Opportunity Rover Captures Her First Dust Devil on Mars

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The Opportunity rover has captured an image of a dust devil, and surprisingly, this is the first one ever that Oppy has spied. Spirit has seen dozens of dust devils over on the other side of the planet in Gusev Crater, and even the Phoenix lander’s camera captured several of these whirling dust dervishes during its short four-and-a-half month life. Plus the different orbiting spacecraft have seen evidence of plenty of dust devils by using their eyes from the skies. But this is the first one Oppy’s cameras have managed to shoot. This tall column of swirling dust appeared in a routine image that Opportunity took with its panoramic camera on July 15, 2010. The rover took the image in the drive direction, east-southeastward, right after a drive of about 70 meters (230 feet), and was taken for use in planning the next drive.

But obviously, over the years, Opportunity has benefited from dust devils – or perhaps just gusts of wind – as she has had a series of unexpected boosts in electrical power when the pervasive Martian dust gets cleaned off her solar panels. And just one day before Opportunity captured this dust devil image, wind cleaned some of the dust off the rover’s solar array, increasing electricity output from the array by more than 10 percent. These unexpected – but welcome – Martian “car washes” have helped extend the life of both rovers.

“That might have just been a coincidence, but there could be a connection” between the cleaning event and the dust devil in the image, said Mark Lemmon of the rover team from Texas A&M University. The team is resuming systematic checks for afternoon dust devils with Opportunity’s navigation camera, for the first time in about three years.

Lemmon said that Spirit’s location inside Gusev Crater, is rougher in ground texture, and dustier, than the area where Opportunity is working in the Meridiani Planum region. Those factors at Gusev allow vortices of wind to form more readily and raise more dust, compared to conditions at Meridiani. Orbiters have photographed tracks left by dust devils near Opportunity, but the tracks are scarcer there than near Spirit. Swirling winds at Meridiani may be more common than visible signs of them, if the winds occur where there is no loose dust to disturb.

Source: JPL

Wind Gust Gives Opportunity Rover a Power Boost

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Either some little Martians came by and gave the Opportunity rover a quick once-over cleaning, or a recent gust of wind blew layers of dust off her solar panels. The image above (supplied by our favorite photo- whiz Stu Atkinson), shows Oppy’s solar panels on sol 2274 and 2299 (approximately June 18 and July 12 here on Earth) with a marked difference in the amount of dust on the panels. Yesterday, the Twitter account for the rovers, @marsrovers Tweeted: “Love those Martian dust busters! A recent wind gust cleaned Oppy’s solar panels giving her a little power boost for the road.” And on the road she is, heading earnestly for Endeavour Crater, with several recent drives of around 70 meters (230 feet) per sol. But she now has some new autonomous software the rover team is trying out, and with her new greater power capacity, she should be able to keep on truckin’. Mars rover driver Scott Maxwell reported on Twitter this week that Opportunity is 40% of the way from Victoria Crater to Endeavour.

And what’s the latest news about Spirit – still silent?

According to Maxwell (again on Twitter), the power models for sunlight hitting Gusev Crater say the very earliest we could possibly hear from Spirit could be sometime late this week. But he added that more likely would be hearing from Spirit by around mid-November.

But catching Spirit awake is complicated, with timing being everything. “Even if Spirit’s waking up (soon), we’ll have a hard time catching her during one of her wakeups,” Maxwell said. “This will take some luck as well as skill,” having the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter or Mars Odyssey overhead and listening at the very moment Spirit is talking. Maxwell added that the team is working on how to locate Spirit if she’s had a Mission Clock fault and doesn’t know how to send communications to Earth.

It is very likely that Spirit has experienced a low-power fault and has turned off all sub-systems, including communication and gone into a deep sleep. While sleeping, the rover will use the available solar array energy to recharge her batteries. When the batteries recover to a sufficient state of charge, and if the Mission Clock hasn’t gone completely bonkers, Spirit will wake up and begin to communicate.

Spirit’s odometry remains at 7,730.50 meters (4.80 miles).

But meanwhile, Oppy’s total odometry is 21,550.77 meters (21.55 kilometers, or 13.99 miles), and she’ll be putting on more as she heads towards Endeavour Crater. Maxwell later said he has an idea to speed up the rover’s drives as much as 30%, so that will be interesting to find out more about his idea. “A 30% speedup would shave 2-3 months off our trip to Endeavour — maybe even more than that. Worth a try! Phyllosilicates, here we come!,” he tweeted, referring to the water-based minerals that scientists are hoping to find within the crater. That would mean water helped form the rocks in Mars’ early history.

Features on Endeavour Crater named for Australian locations. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University

Speaking of Endeavour, recently, NASA and JPL released an image showing the newly-given names of different points on Oppy’s next destination, and there’s a push by some people in Australia for one additional feature to be named “Nobby’s Head.”

