaics of both types of tracks, then drove about 40 meters (131 feet) closer to the heat shield, which will be examined carefully in future sols. Sol 319 ended on Dec. 17.

Original Source: NASA News Release