As the Martian Dust Storm Subsides, There’s Still No Word From Opportunity

Martian dust storms are a pretty common occurrence, and generally happen whenever the southern hemisphere is experiencing summer. Though they can begin quite suddenly, these storms typically stay contained to a local area and last only about a few weeks. However, on occasion, Martian dust storms can grow to become global phenomena, covering the entire planet.

One such storm began back in May, starting in the Arabia Terra region and then spreading to become a planet-wide dust storm within a matter of weeks. This storm caused the skies over the Perseverance Valley, where the Opportunity rover is stationed, to become darkened, forcing the rover into hibernation mode. And while no word has been heard from the rover, NASA recently indicated that the dust storm will dissipate in a matter of weeks.

The update was posted by NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, which oversees operations for the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, as well as NASA’s three Mars orbiters (Mars Odyssey, MRO, and MAVEN) and the Insight lander (which will land on Mars in 109 days). According to NASA, the storm is beginning to end, though it may be weeks or months before the skies are clear enough for Opportunity to exit its hibernation mode.

This global map of Mars shows a growing dust storm as of June 6, 2018. The map was produced by the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. The blue dot indicates the approximate location of Opportunity. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

As noted, dust storms occur on Mars when the southern hemisphere experiences summer, which coincides with the planet being closer to the Sun in its elliptical orbit. Due to increased temperatures, dust particles are lifted higher into the atmosphere, creating more wind. The resulting wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists are still trying to understand.

Since the southern polar region is pointed towards the Sun in the summer, carbon dioxide frozen in the polar cap evaporates. This has the effect of thickening the atmosphere and increasing the surface pressure, which enhances the process by helping suspend dust particles in the air. In some cases, the dust clouds can reach up to 60 km (40 mi) or more in elevation.

Planet-wide dust storms are a relatively rare occurrence on Mars, taking place every three to four Martian years (the equivalent of approximately 6 to 8 Earth years). Such storms have been viewed many times in the past by missions like Mariner 9 (1971), Viking I (1971) and the Mars Global Surveyor (2001). In 2007, a similar storm took place that darkened the skies over where Opportunity was stationed – which led to two weeks of minimal operations and no communications.

While smaller and less intense the storm that took place back in 2007, the current storm intensified to the point where it led to a level of atmospheric opacity that is much worse than the 2007 storm. In effect, the amount of dust in the atmosphere created a state of perpetual night over the rover’s location in Perseverance Valley, which forced the rover’s science team to suspend operations.

Simulated views of a darkening Martian sky blotting out the Sun from NASA’s Opportunity rover’s point of view, with the right side simulating Opportunity’s view in the global dust storm as of June 2018. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/TAMU

This is due to the fact that Opportunity – unlike the Curiosity rover, which runs on nuclear-powered battery – relies on solar panels to keep its batteries charged. But beyond suspending operations, the prolonged dust storm also means that the rover might not be to keep its energy-intensive survival heaters running – which protect its batteries from the extreme cold of Mars’ atmosphere.

Luckily, NASA scientists who have been observing the global event indicated that, as of last Monday (July 23rd), more dust was falling out of the planet’s thin air than was being raised into it. This means that the global weather event has reached its decay phase, where dust-raising events either become confined to smaller areas or stop altogether.

Using its Mars Color Imager (MARCI) and Mars Climate Sounder (MCS), NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) also noted surface features were beginning to reappear and that temperatures in the middle atmosphere were no longer rising – which indicates less solar heating by dust. The Curiosity rover also noted a decline in dust above its position in the Gale Crater on the other side of the planet.

This is certainly good new for the Opportunity rover, though scientists expect that it will still be a few weeks or months before its solar panels can draw power again and communications can be reestablished. The last time communications took place with the rover was on June 10th, but if there’s one thing the Opportunity rover is known for, it’s endurance!

When the rover first landed on Mars on January 25th, 2004, its mission was only expected to last ninety Martian days (sols), which is the equivalent of about 92.5 Earth days. However, as of the writing of this article, the rover has endured for 14 years and 195 days, effectively exceeding its operational lifespan 55 times over. So if any rover can survive this enduring dust storm, its Opportunity!

