Opportunity Reaches ‘Perseverance Valley’ Precipice – Ancient Fluid Carved Gully on Mars

Opportunity rover looks south from the top of Perseverance Valley along the rim of Endeavour Crater on Mars in this partial self portrait including the rover deck and solar panels. Perseverance Valley descends from the right and terminates down near the crater floor. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4736 (20 May 2017) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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.

Opportunity’s unprecedented goal ahead is to go ‘Where No Rover Has Gone Before!’

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.

NASA’s unbelievably long lived Martian robot reached a “spillway” at the top of “Perseverance Valley” in May after driving southwards for weeks from the prior science campaign at a crater rim segment called “Cape Tribulation.”

“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.

Read an Italian language version of this story here by Marco Di Lorenzo.

The mosaics show the “spillway” as the entry point to the ancient valley.

NASA’s Opportunity rover acquired this Martian panoramic view from a promontory that overlooks Perseverance Valley below – scanning from north to south. It is centered on due East and into the interior of Endeavour crater. Perseverance Valley descends from the right and terminates down near the crater floor in the center of the panorama. The far rim of Endeavour crater is seen in the distance, beyond the dark floor. Rover deck and wheel tracks at right. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4730 (14 May 2017) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

“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.”

Perspective view of Opportunity’s traverse along Endeavour crater rim over the last few weeks towards the Perseverance Valley “spillway” on Mars during Spring 2017. The entry point for the planned drive back into the crater is visible as the low notch just to the left (east) of the current (sol 4718) rover position. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/NMMNH /Larry Crumpler

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.”

NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover passed near this small, 90-foot-wide and relatively fresh crater in April 2017, during the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 16 mission to the moon. The rover team chose to call it “Orion Crater,” after the Apollo 16 lunar module, Orion, which carried astronauts John Young and Charles Duke to and from the surface of the moon in April 1972 while crewmate Ken Mattingly piloted the Apollo 16 command module, Casper, in orbit around the moon. The rover’s Navigation Camera (Navcam) recorded this view assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4712 (26 April 2017) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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).

NASA’s Opportunity rover acquired this Martian panoramic view from a promontory that overlooks Perseverance Valley below – scanning from north to south. It is centered on due East and into the interior of Endeavour crater. Perseverance Valley descends from the right and terminates down near the crater floor in the center of the panorama. The far rim of Endeavour crater is seen in the distance, beyond the dark floor. Rover deck and wheel tracks at right. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4730 (14 May 2017) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

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.

NASA’s Opportunity rover scans around and across to vast Endeavour crater on Dec. 19, 2016, as she climbs steep slopes on the way to reach a water carved gully along the eroded craters western rim. Note rover wheel tracks at center. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4587 (19 Dec. 2016) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

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.

NASA as well is focusing its human spaceflight effort on sending humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s with the Space Launch System (SLS) mega rocket and Orion deep space crew capsule.

13 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2017. This map shows the entire 44 kilometer (27 mi) path the rover has driven on the Red Planet during over 13 years and more than a marathon runners distance for over 4763 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 – to current location at the western rim of Endeavour Crater at the head of Perseverance Valley. After studying Spirit Mound and ascending back uphill the rover has reached her next destination in May 2017- the Martian water carved gully at Perseverance Valley near Orion crater. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 after reaching 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone – and searched for more at Marathon Valley. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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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

This graphic shows the route that NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity drove in its final approach to “Perseverance Valley” on the western rim of Endeavour Crater during spring 2017. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/NMMNH
13 Years on Mars! On Christmas Day 2016, NASA’s Opportunity rover scans around vast Endeavour crater as she ascends steep rocky slopes on the way to reach a water carved gully along the eroded craters western rim. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4593 (25 Dec. 2016) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Spirit Rover Touchdown 12 Years Ago Started Spectacular Martian Science Adventure

Twelve Years Ago, Spirit Rover Lands on Mars . This mosaic image taken on Jan. 4, 2004, by the navigation camera on the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, shows a 360 degree panoramic view of the rover on the surface of Mars.   Spirit operated for more than six years after landing in January 2004 for what was planned as a three-month mission. Credit: NASA/JPL
Twelve Years Ago, Spirit Rover Lands on Mars . This mosaic image taken on Jan. 4, 2004, by the navigation camera on the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, shows a 360 degree panoramic view of the rover on the surface of Mars. Spirit operated for more than six years after landing in January 2004 for what was planned as a three-month mission. Credit: NASA/JPL

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.

