NASA is using its powerful science surveyor orbiting more than 241 kilometers above Mars to target the surface explorations of the long lived Opportunity rover to compelling science targets on the ground. Opportunity is currently on a long term trek to the giant crater named Endeavour, some 22 kilometers in diameter, which shows significant signatures of clays and water bearing sulfate minerals which formed in the presence of flowing liquid water billions of years ago.
An armada of orbiters and rovers from Earth are carrying out a coordinated attack plan to unlock the mysteries of the red planet, foremost being to determine whether life ever arose on Mars.
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On Dec. 15 (Sol 2450), Opportunity arrived at Santa Maria crater which is just 6 km distant from the western rim of Endeavour. Over the past 2 years, the rover has traversed more than two thirds of the 19 km distance from Victoria crater -her last big target – to Endeavour.
High resolution spectral and imaging mappers aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) are enabling researchers on the rover team to prioritize targets and strategically guide Opportunity to the most fruitful locations for scientific investigations.
The on board CRISM mapping spectrometer has detected clay minerals, or phyllosilicates, at multiple locations around Endeavour crater including the western rim closest to Opportunity. CRISM is the acronym for Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars. Images from MRO’s HiRISE camera are utilized to scout out the safest and most efficient route. See maps above and below.
“This is the first time mineral detections from orbit are being used in tactical decisions about where to drive on Mars,” said Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis. Arvidson is the deputy principal investigator for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers and a co-investigator for CRISM.
Clay minerals are a very exciting scientific find because they can form in more neutral and much less acidic aqueous environments which are more conducive to the possibility for the formation of life. They have never before been studied up close by science instruments on a landed mission.
Opportunity may soon get a quick taste of water bearing sulfate minerals at Santa Maria because spectral data from CRISM suggest the presence of sulfate deposits at the southeast rim of the crater. Opportunity has previously investigated these sulfate minerals at other locations along her circuitous traverse route – but which she discovered without the help of orbital assets.
“We’ve just pulled up to the rim of Santa Maria, and the workload is very high,” Steve Squyres informed me. Squyres, of Cornell University, is the Principal Scientific Investigator for NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers.
Opportunity drove to within about 5 meters of the crater rim on Dec. 16 (Sol 2451). JPL Mars rover driver Scott Maxwell tweeted this message ; “Today’s NAVCAM mosaic of Santa Maria Crater. Woo-hoo! Glorious and beautiful!” and this twitpic
The rover will conduct an extensive science campaign at Santa Maria by driving to different spots over the next several weeks and gathering data to compare observations on the ground to those from CRISM in orbit.
Santa Maria crater appears to be relatively fresh and steep walled and was likely created by a meteor strike only a few million years ago. Endeavour is an ancient crater with a discontinuous rim that is heavily eroded at many points. By exploring craters, scientists can look back in time and decipher earlier geologic periods in Mars history.
Scientists believe that the clay minerals stem from an earlier time period in Martian history and that the sulfate deposits formed later. Mars has experiences many episodes of wet environments at diverse locations in the past and climate-change cycles persist into the present era.
After the upcoming Solar Conjunction in February 2011, Opportunity will depart eastwards for the last leg of the long march to Endeavour. She heads for a rim fragment dubbed Cape York which spectral data show is surrounded by exposures of water bearing minerals. Cape York is not yet visible in the long distance images because it lies to low. See maps below.
Thereafter, Opportunity alters direction and turns south towards her next goal –
Cape Tribulation – which is even more enticing to researchers because CRISM has detected exposures of the clay minerals formed in the milder environments more favorable to life. Cape Tribulation has been clearly visible in rover images already taken months ago in early 2010.
Opportunity could reach Endeavour sometime in 2011 if she can continue to survive the harsh environment of Mars and drive at her current accelerated pace. Opportunity arrived at Mars in January 2004 for a planned 90 day mission. The rover has far surpassed all expectations and will soon celebrate 7 earth years of continuous operations on the red planet. Virtually all the data from Spirit and Opportunity are relayed back to Earth via NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter.
Opportunity used its panoramic camera in a super-resolution technique to record this view of the horizon on Sol 2298 (July 11, 2010) which shows the western rim of Endeavour Crater, including the highest ridge informally named “Cape Tribulation”. CRISM data revealed exposures of clay minerals at Cape Tribulation.
Opportunity’s Path on Mars Through Sol 2436
The red line shows where Opportunity has driven from the place where it landed in January 2004 — inside Eagle Crater, at the upper left end of the track — to where it reached on the 2,436th Martian day, or sol, of its work on Mars (Nov. 30, 2010). The map covers an area about 15 kilometers (9 miles) wide. North is at the top. Subsequent drives brought Opportunity to Santa Maria Crater, which is about 90 meters (295 feet) in diameter. After investigating Santa Maria the rover heads for Endeavour Crater. The western edge of 22-kilometer-wide (14-mile-wide) Endeavour is in the lower right corner of this map. Some sections of the discontinuous raised rim and nearby features are indicated with informal names on the map: rim segments “Cape York” and “Solander Point”; a low area between them called “Botany Bay”; “Antares” crater, which formed on sedimentary rocks where the rim was eroded down; and rim fragment “Cape Tribulation,” where orbital observations have detected clay minerals. The base map is a mosaic of images from the Context Camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.