In the meantime, multiple NASA missions are actively monitoring the storm in support of Opportunity and to learn more about the mechanics of Martian storms. By learning more about what causes these storms, and how smaller ones can merge to form global events, future robotic missions, crewed missions and (quite possibly) Martian colonists will be better prepared to deal with them.

Further Reading: NASA

A Meteoroid Smashed Into the Side of a Crater on Mars and Then Started a Landslide

In 2006, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) established orbit around the Red Planet. Using an advanced suite of scientific instruments – which include cameras, spectrometers, and radar – this spacecraft has been analyzing landforms, geology, minerals and ice on Mars for years and assisting with other missions. While the mission was only meant to last two years, the orbiter has remained in operation for the past twelve.

In that time, the MRO has acted as a relay for other missions to send information back to Earth and provided a wealth of information of its own on the Red Planet. Most recently, it captured an image of an impact crater that caused a landslide, which left a long, dark streak along the crater wall. Such streaks are created when dry dust collapses down the edge of a Martian hill, leaving behind dark swaths.

Close up of the crater captured by the MRO’s HiRISE instrument. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

In this respect, these avalanches are not unlike Recurring Slope Lineae (RSL), where seasonal dark streaks appear along slopes during warmer days on Mars. These are believed to be caused by either salt water flows or dry dust grains falling naturally. In this case, however, the dry dust on the slope was destabilized by the meteor’s impact, which exposed darker material beneath.

The impact that created the crater is believed to have happened about ten years ago. And while the crater itself (shown above) is only 5 meters (16.4 feet) across, the streak it resulted in is 1 kilometer (0.62 mi) long! The image also captured the faded scar of an old avalanche, which is visible to the side of the new dark streak.

The image was captured by the MRO’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), which is operated by researchers at the Planetary Image Research Laboratory (PIRL), part of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Wider-angle view of the impact crater captured by the MRO’s HiRISE instrument and the resulting dark streak. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

This is just the latest in a long-line of images and data packages sent back by the MRO. By providing daily reports on Mars’ weather and surface conditions, and studying potential landing sites, the MRO also paves the way for future spacecraft and surface missions. In the future, the orbiter will serve as a highly capable relay satellite for missions like NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, which will continue in the hunt for signs of past life on Mars.

At present, the MRO has enough propellant to keep functioning into the 2030s, and given its intrinsic value to the study of Mars, it is likely to remain in operation right up until it exhausts its fuel. Perhaps it will even be working when astronauts arrived on the Red Planet?

Weekly Space Hangout: April 18, 2018: Kevin Gill: Art and Science from Juno and MRO

Hosts:
Fraser Cain (universetoday.com / @fcain)
Dr. Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Dr. Kimberly Cartier (KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg & ChartYourWorld.org)

Special Guests:
Kevin Gill is a software engineer, planetary and climate data wrangler, and a science data visualization artist. Kevin will be discussing his work with Juno and MRO images. Check out his work at his Flickr page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kevinmgill/ and his tech blog Apoapsys: http://www.wthr.us/ Follow Kevin on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/kevinmgill and Instagram here: https://www.instagram.com/apoapsys/

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Huge Sheets of Ice Found Hidden Just Beneath the Surface of Mars

Its an established fact that Mars was once a warmer and wetter place, with liquid water covering much of its surface. But between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago, the planet lost its atmosphere, which caused most of its surface water to disappear. Today, much of that water remains hidden beneath the surface in the form of water ice, which is largely restricted to the polar regions.

In recent years, scientists have also learned of ice deposits that exist in the equatorial regions of Mars, though it was unlcear how deep they ran. But according to a new study led by the U.S. Geological Survey, erosion on the surface of Mars has revealed abundant deposits of water ice. In addition to representing a major research opportunity, these deposits could serve as a source of water for Martian settlements, should they ever be built.