For although she was only “warrantied” to function a mere 90 Martian days, or sols, the six wheeled emissary from Earth survived more than six years – and was thus transformed into the world renowned robot still endearing to humanity today. Continue reading “Spirit Rover Touchdown 12 Years Ago Started Spectacular Martian Science Adventure”

Memory Problems Plague Martian Rover Opportunity As It Prepares To Watch A Comet Pass By

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.

Tracks from the Curiosity rover across Martian terrain on Sol 3,798 in October 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
Tracks from the Curiosity rover across Martian terrain on Sol 3,798 in September 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

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.

Repaired Opportunity Rover Readies For ‘Marathon Valley’ As It Transmits Martian Images

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.

The rover has driven further on Mars than any other human-made machine; as of Sept. 9, it had reached 25.28 miles (40.69 kilometers). But signs of age are showing as the rover moves through its 11th Earth year on Mars.

NASA recently halted science operations for a few days to reformat the rover’s Flash memory, which was causing several reboots. The remote repair worked perfectly and the rover is ready to resume work, NASA said in an update Sept. 12.

Ready to roll: the Opportunity rover's wheels and tracks are visible in this picture taken on Mars on Sol 3,783 in September 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
Ready to roll: the Opportunity rover’s wheels and tracks are visible in this picture taken on Mars on Sol 3,783 in September 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

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.

A still from the Opportunity rover's navigation camera taken on Sol 3,783 in September 2014. At bottom is part of the solar panel cells used to power the Martian rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
A still from the Opportunity rover’s navigation camera taken on Sol 3,783 in September 2014. At bottom is part of the solar panel cells used to power the Martian rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

“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.

Rocks scattered across the Martian vista in this picture captured by the Opportunity rover on Sol 3,783. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
Rocks scattered across the Martian vista in this picture captured by the Opportunity rover on Sol 3,783. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
Two of Opportunity's six wheels are visible in this shot from the rear hazcam on Sol 3,780, taken on Mars in September 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
Two of Opportunity’s six wheels are visible in this shot from the rear hazcam on Sol 3,780, taken on Mars in September 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
Tracks from Opportunity stretch across this vista taken by the rover on Sol 3,781 in September 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
Tracks from Opportunity stretch across this vista taken by the rover on Sol 3,781 in September 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

Martian Ctl-Alt-Del: NASA Resets Opportunity Rover’s Memory, Stopping The Science Hiatus

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.”

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 3692 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location along Pillinger Point ridge south of Solander Point summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater and heading to clay minerals at Cape Tribulation.  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 3692 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location along Pillinger Point ridge south of Solander Point summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater and heading to clay minerals at Cape Tribulation. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

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.)

Opportunity, however, is facing funding challenges on Earth as NASA and its political stakeholders weigh which of the agency’s long-term missions should continue.

Memory Problems On Mars Will Force Opportunity Rover Reformat From Earth

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 crest of Endeavour Crater is at the horizon of this picture taken by the Opportunity rover from Mars on Sol 3,749 (Aug. 10, 2014). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The crest of Endeavour Crater is at the horizon of this picture taken by the Opportunity rover from Mars on Sol 3,749 (Aug. 10, 2014). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

Opportunity Overlooks Ridge for Spectacular Vista of Vast Martian Crater and Habitable Zone Ahead

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 old Red 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.

This vista of the Endeavour Crater rim was acquired by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity's panoramic camera on April 18, 2014, from the southern end of "Murray Ridge" on the western rim of the crater. In mid-May, the rover approached the dark outcrops on the flank of the hill at right. The high peak in the distance on the right is informally named "Cape Tribulation" and is about 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) to the south of Opportunity's position when this view was recorded Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
This vista of the Endeavour Crater rim was acquired by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity’s panoramic camera on April 18, 2014, from the southern end of “Murray Ridge” on the western rim of the crater. In mid-May, the rover approached the dark outcrops on the flank of the hill at right. The high peak in the distance on the right is informally named “Cape Tribulation” and is about 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) to the south of Opportunity’s position when this view was recorded Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

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.

