Now well into her 13th year roving the Red Planet, NASA’s astoundingly resilient Opportunity rover has arrived at the precipice of “Perseverance Valley” – overlooking the upper end of an ancient fluid-carved valley on Mars “possibly water-cut” that flows down into the unimaginably vast eeriness of alien Endeavour crater.
In a remarkable first time feat and treat for having ‘persevered’ so long on the inhospitably frigid Martian terrain, Opportunity has been tasked by her human handlers to drive down a Martian gully carved billions of years ago – by a fluid that might have been water – and conduct unparalleled scientific exploration, that will also extend into the interior of Endeavour Crater for the first time.
No Mars rover has done that before.
“This will be the first time we will acquire ground truth on a gully system that just might be formed by fluvial processes,” Ray Arvidson, Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University in St. Louis, told Universe Today.
“Opportunity has arrived at the head of Perseverance Valley, a possible water-cut valley here at a low spot along the rim of the 22-km diameter Endeavour impact crater,” says Larry Crumpler, a rover science team member from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science.
“The next month or so will be an exciting time, for no rover has ever driven down a potential ancient water-cut valley before,” Crumpler gushes.
“Perseverance Valley” is located along the eroded western rim of gigantic Endeavour crater – as illustrated by our exclusive photo mosaics herein created by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.
The mosaics show the “spillway” as the entry point to the ancient valley.
“Investigations in the coming weeks will “endeavor” to determine whether this valley was eroded by water or some other dry process like debris flows,” explains Crumpler.
“It certainly looks like a water cut valley. But looks aren’t good enough. We need additional evidence to test that idea.”
The valley slices downward from the crest line through the rim from west to east at a breathtaking slope of about 15 to 17 degrees – and measures about two football fields in length!
Huge Endeavour crater spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter on the Red Planet. Perseverance Valley slices eastwards at approximately the 8 o’clock position of the circular shaped crater. It sits just north of a rim segment called “Cape Byron.”
Why go and explore the gully at Perseverance Valley?
“Opportunity will traverse to the head of the gully system [at Perseverance] and head downhill into one or more of the gullies to characterize the morphology and search for evidence of deposits,” Arvidson elaborated.
“Hopefully test among dry mass movements, debris flow, and fluvial processes for gully formation. The importance is that this will be the first time we will acquire ground truth on a gully system that just might be formed by fluvial processes. Will search for cross bedding, gravel beds, fining or coarsening upward sequences, etc., to test among hypotheses.”
Exploring the ancient valley is the main science destination of the current two-year extended mission (EM #10) for the teenaged robot, that officially began Oct. 1, 2016. It’s just the latest in a series of extensions going back to the end of Opportunity’s prime mission in April 2004.
What are the immediate tasks ahead that Opportunity must accomplish before descending down the gully to thoroughly and efficiently investigate the research objectives?
In a nutshell, extensive imaging from a local high point promontory to create a long-baseline 3 D stereo image of the valley and a “walk-about” to assess the local geology.
The rover is collecting images from two widely separated points at a dip at the valley spillway to build an “extraordinarily detailed three-dimensional analysis of the terrain” called a digital elevation map.
“Opportunity has been working on a panorama from the overlook for the past couple of sols. The idea is to get a good overview of the valley from a high point before driving down it,” Crumpler explains.
“But before we drive down the valley, we want to get a good sense of the geologic features here on the head of the valley. It could come in handy as we drive down the valley and may help us understand some things, particularly the lithology of any materials we find on the valley floor or at the terminus down near the crater floor.”
“So we will be doing a short “walk-about” here on the outside of the crater rim near the “spillway” into the valley.”
“We will drive down it to further assess its origin and to further explore the structure and stratigraphy of this large impact crater.”
The six wheeled rover landed on Mars on January 24, 2004 PST on the alien Martian plains at Meridiani Planum – as the second half of a stupendous sister act.
Expected to last just 3 months or 90 days, Opportunity has now endured nearly 13 ½ years or an unfathomable 53 times beyond the “warrantied” design lifetime.
Her twin sister Spirit, had successfully touched down 3 weeks earlier on January 3, 2004 inside 100-mile-wide Gusev crater and survived more than six years.
Opportunity has been exploring Endeavour almost six years – since arriving at the humongous crater in 2011. Endeavour crater was formed when it was carved out of the Red Planet by a huge meteor impact billions of years ago.