The study, titled “Exposed subsurface ice sheets in the Martian mid-latitudes“, recently appeared in Science. The study was led by Colin M. Dundas, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey, and included members from the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) at the University of Arizona, Johns Hopkins University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Planetary Science Institute, and the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas at Austin.

Artists concept of the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter (MRO). Credit: NASA/JPL

For the sake of their study, the team consulted data obtained by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). This data revealed eight locations in the mid-latitude region of Mars where steep slopes created by erosion exposed substantial quantities of sub-surface ice. These deposits could extend as deep as 100 meters (328 feet) or more.

The fractures and steep angles indicate that the ice is cohesive and strong. As Dundas explained in a recent NASA press statement:

“There is shallow ground ice under roughly a third of the Martian surface, which records the recent history of Mars. What we’ve seen here are cross-sections through the ice that give us a 3-D view with more detail than ever before.”

These ice deposits, which are exposed in cross-section as relatively pure water ice, were likely deposited as snow long ago. They have since become capped by a layer of ice-cemented rock and dust that is between one to two meters (3.28 to 6.56 ft) thick. The eight sites they observed were found in both the northern and southern hemispheres of Mars, at latitudes from about 55° to 58°, which accounts for the majority of the surface.

It would be no exaggeration to say that this is a huge find, and presents major opportunities for scientific research on Mars. In addition to affecting modern geomorphology, this ice is also a preserved record of Mars’ climate history. Much like how the Curiosity rover is currently delving into Mars’ past by examining sedimentary deposits in the Gale Crater, future missions could drill into this ice to obtain other geological records for comparison.

At this pit on Mars, the steep slope at the northern edge (toward the top of the image) exposes a cross-section of a thick sheet of underground water ice. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA/USGS

These ice deposits were previously detected by the Mars Odyssey orbiter (using spectrometers) and ground-penetrated radar aboard the MRO and the ESA’s Mars Express orbiter. NASA also sent the Phoenix lander to Mars in 2008 to confirm the findings made by the Mars Odyssey orbiter, which resulted in it finding and analyzing buried water ice located at 68° north latitude.

However, the eight scarps that were detected in the MRO data directly exposed this subsurface ice for the first time. As Shane Byrne, the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and a co-author on the study, indicated:

“The discovery reported today gives us surprising windows where we can see right into these thick underground sheets of ice. It’s like having one of those ant farms where you can see through the glass on the side to learn about what’s usually hidden beneath the ground.”

These studies would also help resolve a mystery about how Mars’ climate changes over time. Today, Earth and Mars have similarly-tiled axes, with Mars’ axis tilted at 25.19° compared to Earth’s 23.439°. However, this has changed considerably over the course of eons, and scientists have wondered how increases and decreases could result in seasonal changes.

Artist’s impression of glaciers that may have existed on the surface of Mars in the past. Credit: NASA/Caltech/JPL/UTA/UA/MSSS/ESA/DLR Eric M. De Jong, Ali Safaeinili, Jason Craig, Mike Stetson, Koji Kuramura, John W. Holt

Basically, during periods where Mars’ tilt was greater, climate conditions may have favored a buildup of ice in the middle-latitudes. Based on banding and color variations, Dundas and his colleagues have suggested that layers in the eight observed regions were deposited in different proportions and with varying amounts of dust based on varying climate conditions.

As Leslie Tamppari, the MRO Deputy Project Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said:

“If you had a mission at one of these sites, sampling the layers going down the scarp, you could get a detailed climate history of Mars. It’s part of the whole story of what happens to water on Mars over time: Where does it go? When does ice accumulate? When does it recede?”

The presence of water ice in multiple locations throughout the mid-latitudes on Mars is also tremendous news for those who want to see permanent bases constructed on Mars someday. With abundant water ice just a few meters below the surface, and which is periodically exposed by erosion, it would be easily accessible. It would also mean bases need not be built in polar areas in order to have access to a source of water.

This research was made possible thanks to the coordinated use of multiple instruments on multiple Mars orbiters. It also benefited from the fact that these missions have been studying Mars for extended periods of time. The MRO has been observing Mars for 11 years now, while the Mars Odyssey probe has been doing so for 16. What they have managed to reveal in that time has provided all kinds of opportunities for future missions to the surface.

