Roughly 4 billion years ago, Mars looked a lot different than it does today. For starters, its atmosphere was thicker and warmer, and liquid water flowed across its surface. This included rivers, standing lakes, and even a deep ocean that covered much of the northern hemisphere. Evidence of this warm, watery past has been preserved all over the planet in the form of lakebeds, river valleys, and river deltas.
For some time, scientists have been trying to answer a simple question: where did all that water go? Did it escape into space after Mars lost its atmosphere, or retreat somewhere? According to new research from Caltech and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), between 30% and 90% of Mars’ water went underground. These findings contradict the widely-accepted theory that Mars lost its water to space over the course of eons.
To date, all attempts to find evidence of life on the surface have yielded nothing, owing to the fact that the Martian environment is extremely cold, desiccated, and irradiated. According to a new study by an international team of researchers led by Cornell University and the Centro de Astrobiología in Madrid, the Atacama desert in the mountains of Chile could hold the answer.
Clay is a big deal on Mars because it often forms in contact with water. Find clay, and you’ve usually found evidence of water. And the nature, history, and current water budget on Mars are all important to understanding that planet, and if it ever supported life.
5 years after a heart throbbing Martian touchdown, Curiosity is climbing Vera Rubin Ridge in search of “aqueous minerals” and “clays” for clues to possible past life while capturing “truly breathtaking” vistas of humongous Mount Sharp – her primary destination – and the stark eroded rim of the Gale Crater landing zone from ever higher elevations, NASA scientists tell Universe Today in a new mission update.
“Curiosity is doing well, over five years into the mission,” Michael Meyer, NASA Lead Scientist, Mars Exploration Program, NASA Headquarters told Universe Today in an interview.
“A key finding is the discovery of an extended period of habitability on ancient Mars.”
The car-sized rover soft landed on Mars inside Gale Crater on August 6, 2012 using the ingenious and never before tried “sky crane” system.
A rare glimpse of Curiosity’s arm and turret mounted skyward pointing drill is illustrated with our lead mosaic from Sol 1833 of the robot’s life on Mars – showing a panoramic view around the alien terrain from her current location in October 2017 while actively at work analyzing soil samples.
“Your mosaic is absolutely gorgeous!’ Jim Green, NASA Director Planetary Science Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington D.C., told Universe Today
“We are at such a height on Mt Sharp to see the rim of Gale Crater and the top of the mountain. Truly breathtaking.”
The rover has ascended more than 300 meters in elevation over the past 5 years of exploration and discovery from the crater floor to the mountain ridge. She is driving to the top of Vera Rubin Ridge at this moment and always on the lookout for research worthy targets of opportunity.
Additionally, the Sol 1833 Vera Rubin Ridge mosaic, stitched by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo, shows portions of the trek ahead to the priceless scientific bounty of aqueous mineral signatures detected by spectrometers years earlier from orbit by NASA’s fleet of Red Planet orbiters.
“Curiosity is on Vera Rubin Ridge (aka Hematite Ridge) – it is the first aqueous mineral signature that we have seen from space, a driver for selecting Gale Crater,” NASA HQ Mars Lead Scientist Meyer elaborated.
“And now we have access to it.”
The Sol 1833 photomosaic illustrates Curiosity maneuvering her 7 foot long (2 meter) robotic arm during a period when she was processing and delivering a sample of the “Ogunquit Beach” for drop off to the inlet of the CheMin instrument earlier in October. The “Ogunquit Beach” sample is dune material that was collected at Bagnold Dune II this past spring.
The sample drop is significant because the drill has not been operational for some time.
“Ogunquit Beach” sediment materials were successfully delivered to the CheMin and SAM instruments over the following sols and multiple analyses are in progress.
To date three CheMin integrations of “Ogunquit Beach” have been completed. Each one brings the mineralogy into sharper focus.
What’s the status of the rover health at 5 years, the wheels and the drill?
“All the instruments are doing great and the wheels are holding up,” Meyer explained.
“When 3 grousers break, 60% life has been used – this has not happened yet and they are being periodically monitored. The one exception is the drill feed (see detailed update below).”
NASA’s 1 ton Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover is now closer than ever to the mineral signatures that were the key reason why Mount Sharp was chosen as the robots landing site years ago by the scientists leading the unprecedented mission.
Along the way from the ‘Bradbury Landing’ zone to Mount Sharp, six wheeled Curiosity has often been climbing. To date she has gained over 313 meters (1027 feet) in elevation – from minus 4490 meters to minus 4177 meters today, Oct. 19, 2017, said Meyer.
