On the cusp of the 10th anniversary since launching to the Red Planet, NASA’s long lived Opportunity rover has discovered a habitable zone on Mars that once coursed with ‘drinkable water’ and possesses the chemical ingredients necessary to support a path to potential Martian microbes.
At a rock called “Esperance”, Opportunity found a cache of phyllosilicate clay minerals that typically form in neutral, drinkable water that is not extremely acidic or basic.
The finding ranks as “One of my personal Top 5 discoveries of the mission,” said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., principal investigator for NASA’s rover mission at a media briefing.
And despite her advancing age Opportunity remains healthy after surviving in excess of an incredible 3333 Sols, or days, trekking across the alien and ever harsh Martian crater plains.
Furthermore the intrepid robot just sat sail on a southerly course for a new destination called “Solander Point” where researches hope to find more even evidence of habitable environments since they already spotted deeper stakes of ancient rocks transformed by water eons ago. See our current photo mosaics showing Solander Point as Opportunity roves across the crater floor – above and below by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.
After weeks of trying, the rover deployed the robotic arm to drill at a sweet spot inside “Esperance” and collected convincing X-Ray spectroscopic data in the area she just investigated in May 2013 around the eroded rim of giant Endeavour Crater.
“Esperance is rich in clay minerals and shows powerful evidence of water alteration,” Squyres elaborated.
“This is the most powerful evidence we found for neutral pH water.”
“Clay minerals only tend to form at a more neutral pH. This is water you could drink,” Squyres gushed.
These finding represent the most favorable conditions for biology that Opportunity has yet seen in the rock histories it has encountered after nearly a decade roving the Red Planet.
“This is water that was much more favorable for things like pre-biotic chemistry – the kind of chemistry that could lead to the origin of life,” Squyres stated.
Esperance is unlike any rock previously investigated by Opportunity; rich in aluminum, which is strongly indicative of clay minerals, perhaps like montmorillonite.
Most rocks inspected to date by Opportunity were formed in an environment of highly acidic water that is extremely harsh to most life forms.
“If you look at all of the water-related discoveries that have been made by Opportunity, the vast majority of them point to water that was a very low pH – it was acid,” Squyres explained.
Esperance was found on ‘Cape York’, a hilly segment of the western rim of Endeavour crater which spans 14 miles (22 km) across. The robot arrived at the edge of Endeavour crater in mid-2011 and will spend her remaining life driving around the scientifically rich crater rim segments.
NASA’s new Curiosity rover also recently discovered clay minerals and a habitable environment at Gale Crater – on the other side of Mars – stemming from a time when Mars was warmer and wetter billions of years ago.
Over time Mars became the cold and dry place it is today. Scientists hope the rovers provide clues to Mars dramatic transformation.
The solar powered rover is now driving as quick as possible to reach the northerly tilled slopes of ‘Solander Point’ in August, before the onset of the next Martian winter.
‘Solander Point’ offers a much taller stack of geological layering than ‘Cape York.’ Both areas are raised segments of the western rim of Endeavour Crater.
“There’s a lot to explore there. In effect, it’s a whole new mission,” said Ray Arvidson, the mission’s deputy principal scientific investigator from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.
Opportunity and her twin “Spirit” were launched to Mars on planned 90 day missions.
Both rovers have far exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations. Spirit endured more than 6 years inside Gusev Crater until succumbing to the bone chilling Martian winter in 2011.
Opportunity has lasted more than 37 times beyond the three month “warranty”.
“This is like your car not lasting 200,000 miles, or even a million miles. You’re talking about a car that lasts 2 million miles without an oil change,” Callas said. “At this point, how long Opportunity lasts is anyone’s guess.”
“Remember, the rover continues to operate in a very hostile environment, where we have extreme temperature changes every day, and the rover could have a catastrophic failure at anytime,” said John Callas, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., project manager for the Mars Exploration Rover Project.
“So every day is a gift.”