Further Reading: NASA, Science

Study of Martian Sedimentary Layers Reveals More About the Planet’s Past

As of 2016, Mars became the permanent residence of no less than eight robotic missions, a combination of orbiters, rovers and landers. Between extensive studies of the Martian atmosphere and surface, scientists have learned a great deal about the planet’s history and evolution. In particular, they have uncovered voluminous amounts of evidence that Mars once had flowing water on its surface.

The most recent evidence to this effect from the University of Texas at Austin, where researchers have produced a study detailing how water deposited sediment in Mars’ Aeolis Dorsa region. According to their research, this area contains extensive sedimentary deposits that act as a historical record of Mars, cataloguing the influence played by water-based erosion over time.

The study, titled “Fluvial Stratigraphy of Valley Fills at Aeolis Dorsa, Mars: Evidence for Base-Level Fluctuations Controlled by a Downstream Water Body“, recently appeared in the scientific journal GeoScienceWorld. Led by Benjamin D. Cardenas – a geologist with the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin – the team examined satellite data of the Aeolis Dorsa region to study the structure of sedimentary deposits.

MOLA Topographic Map of Aeolis Quadrangle (MC-23) on the planet Mars. Credit: USGS

For years, Aeolis Dorsa has been of interest to scientists since it contains some of the most densely-packed sedimentary layers on Mars, which were deposited by flowing water (aka. fluvial deposits). These deposits are visible from orbit because of the way they have undergone a process known as “topographic inversion” – which consists of deposits filling low river channels, then being exhumed to create incised valleys.

By definition, incised valleys are topographic lows produced by “riverine” erosion – i.e. relating to a river or riverbank. On Earth, these valleys are commonly created by rising sea levels, and then filled with sediment as a result of falling sea levels. As sea levels rise, the valleys are cut from the landscape as the waters move inland; and as the sea levels drop, retreating waters deposit sediment within them.

According to the study, this process has created an opportunity for geophysicists and planetary scientist to observe Mars’ geological record in three dimensions and across significant distances. As Cardenas told Universe Today via email:

“Sedimentary rocks in general record information about the environments under which they were deposited. Fluvial (river) deposits specifically record information about the way rivers migrated laterally, the way they aggraded vertically, and how these things changed over time.”
The dotted white arrow points to curved strata recording point bar growth and river migration while the black arrow shows topographically inverted river deposits outcropping as ridges (e.g., black arrow). Credit: hou.usra.edu

Here on Earth, the statigraphy (i.e. the order and position of sedimentary layers) of sedimentary rocks has been used by geologists for generations to place constraints on what conditions were like on our planet billions of years ago. It has only been in recent history that the study of sedimentary layers has been used to place constraints on what environmental conditions were like on other planetary bodies (like Mars) billions of years ago.

However, most of these studies have produced data that has been unable to resolve sedimentary packaging at the sub-meter scale. Instead, satellite images have been used to define large-scale stratigraphic relationships, such as deposition patterns along past water channels. In other words, the studies have focused on cataloging the existence of past water flows on Mars more than what has happened since then.

As Cardenas indicated, he and his team took a different approach, one which considered that Mars has experienced changes over the past 3.5 billion years. As he explained:

“In general, there has been the assumption that a lot of the martian surface is not particularly different than it was 3.5 billion years ago. We make an effort to demonstrate that the modern surface at our study area, Aeolis Dorsa, is the result of burial, exhumation, and un-equal erosion, and it can’t be assumed that the modern surface represents the ancient surface at all. We really try to show that what we see today, the features we can measure today, are sedimentary deposits of rivers, and not actual rivers. This is incredibly important to realize when you start making interpretations of your observations, and it is frequently a missed point.”
Perspective view of Reull Vallis based on images taken by the ESA’s Mars Express. Reull Vallis, a river-like structure, is believed to have formed when running water flowed in the distant martian past. Credit and Copyright: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

For the sake of their research, Cardenas and his team used stereo pairs of high-resolution images and topographic data taken by the Context Camera (CTX) and the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). This data was then combined with the Integrated Software for Imagers and Spectrometers (ISIS) –  a digital image-processing package used by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) – and NASA’s Ames Stereo Pipeline.