The low point was inside Yellowknife Bay at approx. minus 4521 meters.
VRR alone stands about 20 stories tall and gains Curiosity approx. 65 meters (213 feet) of elevation to the top of the ridge. Overall the VRR traverse is estimated by NASA to take drives totaling more than a third of a mile (570 m).
“Vera Rubin Ridge” or VRR is also called “Hematite Ridge.” It’s a narrow and winding ridge located on the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. It was informally named earlier this year in honor of pioneering astrophysicist Vera Rubin.
The intrepid robot reached the base of the ridge in early September.
The ridge possesses steep cliffs exposing stratifications of large vertical sedimentary rock layers and fracture filling mineral deposits, including the iron-oxide mineral hematite, with extensive bright veins.
VRR resists erosion better than the less-steep portions of the mountain below and above it, say mission scientists.
What’s ahead for Curiosity in the coming weeks and months exploring VRR before moving onward and upwards to higher elevation?
“Over the next several months, Curiosity will explore Vera Rubin Ridge,” Meyer replied.
“This will be a big opportunity to ground-truth orbital observations. Of interest, so far, the hematite of VRR does not look that different from what we have been seeing all along the Murray formation. So, big question is why?”
“The view from VRR also provides better access to what’s ahead in exploring the next aqueous mineral feature – the clay, or phyllosilicates, which can be indicators of specific environments, putting constraints on variables such as pH and temperature,” Meyer explained.
The clay minerals or phyllosilicates form in more neutral water, and are thus extremely scientifically interesting since pH neutral water is more conducive to the origin and evolution of Martian microbial life forms, if they ever existed.
How far away are the clays ahead and when might Curiosity reach them?
“As the crow flies, the clays are about 0.5 km,” Meyer replied. “However, the actual odometer distance and whether the clays are where we think they are – area vs. a particular location – can add a fair degree of variability.”
The clay rich area is located beyond the ridge.
Over the past few months Curiosity make rapid progress towards the hematite-bearing location of Vera Rubin Ridge after conducting in-depth exploration of the Bagnold Dunes earlier this year.
“Vera Rubin Ridge is a high-standing unit that runs parallel to and along the eastern side of the Bagnold Dunes,” said Mark Salvatore, an MSL Participating Scientist and a faculty member at Northern Arizona University, in a mission update.
“From orbit, Vera Rubin Ridge has been shown to exhibit signatures of hematite, an oxidized iron phase whose presence can help us to better understand the environmental conditions present when this mineral assemblage formed.”
Curiosity is using the science instruments on the mast, deck and robotic arm turret to gather detailed research measurements with the cameras and spectrometers. The pair of miniaturized chemistry lab instruments inside the belly – CheMin and SAM – are used to analyze the chemical and elemental composition of pulverized rock and soil gathered by drilling and scooping selected targets during the traverse.
A key instrument is the drill which has not been operational. I asked Meyer for a drill update.
“The drill feed developed problems retracting (two stabilizer prongs on either side of the drill retract, controlling the rate of drill penetration),” Meyer replied.
“Because the root cause has not been found (think FOD) and the concern about the situation getting worse, the drill feed has been retracted and the engineers are working on drilling without the stabilizing prongs.”
“Note, a consequence is that you can still drill and collect sample but a) there is added concern about getting the drill stuck and b) a new method of delivering sample needs to be developed and tested (the drill feed normally needs to be moved to move the sample into the chimera). One option that looks viable is reversing the drill – it does work and they are working on the scripts and how to control sample size.”
Ascending and diligently exploring the sedimentary lower layers of Mount Sharp, which towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky, is the primary destination and goal of the rover’s long term scientific expedition on the Red Planet.
“Lower Mount Sharp was chosen as a destination for the Curiosity mission because the layers of the mountain offer exposures of rocks that record environmental conditions from different times in the early history of the Red Planet. Curiosity has found evidence for ancient wet environments that offered conditions favorable for microbial life, if Mars has ever hosted life,” says NASA.
Stay tuned. In part 2 we’ll discuss the key findings from Curiosity’s first 5 years exploring the Red Planet.
