Sky Pointing Curiosity Captures Breathtaking Vista of Mount Sharp and Crater Rim, Climbs Vera Rubin Seeking Hydrated Martian Minerals

NASA’s Curiosity rover raised robotic arm with drill pointed skyward while exploring Vera Rubin Ridge at the base of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater – backdropped by distant crater rim. This navcam camera mosaic was stitched from raw images taken on Sol 1833, Oct. 2, 2017 and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

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.

NASA’s Curiosity rover as seen simultaneously on Mars surface and from orbit on Sol 1717, June 5, 2017. The robot snapped this self portrait mosaic view while approaching Vera Rubin Ridge at the base of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater – backdropped by distant crater rim. This navcam camera mosaic was stitched from raw images and colorized. Inset shows overhead orbital view of Curiosity (blue feature) amid rocky mountainside terrain taken the same day by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

“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.

Researchers used the Mastcam on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover to gain this detailed view of layers in “Vera Rubin Ridge” from just below the ridge. The scene combines 70 images taken with the Mastcam’s right-eye, telephoto-lens camera, on Aug. 13, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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 Curiosity rover explores sand dunes inside Gale Crater with Mount Sharp in view on Mars on Sol 1611, Feb. 16, 2017, in this navcam camera mosaic, stitched from raw images and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

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).

Curiosity images Vera Rubin Ridge during approach backdropped by Mount Sharp. This navcam camera mosaic was stitched from raw images taken on Sol 1726, June 14, 2017 and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“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.

Curiosity rover raises robotic arm high while scouting the Bagnold Dune Field and observing dust devils inside Gale Crater on Mars on Sol 1625, Mar. 2, 2017, in this navcam camera mosaic stitched from raw images and colorized. Note: Wheel tracks at right, distant crater rim in background. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

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.

Ken Kremer

Map shows route driven by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity through Sol 1827 of the rover’s mission on Mars (September 27, 2017). Numbering of the dots along the line indicate the sol number of each drive. North is up. Since touching down in Bradbury Landing in August 2012, Curiosity has driven 10.84 miles (17.45 kilometers). The base image from the map is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera (HiRISE) in NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/UA
Curiosity’s Traverse Map Through Sol 1717. This map shows the route driven by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity through the 1717 Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission on Mars (June 05, 2017). The base image from the map is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera (HiRISE) in NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Opportunity Rover Prospecting for Water Altered Minerals at Crater Rim in Marathon Valley

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.

Mosaic view from Opportunity rover looking along the high walls and down the floor of Marathon Valley with deposits of water altered clay minerals and out to the vast expense of Endeavour Crater. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 4159  (Oct. 5, 2015) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Mosaic view from Opportunity rover looking along the high walls and down the floor of Marathon Valley with deposits of water altered clay minerals and out to the vast expense of Endeavour Crater. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 4159 (Oct. 5, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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.

Opportunity’s view (annotated) on the day the NASA rover exceeded the distance of a marathon on the surface of Mars on March 24, 2015, Sol 3968 with features named in honor of Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Rover stands at Spirit of Saint Louis Crater near mountaintop at Marathon Valley overlook and Martian cliffs at Endeavour crater holding deposits of water altered clay minerals.  This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3968 (March 24, 2015) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Opportunity’s view (annotated) on the day the NASA rover exceeded the distance of a marathon on the surface of Mars on March 24, 2015, Sol 3968 with features named in honor of Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Rover stands at Spirit of Saint Louis Crater near mountaintop at Marathon Valley overlook and Martian cliffs at Endeavour crater holding deposits of water altered clay minerals. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3968 (March 24, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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.

'Hinners Point' Above Floor of 'Marathon Valley' on Mars. This Martian scene shows contrasting textures and colors of "Hinners Point," at the northern edge of "Marathon Valley," and swirling reddish zones on the valley floor to the left. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
‘Hinners Point’ Above Floor of ‘Marathon Valley’ on Mars. This Martian scene shows contrasting textures and colors of “Hinners Point,” at the northern edge of “Marathon Valley,” and swirling reddish zones on the valley floor to the left. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

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.

NASA’s Opportunity Rover scans along a spectacular overlook toward Marathon Valley on March 3, 2015, showing flat-faced rocks exhibiting a completely new composition from others examined earlier. Marathon Valley and Martian cliffs on Endeavour crater hold deposits of water altered clay minerals. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3948 (March 3, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Opportunity Rover scans along a spectacular overlook toward Marathon Valley on March 3, 2015, showing flat-faced rocks exhibiting a completely new composition from others examined earlier. Marathon Valley and Martian cliffs on Endeavour crater hold deposits of water altered clay minerals. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3948 (March 3, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

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.

Ken Kremer

Nearly 12 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2015. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during almost 12 years and more than a marathon runners distance on Mars for over 4163 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 - to current location at the western rim of Endeavour Crater and descending into Marathon Valley. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 and marked 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone - and is currently searching for more at Marathon Valley.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Nearly 12 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2015
This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during almost 12 years and more than a marathon runners distance on Mars for over 4163 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 – to current location at the western rim of Endeavour Crater and descending into Marathon Valley. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 and marked 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone – and is currently searching for more at Marathon Valley. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Opportunity Rover Team Honors Pioneering Lindbergh Flight at Mars Mountaintop Crater

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.

Opportunity’s view (annotated) on the day the NASA rover exceeded the distance of a marathon on the surface of Mars on March 24, 2015, Sol 3968 with features named in honor of Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Rover stands at Spirit of Saint Louis Crater near mountaintop at Marathon Valley overlook and Martian cliffs at Endeavour crater holding deposits of water altered clay minerals.  This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3968 (March 24, 2015) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Opportunity’s view (annotated) on the day the NASA rover exceeded the distance of a marathon on the surface of Mars on March 24, 2015, Sol 3968 with features named in honor of Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Rover stands at Spirit of Saint Louis Crater near mountaintop at Marathon Valley overlook and Martian cliffs at Endeavour crater holding deposits of water altered clay minerals. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3968 (March 24, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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.