These processed the paired images into high-resolution topographic data and digital elevation models (DEMs) which were then compared to data from the Mars Orbiting Laser Altimeter (MOLA) instrument aboard the Mars Global Surveyor (MSG). The final result was a series of DEMs that were orders of magnitude higher in terms of resolution than anything previously produced.

For all of this, Cardenas and his colleagues were able to identify stacking patterns in the fluvial deposits, noted changes in sedimentation styles, and suggested mechanisms for their creation. In addition, the team introduced a brand new method to measure the flow direction of the rivers that left these deposits, which allowed them to see how the landscape has changed over the past few billion years.

“The study shows there was a large body of water on Mars ~3.5 billion years ago, and that this body of water increased and decreased in volume slowly enough that river sedimentation had time to adjust styles,” said Cardenas. “This is more in line with slower climatic changes, and less in line with catastrophic hydrologic events. Aeolis Dorsa is positioned along hypothesized coastlines of an ancient northern ocean on Mars. It’s interesting to find coastal river deposits at Aeolis Dorsa, but it doesn’t help us constrain the size of the water body (lake, ocean, etc.)”

Nanedi Valles, a roughly 800-kilometre valley believed to be caused by ground-water outflow. Copyright ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

In essence, Cardenas and his colleagues concluded that – similar to Earth – falling and rising water levels in a large water body forced the formation of the paleo-valleys in their study area. And in a way that is similar to what is happening on Earth today, rivers that formed in coastal regions were strongly influenced by changes in water levels of a large, downstream water body.

For some time, it has been something of a foregone conclusion that the surface of Mars is dead, its features frozen in time. But as this study demonstrated, the landscape has undergone significant changes since it lost its atmosphere and surface water. These findings will no doubt be the subject of interest as we get closer to mounting a crewed mission to the Martian surface.

Further Reading: GSA, GeoScienceWorld

What Made this Mysterious Pit on Mars? Impact Crater or Natural Collapse?

The HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this unusual crater or pit on the surface of Mars. Frozen carbon dioxide gives the region its unique "Swiss cheese" like appearance. Image:NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
The HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this unusual crater or pit on the surface of Mars. Frozen carbon dioxide gives the region its unique "Swiss cheese" like appearance. Image:NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
The HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this unusual crater or pit on the surface of Mars. Frozen carbon dioxide gives the region its unique “Swiss cheese” like appearance. Image:NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

During late summer in the Southern hemisphere on Mars, the angle of the sunlight as it strikes the surface brings out some subtle details on the planet’s surface.

In this image, the HiRISE camera on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) captured an area of frozen carbon dioxide on the surface. Some of the carbon dioxide ice has melted, giving it a swiss-cheese appearance. But there is also an unusual hole or crater on the right side of the image, with some of the carbon dioxide ice clearly visible in the bottom of the pit.

NASA scientists are uncertain what exactly caused the unusual pit. It could be an impact crater, or it could be a collapsed pit caused by melting or sublimation of sub-surface carbon dioxide ice.

MRO has been in orbit around Mars for over 10 years, and has completed over 50,000 orbits. The MRO has two cameras. The CTX camera is lower resolution, and has imaged over 99% of the Martian surface. HiRISE is the high-resolution camera that is used to closely examine areas and objects of interest, like the unusual surface pit in this image.

More Reading:

The Ever-Working Mars Orbiter Passes 50,000 Orbits

Most of us never do one thing 50,000 times in our life. So for NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), completing 50,000 orbits around the red planet is a big deal. And, it only took 10 years to do so.

The MRO could be called one of NASA’s flagship missions. It’s presence in orbit around Mars has helped open up our understanding of that planet immensely. And it’s done so while providing us a steady stream of eye candy.

