Opportunity rover’s view across Botany Bay to Solander Point – her next destination – as NASA celebrates 10 Years since blastoff for Mars on July 7, 2003. The rover will climb up Solander Point because it which may harbor clay minerals indicative of a past Martian habitable environment. This pancam mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 3348 (June 24, 2013.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)[/caption]

Today, NASA’s Opportunity rover marks a magical moment celebrating 10 years since launching to Mars on July 7, 2003 and with her impending Mountain destination filling the camera’s eye view.

The now legendary robot has vastly exceeded everyone’s expectations. Back in 2003 the science team promised us a mere 90 day ‘warranty’ following the suspenseful airbag landing on Jan. 24, 2004 at Meridiani Planum.

Today is Martian Day (or Sol) 3360. That amounts to a life expectancy and exploration ‘bonus’ of more than 37 times beyond the design lifetime.

Launch of NASA’s 2nd Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, aboard a Delta II Heavy rocket to Mars on July 7, 2003 at 11:18 p.m. EDT from Pad 17-B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: NASA

Opportunity’s twin sister Spirit blasted off three weeks earlier in June 2003 and continued functioning until 2010.

“I never thought we’d achieve nine months!” Principal Investigator Prof. Steve Squyres of Cornell University told me recently on the occasion of the rovers 9th anniversary on Mars in January 2013.

As you read this, the now decade old rover Opportunity is blazing a trail toward’s the oldest geological deposits she has ever explored – at a place called Solander Point, a raised ridge along the eroded rim of huge Endeavour Crater.

Opportunity has surpassed the halfway point in the traverse from the rim segment she has explored the past 22 months at ‘Cape York’ to her next rim segment destination at Solander.

From tip to tip, Cape York and Solander Point lie 1.2-mile (2-kilometer) apart along the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Both are raised portions of 14-mile-wide (22-kilometer-wide) Endeavour.

The rover has less than half a mile (800 meters) to go to finish the Martian dash from one rim segment to the next across an area called ‘Botany Bay’.

This view from July 2, 2013 (Sol 3355) shows the terrain that NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is crossing in a flat area called “Botany Bay” on the way toward “Solander Point,” which is visible on the horizon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“We are making very good progress crossing ‘Botany Bay,’ said John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., who is project manager for the mission now entering its 2nd decade.

The flat terrain of fractured, light-toned bedrock is devoid of treacherous dunes and is easy to drive across, almost like a highway, which simplifies the daily planning by the rovers Earthly handlers.

“The surface that Opportunity is driving across in Botany Bay is polygonally fractured outcrop that is remarkably good for driving,” said Brad Joliff, an Opportunity science team member and long-term planner at Washington University in St. Louis. “The plates of outcrop, like a tiled mosaic pavement, have a thin covering of soil, not enough to form the wind-blown ripples we’ve had to deal with during some other long treks. The outcrop plates are light-toned, and the cracks between them are filled with dark, basaltic soil and our old friends the ‘blueberries.”

The “blueberries” are hematite-rich, erosion-resistant concretions about the size of BB’s that Opportunity discovered when she first opened her eyes at her Eagle crater landing site. During the multi year crater hopping tour that ensued, the rover continued finding patches of blueberries all the way to Endeavour crater.

1st color panorama taken by Opportunity after landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan. 24, 2004. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

Opportunity is expected to arrive at Solander’s foothills sometime in August – before the onset of the next southern hemisphere Martian winter, her 6th altogether.

Opportunity will scale Solander to continue the science quest in search of additional evidence of habitable environments with the chemical ingredients necessary to sustain Martian microbial life.

“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’ offers roughly about a 10 times taller stack of geological layering compared to ‘Cape York.’

Solander also offers north facing slopes where Opportunity’s solar wings can more effectively soak up the sun’s rays to generate life giving electrical power.

The robot remains in excellent health.

The total driving distance exceeds 23 miles (37 kilometers). She has snapped over 181,000 images.

Meanwhile on the opposite side of Mars at Gale Crater, Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity also discovered a habitable environment originating from a time when the Red Planet was far warmer and wetter billions of years ago.

And like Opportunity, Curiosity is also trekking towards a mountain rich in sedimentary layers, hoping to unveil the mysteries of Mars past.

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)
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 3360 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
Ken Kremer

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, research scientist, freelance science journalist (KSC area,FL) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calendars including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, FOX, BBC, SPACE.com, Spaceflight Now, Science 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, NASA Wallops, NASA Michoud/Stennis/Langley and on over 80 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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