“Endeavour crater dates from the earliest Martian geologic history, a time when water was abundant and erosion was relatively rapid and somewhat Earth-like,” explains Crumpler.
Exactly what the geologic process was that carved Perseverance Valley into the rim of Endeavour Crater billions of years ago has not yet been determined, but there are a wide range of options researchers are considering.
“Among the possibilities: It might have been flowing water, or might have been a debris flow in which a small amount of water lubricated a turbulent mix of mud and boulders, or might have been an even drier process, such as wind erosion,” say NASA scientists.
“The mission’s main objective with Opportunity at this site is to assess which possibility is best supported by the evidence still in place.”
Extensive imaging with the mast mounted pancam and navcam cameras is currently in progress.
“The long-baseline stereo imaging will be used to generate a digital elevation map that will help the team carefully evaluate possible driving routes down the valley before starting the descent,” said Opportunity Project Manager John Callas of JPL, in a statement.
“Reversing course back uphill when partway down could be difficult, so finding a path with minimum obstacles will be important for driving Opportunity through the whole valley. Researchers intend to use the rover to examine textures and compositions at the top, throughout the length and at the bottom, as part of investigating the valley’s history.”
The team is also dealing with a new wheel issue and evaluating fixes. The left-front wheel is stuck due to an actuator stall.
“The rover experienced a left-front wheel steering actuator stall on Sol 4750 (June 4, 2017) leaving the wheel ‘toed-out’ by 33 degrees,” the team reported in a new update.
Thus the extensive Pancam panorama is humorously being called the “Sprained Ankle Panorama.” Selected high-value targets of the surrounding area will be imaged with the full 13-filter Pancam suite.
After reaching the bottom of Perseverance Valley, Opportunity will explore the craters interior for the first time during the mission.
“Once down at the end of the valley, Opportunity will be directed to explore the crater fill on a drive south at the foot of the crater walls,” states Crumpler.
As of today, June 17, 2017, long lived Opportunity has survived over 4763 Sols (or Martian days) roving the harsh environment of the Red Planet.
Opportunity has taken over 220,800 images and traversed over 27.87 miles (44.86 kilometers) – more than a marathon.
See our updated route map below. It shows the context of the rovers over 13 year long traverse spanning more than the 26 mile distance of a Marathon runners race.
The rover surpassed the 27 mile mark milestone on November 6, 2016 (Sol 4546).
As of Sol 4759 (June 13, 2017) the power output from solar array energy production is currently 343 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 0.842 and a solar array dust factor of 0.529, before heading into another southern hemisphere Martian winter later in 2017. It will count as Opportunity’s 8th winter on Mars.
“The science team is really jazzed at starting to see this area up close and looking for clues to help us distinguish among multiple hypotheses about how the valley formed,” said Opportunity Project Scientist Matt Golombek of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
Meanwhile Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity traverses and drills into the lower sedimentary layers at the base of Mount Sharp.
And NASA continues building the next two robotic missions due to touch down in 2018 and 2020.
Learn more about the Opportunity rover and upcoming SpaceX launch of BulgariaSat 1, recent SpaceX Dragon CRS-11 resupply launch to ISS, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:
June 17-19: “Opportunity Mars rover, SpaceX BulgariaSat 1 launch, SpaceX CRS-11 and CRS-10 resupply launches to the ISS, Inmarsat 5 and NRO Spysat, EchoStar 23, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings
Exactly 12 Years ago this week, NASA’s now famous Spirit rover touched down on the Red Planet, starting a spectacular years long campaign of then unimaginable science adventures that ended up revolutionizing our understanding of Mars due to her totally unexpected longevity.
NASA’s Opportunity rover is still experiencing frequent memory resets as it roams the Martian terrain near Endeavour Crater, even though the agency performed a reset a few weeks ago.
Officials, however, say the rover is healthy otherwise and ready for its next science goals: reaching a small crater dubbed Ulysses, and watching a comet pass by Mars in mid-October.
Opportunity is approaching its eleventh anniversary of working on Mars this coming January. The hardy rover has driven 25.34 miles (40.78 kilometers) as of late September, almost a marathon’s worth of exploration. Its original mandate was to last just 90 Earth days on Mars.
In late August, however, science was getting derailed because the aging rover’s Flash memory experienced frequent resets. This kind of memory stores information even while the rover is turned off. NASA did a reformat from afar and said at the time that the procedure worked perfectly, but in the weeks since Opportunity has experienced several resets. The agency is investigating what to do next.