This recent image from MRO’s HiRise camera shows dune structure inside an impact crater. Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

MRO was launched in 2005 and reached Mars orbit in March, 2006. After 10 years at work, it has accomplished a lot. In a recent press release, NASA calls the MRO “the most data-productive spacecraft yet.” Though most of us might know the orbiter because of it’s camera, the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRise), the MRO actually has a handful of other instruments that help the orbiter achieve its objectives. In broad terms, those objectives are:

  • to study the history of water on Mars
  • to look at small scale features on the surface, and identify landing sites for future Mars missions
  • to act as a communications relay between Mars and Earth
MRO investigating Martian water cycle – This artist’s concept represents the “Follow the Water” theme of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission. The orbiter’s science instruments monitor the present water cycle in the Mars atmosphere and the associated deposition and sublimation of water ice on the surface, while probing the subsurface to see how deep the water-ice reservoir extends. Image: By NASA/JPL/Corby Waste – http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA07241 (image link), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=374810 (Larger image here.

MRO’s HiRise camera gets all the glory, but it’s another onboard camera, the Context Camera (CTX), that is the real workhorse. The CTX is a much lower resolution than the HiRise, but its file sizes are much more manageable, an important consideration when every file has to travel from Mars to Earth—an average distance of about 225 million km.

CTX has captured 90,000 images so far in MRO’s mission, and each one captures details smaller than a tennis court. In the course of the mission so far, CTX has images that cover 99.1% of the Martian surface. Over 60% of the planet has been covered twice.

“Reaching 99.1-percent coverage has been tricky…” – Context Camera Team Leader Michael Malin

“Reaching 99.1-percent coverage has been tricky because a number of factors, including weather conditions, coordination with other instruments, downlink limitations, and orbital constraints, tend to limit where we can image and when,” said Context Camera Team Leader Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego.

Malin said, “Single coverage provides a baseline we can use for comparison with future observations, as we look for changes. Re-imaging areas serves two functions: looking for changes and acquiring stereoscopic views from which we can make topographic maps.”

Because the CTX captures image of the same surface areas twice, it documents changes on the surface. There have been over 200 instances of impact craters appearing in a second image of the same area. Scientists have used this to calculate the rate that meteorites impact Mars.

The instruments on board the MRO work as a team. The CTX can capture images of areas of interest, and the HiRise can be used for higher-resolution images of the same area. By locating fresh impact craters, then studying them more closely, the MRO has helped discover the presence of what looked like sub-surface ice on Mars. A third instrument, the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), confirmed the presence of ice.

The CTX is the workhorse camera, and the HiRise is the diva, but MRO actually has a third camera: the Mars Color Imager (MARCI). MARCI is a very low resolution camera compared to the others. It’s also a wide-angle camera with really only one purpose: characterizing Martian weather. Every day, MARCI takes about 84 images which together create a daily global map of Mars. You can see a weekly Martian weather report from MARCI here.

The MRO recently manoeuvered itself into position for its next task—helping the InSight Lander. The MRO must receive critical radio transmissions from NASA’s InSight Lander as it descends to Mars. Insight will use its instruments to examine the interior of Mars for clues to how rocky planets form. Not only did MRO help find a landing spot for Insight, but it will hold the lander’s hand as it descends, and it will act as a data relay.

“After 11 and a half years in flight, the spacecraft is healthy and remains fully functional.” – MRO Project Manager Dan Johnston.

There’s no end in sight for the MRO. It just keeps going and going, and fulfilling its mission objectives on a continuing basis. “After 11 and a half years in flight, the spacecraft is healthy and remains fully functional,” said MRO Project Manager Dan Johnston at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “It’s a marvelous vehicle that we expect will serve the Mars Exploration Program and Mars science for many more years to come.”

Outstanding Opportunity Rover Making ‘Amazing New Discoveries’ 13 Years After Mars Touchdown – Scientist Tells UT

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

NASA’s truly outstanding Opportunity rover continues “making new discoveries about ancient Mars” as she commemorates 13 Years since bouncing to a touchdown on Mars, in a feat that is “truly amazing” – the deputy chief scientist Ray Arvidson told Universe Today exclusively.