The rover team is using the theme of names of places visited by British Royal Navy Capt. James Cook in his 1769-1771 Pacific voyage in command of H.M.S. Endeavour. My friend Col Maybury from radio station 2NUR in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia is helping to promulgate this request to NASA, with the support of the Minister of Tourism and Newcastle’s Lord Mayor. “Hopefully we will get a favourable reply soon,” Col wrote me.

Cook first came to this location in May of 1770. At midnight by moonlight he saw an island jutting up from the sea and wrote in his journal: “A small round rock or Island, laying close under the land, bore South 82 degrees West, distance 3 or 4 Leagues.”

Now called Nobby Head, it is the entrance of Newcastle Harbour, formed by the Hunter River, a great coal port of New South Wales. The feature on Mars is the same shape as Nobby Head on Earth. Wish Col and the people of Newcastle good luck in their “endeavour” to name this feature! (Anyone from the rover team naming committee reading this?!)

The proposed Nobby's Head at Endeavour Crater on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL, annotation by Col Maybury.

And don’t forget, Friday July 16 is Mars Day! The National Air and Space Museum has some ideas on how to celebrate.

Opportunity Rover Able to See More Detail of Endeavour Crater

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From a JPL press release:

Mars rover team members have begun informally naming features around the rim of Endeavour Crater, as they develop plans to investigate that destination when NASA’s Opportunity rover arrives there after many more months of driving. A new, super-resolution view of a portion of Endeavour’s rim reveals details that were not discernible in earlier images from the rover. Several high points along the rim can be correlated with points discernible from orbit.

Super-resolution is an imaging technique combining information from multiple pictures of the same target to generate an image with a higher resolution than any of the individual images.

Endeavour has been the team’s long-term destination for Opportunity since the summer of 2008, when the rover finished two years of studying Victoria Crater. By the spring of 2010, Opportunity had covered more than a third of the charted, 19-kilometer (12-mile) route from Victoria to Endeavour and reached an area with a gradual, southward slope offering a view of Endeavour’s elevated rim.

After the rover team chose Endeavour as a long-term destination, the goal became even more alluring when observations with the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars, on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, found clay minerals exposed at Endeavour. Clay minerals, which form under wet conditions, have been found extensively on Mars from orbit, but have not been examined on the surface. Additional observations with that spectrometer are helping the rover team choose which part of Endeavour’s rim to visit first with Opportunity.

The team is using the theme of names of places visited by British Royal Navy Capt. James Cook in his 1769-1771 Pacific voyage in command of H.M.S. Endeavour for informal names of sites at Endeavour Crater. Points visible in the super-resolution view from May 12 include “Cape Tribulation” and “Cape Dromedary.”

See more images and info on the names of the different features at Stu Atkinson’s “Road to Endeavour” blog.

One Moment, Two Worlds

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The New York Times Lens Blog came up with a great idea: They called it “A Moment in Time,” and asked people everywhere to take a picture on May 2, 2010 15:00 UTC and submit it, to share the variety and complexity of life on our world. Emily Lakdawalla from the Planetary Society saw this and thought, “Why limit it to Earth?” she wrote on the Planetary Blog. “What about Mars? What will Opportunity be doing at 15:00 U.T.C. on May 2?” Emily approached Jim Bell, planetary scientist at Cornell University and lead for the rovers’ Pancam team, who was immediately enthusiastic about the idea of having Opportunity take an image to submit to the “Moment in Time” project.

“My immediate reaction when Emily suggested the idea was ‘Cool!'” Bell told Universe Today. “My second reaction was to wonder whether we’d be able to take the photo at the right time, given the low power situation that Opportunity is in right now. Then my third through tenth reactions were ‘Cool!'”

The image has now been posted on the Lens blog, with this caption:

“Two worlds, one sun: while humans’ lives unfolded on Earth, the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity paused in its southward trek and captured this photomosaic. Dusty, reddish-brown sand dunes stretch to the horizon in a view taken around 15:00 local Mars time on May 2.”

Getting the image from Mars, though was not just as easy as pulling out a camera and taking a picture like people on Earth can do.

“The process of acquiring the image was perhaps just a bit more challenging than “normal” on the rover project,” said Bell, who asked us to remember–lest we all get jaded–how incredibly complex and amazing it is *whenever* we take images with robots on another planet!), — “because we were aiming for a specific time of day, and to try to get the data downlinked on that same day, very soon after taking the data. However, the rover engineering and science teams were very excited about participating in this global photo event, and that support was critical in helping to make it happen.”

Bell added that the image turned out to be a really lovely shot. The MarsDial (sundial) visible at the bottom of the image on Opportunity is engraved with the words “Two Worlds, One Sun” to mark the unity of Earth and Mars as part of the same solar system.

The timing was “a bit of a fudge” Emily admitted. “Our appointed hour would have been too late for Opportunity in midwinter. Besides, the data began arriving from Mars close to 15:00 U.T.C., so that’s when humans were first able to see the view.”