As of today, Sol 1850, Oct. 19, 2017, Curiosity has driven over 10.89 miles (17.53 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater from the landing site to the ridge, and taken over 445,000 amazing images.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
As NASA’s Opportunity rover approaches the 12th anniversary of landing on Mars, her greatest science discoveries yet are likely within grasp in the coming months since she has successfully entered Marathon Valley from atop a Martian mountain and is now prospecting downhill for outcrops of water altered clay minerals.
The valley is the gateway to alien terrain holding significant caches of the water altered minerals that formed under environmental conditions conducive to support Martian microbial life forms, if they ever existed. But as anyone who’s ever climbed down a steep hill knows, you have to be extra careful not to slip and slide and break something, no matter how beautiful the view is – Because no one can hear you scream on Mars! See the downward looking valley view above.
After a years long Martian mountain climbing and mountain top exploratory trek, Opportunity entered a notch named Marathon Valley from atop a breathtakingly scenic ridge overlook atop the western rim of Endeavour Crater.
Marathon Valley measures about 300 yards or meters long and cuts downhill through the west rim of Endeavour crater from west to east. Endeavour crater spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter.
See our photo mosaics illustrating Opportunity’s view around and about Marathon Valley and Endeavour Crater, created by the image processing team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.
Our mosaic above affords a downward looking view from Marathon Valley on Sol 4144, Sept. 20. It uniquely combines raw images from the hazcam and navcam cameras to gain a wider perspective panoramic view of the steep walled valley, and also shows the rover at work stretching out the robotic arm to potential clay mineral rock targets at left. Opportunity’s shadow and wheel tracks are visible at right.
In late July, Opportunity began the decent into the valley from the western edge and started investigating scientifically interesting rock targets by conducting a month’s long “walkabout” survey ahead of the upcoming frigid Martian winter – the seventh since touchdown at Meridiani Planum in January 2004.
The walkabout was done to identify targets of interest for follow up scrutiny in and near the valley floor. Opportunity’s big sister Curiosity conducted a similarly themed “walkabout” at the base of Mount Sharp near her landing site located on the opposite side of the Red Planet.
“The valley is somewhat like a chute directed into the crater floor, which is a long ways below. So it is somewhat scary, but also pretty interesting scenery,” writes Larry Crumpler, a science team member from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, in a mission update.
“Its named Marathon Valley because the rover traveled one marathon’s distance to reach it,” Prof. Ray Arvidson, the rover Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University told Universe Today.
The NASA rover exceeded the distance of a marathon on the surface of Mars on March 24, 2015, Sol 3968. Opportunity has now driven over 26.46 miles (42.59 kilometers) over nearly a dozen Earth years.
Now for the first time in history, a human emissary has arrived to conduct an up close inspection of and elucidate clues into this regions potential regarding Martian habitability.
The ancient, weathered slopes around Marathon Valley hold a motherlode of ‘phyllosilicate’ clay minerals, based on data obtained from the extensive Mars orbital measurements gathered by the CRISM spectrometer on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – accomplished earlier at the direction of Arvidson.
Initially the science team was focused on investigating the northern region of the valley while the sun was still higher in the sky and generating more power for research activities from the life giving solar arrays.
“We have detective work to do in Marathon Valley for many months ahead,” said Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis.
But now that the rover is descending into a narrow valley with high walls, the rovers engineering handlers back on Earth have to exercise added caution regarding exactly where they send the Opportunity on her science forays during each sols drive, in order to maintain daily communications.
The high walls to the north and west of the valley ridgeline has already caused several communications blackouts for the “low-elevation Ultra-High-Frequency (UHF) relay passes to the west,” according to the JPL team controlling the rover.
Indeed on two occasions in mid September – coinciding with the days just before and after our Sol 4144 (Sept. 20) photo mosaic view above, “no data were received as the orbiter’s flight path was below the elevation on the valley ridgeline.
On Sept 17 and Sept. 21 “the high ridgeline of the valley obscured the low-elevation pass” and little to no data were received. However the rover did gather imagery and spectroscopic measurements for later transmission.
Now that winter is approaching the rover is moving to the southern side of Marathon Valley to soak up more of the sun’s rays from the sun-facing slope and continue research activities.
“During the Martian late fall and winter seasons Opportunity will conduct its measurements and traverses on the southern side of the valley,” says Arvidson.
“When spring arrives the rover will return to the valley floor for detailed measurements of outcrops that may host the clay minerals.”
The shortest-daylight period of this seventh Martian winter for Opportunity will come in January 2016.
As of today, Sol 4168, Oct, 15, 2015 Opportunity has taken over 206,300 images and traversed over 26.46 miles (42.59 kilometers).