Opportunity at Spirit of Saint Louis crater scanning into Marathon Valley and Endeavour crater from current location on Mars in April 2015 in this photo mosaic.  The crater, featuring an odd mound of rocks now named Lingbergh Mound, is the gateway to Marathon Valley and exposures of water altered clay minerals.  This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3987 (April 12, 2015) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Opportunity at Spirit of Saint Louis crater scanning into Marathon Valley and Endeavour crater from current location on Mars in April 2015 in this photo mosaic. The crater, featuring an odd mound of rocks now named Lingbergh Mound, is the gateway to Marathon Valley and exposures of water altered clay minerals. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3987 (April 12, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

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.

Opportunity arrives at Spirit of Saint Louis crater and peers into Marathon Valley and Endeavour crater from current location on Mars as of April 3, 2015 in this photo mosaic.  The crater, featuring an odd mound of rocks now named Lingbergh Mound,  is the gateway to Marathon Valley and exposures of water altered clay minerals.  This pancam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3973 (March 29, 2015) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Opportunity arrives at Spirit of Saint Louis crater and peers into Marathon Valley and Endeavour crater from current location on Mars as of April 3, 2015 in this photo mosaic. The crater, featuring an odd mound of rocks now named Lingbergh Mound, is the gateway to Marathon Valley and exposures of water altered clay minerals. This pancam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3973 (March 29, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

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.

Ken Kremer

11 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2015. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during 11 years and three months and a marathon runners distance on Mars for over 4000 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 -to current location just past the Cape Tribulation summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater at Marathon Valley. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 and marked 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone - and is searching for more on the road ahead at Marathon Valley.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
11 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2015. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during 11 years and three months and a marathon runners distance on Mars for over 4000 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 -to current location just past the Cape Tribulation summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater at Marathon Valley. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 and marked 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone – and is searching for more on the road ahead at Marathon Valley. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Curiosity Celebrates Two Years on Mars Approaching Bedrock of Mountain Climbing Destination

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.

The mysterious mountain is so huge that outcrops of bedrock extend several miles out from its base and Curiosity is now within striking distance of reaching the area the rover team calls “Pahrump Hills.”

2 Earth Years on Mars!  NASA’s Curiosity rover celebrated the 2nd anniversary on Mars at ‘Hidden Valley’ as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 6, 2014, Sol 711.  Note the valley walls, rover tracks and distant crater rim. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
2 Earth Years on Mars!
NASA’s Curiosity rover celebrated the 2nd anniversary on Mars at ‘Hidden Valley’ as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 6, 2014, Sol 711. Note the valley walls, rover tracks and distant crater rim. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

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.

This full-circle panorama of the landscape surrounding NASA's Curiosity Mars rover on July 31, 2014, Sol 705, offers a view into sandy lower terrain called "Hidden Valley," which is on the planned route ahead. It combines several images from Curiosity's Navigation Camera. South is at the center. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This full-circle panorama of the landscape surrounding NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover on July 31, 2014, Sol 705, offers a view into sandy lower terrain called “Hidden Valley,” which is on the planned route ahead. It combines several images from Curiosity’s Navigation Camera. South is at the center. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014 (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater.  Note rover wheel tracks at left.  She will eventually ascend the mountain at the ‘Murray Buttes’ at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.   Credit:   NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014 (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater. Note rover wheel tracks at left. She will eventually ascend the mountain at the ‘Murray Buttes’ at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

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.

Curiosity accomplished Historic 1st drilling into Martian rock at John Klein outcrop on Feb 8, 2013 (Sol 182) and discovered a habitable zone, shown in this context mosaic view of the Yellowknife Bay basin taken on Jan. 26 (Sol 169). The robotic arm is pressing down on the surface at John Klein outcrop of veined hydrated minerals – dramatically back dropped with her ultimate destination; Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity accomplished Historic 1st drilling into Martian rock at John Klein outcrop on Feb 8, 2013 (Sol 182) and discovered a habitable zone, shown in this context mosaic view of the Yellowknife Bay basin taken on Jan. 26 (Sol 169). The robotic arm is pressing down on the surface at John Klein outcrop of veined hydrated minerals – dramatically back dropped with her ultimate destination; Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

“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.

The main map here shows the assortment of landforms near the location of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover as the rover's second anniversary of landing on Mars nears. The gold traverse line entering from upper right ends at Curiosity's position as of Sol 705 on Mars (July 31, 2014). The inset map shows the mission's entire traverse from the landing on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (Aug. 6, EDT) to Sol 705, and the remaining distance to long-term science destinations near Murray Buttes, at the base of Mount Sharp. The label "Aug. 5, 2013" indicates where Curiosity was one year after landing.    Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
The main map here shows the assortment of landforms near the location of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover as the rover’s second anniversary of landing on Mars nears. The gold traverse line entering from upper right ends at Curiosity’s position as of Sol 705 on Mars (July 31, 2014). The inset map shows the mission’s entire traverse from the landing on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (Aug. 6, EDT) to Sol 705, and the remaining distance to long-term science destinations near Murray Buttes, at the base of Mount Sharp. The label “Aug. 5, 2013” indicates where Curiosity was one year after landing. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

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.

Ken Kremer

Up close view of hole in one of rover Curiosity’s six wheels caused by recent driving over rough Martian rocks. Mosaic assembled from Mastcam raw images taken on Dec. 22, 2013 (Sol 490).  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Up close view of hole in one of rover Curiosity’s six wheels caused by recent driving over rough Martian rocks. Mosaic assembled from Mastcam raw images taken on Dec. 22, 2013 (Sol 490). Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Spirit and Opportunity Top 10 Decade 1 Discoveries – Top Rover Scientist Tells Universe Today

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.

A Moment Frozen in Time On May 19th, 2005, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit captured this stunning view as the Sun sank below the rim of Gusev crater on Mars. This Panoramic Camera (Pancam) mosaic was taken around 6:07 in the evening of Sol 489. The terrain in the foreground is the rock outcrop "Jibsheet," a feature that Spirit has been investigating for several weeks (rover tracks are dimly visible leading up to "Jibsheet"). The floor of Gusev crater is visible in the distance, and the Sun is setting behind the wall of Gusev some 80 km (50 miles) in the distance. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Texas A&M/Cornell
A Moment Frozen in Time
On May 19th, 2005, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit captured this stunning view as the Sun sank below the rim of Gusev crater on Mars. This Panoramic Camera (Pancam) mosaic was taken around 6:07 in the evening of Sol 489. The terrain in the foreground is the rock outcrop “Jibsheet,” a feature that Spirit has been investigating for several weeks (rover tracks are dimly visible leading up to “Jibsheet”). The floor of Gusev crater is visible in the distance, and the Sun is setting behind the wall of Gusev some 80 km (50 miles) in the distance. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Texas A&M/Cornell

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.