And don’t forget to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013
NASA’s long lived Opportunity rover has discovered the most scientifically compelling evidence yet for the flow of liquid water on ancient Mars. The startling revelation comes in the form of a bright vein of the mineral gypsum located at the foothills of an enormous crater named Endeavour, where the intrepid robot is currently traversing. See our mosaic above, illustrating the exact spot.
Update: ‘Homestake’ Opportunity Mosaic above has just been published on Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) – 12 Dec 2011 (by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo)
Researchers trumpeted the significant water finding this week (Dec. 7) at the annual winter meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco.
“This gypsum vein is the single most powerful piece of evidence for liquid water at Mars that has been discovered by the Opportunity rover,” announced Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., Principal Investigator for Opportunity, at an AGU press conference.
The light-toned vein is apparently composed of the mineral gypsum and was deposited as a result of precipitation from percolating pools of liquid water which flowed on the surface and subsurface of ancient Mars, billions of years ago. Liquid water is an essential prerequisite for life as we know it.
“This tells a slam-dunk story that water flowed through underground fractures in the rock,” said Squyres. “This stuff is a fairly pure chemical deposit that formed in place right where we see it. That can’t be said for other gypsum seen on Mars or for other water-related minerals Opportunity has found. It’s not uncommon on Earth, but on Mars, it’s the kind of thing that makes geologists jump out of their chairs.”
The light-toned vein is informally named “Homestake”, and was examined up close by Opportunity’s cameras and science instruments for several weeks this past month in November 2011, as the rover was driving northwards along the western edge of a ridge dubbed ‘Cape York’ – which is a low lying segment of the eroded rim of Endeavour Crater.
Veins are a geologic indication of the past flow of liquid water
Opportunity just arrived at the rim of the 14 mile (22 kilometere) wide Endeavour Crater in mid-August 2011 following an epic three year trek across treacherous dune fields from her prior investigative target at the ½ mile wide Victoria Crater.
“It’s like a whole new mission since we arrived at Cape York,” said Squyres.
‘Homestake’ is a very bright linear feature.
“The ‘Homestake’ vein is about 1 centimeter wide and 40 to 50 centimeters long,” Squyres elaborated. “It’s about the width of a human thumb.”
Homestake protrudes slightly above the surrounding ground and bedrock and appears to be part of a system of mineral veins running inside an apron (or Bench) that in turn encircles the entire ridge dubbed Cape York.
In another first, no other veins like these have been seen by Opportunity throughout her entire 20 miles (33 kilometers) and nearly eight year long Martian journey across the cratered, pockmarked plains of Meridiani Planum, said Squyres.
The veins have also not been seen in the higher ground around the rim at Endeavour crater.
“We want to understand why these veins are in the apron but not out on the plains,” said the mission’s deputy principal investigator, Ray Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis. “The answer may be that rising groundwater coming from the ancient crust moved through material adjacent to Cape York and deposited gypsum, because this material would be relatively insoluble compared with either magnesium or iron sulfates.”
Opportunity was tasked to engage her Microscopic Imager and Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) mounted on the terminus of the rover’s arm as well as multiple filters of the mast mounted Panoramic Camera to examine ‘Homestake’.
“The APXS spectrometer shows ’Homestake’ is chock full of Calcium and Sulfur,” Squyres gushed.
The measurements of composition with the APXS show that the ratio points to it being relatively pure calcium sulfate, Squyres explained. “One type of calcium sulfate is gypsum.”
Calcium sulfate can have varying amounts of water bound into the minerals crystal structure.
The rover science team believes that this form of gypsum discovered by Opportunity is the dihydrate; CaSO4•2H2O. On Earth, gypsum is used for making drywall and plaster of Paris.
The gypsum was formed in the exact spot where Opportunity found it – unlike the sulfate minerals previously discovered which were moved around by the wind and other environmental and geologic forces.
“There was a fracture in the rock, water flowed through it, gypsum was precipitated from the water. End of story,” Squyres noted. “There’s no ambiguity about this, and this is what makes it so cool.”