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Martian Reminder of a Pioneering Flight. Names related to the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic have been informally assigned to a crater NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover is studying. This false-color view of the “Spirit of St. Louis Crater” and the “Lindbergh Mound” inside it comes from Opportunity’s panoramic camera. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ. See additional Opportunity photo mosaics below [/caption]
The science team leading NASA’s long-lived Opportunity rover mission is honoring the pioneering solo nonstop trans-Atlantic flight of aviator Charles Lindbergh by assigning key features of the Mars mountain top crater area the rover is now exploring with names related to the historic flight.
Opportunity is now studying an elongated crater called “Spirit of St. Louis” and an unparalleled rock spire within the crater called “Lindbergh Mound” which are named in honor of Lindbergh himself and his plane – the Spirit of Saint Louis.
“Spirit of Saint Louis” crater is quite special in many ways related not just to history but also to science and exploration – that very reasons behind Lindbergh’s flight and Opportunity’s astounding mission to the Red Planet.
The team is ecstatic that the 11 year old rover Opportunity has reached “Spirit of St. Louis Crater” because its serves as the gateway to the alien terrain of “Marathon Valley” holding caches of water altered minerals that formed under environmental conditions conducive to support Martian microbial life forms, if they ever existed.
The crater, rock spire and several features in and near it are shown in several recent panoramic mosaics, above and below, created by the rover team and separately by the image processing team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.
Marathon Valley and Spirit of St. Louis Crater are located just a few hundred meters south of a Mars mountain summit at a majestic spot called Cape Tribulation. It lies along a marvelous ridgeline along the western rim of Endeavour crater, which spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter.
“What’s the connection between St. Louis and the Spirit of St. Louis? Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris, but he named his aircraft for the St. Louis citizens who purchased it for him,” says Prof. Ray Arvidson, the rover Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University in St. Louis.
The raw images for the mosaics were taken in March and April 2015 using the robots mast mounted pancam and navcam cameras. The mosaics are shown in false color and colorized versions, annotated and unannotated.
Charles Lindbergh embarked in May 1927 on his history making flight from New York to Paris in the airplane he named Spirit of St. Louis, the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic.
The shallow Spirit of St. Louis Crater is about 110 feet (34 meters) long and about 80 feet (24 meters) wide, with a floor slightly darker than surrounding terrain, says NASA.
Lindbergh Mound dominates the crater measuring about 7 to 10 feet (2 to 3 meters) tall, rising higher than the crater’s rim.
The annotations also include features named to recognize the financial backing for the flight from St. Louis residents including Harold M. Bixby and Harry M. Knight. The plane’s designer was Donald A. Hall.
Among other features named are Roosevelt Field, the spot on New York’s Long Island from which Lindbergh took off, and Marathon Monument, where the rover completed a her first marathon distance runners drive on Mars. The team picked a distinctive outcrop, Marathon Monument, to mark the finish line, said NASA officials.
“The science team for the rover picks crater names from a list of “vessels of exploration,” including ships of sail and spacecraft as well as aircraft. As long as the rover remains in the crater, names for interesting features will drawn from a list of names related to this famous flight,” according to a NASA statement.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
2 Years on Mars!
Curiosity treks to Mount Sharp, her primary science destination, in this photo mosaic view captured on Sol 669, June 24, 2014. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Story and mosaics updated[/caption]
NASA’s most scientifically powerful rover ever dispatched to the Red Planet, Curiosity, is celebrating her 2nd anniversary on Mars since the dramatic touchdown inside Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012, EDT (Aug. 5, 2012, PDT) while simultaneously approaching a bedrock unit that for the first time is actually part of the humongous mountain she will soon scale and is the primary science destination of the mission.
Mount Sharp is a layered mountain that dominates most of Gale Crater and towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky and is taller than Mount Rainier.
Aug. 6, 2014 marks ‘2 Years on Mars’ and Sol 711 for Curiosity in an area called “Hidden Valley.”
“Getting to Mount Sharp is the next big step for Curiosity and we expect that in the Fall of this year,” Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences at NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC, told me in an interview making the 2nd anniversary.
The 1 ton rover is equipped with 10 state-of-the-art science instruments and searching for signs of life.
Scientists anticipate that the outcrops at “Pahrump Hills” offer a preview of a geological unit that is part of the base of Mount Sharp for the first time since landing rather than still belonging to the floor of Gale Crater.