Last View from Spirit rover on Mars.  Spirit’s last panorama from Gusev Crater was taken during February 2010 before her death from extremely low temperatures during her 4th Martian winter.  Spirit was just 500 feet from her next science target - dubbed Von Braun – at center, with Columbia Hills as backdrop.  Mosaic Credit: Marco Di Lorenzo/ Kenneth Kremer/ NASA/JPL/Cornell University.  Mosaic featured on Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on 30 May 2011 - http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap110530.html
Last View from Spirit rover on Mars
Spirit’s last panorama from Gusev Crater was taken during February 2010 before her death from extremely low temperatures during her 4th Martian winter. Spirit was just 500 feet from her next science target – dubbed Von Braun – at center, with Columbia Hills as backdrop. Mosaic Credit: Marco Di Lorenzo/ Kenneth Kremer/ NASA/JPL/Cornell University.
Mosaic featured on Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on 30 May 2011 – http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap110530.html

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.

'Burns Cliff' Color Panorama Opportunity captured this view of "Burns Cliff" after driving right to the base of this southeastern portion of the inner wall of "Endurance Crater." The view combines frames taken by Opportunity's panoramic camera between the rover's 287th and 294th martian days (Nov. 13 to 20, 2004). The mosaic spans more than 180 degrees side to side. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
‘Burns Cliff’ Color Panorama Opportunity captured this view of “Burns Cliff” after driving right to the base of this southeastern portion of the inner wall of “Endurance Crater.” The view combines frames taken by Opportunity’s panoramic camera between the rover’s 287th and 294th martian days (Nov. 13 to 20, 2004). The mosaic spans more than 180 degrees side to side. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

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.

Pancam false-color view acquired on Sol 3066 (Sept. 8 2012) of fine-scale layering in the Whitewater Lake locality that is indicative of an ancient aqueous environment on Mars. Veneers have been resistant to wind erosion and enhanced the layered appearance of the outcrop. Layers are typically several millimeters thick.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State University
Pancam false-color view acquired on Sol 3066 (Sept. 8 2012) of fine-scale layering in the Whitewater Lake locality that is indicative of an ancient aqueous environment on Mars. Veneers have been resistant to wind erosion and enhanced the layered appearance of the outcrop. Layers are typically several millimeters thick. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State University

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.

Opportunity rover discovered phyllosilicate clay minerals and calcium sulfate veins at the bright outcrops of ‘Whitewater Lake’, at right, imaged by the Navcam camera on Sol 3197 (Jan. 20, 2013, coinciding with her 9th anniversary on Mars.  “Copper Cliff” is the dark outcrop, at top center. Darker “Kirkwood” outcrop, at left, is site of mysterious “newberries” concretions. This panoramic view was snapped from ‘Matijevic Hill’ on Cape York ridge at Endeavour Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Opportunity rover discovered phyllosilicate clay minerals and calcium sulfate veins at the bright outcrops of ‘Whitewater Lake’, at right, imaged by the Navcam camera on Sol 3197 (Jan. 20, 2013, coinciding with her 9th anniversary on Mars. “Copper Cliff” is the dark outcrop, at top center. Darker “Kirkwood” outcrop, at left, is site of mysterious “newberries” concretions. This panoramic view was snapped from ‘Matijevic Hill’ on Cape York ridge at Endeavour Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

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.

Spirit acquired this mosaic on Sol 1202  (May 21, 2007), while investigating the area east of the elevated plateau known as "Home Plate" in the "Columbia Hills." The mosaic shows an area of disturbed soil, nicknamed "Gertrude Weise" by scientists, made by Spirit's stuck right front wheel. The trench exposed a patch of nearly pure silica, with the composition of opal. It could have come from either a hot-spring environment or an environment called a fumarole, in which acidic, volcanic steam rises through cracks. Either way, its formation involved water, and on Earth, both of these types of settings teem with microbial life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
Spirit acquired this mosaic on Sol 1202 (May 21, 2007), while investigating the area east of the elevated plateau known as “Home Plate” in the “Columbia Hills.” The mosaic shows an area of disturbed soil, nicknamed “Gertrude Weise” by scientists, made by Spirit’s stuck right front wheel. The trench exposed a patch of nearly pure silica, with the composition of opal. It could have come from either a hot-spring environment or an environment called a fumarole, in which acidic, volcanic steam rises through cracks. Either way, its formation involved water, and on Earth, both of these types of settings teem with microbial life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

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.

'Calypso' Panorama of Spirit's View from 'Troy'. This full-circle view from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit shows the terrain surrounding the location called "Troy," where Spirit became embedded in soft soil during the spring of 2009. The hundreds of images combined into this view were taken beginning on the 1,906th Martian day (or sol) of Spirit's mission on Mars (May 14, 2009) and ending on Sol 1943 (June 20, 2009). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University
‘Calypso’ Panorama of Spirit’s View from ‘Troy’. This full-circle view from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit shows the terrain surrounding the location called “Troy,” where Spirit became embedded in soft soil during the spring of 2009. The hundreds of images combined into this view were taken beginning on the 1,906th Martian day (or sol) of Spirit’s mission on Mars (May 14, 2009) and ending on Sol 1943 (June 20, 2009). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University

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

Spirit Mars rover - view from Husband Hill summit - panels cleaned by wind action Spirit snapped this unique self portrait view from the summit of Husband Hill inside Gusev crater on Sol 618 on 28 September 2005.  The rovers were never designed or intended to climb mountains. It took more than 1 year for Spirit to scale the Martian mountain.  This image was created from numerous raw images by an international team of astronomy enthusiasts and appeared on the cover of the 14 November 2005 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine and the April 2006 issue of Spaceflight magazine.  Also selected by Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on 28 November 2005. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Doug Ellison/Bernhard Braun/Ken Kremer
Spirit Mars rover – view from Husband Hill summit – panels cleaned by wind action
Spirit snapped this unique self portrait view from the summit of Husband Hill inside Gusev crater on Sol 618 on 28 September 2005. The rovers were never designed or intended to climb mountains. It took more than 1 year for Spirit to scale the Martian mountain. This image was created from numerous raw images by an international team of astronomy enthusiasts and appeared on the cover of the 14 November 2005 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine and the April 2006 issue of Spaceflight magazine. Also selected by Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on 28 November 2005. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Doug Ellison/Bernhard Braun/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

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.

