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]
“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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
Ten months after her breathtaking touchdown on the Red Planet, NASA’s Curiosity rover is nearly set to embark on an epic drive like no other in space history to the slopes of mysterious Mount Sharp – looming supreme inside Gale Crater and the primary mission objective.
But not before the robot completes a few last critical science tasks to more fully illuminate the potential for the origin of Martian microbes in the habitable zone discovered at the work-site of her first penetrations into Mars water altered surface.
The rover science team has chosen a trio of final targets to investigate around the shallow basin of Yellowknife Bay, that resembles a dried out lakebed, where Curiosity has toiled for the past six months, drilled twice into the mudstone outcrops at ‘John Klein’ and ‘Cumberland’ and repeatedly fired her powerful science laser.
Curiosity will revisit a pair of intriguing outcrops named ‘Point Lake’ and ‘Shaler’ that the rover briefly investigated before arriving at ‘John Klein’, said Joy Crisp of JPL, Curiosity’s deputy project scientist, at a media briefing.
“Shaler might be a river deposit. Point Lake might be volcanic or sedimentary. A closer look at them could give us better understanding of how the rocks we sampled with the drill fit into the history of how the environment changed.”
Curiosity will employ nearly all her science instruments to study the outcrops – except the drill.
“It’s highly unlikely to drill at ‘Point Lake’ and ‘Shaler’ because we want to get driving,” Crisp told Universe Today.
“We might drill somewhere along the way to Mount Sharp depending on whether we find something compelling.”
Researchers will also use the DAN (Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons) instrument to look for traces of mineral bound water – in the form of hydrogen – at the boundary between bedrock areas of mudstone and sandstone.
Thereafter, Curiosity’s handlers will command the 1 ton behemoth to begin the drive to the lower reaches of Mount Sharp which lies about 6 miles (10 kilometers) distant – as the Martian crow flies.
Mount Sharp rises about 3.4 miles (5.5 km) from the center of Gale Crater. It’s taller than Mount Ranier in Washington State.
Billions of years of Mars geologic history are preserved in the sedimentary layers of Mount Sharp – along with potential signatures of the chemical ingredients of life.
“The drive will start in a few weeks,” said Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. at the briefing.
But the team will be on the lookout for targets of opportunity along the way.
“We are on a mission of exploration. If we come across scientifically interesting areas, we are going to stop and examine them before continuing the journey,” Erikson added.
“If we pass something amazing and compelling we might turn around and drive back,” Crisp added.
It could take nearly a year to arrive at Mount Sharp. And Curiosity must pass through a potentially treacherous dune field to get there – see NASA JPL route map above.
“We are looking for the best path though,” said Erickson.
NASA chose Gale as the landing site specifically to dispatch Curiosity to investigate the sedimentary layers of Mount Sharp because it exhibited signatures of clay minerals that form in neutral water and that could possibly support the origin and evolution of simple Martian life forms, past or present.
“We have a real desire to get to Mount Sharp because there we see variations in the mineralogy as we go up from the base to higher levels and a change in the record of the environment,” said Crisp.
Analysis of the initial gray colored, powdery ‘John Klein’ sample by Curiosity’s pair of onboard chemistry labs – SAM & Chemin – revealed that this location on Mars was habitable in the past and possesses the key chemical ingredients – such as clay minerals – required to support microbial life forms- thereby successfully accomplishing the key science objective of the mission and making a historic discovery long before even arriving at destination Mount Sharp.
Besides the science measurements, researchers also learned lot about how to operate the complex drilling and sample delivery mechanisms much more efficiently for the second drilled rock sample.
The sieved and pulverized Cumberland sample was delivered in about a quarter of the time compared to the John Klein sample – accomplished at a deliberately measured and cautious pace.
Analysis of the “Cumberland” powder is currently in progress. The goal is to determine how it compares chemically and to confirm the results found at ‘John Klein.’
“No results from Cumberland are available yet,” said Crisp.
The robot used the powerful million watt ChemCam laser to blast into the Cumberland drill hole and gray tailings scattered on the surface to glean as much insight and measurements of the chemical composition and transformation by water as possible before departing.