NASA’s Opportunity update archive reports memory resets on Sept. 17, 20, 22, 23, 24 and 26. The agency is calling these events “benign” and the rover is performing drives and science amid the issues.
Among its work, in late September the rover did a twilight test of its panoramic camera to get ready for observations of Comet Siding Spring, which is skimming the Red Planet on Oct. 19, 2014.
On the surface, the rover has been examining ejecta of the small crater Ulysses and doing close-up observations of a rock surface nicknamed “Hoover”. Opportunity’s long-term science goal is to reach a zone dubbed Marathon Valley, where there could be clay minerals that formed in water.
With a newly cleared memory, it’s time for Opportunity to resume the next stage of its long, long Martian drive. The next major goal for the long-lived rover is to go to Marathon Valley, a spot that (in images from orbit) appears to have clay minerals on site. Clay tends to form in the presence of water, so examining the region could provide more information about Mars’ wet, ancient past.
A NASA planetary senior review panel from early September, which was evaluating the science value of several extended missions, said there are “software and communication issues that afflict the rover” that could affect its ability to send data. (This was written before the memory reformat.)
The major goal of Opportunity’s latest extended mission, the review continued, is to find out what habitability conditions existed on Mars. This includes looking at the water, the geology and the environment.
“This will be achieved by measurements of rocks and soils, as well as atmospheric observations, as it traverses from Murray Ridge to Cape Tribulation,” the report read.
“This extended mission will focus on the orbitally detected phyllosilicate deposits near Endeavour crater, which are considered to represent deposits from the ancient Noachian period. This would represent the first time that such ancient deposits have been analyzed on the Martian surface.”
The report further cautioned that there is no proof yet that the phyllosilicates (which are sheet salt silicate materials made of silicon and oxygen) are from the Noachian era, which represents geology that is more than 3.5 billion years old (depending on which source you consult). It added, however, that Opportunity is expected to be able to complete the science.
Meanwhile, enjoy these pictures from the rim of Endeavour Crater that Opportunity sent in the past few days.
In fantastic news for the long-running Opportunity mission on Mars, NASA says the rover’s much-needed memory reset worked out perfectly. The rover was unable to perform science or beam pictures back to Earth because portions of its flash memory — which can store information even when the rover is turned off — were beginning to wear out.
The reboot means the rover is soon going to be on the move again as it continues exploring the rim of Endeavour Crater, tacking on nearly a marathon of miles that Opportunity has racked up on Mars since 2004.
“The rover’s Flash file system was successfully reformatted on Sol 3773 (Sept. 4, 2014),” NASA wrote in an update on the Mars Exploration Rover website late last week. “The Flash space available is slightly smaller (<1%) than before the reformat, consistent with the reformatting process flagging some bad cells to avoid.”
After performing related activities to the reformat on Sept. 6 and 7, controllers tried to take Opportunity out for a drive. They decided to stop shortly after beginning on Sept. 9 because the visual odometry Opportunity was using wasn’t enough for navigation. The controllers plan to try it again, using different landmarks next time. Current odometer on the rover: 25.28 miles (40.69 kilometers).
Sept. 9 marked the 3,778th Martian day or “sol” that Opportunity has been at work on Mars. The rover was originally designed to last three Earth months on the Martian surface, but is still performing drives and science in its 11th year. (The rover’s twin, Spirit, died in a sand trap after sending its last transmission March 22, 2010.)
NASA’s Opportunity rover, which has been roaming Mars for more than 10 Earth years, requires a flash memory reformat to keep doing science on the Red Planet, the agency wrote in an update Aug. 29 along with its intentions for making that possible quickly.
“Flash-memory induced resets have increased in occurrence, preventing meaningful science until this problem can be corrected,” NASA said on the Opportunity website. “The project is developing plans to reformat the flash file system to correct the problem.”
The agency has experience in doing this procedure as they successfully ran it on the twin Spirit rover five years ago, before the rover got stuck in sand and died. A separate update on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory website noted there have been more than a dozen incidents on Opportunity in the past month, and it takes a day or two to recover from each one.
Flash memory, the update added, is useful because data remains on the rover even if it is turned off. But after 10 years of using the cells on Opportunity’s flash memory, the agency suspects that these cells are starting to wear out. “Reformatting clears the memory while identifying bad cells and flagging them to be avoided,” the update read.