Opportunity discovers hydrated Mineral Vein at Endeavour Crater - November 2011. Opportunity determined that the ‘Homestake’ mineral vein was composed of calcium sulfate,or gypsum, while exploring around the base of Cape York ridge at the western rim of Endeavour Crater.  The vein discovery indicates the ancient flow of liquid water at this spot on Mars. This panoramic mosaic of images was taken on Sol 2761, November 2011, and illustrates the exact spot of the mineral vein discovery. Featured on NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on 12 Dec 2011 -  http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap111212.html. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Kenneth Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo.
Opportunity discovers hydrated Mineral Vein at Endeavour Crater – November 2011. Opportunity determined that the ‘Homestake’ mineral vein was composed of calcium sulfate,or gypsum, while exploring around the base of Cape York ridge at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. The vein discovery indicates the ancient flow of liquid water at this spot on Mars. This panoramic mosaic of images was taken on Sol 2761, November 2011, and illustrates the exact spot of the mineral vein discovery. Featured on NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on 12 Dec 2011 – http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap111212.html. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Kenneth Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo.

Altogether, Spirit snapped over 128,000 raw images, drove 4.8 miles (7.7 kilometers) and ground into 15 rock targets.

MER10-SpiritAndOpportunity_ByTheNumbers[1]

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.

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 vast Endeavour Crater where she starts Decade 2 on the Red Planet. She is currently investigating summit outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water on her 1st mountain climbing adventure. See wheel tracks at center and dust devil at right. Assembled from Sol 3512 navcam raw images. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
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 vast Endeavour Crater where she starts Decade 2 on the Red Planet. She is currently investigating summit outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water on her 1st mountain climbing adventure. See wheel tracks at center and dust devil at right. Assembled from Sol 3512 navcam raw images. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

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.

Read more about sister Spirit – here and here.

Meanwhile on the opposite side of Mars, Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity is trekking towards gigantic Mount Sharp. She celebrated 500 Sols on Mars on New Years Day 2014.

And a pair of new orbiters are streaking to the Red Planet to fortify Earth’s invasion fleet- NASA’s MAVEN and India’s MOM.

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!

NASA's Opportunity Mars rover recorded the component images for this self-portrait near the peak of Solander Point and about three weeks before completing a decade of work on Mars. The rover's panoramic camera (Pancam) took the images during the interval Jan. 3, 2014, to Jan. 6, 2014.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State University
NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover recorded the component images for this self-portrait near the peak of Solander Point and about three weeks before completing a decade of work on Mars. The rover’s panoramic camera (Pancam) took the images during the interval Jan. 3, 2014, to Jan. 6, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State University

Therefore – Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Opportunity, Curiosity, Chang’e-3, LADEE, MAVEN, Mars rover and MOM news.

Ken Kremer

Spirit Rover traverse map from Gusev Crater landing site to Home Plate: 2004 to 2011
Spirit Rover traverse map from Gusev Crater landing site to Home Plate: 2004 to 2011
Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2014  This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during a decade on Mars and over 3560 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location by Solander Point summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Rover will spend 6th winter here atop Solander. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2014
This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during a decade on Mars and over 3560 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location by Solander Point summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Rover will spend 6th winter here atop Solander. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Opportunity Discovers That Oldest Rocks Reveal Best Chance for Martian Life

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.

Opportunity rover discovered phyllosilicate clay minerals and calcium sulfate veins at the bright outcrops of ‘Whitewater Lake’, at right, imaged by the Navcam camera on Sol 3197 (Jan. 20, 2013, coinciding with her 9th anniversary on Mars.  “Copper Cliff” is the dark outcrop, at top center. Darker “Kirkwood” outcrop, at left, is site of mysterious “newberries” concretions. This panoramic view was snapped from ‘Matijevic Hill’ on Cape York ridge at Endeavour Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Opportunity rover discovered phyllosilicate clay minerals and calcium sulfate veins at the bright outcrops of ‘Whitewater Lake’, at right, imaged by the Navcam camera on Sol 3197 (Jan. 20, 2013, coinciding with her 9th anniversary on Mars. “Copper Cliff” is the dark outcrop, at top center. Darker “Kirkwood” outcrop, at left, is site of mysterious “newberries” concretions. This panoramic view was snapped from ‘Matijevic Hill’ on Cape York ridge at Endeavour Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

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.

NASA's Opportunity Mars rover recorded the component images for this self-portrait near the peak of Solander Point and about three weeks before completing a decade of work on Mars. The rover's panoramic camera (Pancam) took the images during the interval Jan. 3, 2014, to Jan. 6, 2014.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State University
NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover recorded the component images for this self-portrait near the peak of Solander Point and about three weeks before completing a decade of work on Mars. The rover’s panoramic camera (Pancam) took the images during the interval Jan. 3, 2014, to Jan. 6, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State University

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.

Opportunity by Solander Point peak - her 1st mountain climbing adventure.  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 is investigating outcrops of potential clay minerals. Assembled from Sol 3512 navcam raw images.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Opportunity by Solander Point peak – her 1st mountain climbing adventure. 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 is investigating outcrops of potential clay minerals. Assembled from Sol 3512 navcam raw images. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

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.

Read more about sister Spirit – here and here.

Meanwhile on the opposite side of Mars, Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity is trekking towards gigantic Mount Sharp. She celebrated 500 Sols on Mars on New Years Day 2014.

And a pair of new orbiters are streaking to the Red Planet to fortify the Terran fleet- NASA’s MAVEN and India’s MOM.

Finally, China’s Yutu rover is trundling across pitted moonscapes.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Opportunity, Curiosity, Chang’e-3, LADEE, MAVEN, Mars rover and MOM news.

Ken Kremer

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
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
Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2014.  This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during a decade on Mars and over 3540 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location by f Solander Point summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater.  Rover will spnd 6th winter here atop Solander.  Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance - indicative of a habitable zone.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2014
This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during a decade on Mars and over 3540 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location by f Solander Point summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Rover will spnd 6th winter here atop Solander. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Opportunity Rover Starts 2nd Decade by Spectacular Mountain Summit and Mineral Goldmine

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.”