“We’re coming to our first taste of a geological unit that’s part of the base of the mountain rather than the floor of the crater,” said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, in a statement.
“We will cross a major terrain boundary.”
Since “Pahrump Hills” is less than one-third of a mile (500 meters) from Curiosity she should arrive soon.
In late July 2014, the rover arrived in an area of sandy terrain called “Hidden Valley” which is on the planned route ahead leading to “Pahrump Hills” and easily traversable with few of the sharp edged rocks that have caused significant damage to the rovers six aluminum wheels.
The sedimentary layers in the lower slopes of Mount Sharp have been Curiosity’s long-term science destination.
They are the principal reason why the science team specifically chose Gale Crater as the primary landing site based on high resolution spectral observations collected by NASA’s powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) indicating the presence of deposits of clay-bearing sedimentary rocks.
Curiosity’s goal all along has been to determine whether Mars ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. Finding clay bearing minerals. or phyllosilicates, in Martian rocks is the key to fulfilling its major objective.
The team expected to find the clay bearing minerals only in the sedimentary layers at the lower reaches of Mount Sharp.
Soon after landing, the team spotted some rather interesting looking outcrops barely a half mile away from the touchdown zone at a spot dubbed ‘Yellowknife Bay” and decided to take a detour towards it to investigate.
Well the scientists won the bet and struck scientific gold barely six months after landing when they drilled into a rock outcrop named “John Klein” at “Yellowknife Bay” and unexpectedly discovered the clay bearing minerals on the crater floor.
Yellowknife Bay was found to be an ancient lakebed where liquid water flowed on Mars surface billions of years ago.
The discovery of phyllosilicates in the 1st drill sample during the spring of 2013 meant that Curiosity had rather remarkably already fulfilled its primary goal of finding a habitable zone during its first year of operations!
The rock analysis “yielded evidence of a lakebed environment billions of years ago that offered fresh water, all of the key elemental ingredients for life, and a chemical source of energy for microbes, if any existed there,” according to NASA.
“Before landing, we expected that we would need to drive much farther before answering that habitability question,” said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. “We were able to take advantage of landing very close to an ancient streambed and lake. Now we want to learn more about how environmental conditions on Mars evolved, and we know where to go to do that.”
During the rovers second Earth year on the Red Planet, Curiosity has been driving as fast as possible towards a safe entry point to the slopes of Mount Sharp. The desired destination for the car sized rover is now about 2 miles (3 kilometers) southwest of its current location.
‘Driving, Driving, Driving’ is indeed the rover teams mantra.
To date, Curiosity’s odometer totals over 5.5 miles (9.0 kilometers) since landing inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012. She has taken over 174,000 images.
Curiosity still has about another 2 miles (3 kilometers) to go to reach the entry way at a gap in the treacherous sand dunes at the foothills of Mount Sharp sometime later this year.
And NASA is moving forward with future Red Planet missions when it recently announced the selection of 7 instruments chosen to fly aboard the Mars 2020 rover, the agency’s next rover going to Mars that will search for signs of ancient life as well as carry a technology demonstration that will help pave the way for ‘Humans to Mars’ in the 2030s. Read my story – here.
Coincidentally, ESA’s Rosetta comet hunting spacecraft arrived in orbit at its destination Comet 67P after a 10 year voyage on the same day as Curiosity’s 2 Earth year anniversary.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Rosetta, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more planetary and human spaceflight news.
A Top 10 Decade 1 Discovery by NASA’s Twin Mars Exploration Rovers
Carbonate-Containing Martian Rocks discovered by Spirit Mars Rover
Spirit collected data in late 2005 which confirmed that the Comanche outcrop contains magnesium iron carbonate, a mineral indicating the past environment was wet and non-acidic, possibly favorable to life. This view was captured during Sol 689 on Mars (Dec. 11, 2005). The find at Comanche is the first unambiguous evidence from either Spirit or Opportunity for a past Martian environment that may have been more favorable to life than the wet but acidic conditions indicated by the rovers’ earlier finds. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University Story updated[/caption]
January 2014 marks the 10th anniversary since the nail biting and history making safe landings of NASA’s renowned Mars Explorations Rovers – Spirit and Opportunity – on the Red Planet barely three weeks apart during January 2004.
Due to their completely unforeseen longevity, a decade of spectacular and groundbreaking scientific discoveries continuously flowed from the robot sisters that have graced many articles, magazine covers, books, documentaries and refereed scientific papers.