Resilient Opportunity celebrated her 13th birthday on Sol 4623 on January 24, 2017 PST while driving south along the eroded rim of humongous Endeavour crater – and having netted an unfathomable record for longevity and ground breaking scientific discoveries about the watery environment of the ancient Red Planet.

“Reaching the 13th year anniversary with a functioning rover making new discoveries about ancient Mars on a continuing basis is truly amazing,” Ray Arvidson, Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University in St. Louis, told Universe Today.

Put another way Opportunity is 13 YEARS into her 3 MONTH mission! And still going strong!

During the past year the world famous rover discovered “more extensive aqueous alteration within fractures and more mild alteration within the bedrock outcrops” at Endeavour crater, Arvidson elaborated.

And now she is headed to her next target – an ancient water carved gully!

The gully is situated about 0. 6 mile (1.6 km) south of the robots current location.

But to get there she first has to heroically ascend steep rocky slopes inclined over 20 degrees along the eroded craters western rim – and it’s no easy task! Slipping and sliding along the way and all alone on difficult alien terrain.

Furthermore she is 51 times beyond her “warrantied” life expectancy of merely 90 Sols promised at the time of landing so long ago – roving the surface of the 4th rock from the Sun during her latest extended mission; EM #10.

How was this incredible accomplishment achieved?

“Simply a well-made and thoroughly tested American vehicle,” Arvidson responded.

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

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.

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.

NASA’s Opportunity explores Spirit Mound after descending down Marathon Valley and looks out across the floor of vast Endeavour crater. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4505 (25 Sept 2016) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Opportunity concluded 2016 and starts 2017 marching relentlessly towards an ancient water carved gully along the eroded rim of vast Endeavour crater – the next science target on her heroic journey traversing across never before seen Red Planet terrains.

Huge Endeavour crater spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter.

Throughout 2016 Opportunity was investigating the ancient, weathered slopes around the Marathon Valley location in Endeavour crater. The area became a top priority science destination after the slopes were found to hold a motherlode of ‘smectite’ clay minerals based on data from the CRISM spectrometer circling overhead aboard a NASA Mars orbiter.

The smectites were discovered via extensive, specially targeted Mars orbital measurements gathered by the CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars) spectrometer on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – accomplished earlier at the direction of Arvidson.

Opportunity was descending down Marathon Valley the past year to investigate the clay minerals formed in water. They are key to helping determine the habitability of the Red Planet when it was warmer and wetter billions of years ago.

What did Opportunity accomplish scientifically at Marathon Valley during 2016?

“Key here is the more extensive aqueous alteration within fractures and more mild alteration within the bedrock outcrops,” Arvidson explained to me.

“Fractures have red pebbles enhanced in Al and Si (likely by leaching out more soluble elements), hematite, and in the case of our scuffed fracture, enhanced sulfate content with likely Mg sulfates and other phases. Also the bedrock is enriched in Mg and S relative to other Shoemaker rocks and these rocks are the smectite carrier as observed from CRISM ATO data.”

Marathon Valley measures about 300 yards or meters long. It cuts downhill through the west rim of Endeavour crater from west to east – the same direction in which Opportunity drove downhill from a mountain summit area atop the crater rim.

Opportunity has been exploring Endeavour 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 Larry Crumpler, a science team member from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science.

Opportunity has been climbing up very steep and challenging slopes to reach the top of the crater rim. Then she will drive south to Cape Byron and the gully system.

“We have had some mobility issues climbing steep, rocky slopes. Lots of slipping and skidding, but evaluating the performance of the rover on steep, rocky and soil-covered slopes was one of the approved extended mission objectives,” Arvidson explained.

“We are heading out of Cape Tribulation, driving uphill to the southwest to reach the Meridiani plains and then to drive to the western side of Cape Byron to the head of a gully system.”

What’s ahead for 2017? What’s the importance of exploring the gully?

“Finish up work on Cape Tribulation, traverse to the head of the gully system 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.”

How long will it take to reach the gully?