Back on sol 3365 we took this image of Solander Point as we approached it. Here I have plotted the subsequent route that Opportunity has taken in climbing up the ridge. The outcrop shown I the images below are near the end of the yellow traverse line.  Caption and mosaic by Larry Crumpler/NASA/JPL/
Back on sol 3365 we took this image of Solander Point as we approached it. Here I have plotted the subsequent route that Opportunity has taken in climbing up the ridge. The outcrop shown I the images below are near the end of the yellow traverse line. Caption and mosaic by Larry Crumpler/NASA/JPL

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.

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 vast Endeavour Crater where she starts Decade 2 on the Red Planet. She is currently investigating summit outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water on her 1st mountain climbing adventure. See wheel tracks at center and dust devil at right. Assembled from Sol 3512 navcam raw images. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
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 vast Endeavour Crater where she starts Decade 2 on the Red Planet. She is currently investigating summit outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water on her 1st mountain climbing adventure. See wheel tracks at center and dust devil at right. Assembled from Sol 3512 navcam raw images.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

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.

Mosaic of Opportunity and mysterious Pinnacle Island rock by Solander Point peak.  Mysterious Pinnacle Island rock suddenly appeared out of nowhere in images snapped on Sol 3540.  It was absent in earlier images on Sol 3528.  This mosaic shows the rock nearby the solar panels of NASA’s Opportunity rover.  Assembled from Sol 3528 and 3540 pancam raw images.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Mosaic of Opportunity and mysterious Pinnacle Island rock by Solander Point peak. Mysterious Pinnacle Island rock suddenly appeared out of nowhere in images snapped on Sol 3540. It was absent in earlier images on Sol 3528. This mosaic shows the rock nearby the solar panels of NASA’s Opportunity rover. Assembled from Sol 3528 and 3540 pancam raw images. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

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.

Opportunity rover’s 1st mountain climbing goal is dead ahead in this up close view of Solander Point at Endeavour Crater. Opportunity has ascended the mountain looking for clues indicative of a Martian habitable environment. This navcam panoramic mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 3385 (Aug 2, 2013).  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Opportunity rover’s 1st mountain climbing goal is dead ahead in this up close view of Solander Point at Endeavour Crater. Opportunity has ascended the mountain looking for clues indicative of a Martian habitable environment. This navcam panoramic mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 3385 (Aug 2, 2013). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

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.

She arrived barely 3 weeks after her twin sister, Spirit on 3 January 2004.

Today marks Opportunity’s 3551st Sol or Martian Day roving Mars – for what was expected to be only a 90 Sol mission.

So far she has snapped over 188,100 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.

Read more about sister Spirit – here and here.

Meanwhile on the opposite side of Mars, Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity is trekking towards gigantic Mount Sharp. She celebrated 500 Sols on Mars on New Years Day 2014.

And a pair of new orbiters are streaking to the Red Planet to fortify the Terran fleet- NASA’s MAVEN and India’s MOM.

Finally, China’s Yutu rover is trundling across pitted moonscapes.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Opportunity, Curiosity, Chang’e-3, LADEE, MAVEN, Mars rover and MOM news.

Ken Kremer

Opportunity starts scaling Solander Point  See the tilted terrain and rover tracks in this look-back mosaic view from Solander Point peering across the vast expanse of huge Endeavour Crater.  Moasic assembled from navcam raw images taken on Sol 3431 (Sept.18, 2013).  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Opportunity starts scaling Solander Point
See the tilted terrain and rover tracks in this look-back mosaic view from Solander Point peering across the vast expanse of huge Endeavour Crater. Moasic assembled from navcam raw images taken on Sol 3431 (Sept.18, 2013). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2014.  This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during a decade on Mars and over 3540 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location by f Solander Point summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater.  Rover will spnd 6th winter here atop Solander.  Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance - indicative of a habitable zone.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2014 – A Decade on Mars
This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during a decade on Mars and over 3552 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location by f Solander Point summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Rover will spnd 6th winter here atop Solander. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

NASA’s Resilient Opportunity Rover Starts Martian Mountaineering

Opportunity starts Martian Mountaineering
NASA’s Opportunity rover captured this southward uphill panoramic mosaic on Oct. 21, 2013 (Sol 3463) after beginning to ascend the northwestern slope of “Solander Point” on the western rim of Endeavour Crater – her 1st mountain climbing adventure. The northward-facing slope will tilt the rover’s solar panels toward the sun in the southern-hemisphere winter sky, providing an important energy advantage for continuing mobile operations through the upcoming winter. Assembled from Sol 3463 navcam raw images by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Story and imagery updated[/caption]

NASA’s super resilient Opportunity robot has begun a new phase in her life on the Red Planet – Martian Mountaineer!

“This is our first real Martian mountaineering with Opportunity,” said the principal investigator for the rover, Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

And it happened right in the middle of the utterly chaotic US government shutdown ! – that seriously harmed some US science endeavors. And at a spot destined to become a science bonanza in the months and years ahead – so long as she stays alive to explore ever more new frontiers.

On Oct. 8, mission controllers on Earth directed the nearly decade old robot to start the ascent of Solander Point – the northern tip of the tallest hill she has encountered after nearly 10 Earth years on Mars.

Opportunity starts scaling Solander Point - her1st mountain climbing goal. See the tilted terrain and rover tracks in this mosaic view from Solander Point peering across the vast expanse of huge Endeavour Crater.  Opportunity will ascend the mountain looking for clues indicative of a Martian habitable environment.  This navcam camera mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 3431 (Sept.18, 2013).  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com). See the complete panoramic view below
Opportunity starts scaling Solander Point – her1st mountain climbing goal. See the tilted terrain and rover tracks in this mosaic view from Solander Point peering across the vast expanse of huge Endeavour Crater. Opportunity will ascend the mountain looking for clues indicative of a Martian habitable environment. This navcam camera mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 3431 (Sept.18, 2013). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com). See the complete panoramic view below

The northward-facing slopes at Solander also afford another major advantage. They will tilt the rover’s solar panels toward the sun in the southern-hemisphere winter sky, providing an important energy boost enabling continued mobile operations through the upcoming frigidly harsh winter- her 6th since landing in 2004.