What are the Top 10 Decade 1 discoveries from Spirit and Opportunity?
Find out below what a top Mars rover team scientist told Universe Today!
Ray Arvidson, the rovers Deputy Principal Investigator and professor at Washington University in St. Louis, has kindly shared with me his personal list of the Top 10 discoveries from Spirit and Opportunity for the benefit of readers of Universe Today.
The Top 10 list below are Ray’s personal choices and does not necessarily reflect the consensus of the Mars Explorations Rover (MER) team.
First some background.
The dynamic duo were launched on their interplanetary voyages from Cape Canaveral Florida atop Delta II rockets during the summer of 2003.
The now legendary pair landed on opposite sides of the Red Planet. Spirit landed first on Jan. 3 inside Gusev Crater and twin sister Opportunity landed second on Jan. 24 on the dusty plains of Meridiani Planum.
The goal was to “follow the water” as a potential enabler for past Martian microbes if they ever existed.
Together, the long-lived, golf cart sized robots proved that early Mars was warm and wet, billions of years ago – a key finding in the search for habitats conducive to life beyond Earth.
The solar powered robo duo were expected to last a mere three months – with a ‘warrenty’ of 90 Martian days (Sols).
Spirit endured the utterly extreme Red Planet climate for more than six years until communications ceased in 2010.
Opportunity lives on TODAY and is currently exploring by the summit of Solander Point on the western rim of a vast crater named Endeavour that spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter.
“Because of the rovers’ longevity, we essentially got four different landing sites for the price of two,” says the rovers’ Principal Investigator, Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
Here are the Top 10 MER discoveries from Ray Arvidson, Deputy Principal Investigator
1. Opportunity: Ancient Acidic Martian Lakes
The Meridiani plains Burns formation as sulfate-rich sandstones with hematitic concretions formed in ancient acidic and oxidizing shallow lakes and reworked into sand dunes and cemented by rising groundwaters.
2. Opportunity: Phyllosilicate Clays at ‘Whitewater Lake’ at Endeavour Crater indicate Ancient Habitable Zone
At the rim of Endeavour crater and the Cape York rim segment the discovery of ferric and aluminous smectite [phyllosilicate] clays in the finely-layered Matijevic formation rocks that pre-exist the Endeavour impact event.
Alteration in moderately acidic and reducing waters, perhaps mildly oxidizing for ferric smectites. These are the oldest rocks examined by Opportunity and the waters are much more habitable than waters that led to Burns formation.
3. Opportunity: Martian Meteorites
Many meteorites were found [throughout the long traverse] that are dispersed across the Meridiani plains landing site
4. Opportunity: Wind-blown sand ripples
Wind-blown sand ripples throughout the Meridiani plains relict from the previous wind regime, probably when Mars spin axis tilt was different than today’s value
5. Spirit: Opaline silica indicates Ancient Hydrothermal system
Discovery of Opaline silica at Home Plate, Gusev Crater. This formed in volcanic fumeroles and/or hydrothermal vents indicating that water was interacting with magma.
6. Spirit: Carbonates at Comanche – see lead image above
The discovery of Fe-Mg [iron-magnesium] carbonates at the Comanche outcrop on Husband Hill, Gusev Crater, again showing that water interacted with magma.
Note: Carbonates form in neutral, non-acid water. This was the first time they were found and investigated examined on the surface Mars during Dec. 2005.
7. Spirit: Ferric sulfates moved by modern water
Ferric sulfates moved down the soil column by modern waters at Troy and Husband Hill in Gusev Crater.
8. Spirit: Modern water alters rocks
Complex coatings on olivine basalts on the Gusev Crater plains showing modern water or frost has altered rock surfaces
9. Both rovers: Martian Dust Devils
The finding [and imaging] of dust devil frequency and dynamics, showing how dust and sand are moved by wind in the very thin Martian atmosphere.
Note: Wind action occasionally cleaning off the solar panels led to their unexpected longevity
See a dust devil imaged in our Solander Point mosaic below
10. Both rovers: Atmospheric Argon measurements
Argon gas was used as a tracer of atmospheric dynamics by both rovers. It was measured by using the APXS (Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer) on the robotic arm to measure the Martian atmosphere and detect argon
Another major discovery by Opportunity was the finding of hydrated mineral veins of calcium sulfate in the bench surrounding Cape York. The vein discovery is another indication of the ancient flow of liquid water in this region on Mars.
