NASA’s truly outstanding Opportunity rover continues “making new discoveries about ancient Mars” as she commemorates 13 Years since bouncing to a touchdown on Mars, in a feat that is “truly amazing” – the deputy chief scientist Ray Arvidson told Universe Today exclusively.
Resilient Opportunity celebrated her 13th birthday on Sol 4623 on January 24, 2017 PST while driving south along the eroded rim of humongous Endeavour crater – and having netted an unfathomable record for longevity and ground breaking scientific discoveries about the watery environment of the ancient Red Planet.
“Reaching the 13th year anniversary with a functioning rover making new discoveries about ancient Mars on a continuing basis is truly amazing,” Ray Arvidson, Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University in St. Louis, told Universe Today.
Put another way Opportunity is 13 YEARS into her 3 MONTH mission! And still going strong!
During the past year the world famous rover discovered “more extensive aqueous alteration within fractures and more mild alteration within the bedrock outcrops” at Endeavour crater, Arvidson elaborated.
And now she is headed to her next target – an ancient water carved gully!
The gully is situated about 0. 6 mile (1.6 km) south of the robots current location.
But to get there she first has to heroically ascend steep rocky slopes inclined over 20 degrees along the eroded craters western rim – and it’s no easy task! Slipping and sliding along the way and all alone on difficult alien terrain.
Furthermore she is 51 times beyond her “warrantied” life expectancy of merely 90 Sols promised at the time of landing so long ago – roving the surface of the 4th rock from the Sun during her latest extended mission; EM #10.
How was this incredible accomplishment achieved?
“Simply a well-made and thoroughly tested American vehicle,” Arvidson responded.
The six wheeled rover landed on Mars on January 24, 2004 PST on the alien Martian plains at Meridiani Planum -as the second half of a stupendous sister act.
Her twin sister Spirit, had successfully touched down 3 weeks earlier on January 3, 2004 inside 100-mile-wide Gusev crater and survived more than six years.
Opportunity concluded 2016 and starts 2017 marching relentlessly towards an ancient water carved gully along the eroded rim of vast Endeavour crater – the next science target on her heroic journey traversing across never before seen Red Planet terrains.
Huge Endeavour crater spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter.
Throughout 2016 Opportunity was investigating the ancient, weathered slopes around the Marathon Valley location in Endeavour crater. The area became a top priority science destination after the slopes were found to hold a motherlode of ‘smectite’ clay minerals based on data from the CRISM spectrometer circling overhead aboard a NASA Mars orbiter.
The smectites were discovered via extensive, specially targeted Mars orbital measurements gathered by the CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars) spectrometer on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – accomplished earlier at the direction of Arvidson.
Opportunity was descending down Marathon Valley the past year to investigate the clay minerals formed in water. They are key to helping determine the habitability of the Red Planet when it was warmer and wetter billions of years ago.
What did Opportunity accomplish scientifically at Marathon Valley during 2016?
“Key here is the more extensive aqueous alteration within fractures and more mild alteration within the bedrock outcrops,” Arvidson explained to me.
“Fractures have red pebbles enhanced in Al and Si (likely by leaching out more soluble elements), hematite, and in the case of our scuffed fracture, enhanced sulfate content with likely Mg sulfates and other phases. Also the bedrock is enriched in Mg and S relative to other Shoemaker rocks and these rocks are the smectite carrier as observed from CRISM ATO data.”
Marathon Valley measures about 300 yards or meters long. It cuts downhill through the west rim of Endeavour crater from west to east – the same direction in which Opportunity drove downhill from a mountain summit area atop the crater rim.
Opportunity has been exploring Endeavour since arriving at the humongous crater in 2011. Endeavour crater was formed when it was carved out of the Red Planet by a huge meteor impact billions of years ago.
“Endeavour crater dates from the earliest Martian geologic history, a time when water was abundant and erosion was relatively rapid and somewhat Earth-like,” explains Larry Crumpler, a science team member from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science.
Opportunity has been climbing up very steep and challenging slopes to reach the top of the crater rim. Then she will drive south to Cape Byron and the gully system.
“We have had some mobility issues climbing steep, rocky slopes. Lots of slipping and skidding, but evaluating the performance of the rover on steep, rocky and soil-covered slopes was one of the approved extended mission objectives,” Arvidson explained.
“We are heading out of Cape Tribulation, driving uphill to the southwest to reach the Meridiani plains and then to drive to the western side of Cape Byron to the head of a gully system.”
What’s ahead for 2017? What’s the importance of exploring the gully?
“Finish up work on Cape Tribulation, traverse to the head of the gully system and head downhill into one or more of the gullies to characterize the morphology and search for evidence of deposits,” Arvidson elaborated.
“Hopefully test among dry mass movements, debris flow, and fluvial processes for gully formation. The importance is that this will be the first time we will acquire ground truth on a gully system that just might be formed by fluvial processes. Will search for cross bedding, gravel beds, fining or coarsening upward sequences, etc., to test among hypotheses.”
How long will it take to reach the gully?
“Months to the gully,” replied Arvidson. After arriving at the top of the crater rim, the rover will actually drive part of the way on the Martian plains again during the southward trek to the gully.
“And we will be driving on the plains to drive relatively long distances with an intent of getting to the gully well before the winter season.”
As of today, Jan 31, 2017, long lived Opportunity has survived 4630 Sols (or Martian days) roving the harsh environment of the Red Planet.
Opportunity has taken over 216,700 images and traversed over 27.26 miles (43.87 kilometers) – more than a marathon.
See our updated route map below. It shows the context of the rovers over 13 year long traverse spanning more than the 26 mile distance of a Marathon runners race.
The rover surpassed the 27 mile mark milestone on November 6, 2016 (Sol 4546).
The power output from solar array energy production is currently 416 watt-hours, before heading into another southern hemisphere Martian winter in 2017. It will count as Opportunities 8th winter on Mars.
Meanwhile Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity traverses and drills into the lower sedimentary layers at the base of Mount Sharp.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.