Opportunity will first explore outcrops on the northwestern slopes of Solander Point in search of the chemical ingredients required to sustain life before gradually climbing further uphill to investigate intriguing deposits distributed amongst its stratographic layers.

The rover will initially focus on outcrops located in the lower 20 feet (6 meters) above the surrounding plains on slopes as steep as 15 to 20 degrees.

Opportunity starts scaling Solander Point - her 1st mountain climbing goal. See the tilted terrain and rover tracks in this panoramic view from Solander Point peering across the vast expanse of huge Endeavour Crater.  Opportunity will ascend the mountain looking for clues indicative of a Martian habitable environment.  This navcam camera mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 3431 (Sept.18, 2013).  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com).
Opportunity starts scaling Solander Point – her 1st mountain climbing goal. See the tilted terrain and rover tracks in this panoramic view from Solander Point peering across the vast expanse of huge Endeavour Crater. Opportunity will ascend the mountain looking for clues indicative of a Martian habitable environment. This navcam camera mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 3431 (Sept.18, 2013). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com).

At some later time, Opportunity may ascend Solander farther upward, which peaks about 130 feet (40 meters) above the crater plains.

“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 Squyres.

NASA’s powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) circling overhead recently succeeded in identifying clay-bearing rocks during new high resolution survey scans of Solander Point!

As I reported previously, the specially collected high resolution observations by the orbiters Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) were collected in August and being analyzed by the science team. They will be used to direct Opportunity to the most productive targets of interest

“CRISM data were collected,” Ray Arvidson told Universe Today. Arvidson is the mission’s deputy principal scientific investigator from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

“They show really interesting spectral features in the [Solander Point] rim materials.”

NASA’s Opportunity rover captured this southward uphill view on Oct. 21, 2013 after beginning to ascend the northwestern slope of "Solander Point" on the western rim of Endeavour Crater. The northward-facing slope will tilt the rover's solar panels toward the sun in the southern-hemisphere winter sky, providing an important energy advantage for continuing mobile operations through the upcoming winter.  Credit: NASA/JPL
NASA’s Opportunity rover captured this southward uphill view on Oct. 21, 2013 after beginning to ascend the northwestern slope of “Solander Point” on the western rim of Endeavour Crater. The northward-facing slope will tilt the rover’s solar panels toward the sun in the southern-hemisphere winter sky, providing an important energy advantage for continuing mobile operations through the upcoming winter. Credit: NASA/JPL

The new CRISM survey from Mars orbit yielded mineral maps which vastly improves the spectral resolution – from 18 meters per pixel down to 5 meters per pixel.

This past spring and summer, Opportunity drove several months from the Cape York rim segment to Solander Point.

“At Cape York, we found fantastic things,” Squyres said. “Gypsum veins, clay-rich terrain, the spherules we call newberries. We know there are even larger exposures of clay-rich materials where we’re headed. They might look like what we found at Cape York or they might be completely different.”

The summit of Solander Point.  Opportunity rover captured mosaic on Oct. 21, 2013 (Sol 3463) after beginning to ascend the northwestern slope of "Solander Point" on the western rim of Endeavour Crater - her 1st mountain climbing adventure.  Assembled from Sol 3463 pancam high resolution raw images by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
The summit of Solander Point
Opportunity rover captured mosaic on Oct. 21, 2013 (Sol 3463) after beginning to ascend the northwestern slope of “Solander Point” on the western rim of Endeavour Crater – her 1st mountain climbing adventure. Assembled from Sol 3463 pancam high resolution raw images by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Clay minerals, or phyllosilicates, form in neutral water that is more conducive to life.

At the base of Solander, the six wheeled rover discovered a transition zone between a sulfate-rich geological formation and an older formation. Sulfate-rich rocks form in a wet environment that was very acidic and less favorable to life.

Solander Point is located at the western rim of the vast expanse of Endeavour crater – some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter.

Today marks Opportunity’s 3466th Sol or Martian Day roving Mars – for what was expected to be only a 90 Sol mission.

So far she has snapped over 185,200 amazing images on the first overland expedition across the Red Planet.

Her total odometry stands at over 23.89 miles (38.45 kilometers) since touchdown on Jan. 24, 2004 at Meridiani Planum.

Meanwhile, NASA is in the final stages of processing of MAVEN, the agencies next orbiter.

It is still scheduled to blast off from Cape Canaveral on Nov.18 – see my photos from inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center.

MAVEN’s launch was briefly threatened by the government shutdown.

On the opposite side of Mars, Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity is trekking towards gigantic Mount Sharp and recently discovered a patch of pebbles formed by flowing liquid water.

Ken Kremer

Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2013.  This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during nearly 10 years and over 3460 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location ascending her 1st Martian Mountain - Solander Point - at the western rim of Endeavour Crater.  Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance - indicative of a habitable zone and seeks clay minerals now at Solander. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2013
This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during nearly 10 years and over 3460 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location ascending her 1st Martian Mountain – Solander Point – at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone and seeks clay minerals now at Solander. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Opportunity rover Days Away from Mars Mountain Quest

Opportunity rover’s view from very near the foothills of Solander Point looking along the rim and vast expanse of Endeavour Crater. This area exhibits gypsum signatures and numerous blocks of intriguing rock. Solander Point is the 1st Martian Mountain NASA’s Opportunity will climb and the rovers next destination. Solander Point may harbor clay minerals indicative of a past Martian habitable environment. This navcam mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 3374 (July 21, 2013). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com).
See complete panoramic mosaic below. Story updated with further details[/caption]

Exactly a decade after blasting off for the Red Planet and discovering a wide swath of water altered rocks and minerals in the ensuing years by exploring countless craters large and small, NASA’s intrepid Opportunity rover is just days away from arriving at her next big quest – a Martian mountain named Solander Point that may possess the key chemical ingredients necessary to sustain Martian life forms.

“We are parked 200 meters away from the bench at Solander Point,” Ray Arvidson told Universe Today exclusively. Arvidson is the mission’s deputy principal scientific investigator from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. Furthermore, this area exhibits signatures related to water flow.

Solander Point also represents ‘something completely different’ – the first mountain the intrepid robot will ever climb.