Altogether, Spirit snapped over 128,000 raw images, drove 4.8 miles (7.7 kilometers) and ground into 15 rock targets.
Opportunity is currently investigating a new cache of exposed clay mineral outcrops by the summit of Solander Point, a rim segment just south of Cape York and Matejivic Hill.
These new outcrops at ‘Cape Darby’ like those at ‘Esperance’ at Matijevic Hill were detected based on spectral observations by the CRISM spectrometer aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) circling overhead, Arvidson told me.
Today, Jan. 31, marks Opportunity’s 3563rd Sol or Martian Day roving Mars – for what was expected to be only a 90 Sol mission.
So far she has snapped over 188,200 amazing images on the first overland expedition across the Red Planet.
Her total odometry stands at over 24.07 miles (38.73 kilometers) since touchdown on Jan. 24, 2004 at Meridiani Planum.
What’s Ahead for Opportunity in Decade 2 on Mars ?
Many more ground breaking discoveries surely lie ahead for Opportunity since she is currently exploring ancient terrain at Endeavour crater that’s chock full of minerals indicative of a Martian habitable zone.
She remains healthy and the solar panels are generating enough power to actively continue science investigations throughout her 6th frigid Martian winter!
Therefore – Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Opportunity, Curiosity, Chang’e-3, LADEE, MAVEN, Mars rover and MOM news.
After a decade of roving relentlessly on the Red Planet, NASA’s Opportunity rover discovered rocks that preserve the best evidence yet that ancient Mars was the most conducive time period for the formation of life on our Solar System’s most Earth-like Planet, according to the science leaders of the mission.
Opportunity found the rocks – laden with clay minerals – barely over half a year ago in the spring of 2013, at an outcrop named ‘Whitewater Lake’ along an eroded segment of a vast crater named Endeavour that spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter.
“These rocks are older than any we examined earlier in the mission, and they reveal more favorable conditions for microbial life than any evidence previously examined by investigations with Opportunity,” says Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
Opportunity investigated the rocks at a spot dubbed Matejivic Hill where researchers believe iron-rich smectite was produced in an aqueous environment some 4 billion years ago that was relatively benign and with a nearly neutral pH – thus offering potential life forms a habitable zone with a far better chance to originate and thrive for perhaps as long as hundreds of millions of years.
The new scientific findings are being published in the journal Science on Jan. 24, which just happens to exactly coincide with Opportunity’s landing on the Red Planet ten years ago at Meridiani Planum.
Matejivic Hill is located on the Cape York rim segment of Endeavour crater. See locations on our Opportunity route map below.
“The punch line here is that the oldest rocks Opportunity has examined were formed under very mild conditions — conditions that would have been a much better niche for life, and also much better for the preservation of organic materials that would have been produced,” said Arvidson at a NASA media briefing today, Jan. 23.
Immediately after landing on Mars on Jan.24, 2004 inside Eagle crater, the six wheeled robot found rocks within her eyesight that provided concrete evidence that eons ago Mars was much warmer and wetter compared to the cold, arid conditions that exist today.
Although those sulfate rich rocks proved that liquid water once flowed on the surface of the Red Planet, they also stem from a time period with a rather harsh environment that was extremely acidic, containing significant levels of sulfuric acid that would not be friendly to the formation or sustainability of potential Martian life forms.
“Evidence is thus preserved for water-rock interactions of the aqueous environments of slightly acidic to circum-neutral pH that would have been more favorable for prebiotic chemistry and microorganisms than those recorded by younger sulfate-rich rocks at Meridiani Planum,” Ardivson wrote in the Science paper, of which he is the lead author, along with many other team members.
The science team directed Opportunity to Matejivic Hill and the ‘Whitewater Lake’ area of outcrops based on predictions from spectral observations collected from the CRISM spectrometer aboard one of NASA’s spacecraft circling overhead the Red Planet – the powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).
Opportunity arrived at Mars barely 3 weeks after her twin sister, Spirit on 3 January 2004.
The long lived robot has been methodically exploring along the rim of Endeavour crater since arriving in August 2011.
The newly published results from Opportunity correlate very well with those from sister rover Curiosity which likewise found a habitable zone where drinkable water once flowed on the opposite side of Mars.
The combined discoveries from the golf cart sized Opportunity and the SUV sized Curiosity tell us that the presence of liquid water was widespread on ancient Mars.
“The more we explore Mars, the more interesting it becomes. These latest findings present yet another kind of gift that just happens to coincide with Opportunity’s 10th anniversary on Mars,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program.