Curiosity has just arrived at “Point Lake’. Stay tuned for my next Curiosity story.
NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover discovered clay minerals at Cape York ridge along the rim of Endeavour crater – seen in this photo mosaic – which stands as the most favorable location for Martian biology discovered during her entire nearly 10 year long mission to Mars. Opportunity also established a new American driving record for a vehicle on another world on May 15, 2013 (Sol 3309) and made history by driving ahead from this point at Cape York. This navcam photo mosaic shows the view forward to her next destinations of Solander Point and Cape Tribulation along the lengthy rim of huge Endeavour crater spanning 14 miles (22 km) in diameter.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)/Marco Di Lorenzo Updated: Illustrated below with a collection of imagery, mosaics and route maps[/caption]
Now nearly a decade into her planned 3 month only expedition to Mars, NASA’s longest living rover Opportunity, struck gold and has just discovered the strongest evidence to date for an environment favorable to ancient Martian biology – and she has set sail hunting for a motherlode of new clues amongst fabulous looking terrain!!
Barely two weeks ago in mid-May 2013, Opportunity’s analysis of a new rock target named “Esperance” confirmed that it is composed of a “clay that had been intensely altered by relatively neutral pH water – representing the most favorable conditions for biology that Opportunity has yet seen in the rock histories it has encountered,” NASA said in a statement.
The finding of a fractured rock loaded with clay minerals and ravaged by flowing liquid water in which life could have thrived amounts to a scientific home run for the golf cart sized rover!
“Water that moved through fractures during this rock’s history would have provided more favorable conditions for biology than any other wet environment recorded in rocks Opportunity has seen,” said the mission’s principal investigator Prof. Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
Opportunity accomplished the ground breaking new discovery by exposing the interior of Esperance with her still functioning Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) and examining a pristine patch using the microscopic camera and X-Ray spectrometer on the end of her 3 foot long robotic arm.
The robot made the discovery at the conclusion of a 20 month long science expedition circling around a low ridge called “Cape York” – which she has just departed on a southerly heading trekking around the eroded rim of the huge crater named “Endeavour.”
“Esperance was so important, we committed several weeks to getting this one measurement of it, even though we knew the clock was ticking.”
Esperance stems from a time when the Red Planet was far warmer and wetter billions of years ago.
“What’s so special about Esperance is that there was enough water not only for reactions that produced clay minerals, but also enough to flush out ions set loose by those reactions, so that Opportunity can clearly see the alteration,” said Scott McLennan of the State University of New York, Stony Brook, a long-term planner for Opportunity’s science team.
Esperance is unlike any rock previously investigated by Opportunity; containing far more aluminum and silica which is indicative of clay minerals and lower levels of calcium and iron.
Most, but not all of the rocks inspected to date by Opportunity were formed in an environment of highly acidic water that is extremely harsh to most life forms.
Clay minerals typically form in potentially drinkable, neutral water that is not extremely acidic or basic.
Previously at Cape York, Opportunity had found another outcrop containing a small amount of clay minerals formed by exposure to water called “Whitewater Lake.”
“There appears to have been extensive, but weak, alteration of Whitewater Lake, but intense alteration of Esperance along fractures that provided conduits for fluid flow,” said Squyres.
Cape York is a hilly segment of the rim of Endeavour crater which spans 14 miles (22 km) across – where the robot arrived in mid-2011 and will spend her remaining life.
Opportunity has now set sail for her next crater rim destination named “Solander Point”, an area about 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers) away – due south from “Cape York.”
“Our next destination will be Solander Point,” Squyres told Universe Today.
Along the way, Opportunity will soon cross “Botany Bay” and “Sutherland Point”, last seen when Opportunity first arrived at Cape York.
Eventually she will continue further south to a rim segment named ‘Cape Tribulation’ which holds huge caches of clay minerals.
The rover must arrive at “Solander Point” before the onset of her 6th Martian winter so that she can be advantageously tilted along north facing slopes to soak up the maximum amount of sun by her power generating solar wings. She might pull up around August.