“This will be Opportunity’s first mountain and the view from the ridge crest should be spectacular,” wrote Larry Crumpler, a science team member from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, in his latest field report about the 10 years ongoing Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission.

Indeed the rover is now just a few short drives southward from making landfall on the northern tip of the point in her current trek across the relatively flat plains around the rim of Endeavour crater.

“We are now only about 180 meters from the new mountain, Solander Point.”

Opportunity rover location in the latest MRO/HiRISE color image. The green line shows more or less the route we hope to take to the base of Solander point. Since it is only a couple of hundred meters away, we could be there is a couple of drives. Maybe by the end of next week. The label say "3374" but this is also roughly the location through 3379.
Opportunity rover location in the latest MRO/HiRISE color image. The green line shows more or less the route we hope to take to the base of Solander point. Since it is only a couple of hundred meters away, the rover could be there is a couple of drives. Maybe by the end of next week. The label say “3374” but this is also roughly the location through 3379. NASA/JPL/Larry Crumpler

But before moving onward, Arvidson explained that the rover will briefly pause here “at dark terrain” for some exciting science due to water related spectral observations from the CRISM instrument captured by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) circling overhead.

“CRISM data [from Mars orbit] shows a relatively deep 1.9 micrometer absorption feature due to H2O-bearing minerals,” said Arvidson.

This past spring, Opportunity made the historic discovery of clay minerals and a habitable environment on a low hill called Cape York at the rover’s prior stop along the rim of Endeavour crater.

Solander was selected as the robot’s next destination because it simultaneously offers a goldmine of science as well as north facing slopes – where Opportunity’s solar wings can more effectively soak up the sun’s rays to generate life giving electrical power during the next Martian winter.

But since Opportunity is currently generating plenty of power from her solar arrays and arriving with a bonus cushion of time before the looming onset of her 6th Martian winter, the team decided to take a small detour to the southeast and spend several sols (or Martian days) exploring an area of intriguing geology of outcrops, gypsum signatures and more on the bench surrounding the base of the mountain.

“We slowed down this week so that we could check out the rocks here where there is a strange hydration signature from orbital remote sensing,” says Crumpler.

“This is also an area that appears to have more large blocks in the HiRISE images [from Mars orbit], so we are checking out one of the blocks, “Black Shoulder”.

“We are hoping that the rocks on the ridge crest will be spectacular too,” notes Crumpler.

Opportunity rover’s view very near the foothills of Solander Point along the rim and vast expanse of Endeavour Crater.  Solander Point is the 1st Martian Mountain NASA’s Opportunity will climb and the rovers next destination. Solander Point may harbor clay minerals indicative of a past Martian habitable environment. This navcam panoramic mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 3374 (July 21, 2013).  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Opportunity rover’s view very near the foothills of Solander Point along the rim and vast expanse of Endeavour Crater. This area exhibits gypsum signatures and numerous blocks of intriguing rock. Solander Point is the 1st Martian Mountain NASA’s Opportunity will climb and the rovers next destination. Solander Point may harbor clay minerals indicative of a past Martian habitable environment. This navcam panoramic mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 3374 (July 21, 2013). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Opportunity is using the science instruments on her 3 foot ( 1 meter) long robotic arm to conduct brief in-situ investigations of “Black Shoulder” with the Microscopic Imager (MI) and the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS).

And …. it’s ‘Mountains Galore’ from here on out for the remainder of Opportunity’s Magnificent Mission to Mars.

Why? Because Opportunity is nearing the foothills of a long chain of eroded segments of the crater wall of Endeavour crater which spans a humongous 14 miles (22 kilometers) wide.

Solander Point may harbor deposits of phyllosilicate clay minerals – which form in neutral pH water – in a thick layer of rock stacks indicative of a past Martian habitable zone.

The rover team is discussing the best way to approach and drive up Solander.

“One idea is to drive part way up Solander from the west side of the rim, turn left and then drive down the steeper north facing slopes with the stratographic sections,” Ray Arvidson explained to Universe Today.

“That way we don’t have to drive up the relatively steeper slopes.”

“The rover can drive up rocky surfaces inclined about 12 to 15 degrees.”

“We want to go through the stratographic sections on the north facing sections,” Arvidson told me.

Opportunity rover moves closer to the foothills of Solander Point along the rim and vast expanse of Endeavour Crater.  The rover investigated one of the large rocks here with her microscopic imager and X-Ray spectrometer. Soon she will start climbing up Solander -  her 1st Martian Mountain ascent.  This navcam panoramic mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 3376 (July 23, 2013).  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Opportunity rover moves closer to the foothills of Solander Point along the rim and vast expanse of Endeavour Crater. The rover investigated one of the large rocks near here with her microscopic imager and X-Ray spectrometer. Soon she will start climbing up Solander – her 1st Martian Mountain ascent. This navcam panoramic mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 3376 (July 23, 2013).
Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Today (July 28) is Sol 3380 for a mission that was only warrantied to last 90 Sols!

Opportunity’s total driving distance exceeds 23.6 miles (37.9 kilometers). She has snapped over 182,000 images.

The "work volume". This view from the front hazcams shows the rock target that is being checked out before the final slog to the south. With luck, by the end of next week we will be plinking around the base of yonder mountain. "Plinking" is a geological term for wandering around with your hammer trying to get a handle on the local outcrops before plunging ahead with mapping and asking the rocks serious questions.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Larry Crumpler
The “work volume”. This view from the front hazcams shows the rock target that is being checked out before the final slog to the south. With luck, by the end of next week we will be plinking around the base of yonder mountain. “Plinking” is a geological term for wandering around with your hammer trying to get a handle on the local outcrops before plunging ahead with mapping and asking the rocks serious questions. Credit: NASA/JPL/Larry Crumpler

Meanwhile on the opposite side of Mars at Gale Crater, Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity also discovered a habitable environment originating from a time when the Red Planet was far warmer and wetter billions of years ago.

And like Opportunity, Curiosity is also trekking towards a mountain rich in sedimentary layers hoping to unveil the mysteries of Mars past. But Curiosity likely won’t arrive at 3.4 mile (5.5 km) high Mount Sharp for another year.