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 the distant rim is visible in the center. An outcrop area targeted for the rover to study is at right of ridge.  This navcam panoram was stitched from images taken on May 10, 2014 (Sol 3659) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
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 the distant rim is visible in the center. An outcrop area targeted for the rover to study is at right of ridge. 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

“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.”

Opportunity Mars rover peers over mountain ridge for gorgeous vista into floor and out to distant rim of 22 km (14 mi) wide Endeavour Crater.  This pancam camera view was assembled from images taken on May 16, 2014 (Sol 3665) with false color sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Opportunity Mars rover peers over mountain ridge for gorgeous vista into floor and out to distant rim of 22 km (14 mi) wide Endeavour Crater. This pancam camera view was assembled from images taken on May 16, 2014 (Sol 3665) with false color sky. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

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.

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

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.

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 3660 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location along Murray Ridge south of Solander Point summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater and heading to clay minerals at Cape Tribulation.  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 3660 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location along Murray Ridge south of Solander Point summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater and heading to clay minerals at Cape Tribulation. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Mars Rover Opportunity Funding Ceases In 2015 Under NASA Budget Request

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.)

NASA’s Opportunity rover was imaged here from Mars orbit by MRO HiRISE camera on Feb. 14, 2014.  This mosaic shows Opportunity’s view today while looking back to vast Endeavour crater from atop Murray Ridge by summit of Solander Point.  Opportunity captured this photomosaic view on Feb. 16, 2014 (Sol 3579) from the western rim of Endeavour Crater where she is investigating outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water.  Assembled from Sol 3579 colorized navcam raw images.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
NASA’s Opportunity rover was imaged here from Mars orbit by MRO HiRISE camera on Feb. 14, 2014. This mosaic shows Opportunity’s view today while looking back to vast Endeavour crater from atop Murray Ridge by summit of Solander Point. Opportunity captured this photomosaic view on Feb. 16, 2014 (Sol 3579) from the western rim of Endeavour Crater where she is investigating outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water. Assembled from Sol 3579 colorized navcam raw images. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

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.)

NASA's budget request for fiscal 2015 eliminates funding for the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity in 2015. Click for a larger version. Credit: National Aeronautics and Space Administration FY 2015 President's Budget Request Summary
NASA’s budget request for fiscal 2015 eliminates funding for the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity in 2015. Click for a larger version. Credit: National Aeronautics and Space Administration FY 2015 President’s Budget Request Summary

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 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

There’s far more context to this than can be provided in a single news story, so we encourage you to check out the 713-page NASA budget request as well as NASA’s full budget documentation.

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.

The last Opportunity update on March 4 described how controllers deliberately crushed a rock under the rover’s wheels as it explored Endeavor Crater, where Opportunity has been trundling along since 2011.

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.)

Spirit Retrospective: Top Shots on 10th Year Since Mars Touchdown

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]

Today it’s hard to imagine a Mars without Spirit.

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!

Empty Nest. Spirit rover images her Lander Platform after egress following touchdown in January 2004.  Lander had 3-petals and airbags. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
Empty Nest. Spirit rover images her Lander Platform after egress following touchdown in January 2004. Lander had 3-petals and airbags. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

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.

In this selfie, Spirit shows her solar panels gleaming in the Martian sunlight and carrying only a thin veneer of dust two years after the rover landed and began exploring the red planet. Spirit's panoramic camera took this mosaic of images on Sol 586 (Aug. 27, 2005), as part of a mammoth undertaking. The vertical projection used here produces the best view of the rover deck itself, though it distorts the ground and antennas somewhat. This image is an approximate true-color rendering that combines images taken through the camera's 600-nanometer, 530-nanometer and 480-nanometer filters. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
In this selfie, Spirit shows her solar panels gleaming in the Martian sunlight and carrying only a thin veneer of dust two years after the rover landed and began exploring the red planet. Spirit’s panoramic camera took this mosaic of images on Sol 586 (Aug. 27, 2005), as part of a mammoth undertaking. The vertical projection used here produces the best view of the rover deck itself, though it distorts the ground and antennas somewhat. This image is an approximate true-color rendering that combines images taken through the camera’s 600-nanometer, 530-nanometer and 480-nanometer filters. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

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.”