“Months to the gully,” replied Arvidson. After arriving at the top of the crater rim, the rover will actually drive part of the way on the Martian plains again during the southward trek to the gully.

“And we will be driving on the plains to drive relatively long distances with an intent of getting to the gully well before the winter season.”

As of today, Jan 31, 2017, long lived Opportunity has survived 4630 Sols (or Martian days) roving the harsh environment of the Red Planet.

Opportunity has taken over 216,700 images and traversed over 27.26 miles (43.87 kilometers) – more than a marathon.

NASA’s Opportunity rover discovers a beautiful Martian dust devil moving across the floor of Endeavour crater as wheel tracks show robots path today exploring the steepest ever slopes of the 13 year long mission, in search of water altered minerals at Knudsen Ridge inside Marathon Valley on 1 April 2016. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

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).

The power output from solar array energy production is currently 416 watt-hours, before heading into another southern hemisphere Martian winter in 2017. It will count as Opportunities 8th winter on Mars.

Meanwhile Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity traverses and drills into the lower sedimentary layers at the base of Mount Sharp.

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

Ken Kremer

13 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2017. This map shows the entire 43 kilometer (27 mi) path the rover has driven on the Red Planet during more than 13 years and more than a marathon runners distance for over 4614 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 – to current location at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. After descending down Marathon Valley and after studying Spirit Mound, the rover is now ascending back uphill on the way to a Martian water carved gully. 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

Opportunity Robustly in Action on 12th Anniversary of Red Planet Touchdown

Composite hazcam camera image (left) shows the robotic arm in motion as NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity places the tool turret on the target named "Private John Potts" on Sol 4234 to brush away obscuring dust.  Rover is actively working on the southern side of "Marathon Valley" which slices through western rim of Endeavour Crater.  On Sol 4259 (Jan. 16,  2016), Opportunity completed grinds with the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) to exposure rock interior for elemental analysis, as seen in mosaic (right) of four up close images taken by  Microscopic Imager (MI).  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Composite hazcam camera image (left) shows the robotic arm in motion as NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity places the tool turret on the target named “Private John Potts” on Sol 4234 to brush away obscuring dust. Rover is actively working on the southern side of “Marathon Valley” which slices through western rim of Endeavour Crater. On Sol 4259 (Jan. 16, 2016), Opportunity completed grinds with the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) to exposure rock interior for elemental analysis, as seen in mosaic (right) of four up close images taken by Microscopic Imager (MI). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA’s world famous Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity continues blazing a daily trail of unprecedented science first’s, still swinging her robotic arm robustly into action at a Martian “Mining Zone” on the 12th anniversary of her hair-raising Red Planet touchdown this week, a top rover scientist told Universe Today.

“Looks like a mining zone!” Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis, explained to Universe Today. On Jan. 24 the rover marked 4267 Sols and a dozen years and counting exploring Mars. Continue reading “Opportunity Robustly in Action on 12th Anniversary of Red Planet Touchdown”

Curiosity Reaches Massive Field of Spectacularly Rippled Active Martian Sand Dunes

Curiosity explores Namib Dunes at base of Mount Sharp, for first in-place study of an active sand dune anywhere other than Earth.  See Gale Crater rim in the distance.This colorized photo mosaic is stitched from navcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1192, Dec. 13, 2015.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity’s View on Mars Today
Curiosity explores Namib Dunes at base of Mount Sharp, for first in-place study of an active sand dune anywhere other than Earth. See Gale Crater rim in the distance.This colorized photo mosaic is stitched from navcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1192, Dec. 13, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

After many months of painstaking driving, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has reached the edge of a massive field of spectacular rippled sand dunes located at the base of Mount Sharp that range up to two stories tall. And she has now begun humanity’s first up-close investigation of currently active sand dunes anywhere beyond Earth.

The dark dunes, named the “Bagnold Dunes,” skirt the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp and lie on the alien road of Curiosity’s daring trek up the lower portion of the layered Martian mountain. Continue reading “Curiosity Reaches Massive Field of Spectacularly Rippled Active Martian Sand Dunes”