At Homestake we are seeing the evidence of the ground waters that flowed through the ancient Noachian rocks and the precipitation of the gypsum, which is the least soluble of the sulfates, and the other magnesium and iron sulfates which Opportunity has been driving on for the last 8 years.
“Here, both the chemistry, mineralogy, and the morphology just scream water,” Squyres exclaimed. “This is more solid than anything else that we’ve seen in the whole mission.”
It’s inconceivable that the vein is something else beside gypsum, said Squyres.
As Opportunity drove from the plains of Meridiani onto the rim of Endeavour Crater and Cape York, it crossed a geologic boundary and arrived at a much different and older region of ancient Mars.
The evidence for flowing liquid water at Endeavour crater is even more powerful than the silica deposits found by Spirit around the Home Plate volcanic feature at Gusev Crater a few years ago.
“We will look for more of these veins in the [Martian] springtime,” said Squyres.
If a bigger, fatter vein can be found, then Opportunity will be directed to grind into it with her still well functioning Rock Abrasion Tool, or RAT.
Homestake was crunched with the wheels – driving back and forth over the vein – to break it up and expose the interior. Opportunity did a triple crunch over Homestake, said Arvidson.
Homestake was found near the northern tip of Cape York, while Opportunity was scouting out a “Winter Haven” location to spend the approaching Martian winter.
Arvidson emphasized that the team wants Opportunity to be positioned on a northerly tilted slope to catch the maximum amount of the sun’s rays to keep the rover powered up for continuing science activities throughout the fast approaching Martian winter.
“Martian winter in the southern hemisphere starts on March 29, 2012. But, Solar power levels already begin dropping dramatically months before Martian winter starts,” said Alfonso Herrera to Universe Today, Herrera is a Mars rover mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
“Opportunity is in excellent health,” said Bruce Banerdt, the Project Scientist for the Mars rover mission at JPL.
“This has been a very exciting time. We’ll head back south in the springtime and have a whole bunch of things to do with a very capable robot,” Squyres concluded.
Meanwhile, NASA’s next leap in exploring potential Martian habitats for life – the car sized Curiosity Mars Science Lab rover – is speeding towards the Red Planet.
Read Ken’s continuing features about Opportunity starting here:
NASA’s intrepid robogirl Opportunity is now swiftly scouting out locations at a Martian hill along gigantic Endeavour crater that would simultaneously proffer a goldmine of sun and science as her power level drops significantly in these waning days of Martian autumn ahead of the absolutely brutal and potentially deadly 6 month long Antarctic winter that’s fast approaching. Opportunity has just discovered a geologic vein possibly formed as a result of flowing water eons ago.
But, search time for a sunny exposure at the Martian hill known as Cape York is running out says the Mars rover team in new interviews with Universe Today. Recall that lack of power and utterly frigid temperatures killed her twin sister Spirit last winter.
“Martian winter in the southern hemisphere starts on March 29, 2012 or Sol 2908. But, Solar power levels already begin dropping dramatically months before Martian winter starts,” said Alfonso Herrera to Universe Today, Herrera is a Mars rover mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
“Orbital imagery indicates that the northern-most tip of Cape York might have north facing slopes which Opportunity will need in order to generate enough solar power to sustain her comfortably throughout the winter,” Herrera explained to me.
The team is very excited about the science implications of the vein detection.
“The importance of veins is that often they occur from the deposition of material that was dissolved and transported by hot water in cracks deep underground,” said Bruce Banerdt to Universe Today. Banerdt is the Project Scientist for the Mars rover mission at JPL.
Segments of Endeavour’s rim at Cape York and Cape Tribulation about 6 kilometers further south offers scientifically rich motherlodes of phyllosilicate clay minerals and other water bearing minerals that formed Billions of years ago on Mars and that could possibly point to habitats favorable for the genesis and support of Martian microbial life forms if they ever existed in the past or present.