The procedure will take place early this month. Meanwhile, NASA is flushing the flash memory by sending the data back to Earth — as well as switching the rover to a mode where it doesn’t use flash memory. Just in case the rover resets itself during the procedure, NASA is also changing up Opportunity’s communications to send data more slowly (which makes the rover more resilient to problems, the agency said.)
“The flash reformatting is a low-risk process, as critical sequences and flight software are stored elsewhere in other non-volatile memory on the rover,” stated JPL’s John Callas, project manager for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Project.
Opportunity is currently circling the ring of Endeavour crater and is in otherwise excellent health, NASA said. The rover has driven 25.28 miles (40.69 kilometers) since arriving on Mars in January 2004 for what was supposed to be a 90-day mission.
NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover captures sweeping panoramic vista near the ridgeline of 22 km (14 mi) wide Endeavour Crater’s western rim. The center is southeastward and also clearly shows the distant rim. See the complete panorama below. This navcam panorama was stitched from images taken on May 10, 2014 (Sol 3659) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
More mosaics and 10 year route map below[/caption]
NASA’s incredibly long lived Opportunity rover has driven to the ridgeline of a Martian mountain and captured spectacular panoramic vistas peering down into the vast expanse of huge Endeavour crater and out along the jagged rim segments leading to her next target – which scientists believe holds minerals indicative of a habitable zone. See mosaic views above and below.
Since departing the world famous ‘Jelly Doughnut’ rock by the summit of ‘Solander Point’ in February, Opportunity has spent the past several months driving south and exploring intriguing rock outcrops on ‘Murray Ridge’ located along the eroded western rim of Endeavour Crater.
The renowned robot is now exploring a region of outcrops atop the rims ridge that’s a possible site harboring deposits of hydrated clay minerals, formed in the ancient past when Mars was warmer and wetter.
The ten year oldRed Planet rover first reached the rim of Endeavour Crater in August 2011. She has captured numerous sweeping gorgeous vistas during her first of its kind expedition on the surface of another planet by an alien probe from Earth.
Read my earlier story detailing the top 10 discoveries from twin sisters Spirit and Opportunity according to Deputy Principal Investigator Prof. Ray Arvidson – here.
The gigantic crater spans 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter.
So there is endless enthralling terrain to investigate – for at least another 10 years!
The floor of Endeavour crater is filled with dark sand, brighter dust, and, in the distance, dusty haze, says NASA.
Opportunity’s goal all the while has been to doggedly trek southwards towards exposures of aluminum-rich clays detected from orbit by NASA’s powerful Martian ‘Spysat’ – the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – while gathering context data at rock outcrops at Murray Ridge along the winding way.
These aluminum-rich clay minerals, or phyllosilicates, likely formed billions of years ago in flowing liquid neutral water which is more conducive to life, compared to more acidic environments explored earlier in the mission, and is therefore potentially indicative of a Martian habitable zone and a scientific goldmine.
The science and engineering team has used the high resolution MRO spectral and imaging data to more efficiently direct Opportunity southwards along the Endeavour crater rim and towards the biggest caches of the clay minerals – which were detected at a mountainous rim segment called ‘Cape Tribulation’ and which is seen in the panoramic vistas.
Although Cape Tribulation still lies some 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) further south, the rover has just arrived at a region which the team believes shows the first signatures of the clay minerals.
“The rover is exploring the region of aluminum-hydroxyl clay minerals seen from orbit,” said NASA in a mission update.
The six wheeled robot will utilize her mast mounted cameras and arm mounted microscopic imager (MI) and APXS spectrometer to gather images and measurements to unlock the mysteries of Mars ability to support life – past or present.
“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.”
And Opportunity is now power-rich following a series of fortuitous wind cleaning events that substantially cleared the dust off the power generating solar wing arrays.
The solar array energy production has reached 761 watt-hours compared to about 900 watt-hours at landing in 2004 and only about 270 watt-hours just before Christmastime in December 2013.
“Solar panels [are] cleanest since about sol 1600 [September 2008],” says mission science team member Larry Crumpler.
More power means more work time and more bonus science studies and data return.
So the robot survived magnificently through her 6th harsh Martian winter with plenty of science rich targets planned ahead during the southern hemisphere Martian spring and summer.
Today, May 24, marks Opportunity’s 3673nd Sol or Martian Day roving Mars – compared to a warranty of just 90 Sols.
So far she has snapped over 192,600 amazing images on the first overland expedition across the Red Planet.