Meanwhile, NASA’s new Curiosity rover just celebrated 500 Sols on Mars and is speeding towards Mount Sharp from inside Gale Crater – which is about the same size as Gusev crater.

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

Ken Kremer

The "Columbia Hills" in Gusev Crater on Mars. "Husband Hill" is 3.1 kilometers distant. Spirit took this mosaic of images with the panoramic camera at the beginning of February, 2004, less than a month after landing on Mars.  Spirit soon drove to the Columbia Hills and climbed to the summit of Husband Hill.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
The “Columbia Hills” in Gusev Crater on Mars. “Husband Hill” is 3.1 kilometers distant. Spirit took this mosaic of images with the panoramic camera at the beginning of February, 2004, less than a month after landing on Mars. Spirit soon drove to the Columbia Hills and climbed to the summit of Husband Hill. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
Summit Panorama with Rover Deck  The panoramic camera on Spirit took the hundreds of images combined into this 360-degree view, the "Husband Hill Summit" panorama. The images were acquired on Spirit's sols 583 to 586 (Aug. 24 to 27, 2005), shortly after the rover reached the crest of "Husband Hill" inside Mars' Gusev Crater. The panoramic camera shot 653 separate images in 6 different filters, encompassing the rover's deck and the full 360 degrees of surface rocks and soils visible to the camera from this position. This was the first time the camera has been used to image the entire rover deck and visible surface from the same position. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
Summit Panorama with Rover Deck The panoramic camera on Spirit took the hundreds of images combined into this 360-degree view, the “Husband Hill Summit” panorama. The images were acquired on Spirit’s sols 583 to 586 (Aug. 24 to 27, 2005), shortly after the rover reached the crest of “Husband Hill” inside Mars’ Gusev Crater. The panoramic camera shot 653 separate images in 6 different filters, encompassing the rover’s deck and the full 360 degrees of surface rocks and soils visible to the camera from this position. This was the first time the camera has been used to image the entire rover deck and visible surface from the same position. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
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
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
Everest Panorama from Husband Hill summit. It took Spirit three days, sols 620 to 622 (Oct. 1 to Oct. 3, 2005), to acquire all the images combined into this mosaic, called the "Everest Panorama". Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University
Everest Panorama from Husband Hill summit. It took Spirit three days, sols 620 to 622 (Oct. 1 to Oct. 3, 2005), to acquire all the images combined into this mosaic, called the “Everest Panorama”. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University
Spirit Mars rover - view from Husband Hill summit. 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. 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
'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
Spirit examined spectacular layered rocks exposed at "Home Plate." The rover has drove around the northern and eastern edges of Home Plate. Before departing, Spirit took this image showing some of the most complex layering patterns seen so far at this location. Scientists suspect that the rocks at Home Plate were formed in the aftermath of a volcanic explosion or impact event, and they are investigating the possibility that wind may also have played a role in redistributing materials after such an event. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
Spirit examined spectacular layered rocks exposed at “Home Plate.” The rover has drove around the northern and eastern edges of Home Plate. Before departing, Spirit took this image showing some of the most complex layering patterns seen so far at this location. Scientists suspect that the rocks at Home Plate were formed in the aftermath of a volcanic explosion or impact event, and they are investigating the possibility that wind may also have played a role in redistributing materials after such an event. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
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
Spirit Rover traverse map from Husband Hill to resting place at Home Plate: 2004 to 2011
Spirit Rover traverse map from Husband Hill to resting place at Home Plate: 2004 to 2011

Opportunity Discovers Clays Favorable to Martian Biology and Sets Sail for Motherlode of New Clues

