With her most recent drive of 482 feet (146.8 meters) on June 1, 2011 (Sol 2614), NASA’s Opportunity Mars Rover has zoomed past the unimaginable 30 kilometer (18,64 miles) mark in total odometry since safely landing on Mars nearly seven and one half years ago on Jan 24, 2004. That’s 50 times beyond the roughly quarter mile of roving distance initially forseen.
Opportunity is now 88 months into the original 3 month mission “warranty” planned by NASA and the rover team. That’s over 29 times beyond the original design lifetime and an achievement that no one on the rover teams ever expected to observe.
And Opportunity is still going strong, in good health and has abundant solar power as she continues driving on her ambitious overland trek across the martian plains of Meridiani Planum. She is heading to the giant Endeavour crater, some 22 km (14 miles) in diameter.
At this point Endeavour is barely 2 miles (3.5 km) away since Opportunity departed from Santa Maria Crater in March 2011. Landfall at Endeavour is expected sometime later this year.
Endeavour is a long awaited and long sought science target because it is loaded with phyllosilicate clay minerals. These clays have never before been studied and analyzed first hand on the red planets surface.
Phyllosilicate clays formed in neutral watery environments, which are much more conducive to the formation of life compared to the highly acidic environments studied up to now by Spirit and Opportunity. NASA’s Curiosity rover is due to land on Mars in 2012 at a site the science team believes is rich in Phyllosilicates.
In recent weeks, Opportunity has passed by a series and small young craters as she speeds to Endeavour as fast as possible. One such crater is named “Skylab”, in honor of America’s first manned Space Station, launched in 1973.
Now whip out your 3 D glasses and check out NASA’s newly released stereo images of “Skylab” and another named “Freedom 7” in honor of Alan Shepard’s flight as the first American in space. Be sure to also view Opportunity’s dance steps in 3 D performed to aid backwards driving maneuvers on the Red planet
“Skylab” is about 9 meters (30 feet) in diameter. The positions of the scattered rocks relative to sand ripples suggest that Skylab is young for a Martian crater. Researchers estimate it was excavated by an impact within the past 100,000 years.
“Freedom 7” crater is about 25 meters (82 feet) in diameter. During her long overland expedition, Opportunity is examining many craters of diverse ages at distant locales to learn more about the past history of Mars and how impact craters have changed over time.
Opportunity was just positioned at a newly found rock outcrop named “Valdivia” and analyzing it with the robotic arm instruments including the Microscopic Imager and the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS).
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