On the other side of Mars, Opportunity’s new sister rover Curiosity also recently discovered clay minerals on the floor of her landing site inside Gale Crater.
Curiosity found the clay minerals – and a habitat that could support life – after analyzing powdery drill tailings from the Yellowknife Bay basin worksite with her on board state-of-the-art chemistry labs.
Just a week ago on May 15 (Sol 3309), Opportunity broke through the 40 year old American distance driving record set back in December 1972 by Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt.
But she is not sitting still resting on her laurels!
This past week the robots handlers’ back on Earth put the pedal to the metal and pushed her forward another quarter mile during 5 additional drives over 7 Sols, or Martian days. Thus her total odometry since landing on 24 January 2004 now stands at 22.45 miles (36.14 kilometers).
Opportunity will blast through the world record milestone of 23 miles (37 kilometers) held by the Lunokhod 2 lunar rover (from the Soviet Union), somewhere along the path to “Solander Point” in the coming months.
Endeavour Crater features terrain with older rocks than previously inspected and unlike anything studied before by Opportunity. It’s a place no one ever dared dream of reaching prior to Opportunity’s launch in the summer of 2003 and landing on the Meridiani Planum region in 2004.
Signatures of clay minerals, or phyllosilicates, were detected at several spots at Endeavour’s western rim by observations from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).
“The motherlode of clay minerals is on Cape Tribulation. The exposure extends all the way to the top, mainly on the inboard side,” says Ray Arvidson, the rover’s deputy principal investigator at Washington University in St. Louis.
Stay tuned for the continuing breathtaking adventures of NASA’s sister rovers Opportunity and Curiosity!
And don’t forget to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013
Scientists directing NASA’s Mars Opportunity rover gushed with excitement as they announced that the aging robot has discovered a rock with a composition unlike anything previously explored on the Red Planet’s surface – since she landed on the exotic Martian plains 7.5 years ago – and which offers indications that liquid water might have percolated or flowed at this spot billions of years ago.
Barely three weeks ago Opportunity arrived at the rim of the gigantic 14 mile ( 22 km) wide crater named Endeavour after an epic multi-year trek, and for the team it’s literally been like a 2nd landing on Mars – and the equivalent of the birth of a whole new mission of exploration at an entirely ‘new’ landing site.
“This is like having a brand new landing site for our veteran rover,” said Dave Lavery, program executive for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It is a remarkable bonus that comes from being able to rove on Mars with well-built hardware that lasts.”
Opportunity has traversed an incredible distance of 20.8 miles (33.5 km) across the Meridiani Planum region of Mars since landing on January 24, 2004 for a 3 month mission – now 30 times longer than the original warranty.
“Tisdale 2” is the name of the first rock that Opportunity drove to and investigated after reaching Endeavour crater and climbing up the rim at a low ridge dubbed ‘Cape York’.
Endeavour’s rim is heavily eroded and discontinuous and divided into a series of segmented and beautiful mountainous ridges that offer a bonanza for science.
“This is not like anything we’ve ever seen before. So this is a new kind of rock.” said Steve Squyres, principal investigator for Opportunity at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y at a briefing for reporters on Sept. 1.
“It has a composition similar to some volcanic rocks, but there’s much more zinc and bromine than we’ve typically seen. We are getting confirmation that reaching Endeavour really has given us the equivalent of a second landing site for Opportunity.”
Tisdale 2 is a flat-topped rock about the size of a footstool that was blasted free by the impact that formed the tennis court sized “Odyssey” crater from which it was ejected.
“The other big take-away message, and this is to me the most interesting thing about Tisdale, is that this rock has a huge amount of zinc in it, way more zinc than we have ever seen in any Martian rock. And we are puzzling, we are thinking very hard over what that means,” Squyres speculated.
Squyres said that high levels of zinc and bromine on Earth are often associated with rocks in contact with flowing water and thus experiencing hydrothermal activity and that the impact is the source of the water.