“We’re finding more places where Mars reveals a warmer and wetter planet in its history. This gives us greater incentive to continue seeking evidence of past life on Mars.”
Opportunity is currently investigating a new cache of clay mineral outcrops by the summit of Solander Point, a rim segment just south of Cape York and Matejivic Hill.
These outcrops were likewise detected by the CRISM spectrometer aboard MRO. The hunt for these outcrops was detailed in earlier discussions I had with Ray Arvidson.
Today marks Opportunity’s 3555th Sol or Martian Day roving Mars – for what was expected to be only a 90 Sol mission.
So far she has snapped over 188,200 amazing images on the first overland expedition across the Red Planet.
Her total odometry stands at over 24.07 miles (38.73 kilometers) since touchdown on Jan. 24, 2004 at Meridiani Planum.
Opportunity by Solander Point peak – 2nd Mars Decade Starts here!
NASA’s Opportunity rover captured this panoramic mosaic on Dec. 10, 2013 (Sol 3512) near the summit of “Solander Point” on the western rim of Endeavour Crater where she starts Decade 2 on the Red Planet. She is currently investigating outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water on her 1st mountain climbing adventure. Assembled from Sol 3512 navcam raw images. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
See full mosaic with Dust Devil and 10 Year Route Map – below Story updated[/caption]
NASA’s long-lived Opportunity Mars rover has accomplished what absolutely no one expected.
Opportunity is about to embark on her 2nd decade exploring the Red Planet since her nail biting touchdown in 2004.
And to top that off she is marking that miraculous milestone at a spectacular outlook by the summit of the first mountain she has ever scaled!
See our Solander Point summit mosaic showing the robots current panoramic view – in essence this is what her eyes see today; above and below.
And that mountaintop is riven with outcrops of minerals that likely formed in flowing liquid neutral water conducive to life – potentially a scientific goldmine.
“We expect we will reach some of the oldest rocks we have seen with this rover — a glimpse back into the ancient past of Mars,” says the rover principal investigator, Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
“It’s like starting a whole new mission.”
Opportunity is nearly at the peak of Solander Point, an eroded segment on the western flank of vast Endeavour Crater, that spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter.
The six wheeled rover reached the top section of Solander on Sol 3512, just before Christmas in December 2013. It’s situated nearly 40 meters (130 feet) above the crater plains.
There she began inspecting and analyzing an area of exposed outcrops called ‘Cape Darby’ that scientists believe holds caches of clay minerals which form in drinkable water and would constitute a habitable zone.
The science team directed Opportunity to ‘Cape Darby’ based on predictions from spectral observations collected from the CRISM spectrometer aboard one of NASA’s spacecraft circling overhead the Red Planet – the powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).
Opportunity is using all its cameras and instruments as well as those on the robotic arm to inspect the outcrop area, including the rock abrasion tool, spectrometers and microscopic imager.
As reported earlier this week, the rover is also investigating a mysterious rock that suddenly appeared in images nearby the robot. ‘Pinnacle Island’ rock may have been flung up by the wheels. No one knows for sure – yet.
Solander Point is the first mountain she has ever climbed along her epic 10 year journey across the plains of Meridiani. Heretofore she toured a string of Martian craters. See 10 Years Route map below.
In mid-2013, the scientists used similar orbital observations to find a rock called “Esperance’ – which was loaded with clay minerals and located along another Endeavour crater rim segment called Cape York.
Squyres ranked “Esperance” as one of the “Top 5 discoveries of the mission.”
The team hopes for similar mineralogical discoveries at Solander.
The northward-facing slopes at Solander also afford another major benefit to Opportunity. They will tilt the rover’s solar panels toward the sun in the southern-hemisphere winter sky thereby providing an important energy boost.
The power boost will enable continued mobile operations through the upcoming frigidly harsh winter- her 6th since landing 10 years ago.
So Opportunity will be moving from outcrop to outcrop around the summit during the Martian winter. Daily sunshine reaches a minimum in February 2014.
As of Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, or Sol 3547, the solar array energy production on the rover is 353 watt-hours, compared to 900 watt-hours after landing. But that is sufficient to keep moving and actively conduct research throughout the winter at the mountaintop.
Opportunity’s long and winding road on the Red Planet began when she safely settled upon the alien world on 24 January 2004, following a harrowing plummet through the thin Martian atmosphere and an airbag assisted, bouncing ball landing.