Her total odometry stands at over 24.49 miles (39.41 kilometers) since touchdown on Jan. 24, 2004 at Meridiani Planum.
Meanwhile on the opposite side of Mars, Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity is trekking towards gigantic Mount Sharp and just drilled into her 3rd Red Planet rock at Kimberley.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more planetary and human spaceflight news.
NASA’s preliminary (read: not finalized) budget for 2015 would eliminate funding for the long-running Opportunity rover mission that’s discovered extensive evidence of past water on Mars in the past decade.
While the agency’s baseline budget request shows no funding for the long-running Mars mission past 2015, NASA added that Opportunity is among several missions that could receive extension money if extra funds become available. Also, the budget needs to be approved by Congress before anything is set in stone.
Here’s where Opportunity could get funding, under the current structure: The White House has proposed a $56 billion “Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative” across the U.S. government that would surpass the budgetary spending limit that Congress set in December. (Some news reports indicate the Republicans are not on board with this, but it’s early yet.)
Within NASA, that translates into an extra $885.5 million that would be used for certain priority areas in science, aeronautics, space technology, exploration, space operations, education and other items. If the funding goes through and if it is approved in full, Opportunity could receive money within $35 million allocated in planetary science extended mission funding for 2015.
NASA, meanwhile, is undertaking a regular review of several Mars programs (among others) to see which ones give the best return for funding. “The missions to be reviewed include MSL [Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity], MRO [Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter], Opportunity, Odyssey and Mars Express,” NASA stated. But as the table below shows, right now Opportunity has no funding in fiscal 2015, while the other missions do. (Note that funding would cease for Odyssey in 2017 under this plan.)
Here’s what NASA’s budget request says about the extended funding:
“Planetary Science Extended Mission Funding: Provide an additional $35.0 million to increase support for extended missions prioritized in the upcoming 2014 Senior Review. The Budget provides funding for high priority extended missions such as Cassini and Curiosity. However, it does not provide funding to continue all missions that are likely to be highly rated in Senior Review. The funding augmentation would allow robust funding for all extended missions that are highly ranked by the 2014 Senior Review, enabling high science return at relatively low cost, instead of potentially terminating up to two missions or reducing science across many or all of them.”
On Twitter, the Planetary Society’s Casey Dreier, its director of advocacy, wrote a few tweets about the budget last night, including one addressing Opportunity. “As expected, MER Opportunity has no funding as of Oct 1st, unless supplemental funding is added,” he said, adding that a bright spot is that the Curiosity mission has funding through fiscal 2019 (which is as far as the numbers go in the budget request.)
Opportunity landed on Mars in January 2004 and has rolled more than 24 miles (38 kilometers) in the years since, long outliving its twin Spirit (who ceased communications in 2010). Universe Today’s Ken Kremer recently covered the contributions these rovers made to science in the past 10 years.
On an unrelated note, NASA announced today (March 11) that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter went into safe mode “after an unscheduled swap from one main computer to another”, but the spacecraft is expected to be working normally in a few days. (MRO has been through several safe mode incidents over the years, including several times in 2009.)
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
See photo gallery below[/caption]
But a decade ago, NASA’s six wheeled Spirit rover was but a promise of great things to come. And her rich Martian scientific heritage we know today was but a dream yet to ensue
Jan. 3 marks the 10th anniversary since her touchdown on Mars on Jan. 3, 2004. Her twin sister Opportunity soft landed 3 weeks later on Jan. 24, 2004.
So here’s a collection of some of Spirit’s greatest hits on the Red Planet for all to enjoy and remember her fabulous exploits.
Read my detailed new overview marking ‘Spirits 10 Years on Mars’ – here – with even more spectacular Red Planet imagery!
Since the golf cart sized Spirit snapped over 128,000 raw images, drove 4.8 miles and ground into 15 rock targets we can’t show everything.
Here’s a retrospective of some of our favorites.
During her more than six year lifetime spanning until March 2010, Spirit discovered compelling evidence that ancient Mars exhibited hydrothermal activity, hot springs and volcanic explosions flowing with water.
“Spirit’s big scientific accomplishments are the silica deposits at Home Plate, the carbonates at Comanche, and all the evidence for hydrothermal systems and explosive volcanism, Rover Principal Investigator Steve Squyres of Cornell University, explained to me in an earlier interview.
“What we’ve learned is that early Mars at Spirit’s site was a hot, violent place, with hot springs, steam vents, and volcanic explosions. It was extraordinarily different from the Mars of today.”