Opportunity is currently traversing about the hilltops and slopes of Cape York where she recently made landfall after an epic three year trek across the plains of the Meridiani Planum region of Mars.
Initial reconnaissance around the southern tip and then climbing on top of the central ridge of Cape York have already yielded a bonanza of new science data at rock types never seen before on Mars, according to Steve Squyres, the Mars Rover Principal Investigator of Cornell University.
The rover is now driving north and back down around the base while searching for a “winter haven” with more potential for great science and a northerly inclined slope to more efficiently catch the sun’s rays.
“Opportunity is heading north to find the best winter site,” Ray Arvidson told Universe Today. Arvidson is the rover’s deputy principal investigator, of Washington University in St. Louis.
“We are more than halfway toward the northern part of Cape York where there are slopes steep enough to provide an energy-valid winter site and where science can take place. Now we are driving away from the predicted outcrops [of smectite clay minerals] on Cape York and onto the bench on the western side because we have run out of time to investigate these outcrops.”
However, the rover team was still hoping to catch a break for science opportunities along the way north and just chanced upon geologic veins potentially indicative of past flow of liquid water.
“The bench around the edge of Cape York looks like sedimentary rock that’s been cut and filled with veins of material possibly delivered by water,” says Arvidson.
Opportunity has just driven to a light toned vein at a spot dubbed “Homestake” and will spend a few sols (martian days) investigating with all the tools on the terminus of the robotic arm – including some Microscopic Imager (MI) images of the vein and placing the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) on top for overnight integrations.
“Opportunity will then continue traveling on the outboard side of Cape York (i.e. facing the plains),” Herrera told Universe Today.
“Plans are subject to change, but currently, Opportunity will travel to the north end of Cape York and stay there for the winter if suitable north facing slopes are found.”
“Our hope is that once a winter haven is identified, Opportunity will have enough power to make brief forays for science gathering in the vicinity of the winter haven,” Herrera informed me.
Opportunity’s power levels have dropped by nearly 25 percent in the past few months – as Martian dust builds up – and are hovering around 300 watts-hours , which is less than a third of the maximum output possible from her life giving solar arrays.
Her sparkling wing-like solar panels boasted an output of some 950 watt-hours upon landing on Mars nearly 8 years ago – for a mission warrentied to last a mere 90 Martian Days, or Sols. That equates to 31 times beyond the design lifetime !
Cape York is a low ridge that belongs to the rim of humongous Endeavour crater, some 14 miles or 22 kilometers in diameter that offers spectacular panoramic vistas peering into the vast and beautiful crater sporting a huge central mound and mountainous rim segments both near and far.
Opportunity arrived at Cape York and Endeavour Crater in August 2011 after an overland expedition of more than 21 miles (34 km).
Opportunity has just been imaged in high resolution at Endeavour crater by a powerful NASA camera orbiting overhead in Mars orbit. The new image (see above) was snapped while NASA’s long lived robot was climbing a hilltop offering spectacular panoramic vistas peering into the vast crater which is some 14 miles (22 km) wide.
The HiRiSE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter photographed Opportunity and her wheel tracks on September 10, 2011, or Martian Sol 2712 for a mission warrentied to last only 90 Sols ! The rover is sitting to the right of another small crater known as Odyssey. Click to enlarge the image.
Look very closely and you’ll even be able to easily discern the rovers pair of tire tracks showing the path traversed by the robot as she explores the crater and the ejecta rocks and boulders excavated and strewn about by an ancient impact.
Opportunity is ascending up the rim of Endeavour crater at the southern tip of a low ridge dubbed Cape York – a location that has already yielded a bonanza of new science data since her recent arrival in August 2011 after a more than 20 mile (33 km) epic trek.
The intrepid rover discovered a rock unlike any other since she safely landed at the Meridiani Planum region of Mars nearly eight years ago on Jan. 24, 2004.
Opportunity is now searching Endeavour crater and Cape York for signatures of phyllosilicates – clay minerals that formed in the presence of pH neutral water flowing on Mars surface billions of years ago.