“When you find rocks on Earth that are rich in zinc, they typically form in a place where you had some kind of hydrothermal activity going on, in other words, you have water that gets heated up and it flows through the rocks and it can dissolve out and it can get redeposited in various places,” Squyres explained.
“So this is a clue, not definitive proof yet, but this is a clue that we may be dealing with a hydrothermal system here, we may be dealing with a situation where water has percolated or flowed or somehow moved through these rocks, maybe as vapor, maybe as liquid, don’t know yet.”
“But it has enhanced the zinc concentration in this rock to levels far in excess of anything we’ve ever seen on Mars before. So that’s the beginning of what we expect is going to be a long and very interesting story about these rocks.”
Endeavour crater was chosen three years ago as the long term destination for Opportunity because it may hold clues to a time billions and billions of years ago when Mars was warmer and wetter and harbored an environment that was far more conducive to the formation of life beyond Earth.
Signatures of clay minerals, or phyllosilicates, were detected at several spots at Endeavour’s western rim by observations from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).
“The motherlode of clay minerals is on Cape Tribulation. The exposure extends all the way to the top, mainly on the inboard side,” said Ray Arvidson, the rover’s deputy principal investigator at Washington University in St. Louis.
Phyllosilicates are clay minerals that form in the presence of pH neutral water and which are far more hospitable to the possible genesis of life compared to the sulfate rich rocks studied in the more highly acidic aqueous environments examined by both the Opportunity and Spirit rovers thus far.
“We can get up the side of Cape Tribulation,” said Arvidson. It’s not unlike Husband Hill for Spirit. We need to finish up first at Cape York, get through the martian winter and then start working our way south along Solander Point.
The general plan is that Opportunity will probably spend the next several months exploring the Cape York region for before going elsewhere. “Just from Tisdale 2 we know that we have something really new and different here,” said Squyres.
“On the final traverses to Cape York, we saw ragged outcrops at Botany Bay unlike anything Opportunity has seen so far, and a bench around the edge of Cape York looks like sedimentary rock that’s been cut and filled with veins of material possibly delivered by water,” said Arvidson. “We made an explicit decision to examine ancient rocks of Cape York first.”
So far at least the terrain at Cape York looks safe for driving with good prospects for mobility.
“The good news is that, as predicted, we have hard packed soils like the plains at Gusev that Spirit saw before getting to the Columbia Hills,” said Arvidson. “The wheel tracks at Cape York are very, very shallow. So if anything we will have some skid going downhill the slopes of 5 to 10 degrees on the inboard side which we can correct for.”
“We are always on the lookout for sand traps. We are particularly sensitized to that after the Spirit situation. So far it’s clear sailing ahead.”
Opportunity will then likely head southwards towards an area dubbed “Botany Bay” and eventually drive some 1.5 km further to the next ridge named Cape Tribulation and hopefully scale the slopes in an uphill search for that mother lode of phyllosilicates.
“My strong hope – if the rover lasts that long – is that we will have a vehicle that is capable of climbing Cape Tribulation just as we climbed Husband Hill with Spirit. So it’s obvious to try if the rover is capable, otherwise we would try something simpler. But even if we lose a wheel we still have a vehicle capable of a lot of science,” Squyres emphasized. “Then we would stick to lower ground and more gently sloping stuff.”
“The clear intention as we finish up at Cape York, and look at what to do next, is that we are going to work our way south. We will focus along the crater’s rim. We will work south along the rim of Endeavour unless some discovery unexpectedly causes us to do something else.”
“We will go where the science takes us !” Squyres stated.
Opportunity is in generally good health but the rover is showing signs of aging.
“All in all, we have a very senior rover that’s showing her age, she has some arthritis and some other issues but generally, she’s in good health, she’s sleeping well at night, her cholesterol levels are excellent and so we look forward to productive scientific exploration for the period ahead,” said John Callas, project manager for Opportunity at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
“This has the potential to be the most revealing destination ever explored by Opportunity,” said Lavery. “This region is substantially different than anything we’ve seen before. We’re looking at this next phase of Opportunity’s exploration as a whole new mission, entering an area that is significantly different in the geologic context than anything we’ve seen with the rovers.”