Ken Kremer

Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2013.  This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during more than 9 years and over 3374 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location near foothills of Solander Point at the western rim of Endeavour Crater.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2013
This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during more than 9 years and over 3374 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location near foothills of Solander Point at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Mars, Curiosity, Opportunity, LADEE, MAVEN, Antares and more at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations

Aug 12: “RockSat-X Suborbital Launch, LADEE Lunar & Antares Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, 8 PM

Opportunity Approaching Mountain Climbing Goal and Signs of Habitable Martian Environment

Opportunity rover captures spectacular view ahead to her upcoming mountain climbing goal, the raised rim of “Solander Point” at right, located along the western edge of Endeavour Crater. It may harbor clay minerals indicative of a habitable zone. This pancam photo mosaic was taken on Sol 3335, June 11, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
See full panoramic scene – below
Your last chance to “Send Your Name to Mars aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter” – below[/caption]

NASA’s nearly decade old Opportunity Mars rover is sailing swiftly on a southerly course towards her first true mountain climbing destination – named “Solander Point” – in search of further evidence of habitable environments with the chemical ingredients necessary to sustain Martian life forms.

At Solander Point, researchers have already spotted deep stacks of ancient rocks transformed by flowing liquid water eons ago. It is located along the western rim of huge Endeavour Crater.

“Right now the rover team is discussing the best way to approach and drive up Solander,” Ray Arvidson told Universe Today. Arvidson is the mission’s deputy principal scientific investigator from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

Solander Point may harbor clay minerals in the rock stacks indicative of a past Martian habitable zone.

“One idea is to drive part way up Solander from the west side of the rim, turn left and then drive down the steeper north facing slopes with the stratographic sections,” Arvidson told me.

“That way we don’t have to drive up the relatively steeper slopes. The rover can drive up rocky surfaces inclined about 12 to 15 degrees.”

“We want to go through the stratographic sections on the north facing sections.”

Solander Point mosaic captured by high resolution pancam camera on Sol 3334, June 10, 2013.  Opportunity will scale Solander after arriving in August 2013 in search of chemical ingredients to sustain Martian microbes  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Solander Point mosaic captured by high resolution pancam camera on Sol 3334, June 10, 2013. Opportunity will scale Solander after arriving in August 2013 in search of chemical ingredients to sustain Martian microbes Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

The science team hopes that by scaling Solander, Opportunity will build on her recent historic discovery of a habitable environment at a rock called “Esperance” that possesses a cache of phyllosilicate clay minerals.

These aluminum rich clay minerals typically form in neutral, drinkable water that is not extremely acidic or basic and therefore could support a path to potential Martian microbes.

“Esperance 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 recent media briefing.

'Esperance' Target Examined by Opportunity in May 2013.  The  pale rock called "Esperance," has a high concentration of clay minerals formed in near neutral water indcating a spot favorable for life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
‘Esperance’ Target Examined by Opportunity in May 2013. The pale rock called “Esperance,” has a high concentration of clay minerals formed in near neutral water indcating a spot favorable for life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

Using high resolution CRISM spectral data collected from Mars orbit, the rover was specifically directed to Esperance, Arvidson explained. The rock was found about a kilometer back on Matijevic Hill at ‘Cape York’, a rather low hilly segment of the western rim of giant Endeavour crater which spans 14 miles (22 km) across.

‘Solander Point’ offers roughly about a 10 times taller stack of geological layering compared to ‘Cape York.’ Both areas are raised segments of the western rim of Endeavour Crater.

The team is working now to obtain the same type of high resolution spectral evidence for phyllosilicate clay minerals at Solander as they had at Cape York to aid in targeting Opportunity to the most promising outcrops, Arvidson explained.

Opportunity is snapping ever more spectacular imagery of Solander Point and the eroded rim of Endeavour Crater as she approaches closer every passing Sol, or Martian Day. See our original photo mosaics herein by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.

Opportunity captures spectacular panoramic view ahead to her upcoming mountain climbing goal, the raised rim of “Solander Point” at right, located along the western edge of Endeavour Crater. It may harbor clay minerals indicative of a habitable zone.  The rise at left is "Nobbys Head" which the rover just passed on its southward drive to Solander Point from Cape York.  This pancam photo mosaic was taken on Sol 3335, June 11, 2013 shows vast expanse of the central crater mound and distant Endeavour crater rim.   Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com) See full panoramic scene below
Opportunity captures spectacular panoramic view ahead to her upcoming mountain climbing goal, the raised rim of “Solander Point” at right, located along the western edge of Endeavour Crater. It may harbor clay minerals indicative of a habitable zone. The rise at left is “Nobbys Head” which the rover just passed on its southward drive to Solander Point from Cape York. This pancam photo mosaic was taken on Sol 3335, June 11, 2013 shows vast expanse of the central crater mound and distant Endeavour crater rim.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

The long lived 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.

On June 21, 2013, Opportunity marked five Martian years on Mars since landing on Jan 24, 2004 with a mere 90 day (Sol) ‘warranty’.

This week Opportunity’s total driving distance exceeded 23 miles (37 kilometers).

The solar powered robot remains in excellent health and the life giving solar arrays are producing plenty of electrical power at the moment.

Solander Point also offers northerly tilled slopes that will maximize the power generation during Opportunity’s upcoming 6th Martian winter .

The rover handlers want Opportunity to reach Solander’s slopes by August, before winter’s onset.

As ot today (tosol) Opportunity has trekked about halfway from Cape York to Solander Point – tip to tip.

On the opposite side of Mars at Gale Crater, Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity also discovered clay minerals and a habitable environment originating from a time when the Red Planet was far warmer and wetter billions of years ago.

And this is your last chance to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013. Launch: Nov. 18, 2013

Ken Kremer

Wide angle view of Endeavour Crater showing Solander Point and Cape Tribulation in this photo mosaic captured by navcam camera on Sol 3335, June 11, 2013.  Opportunity will scale Solander after arriving in August 2013 in search of chemical ingredients to sustain Martian microbes.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Wide angle view of Endeavour Crater showing Solander Point and Cape Tribulation in this photo mosaic captured by navcam camera on Sol 3335, June 11, 2013. Opportunity will scale Solander after arriving in August 2013 in search of chemical ingredients to sustain Martian microbes. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2013.  This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during more than 9 years and over 3351 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location heading south to Solander Point from  Cape York ridge at the western rim of Endeavour Crater.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2013. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during more than 9 years and over 3351 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location heading south to Solander Point from Cape York ridge at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer