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

Finding Life in All the Unlikely, Unexpected Places

Just one of several weather stations set up at Chott El Jerid, a Tunisian saltpan, measuring temperature, humidity, ultraviolet radiation, wind direction and velocity. Image credit: Felipe Goméz/Europlanet

From orbit and on the ground, Mars looks inhospitable. But it doesn’t look much different than the freezing Antarctic plains, sun-baked saltpans in Tunisia or Spain’s corrosively acidic Rio Tinto, according to a few explorers from the Centro de Astrobiología (CAB) in Madrid, who today presented some of their findings of life during a press conference at the European Planetary Science Congress.

The biggest difference, however, is that life still thrives in these extreme locales on Earth.

“The big questions are: what is life, how can we define it and what the requirements for supporting life?” asks project leader Dr. Felipe Goméz. “To understand the results we receive back from missions like Curiosity, we need to have detailed knowledge of similar environments on Earth. Metabolic diversity on Earth is huge. We have found a range of complex chemical processes that allow life to survive in unexpected places.”

Over the past four years, Goméz and his colleagues have checked Earth’s most inhospitable locales; the Chott el Jerid saltpan in Tunisia, the Atacama Desert in Chile, Rio Tinto in southern Spain and Deception Island in Antarctica.

While visiting Chott el Jerid, the team tracked huge changes in environmental conditions throughout the day but it was a small rise in surface temperature after dusk that caught their eye. “We found that this is caused by water condensing on the surface and hydrating salts which releases heat in an exothermic reaction,” he said in the press release. This is very interesting from the perspective of the REMS instrument on Curiosity — it gives us away to follow when liquid water might be present on the surface.”

The team also built a three-dimensional picture of the subsurface in the saltpan by measuring the electrical properties of the soil. While drilling several meters into the subsurface at Chott el Jerid and in the Atacama Desert, researchers found bacteria at depth that was completely isolated from the surface. The researchers found not only bacteria, but also single-celled halophilic organisms that are able to oxidize metabolites under both aerobic and anaerobic conditions.

Along the surface of Chott El Jerid, which is made up of very pure sodium chloride with a trace of other salts, the team found small pieces of organic matter within the salt crystals. Once analyzed, they found populations of halophilic, salt-loving, dormant bacteria. In the laboratory, they were able to rehydrate the samples and bring the bacteria back to life, Goméz said.

Another unexpected find occurred while studying outcrops of the mineral jarosite at Rio Tinto in Spain. Jarosite, found on the surface of Mars by the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, forms only in the presence of water that contains high concentrations of metals, such as iron. The outcrops at Rio Tinto also are extremely corrosive. Yet, sandwiched between layers in the salt crusts, the team found photosynthetic bacteria. Unexpectedly, iron in the salt crust seems to protect bacteria from ultraviolet radiation, Goméz said. Samples of bacteria with iron present were exposed with high levels of ultraviolet radiation. They survived while bacteria samples without iron were destroyed.

“What the bacteria we found in Rio Tinto show is that the presence of ferric compounds can actually protect life. This could mean that life formed earlier on Earth than we thought. These effects are also relevant for the formation of life on the surface of Mars,” says Goméz. The team also found that salt provides stable conditions that can allow life to survive in very hard environments.

“Within salts, the temperature and humidity are protected from fluctuations and the doses of ultraviolet radiation are very low,” explained Goméz. “In the laboratory, we placed populations of different bacteria between layers of salt a few millimetres thick and exposed them to Martian conditions. Nearly 100% of deinoccocus radiodurans, a hardy type of bacteria survived being irradiated. But fascinatingly, about 40% of acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans – a very fragile variety of bacteria – also survived when protected by a salt crust.”

The findings have implications not only for studying possible life on Mars, but also for the development of life on early Earth.

Source: European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) 2012 Press Release

Image Details: Photosynthetic bacteria at Rio Tinto. Credit: Felipe Goméz

About the author: John Williams is owner of TerraZoom, a Colorado-based web development shop specializing in web mapping and online image zooms. He also writes the award-winning blog, StarryCritters, an interactive site devoted to looking at images from NASA’s Great Observatories and other sources in a different way. A former contributing editor for Final Frontier, his work has appeared in the Planetary Society Blog, Air & Space Smithsonian, Astronomy, Earth, MX Developer’s Journal, The Kansas City Star and many other newspapers and magazines. Follow John on Twitter @terrazoom

3 Generations of NASA’s Mars Rovers

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NASA Mars rovers have come a long way in terms of size and capability since the rebirth of Red Planet surface exploration just 15 years ago – spanning from 1997 to 2012.

To get a really excellent sense of just how far America’s scientists and engineers have pushed the state of the art in such a short time – when the willpower and funding existed and coincided to explore another world – take a good look at the new pictures here showing 3 generations of NASA’s Mars rovers; namely Mars Pathfinder (MPF), the 1st generation Mars rover, Mars Exploration Rover (MER), the 2nd generation, and Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), the 3rd and newest generation Mars rover.

The newly released pictures graphically display a side by side comparison of the flight spare for Mars Pathfinder (1997 landing) and full scale test rovers of the Mars Exploration Rover (2004 landing) and Mars Science Laboratory (in transit for a 2012 planned landing). The setting is inside the “Mars Yard” at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. where the teams conduct mission simulations.

It’s been nothing less than a quantum leap in advancement of the scientific and technological capability from one generation to the next.

Sojourner - NASA’s 1st Mars Rover
Sojourner takes an Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) measurement of Yogi rock after Red Planet landing on July 4, 1997 landing. Sojourner was only 2 feet long, the size of a microwave oven.
Credit: NASA

Just consider the big increase in size – growing from a microwave oven to a car !

The “Marie Curie” flight spare and the actual “Sojourner” rover on Mars are 2 feet (65 centimeters) long – about the size of a microwave oven. The MER rovers “Spirit and Opportunity” and the “Surface System Test Bed” rover are 5.2 feet (1.6 meters) long – about the size of a golf cart. The MSL “Curiosity” and the “Vehicle System Test Bed” rover are 10 feet (3 meters) long – about the size of a car.

Side view of Three Generations of Mars Rovers
Front; flight spare for the first Mars rover, Sojourner. Left; Mars Exploration Rover Project test rover. Right; Mars Science Laboratory test rover Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

With your own eyes you can see the rapid and huge generational change in Mars rovers if you have the opportunity to visit the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and stroll by the Mars exhibit with full scale models of all three of NASA’s Red Planet rovers.

At the KSC Visitor Complex in Florida you can get within touching distance of the Martian Family of Rovers and the generational differences in size and complexity becomes personally obvious and impressive.

NASA’s Family of Mars rovers at the Kennedy Space Center
Full scale models on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Curiosity and Spirit/Opportunity are pictured here. Sojourner out of view. Credit: Ken Kremer

All of the Mars rovers blasted off from launch pads on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity launched atop Delta II rockets at Space Launch Complex 17 in 1996 and 2003. Curiosity launched atop an Atlas V at Space Launch Complex 41 in 2011.

Three Generations of Mars Rovers with Standing Mars Engineers
The rovers are pictured here with real Mars Engineers to get a sense of size and perspective. Front rover is the flight spare for the first Mars rover, Sojourner. At left is a Mars Exploration Rover Project test rover, working sibling to Spirit and Opportunity. At right is a Mars Science Laboratory test rover the size of Curiosity which is targeting a August 2012 Mars landing. The Mars engineers are JPL's Matt Robinson, left, and Wesley Kuykendall. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Opportunity is still exploring Mars to this day – 8 years after landing on the Red Planet, with a warranty of merely 90 Martian days.

Curiosity is scheduled to touch down inside Gale crater on 6 August 2012.

So, what comes next ? Will there be a 4th Generation Mars rover ?

Stay tuned – only time and budgets will tell.

Mars Rover Finds a Turkey Haven for the Holiday

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What does a Mars Rover do for the Thanksgiving holiday? While one rover will be sitting on the launchpad, preparing to head to the Red Planet (MSL/ Curiosity) the Opportunity rover has now trekked to an enticing outcrop near the summit of Cape York on the rim of Endeavour Crater. This summit or ridge has been named “Turkey Haven” by the MER science team, as this is where Oppy will conduct scientific studies over the four-day-long US holiday. The image above was taken a few days ago, showing the Turkey Haven ridge. Our pal Stu Atkinson has provided a beautiful color rendering, and you can see all the rocks that the rover will be looking at more closely with its suite of instruments and cameras. You can see more images of this area, including 3-D versions on Stu’s site, Road to Endeavour.

Oppy is now sitting among these rocks studying the outcrop region seen on the left.

And there’s other enticing regions ahead to study as well.

An usual dagger-shaped feature along the rim of Endeavour Crater, as seen by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL

A dagger-shaped gorge or geological fault, as seen from above by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter may well be a future destination, but likely after Oppy finds another haven – a winter haven – a good place and location for soaking up as much sunshine as possible for the upcoming long winter on Mars.

The rock outrcopping called 'Homestake," with part of the Opportunity rover visible. Credit: NASA/JPL. Colorization courtesy Stu Atkinson.

But behind Oppy was a most intriguing light-colored rock outcropping – this one was named “Homestake.” The rover spent several days studying the rock – even doing what could be termed a cruel drive-by (or driver-over). You can see in this image below, how Oppy really created havoc and a mess with her studies of this region:

A before-and-after montage of the Homestake outcropping, before and after the Opportunity rover drover over the rocks. Credit: NASA/JPL. Color and montage by Stu Atkinson

…leading Stu Atkinson to create this:

A crime scene on Mars? Credit: NASA/JPL, liberties taken by Stu Atkinson.

But seriously, many Mars rover fans are anxiously waiting to hear from the science team about what they found during Oppy’s close-up studies of this unusual rock outcropping.

Opportunity’s odometer reading is now over 21.33 miles (34,328.09 meters, or 34.33 kilometers).

Opportunity spotted Exploring vast Endeavour Crater from Mars Orbit

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Opportunity has just been imaged in high resolution at Endeavour crater by a powerful NASA camera orbiting overhead in Mars orbit. The new image (see above) was snapped while NASA’s long lived robot was climbing a hilltop offering spectacular panoramic vistas peering into the vast crater which is some 14 miles (22 km) wide.

The HiRiSE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter photographed Opportunity and her wheel tracks on September 10, 2011, or Martian Sol 2712 for a mission warrentied to last only 90 Sols ! The rover is sitting to the right of another small crater known as Odyssey. Click to enlarge the image.

Look very closely and you’ll even be able to easily discern the rovers pair of tire tracks showing the path traversed by the robot as she explores the crater and the ejecta rocks and boulders excavated and strewn about by an ancient impact.

Opportunity imaged at Endeavour crater rim with wheel tracks exploring Odyssey crater, rocks and boulders climbing up Cape York ridge. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Opportunity is ascending up the rim of Endeavour crater at the southern tip of a low ridge dubbed Cape York – a location that has already yielded a bonanza of new science data since her recent arrival in August 2011 after a more than 20 mile (33 km) epic trek.

The intrepid rover discovered a rock unlike any other since she safely landed at the Meridiani Planum region of Mars nearly eight years ago on Jan. 24, 2004.

Opportunity is now searching Endeavour crater and Cape York for signatures of phyllosilicates – clay minerals that formed in the presence of pH neutral water flowing on Mars surface billions of years ago.

Cape York ridge at Endeavour Crater - From Orbit
This image taken from Mars orbit shows the path driven by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity in the weeks around the rover's arrival at the rim of Endeavour crater and up to Sol 2688. Opportunity has since driven a short distance to the right. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Endeavour Crater Panorama from Opportunity, Sol 2681, August 2011
Opportunity arrived at the rim of Endeavour on Sol 2681, August 9, 2011 and climbed up the ridge known as Cape York. Odyssey crater is visible at left. Opportunity has since driven a short distance beyond Odyssey crater and was photographed from Mars orbit on Sept. 10, 2011.
Mosaic Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer

Read Ken’s continuing features about Curiosity and Opportunity starting here:
Opportunity spotted Exploring vast Endeavour Crater from Mars Orbit
Twin Towers 9/11 Tribute by Opportunity Mars Rover
NASA Robot arrives at ‘New’ Landing Site holding Clues to Ancient Water Flow on Mars
Opportunity Arrives at Huge Martian Crater with Superb Science and Scenic Outlook
Opportunity Snaps Gorgeous Vistas nearing the Foothills of Giant Endeavour Crater
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action
Opportunity Rover Heads for Spirit Point to Honor Dead Martian Sister; Science Team Tributes

Opportunity’s Long and Winding Road to Endeavour Crater

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Back in September of 2008, Mars Exploration Rover Principal Investigator Steve Squyres announced the Opportunity rover would head out to a large, faraway crater named Endeavour, and Squyres said he hoped to one day see the view from the rim. Well, Oppy has now provided an improved view OF the rim: off in the distance in the image above are the “Endeavour Hills,” the mounds which surround the perimeter of the crater, about 13 km (8 miles) away, along with the rim of an even more distant crater, Iazu, on the right.

As the crow flies, Endeavour is about 12 km away from Oppy’s starting point in 2008, Victoria Crater. But while the intrepid rover has already traveled 7 km towards Endeavour, it still has 12 km to go, as the route chosen to avoid potentially hazardous dune fields is more like 19km, as presently charted, said Guy Webster at JPL. You can see an example of Opportunity’s circuitous driving below.

Opportunity's tracks show how the rover avoided driving through potentially dangerous sand dunes. Credit: NASA/JPL/U of AZ

The original target timing for Opportunity reaching Endeavour was about two years, but since the science team has had the rover spend several weeks stopping at interesting targets of study along the way, the rover will definitely not make it to Endeavour by September 2010. It might take another year, or even two.

Additionally, it is now winter on Mars, and according to A.S.J. Rayl’s Rover Update from the Planetary Society, Opportunity is now roving for only about 30 minutes at a time, which enables it to cover only 30-to-50 meters on a drive sol. And, the rover is also taking Martian days off to re-charge its batteries. Record cold temps this winter (down to -37 C) on Mars is slowing the aging rover.

But back in March Oppy reached 20 kilometers (12.43 miles) of total driving in its 74 months on Mars. Pretty amazing for a piece of hardware that was supposed to last six months and drive about 600 meters. Later this month, Oppy will surpass the Viking Lander 1’s record of 6 years and 116 days to become the longest-lived robot on Mars. The Spirit rover has already surpassed that record, but it is unknown if the rover is only hibernating and we’ll hear from it when it warms up again, or if Spirit is no longer with us (sniff!).

Endeavour Crater is 21 kilometers (13 miles) in diameter, which is about 25 times wider than Victoria crater. The view in the top image is an area about 140 kilometers (about 90 miles) wide.

Orbital view of Opportunity's location from THEMIS. mage Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University

This view shows a top-down look at the area from orbit, and is a mosaic of daytime infrared images taken by the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) camera on NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter.

Additionally, a new gif “movie” was released this week showing how Oppy emerged from Victoria crater about a year and a half ago. Click here to see it.

Sources: JPL, Mars Rover homepage, Planetary Society

Can an Immobile Spirit Rover Survive the Martian Winter?

Mission managers for the Mars Exploration Rover program announced this week that the Spirit rover will likely never rove again on Mars. But that doesn’t mean her life is over. However, with the rover virtually immobile and stuck in a sand trap, she currently is in a very vulnerable and potentially “deadly” situation as winter approaches on Mars’ southern hemisphere. Pointing the rover’s solar panels towards the sun is critical if the rover is to survive, and the rover team has just a handful of drives to make it so. And the winters are long and harsh on Mars. “The temperatures will be colder than anything Spirit has experienced before,” said John Callas, project manager for the MER mission. “This is a much more difficult and dangerous situation for Spirit, and we’re heading into a regime where vehicle is going to get colder than it ever has.”

What is Spirit facing, and what are her odds?

“Spirit will be experiencing decreasing power levels, and we will likely see energy levels that will drop below 160 watt hours,” said Callas, which is the level of power the rover needs to maintain so it can communicate daily with Earth. “If we can’t maintain that level, that will trip a low power fault where the rover shuts down or hibernates, taking the necessary steps to preserve as much power as possible. Everything is turned off except the master clock, and all the photons that hit solar arrays go into charging the batteries.”

In this low-power fault, a timer wakes the rover up occasionally to check battery levels, and if there is enough power, Spirit will wake up enough to see how charged the batteries are and attempt to communicate with Earth. “Spirit will be like a polar bear hibernating, possibly for several months, maybe on the order of 6 months that the rover will be in this state,” said Callas. “It won’t be like the Phoenix lander where it shuts down virtually completely. The rover will still be electrically active, but not with enough power to be awake each day.”

Callas predicted it will be in the March-April time frame here on Earth when they run out of ability to communicate with rover because there won’t be enough power.

Normally the rover stays warm enough simply by being “on” and running, like running your car in the winter to warm it up. But since rover will be deeply sleeping, temperatures on the rover will drop.

Callas and his team are concerned that temperatures on the rover will get very cold. Based on past winters, they expect about -40 to -50 C temperatures on Mars during the depths of winter. The electronics on the rover can withstand -40 degrees C when operating and -50 c when the rover is idle. But these standards are for a brand-new out-of-the-box rover, Callas said, not a 6 year-old rover with electronics have gone through many different temperature cycles.

Ironically, the fumaroles or steam vents that likely created the very scientifically rich “Troy” area where Spirit sits would have made it a “hot spot” on Mars. But, of course, the fumaroles are no longer active.

The rovers do have three 1-watt Radioisotope Heater Units (RHUs) which are tiny thermal heating units used to keep motors and batteries warm on the rover, so Spirit’s important insides will not get as cold as the outside.

But power from the solar panels is very important for keeping the computer and other electronics active, and right now, the position of the solar panels is not at all optimal.

“Our primary mission is to get solar panels pointed toward sun improve her chances,” said rover driver Ashley Stroupe. “Ideally the solar panels should be pointed toward the sun, to maximize the energy the rover receives. If we can get enough power to keep the rover warm, that will shorten the amount of time Spirit may have to be in a low power state.”

In upcoming drives, the team will try to get left rear wheel of the rover lifted up, by driving backward and improving its northerly tilt. Spirit is sitting in a small crater with the rim behind her, so as it moves backwards, it is slowly climbing up on the rim, tilting the rover. “On the last drive we saw 1-2 degree improvement in tilt,” Stroupe said on Tuesday. “So we’re going to do as much improvement as we can by continuing to drive backward. We can an also attempt to rotate the rover in place, so that the roll isn’t pointed as much towards the south as it is now.”

The Spirit rover's solar panels were covered with dust until a gust of wind blew it off. Credit: NASA.

Each degree of tilt towards the north gains 5 watt hours of improvement. One upside is that the solar panels are currently fairly free of dust accumulation.

When the rover attempts to wake up each day, it will be at about noon local time on Mars, when the electronics will have warmed up because of sunlight.

But there’s the possibility the team might not hear from the rover for months.

“We have to be prepared to go through a period like this,” said Callas. “We may not hear from rover, and it will be frustrating and challenging for the team, but we’ll have to be disciplined about this, and hopefully when power resumes we can resume communication in the spring.”

A look at the nearly buried wheels on the Spirit rover on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL

And, worst case scenario, where is a very long period of time where they don’t hear from the rover, how long will the team attempt to communicate with Spirit?

“That’s a very complex problem,” Callas told Universe Today at the Tuesday’s press conference. “The rover will actually experience two levels of fault protection. The rover takes action based on hearing from Earth, and if we go too long without talking to the rover, it trips an up loss timer. We only keep about 6 weeks of communication tables on the rover, so that likely will have run out. All these things make for a complex recovery effort for the rover. It is hard to say how long we would try, because we would have to try many things before we exhaust the list of things we can do.”

Callas didn’t want to give odds if Spirit will make it through the winter. “Spirit’s best chance for survival is when we can stay in contact with her,” he said. “As long as we can maintain communication with rover we can look out for trouble, and advise her on how to best reapportion her limited resources.”

MER PI Steve Squyres said not having a roving rover is a “poignant moment” for the team. “We built the rovers to drive around, so we have shifted our focus to a different class of activities. It is a change and one we’ll have to adapt to. But this is a much better way that having an abrupt end to the mission, which would preclude doing the kind of science we’re looking forward to.” (Read more about the science Spirit can do in our earlier article)

“We have hope that Spirit will survive this cold dark winter that Spirit has ahead of her,” Squyres said.

No More Roving for Spirit; Stationary Science Ahead

Mars Exploration Rover Mission

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The Spirit rover’s driving days are likely over, as efforts to extricate the rover have been curtailed. “We do not believe that Spirit is extractable,” said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. But mission managers stressed that today is not a day of loss at this point, as they hope to continue to make some exciting scientific observations. However, the rover needs to be tilted to gather as much sunlight as possible in order to survive the Martian winter. John Callas, project manager for the MER mission told Universe Today at today’s press briefing that time is short. “We estimate about three weeks of driving activity, and we can’t drive every day,” he said. “So there are just a handful of drives left before there is insufficient power to continue.”

Callas added that around the March-April time frame will be the last images and data the rover can transmit before going into hibernation for the winter.

Spirit has been embedded in a sandtrap for 10 months, and the rover team has been engaged in an ambitious process to extricate the rover. They’ve encountered numerous setbacks, including the loss of use of an additional wheel, making it a four-wheeled rover. (Spirit’s right front wheel has not worked for a couple of years, now the right rear wheel has lost functionality).

A look at the nearly buried wheels on the Spirit rover on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL

“Spirit is in a golfer’s worst nightmare, stuck in a sand trap that no matter how many strokes you take you can’t get out of,” said McCuistion.

Pointing the rover’s solar panels towards the sun is critical if the rover is to survive. In past winters, the movable rover has been able to be positioned to allow for maximum sun-gathering but the current embedding of the rover has left it with an unfavorable tilt, 9 degrees to south, when they really want a level rover — or even better — tilted to north.

Rover driver Ashley Stroupe said the rover is now pitched flat and rolled to left. “We want to try to pitch it forward and roll right for best winter survival.”

The last few drives were aimed at trying to improve the rover’s position, and were mildly successful.

“We’ve aimed toward improving northerly tilt,” said Stroupe. “Spirit is sitting in a small crater with the rim behind her, so as it moves backwards, it is slowly climbing up, providing more tilt. On the last drive saw 1-2 degree improvement in tilt.”

In recent drives, the rover has moved approximately 20 centimeters. The team can also attempt to rotate the rover in place, so that the roll isn’t pointed as much towards the south as it currently is.

Mosaic of the area called Home Plate where Spirit remains stuck was made especially for Spaceflight Now, and is used by permission. It shows smooth area, foreground, that concealed slippery water related sulfate material where rover became stuck. Credit: Kenneth Kremer, Marco DiLorenzo, NASA/JPL/Cornell/Spaceflight Now

Should they be successful, and if the rover survives the winter, the science team has some exciting prospects of continuing science with Spirit.

“We have hope that Spirit will survive this cold dark winter that she has ahead of her,” said MER principal investigator Steve Squyres. “The bottom line is we’re not giving up on Spirit.”

Squyres said they are most excited about tracking the radio signal from Spirit in order to determine if Mars has a solid or liquid core. “This is something totally new, something we’ve never done,” Squyres said. “If we can accurately determine the rover’s motion in space in three dimensions, we can see the motions of Mars in orbit and track it precisely, then we can characterize the wobble very precisely. The way Mars wobbles depends on its internal structure. If Mars has a solid core of iron, will wobble one way but if it has a liquid molten core it will wobble another way. We should be able to do this by tracking the stationary rover for six months.”

Squyres said the team is finding new tricks on how to use a stationary rover. Additionally, they should be able to characterize the odd soil at the Home Plate region, and characterize the interactions between the atmosphere and the surface of Mars.

“We’re not giving up on Spirit and we’ll keep squeezing as much science out of the rover as we can,” Squyres said. “We feel there is a lot of really exiting science yet ahead.”

Source: Press briefing

No Word Yet From Phoenix; Spirit’s Days May be Numbered

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Not a peep yet from the Phoenix lander. The Mars Odyssey orbiter has completed all 30 relay overflights of the Phoenix landing site that were scheduled for Jan. 18 to 21, and heard nothing from the lander. Additional listening campaigns will be conducted in February and March. NASA has said repeatedly that hearing from the lander would be highly unlikely, as Phoenix was never designed to withstand the Martian arctic winters.

Meanwhile, the outlook isn’t brilliant for the Spirit rover, either.

Efforts to free the rover have barely budged it, and as the Martian autumn approaches, precious sunlight which provides power to the rover is declining each day. As of now, Spirit is tilted the wrong way to generate enough heat to make it through the winter, although the Free Spirit team is working to change the angle of her solar panels.

The rover team has now begun driving Spirit backward as the next technique for attempting to extricate the rover from the sand trap where it is embedded. The first two backward drives produced about 6.5 centimeters (2.6 inches) of horizontal motion and lifted the rover slightly.

However, the right-rear wheel is still non-functional, along with the right-front wheel (even though that wheel came back to life, briefly), and during a recent extrication drive attempt, the left middle wheel stalled. The team is working to get more diagnostic information about that wheel stall. Even with four working wheels, Spirit would have a very difficult path to get out of her predicament.

And rover fans must be continuing to suggest using the rover’s robotic arm to help push Spirit out, because the latest press release about Spirit included some back-of-the-envelope calculations about using the arm for just such an action. They figured out that by pushing with the arm, only about 30 newtons of lateral force could be achieved, while a minimum of several hundreds of newtons would be needed to move the rover. Further, such a technique risks damaging the arm and preventing its use for high-priority science from a stationary rover. The other technique of re-sculpting the terrain and perhaps pushing a rock in front of or behind the left-front wheel was also assessed to be of little to no help and, again, risks the arm. There is also a large risk of accidentally pushing the rock into the open wheel and jamming it.

When asked if he was discouraged about Spirit’s current situation, NASA’s lead scientist for the Mars exploration program, Michael Meyer said, “You gotta be joyful when something that was only supposed to operate for three months lasts over 6 years.”

A 3-D view of Opportunity's view as she leaves Marquette Island, created by Stu Atkinson. Image credit: NASA/JPL/ U of Arizona

The Opportunity rover, on the other side of Mars, continues her approximately 7 mile trek to Endeavour Crater. The rover left the rock called Marquette Island on Sol 2122 (Jan. 12, 2010), and has now crossed the 19-kilometer (11.8-mile) odometer mark. Amazing!

There is a relatively fresh impact crater that has been named “Conception,” and Oppy will stop to investigate, having to detour about 250 meters (820 feet) to the south.

Sources: JPL, NASA TV

Will the Spirit Rover Survive 2010?


In just a few days, the Spirit rover will celebrate six incredible years on Mars. But JPL put out a press release today, as well as the video above, saying the outlook for Spirit’s survival is not good. Being stuck in a sand trap with wheels that aren’t working well are challenges to Spirit’s mobility that could prevent the rover team from using a key survival strategy — positioning the rover’s solar panels to tilt toward the sun to collect power for heat to survive the severe Martian winter. “The highest priority for this mission right now is to stay mobile, if that’s possible,” said Steve Squyres, principal investigator for the rovers.

I’m still holding out hope, however, that the rover team will work another miracle, and that 2010 will be another happy year for Spirit on Mars — see the image below created by Stu Atkinson.

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But if mobility is not possible, the next priority is survival. To to that, the rover team will attempt to improve the rover’s tilt, while Spirit is able to generate enough electricity to turn its wheels. Spirit is in the southern hemisphere of Mars, where it is autumn, and the amount of daily sunshine available for the solar-powered rover is declining. This could result in ceasing extraction activities as early as January, depending on the amount of remaining power. Spirit’s tilt, nearly five degrees toward the south, is unfavorable because the winter sun crosses low in the northern sky.

Unless the tilt can be improved or luck with winds affects the gradual buildup of dust on the solar panels, the amount of sunshine available will continue to decline until May 2010. During May, or perhaps earlier, Spirit may not have enough power to remain in operation.

“At the current rate of dust accumulation, solar arrays at zero tilt would provide barely enough energy to run the survival heaters through the Mars winter solstice,” said Jennifer Herman, a rover power engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The team is evaluating strategies for improving the tilt even if Spirit cannot escape the sand trap, such as trying to dig in deeper with the wheels on the north side. In February, NASA will assess Mars missions, including Spirit, for their potential science versus costs to determine how to distribute limited resources. Meanwhile, the team is planning additional research about what a stationary Spirit could accomplish as power wanes.

“Spirit could continue significant research right where it is,” said Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, deputy principal investigator for the rovers. “We can study the interior of Mars, monitor the weather and continue examining the interesting deposits uncovered by Spirit’s wheels.”

A study of the planet’s interior would use radio transmissions to measure wobble of the planet’s axis of rotation, which is not feasible with a mobile rover. That experiment and others might provide more and different findings from a mission that has already far exceeded expectations.

Source: JPL