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 pale rock in the upper center of this image, about the size of a human forearm, includes a target called "Esperance," which was inspected by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. Data from the rover's alpha particle X-ray spectrometer (APXS) indicate that Esperance's composition is higher in aluminum and silica, and lower in calcium and iron, than other rocks Opportunity has examined in more than nine years on Mars. Preliminary interpretation points to clay mineral content due to intensive alteration by water. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ
The pale rock in the upper center of this image, about the size of a human forearm, includes a target called “Esperance,” which was inspected by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. Data from the rover’s alpha particle X-ray spectrometer (APXS) indicate that Esperance’s composition is higher in aluminum and silica, and lower in calcium and iron, than other rocks Opportunity has examined in more than nine years on Mars. Preliminary interpretation points to clay mineral content due to intensive alteration by water. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ

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.

Close-Up of 'Esperance' After Abrasion by Opportunity This mosaic of four frames shot by the microscopic imager on the robotic arm of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows a rock target called "Esperance" after some of the rock's surface had been removed by Opportunity's rock abrasion tool, or RAT. The component images were taken on Sol 3305 on Mars (May 11, 2013). The area shown is about 2.4 inches (6 centimeters) across. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/USGS
Close-Up of ‘Esperance’ After Abrasion by Opportunity
This mosaic of four frames shot by the microscopic imager on the robotic arm of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows a rock target called “Esperance” after some of the rock’s surface had been removed by Opportunity’s rock abrasion tool, or RAT. The component images were taken on Sol 3305 on Mars (May 11, 2013). The area shown is about 2.4 inches (6 centimeters) across. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/USGS

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.

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

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.

Opportunity captures the eerie Martian scenery looking south across Botany Bay from the southern tip of Cape York to her next destination - Solander Point,  about 1 mile (1.6 km) away. This navcam photo mosaic was taken on Sol 3317, May  23, 2013.    Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell//Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Opportunity captures the eerie Martian scenery looking south across Botany Bay from the southern tip of Cape York to her next destination – Solander Point, about 1 mile (1.6 km) away. This navcam photo mosaic was taken on Sol 3317, May 23, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell//Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

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

Ken Kremer

…………….
Learn more about Mars, Curiosity, Opportunity, MAVEN, LADEE and NASA missions at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations:

June 4: “Send your Name to Mars” and “CIBER Astro Sat, LADEE Lunar & Antares Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, 8:30 PM

June 11: “Send your Name to Mars” and “LADEE Lunar & Antares Rocket Launches from Virginia”; NJ State Museum Planetarium and Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton (AAAP), Trenton, NJ, 8 PM.

June 12: “Send your Name to Mars” and “LADEE Lunar & Antares Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Franklin Institute and Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, Philadelphia, PA, 8 PM.

Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2013 to Record Setting Drive on May 15. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during more than 9 years and over 3318 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.  On May 15, 2013 Opportunity drove 263 feet (80 meters) southward - achieving a total traverse distance on Mars of 22.22 miles (35.76 kilometers) - and broke the driving record by any NASA vehicle that was previously held by the astronaut-driven Apollo 17 Lunar Rover in 1972. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2013 to Record Setting Drive on May 15. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during more than 9 years and over 3318 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. On May 15, 2013 Opportunity drove 263 feet (80 meters) southward – achieving a total traverse distance on Mars of 22.22 miles (35.76 kilometers) – and broke the driving record by any NASA vehicle that was previously held by the astronaut-driven Apollo 17 Lunar Rover in 1972. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Opportunity Heads Toward Next Destination, 'Solander Point' This map of a portion of the western rim of Endeavour Crater on Mars shows the area where NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity worked for 20 months, "Cape York," in relation to the area where the rover team plans for Opportunity to spend its sixth Martian winter, "Solander Point." Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
Opportunity Heads Toward Next Destination, ‘Solander Point’
-This map of a portion of the western rim of Endeavour Crater on Mars shows the area where NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity worked for 20 months, “Cape York,” in relation to the area where the rover team plans for Opportunity to spend its sixth Martian winter, “Solander Point.” Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona