A robot from Earth is celebrating New Years on Mars by snapping another amazing set of “Postcards from the Edge” while perched near the sharp edge of a crater cliff on the red planet. NASA’s Opportunity rover is now stationed just meters away from a new precipice at the stunningly beautiful crater named Santa Maria. The twin rovers mark their 7th anniversary on Mars this week. See martian postcard mosaics above and below.
Craters expose the hidden history of Mars and permit scientists a path to explore the past geologic epochs which otherwise would remain buried and inaccessible.
Santa Maria is an exciting find because it appears to be relatively new and unweathered – on the order of possibly just a few million years old. Researchers are eager to drive around the rim in order to explore deposits of water bearing minerals that contain valuable clues to the flow of liquid water on ancient Mars.
The golf cart sized rover arrived this week (Dec. 29) at an outlook nicknamed “Wanahani” near the southern edge of Santa Maria. Opportunity arrived at the western rim of Santa Maria on Dec. 16. Just before Christmas, she drove about 20 meters south along the steep rim from the initial location at Palos Promontory and then bumped incrementally further up to the edge (Sol 2464) .
But there is no time to party and relax. The rover will soon resume driving to the next location – nicknamed “Yuma”. It will continue farther around the football field sized crater – measuring some 90 meters (295 ft) in diameter – to reach the exposures of sulfated hydrates located at the southeast portion of the crater near “Yuma”.
Opportunity must be in position at an important science target before mid January and the onset of solar conjunction and a temporary communications black out with Earth. The rover will remain stationary during conjunction.
At Wanahani, Opportunity is now hurriedly toiling away over the New Year’s period to collect a pair of long baseline, high resolution stereo image mosaics using it’s panoramic, multispectral imaging camera. See our initial Wanahani mosaics assembled here from the navigation camera images just received on Earth (Sol 2464).
The team is using all 13 filters on the filter wheels of the panoramic camera, according to Ray Arvidson, the deputy principal investigator for the rovers, in an interview from Washington University in St. Louis. Over the course of several days, the left and right “eyes” of the panoramic camera will gather data at various wavelengths to maximize the collection of spectral information about the hydrated minerals located in the craters interior.
Data downlink is limited by the available amount of flash memory aboard Opportunity and is the Achilles heel of rover operations. Virtually all the pictures and science is streaming back to Earth via NASA’s long lived Mars Odyssey orbiter. The team is working to get all the acquired science data offloaded as swiftly as possible,
Arvidson said that the team hopes that the meteor impact that excavated the crater also blasted some of these scientifically fascinating rocks free to spots which are more easily accessible – just outside the rim for close up analysis. Additional imaging and spectral data is also being collected from Mars orbit this new year’s weekend in hopes of quickly directing the rover to the best locations for science in the limited time available.
Opportunity will study the relatively fresh and uneroded ejecta rocks using all the instruments located at the end of the robotic arm. One target will be selected for a longer duration study during the period of solar conjunction, said Arvidson.
The rover team is naming places visited around the crater rim after islands visited by Columbus during his voyages of expedition and discovery to the New World starting in 1492. The Santa Maria was the largest of the three ships used during his first voyage.
Opportunity will resume her long term trek to Endeavour crater after the end of solar conjunction in mid February. The western rim of Endeavour is about 6 km distant. Endeavour is a very compelling science target because it shows significant signatures for clay minerals which formed in the presence of neutral bodies of liquid water on Mars, billions of years ago.
Spirit and Opportunity celebrate 7 Years on Mars this month since the dynamic duo landed in January 2004. Look for my story soon.