But the Lens blog folks thought, too, it was a really great idea and decided not to disqualify the picture.

I asked Emily if doing having this image taken at her request was even better than having a request approved for an image from HiRISE, with the “HiWISH” program (public suggestions for the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter). “It was kind of a HiWish with the rovers!” she said with a smile. “Of course the rover image wouldn’t have happened if the whole rover team wasn’t excited about participating. But it’s important to remind people that those rovers, and all the other spacecraft, and all the people who support them, are out there working hard every day to bring back the data.”

Indeed – wonderful idea, Emily, and great execution on the rover team’s part, making the Mars rovers even more endearing to us Martian wannabes here on Earth.

See the image on the Lens Blog, Emily’s description on the Planetary Blog, and the Mars Rover website.

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

MRO Sees Opportunity on the Edge of Concepcion Crater (and more!)

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It has been a while since I’ve posted a batch of new images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE camera, and what a treat when I saw what had just been released! This image shows the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity perched on the edge of Concepción Crater in Meridiani Planum, Mars. This image was taken by HiRISE on February 13, 2010, on sol 2153 of Opportunity’s mission on Mars. If you look closely, you can see rover tracks in the ripples to the north and northwest of the rover! Wow! See below for a wonderful colorized close-up version by Stu Atkinson that shows the tracks very clearly. Scientists use these high-resolution images (about 25 cm/pixel) to help navigate the rover. In addition, rover exploration of areas covered by such high-resolution images provides “ground truth” for the orbital data. Oppy has moved along from Concepcion and is now heading towards a set of twin craters. You can check out Stu’s blog Road to Endeavour to see what Opportunity is seeing these days. One milestone (meterstone?) Oppy recently reached was hitting 20 km on her odometer and she seems to continue to be in great operating condition. Go Opportunity! Click here to be able to download larger versions of the image.

Tracks by the Opportunity rover, as seen by HiRISE, color version by Stu Atkinson. Credit: NASA/JPL/U of AZ

Signs of Aeolian and Periglacial Activity at Vastitas Borealis Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

This image is interesting because of all the interesting different aspects you can find if you look closely. The surface must be relatively young because there are no recent impact craters. There are numerous dust devil tracks crisscrossing across the image. Plus, there are polygon features in the soil – the same features seen around the Phoenix lander area which are produced by repeated expansion and contraction of the soil-ice mixture due to seasonal temperature changes. This is the Vastitas Borealis region on Mars’ northern plains.

Another interesting feature is the circle of boulders that appears on the right side. Is there an impact crater buried under shifting Martian sand? A visit by a rover or human could tell us for sure.

The image covers approximately 400 x 250 meters (350 x 225 yards).

Layers and Dark Debris in Melas Chasma (PSP_002419_1675) Layers and Dark Debris in Melas Chasma Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

This is an impressive looking region in Melas Chasma. Scientists say the layers are sedimentary in origin, but there are many processes that could have deposited them, such as volcanic airfall from explosive eruptions, or dust-size particles settling out of the atmosphere due to cyclic changes, and deposition in standing bodies of water.

See more great images at the HiRISE website.

Opportunity’s Vacation at Marquette Island

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Caption: Opportunity leaves a mark on the Marquette Island rock on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL/U of AZ, colorization by Stuart Atkinson

The Opportunity Mars rover has been sitting by a rock called Marquette Island since early November 2009. The stay has given the rover a bit of a respite from the “pedal to the metal” driving regimen in its attempt to get to faraway Endeavour Crater. But Oppy hasn’t been just soaking in the rays, or kicking back doing nothing. She’s been conducting a thorough examination of the rock, and on Sol 2110 (Dec. 24, 2009), Oppy’s Rock Abrasion Tool dug in and left a mark on Marquette Island, a 1.5 millimeters (0.06 inch) hole. Then subsequent observations of the hole were made by the microscopic imager, to create a close-up mosaic of the innards of the rock, and the Mössbauer spectrometer was positioned on a different rock target for a long integration. Stu Atkinson created this colorized version of Oppy’s latest look at Marquette. After the rover hits the dusty trail again, will humans ever see Marquette Island again?

Stu has a few thoughts on that: “In a hundred years this rock will be on display in the Museum of Mars – just down the hall from the “MER Gallery” where Spirit and Oppy are displayed in all their restored glory,” Stu told me, “and there’ll be an attendant on duty beside it all the time, to stop tall, pale-skinned martian kids on school trips from leaning over the barrier and poking their dirty, sticky fingers into the hole Oppy ratted in it.”

Ah, yes! I’ve always loved Stu’s optimism! Check out more of his thoughts on his blog, Cumbrian Sky.

But back to the here an now, the plan ahead for Oppy is to collect an alpha particle X-ray spectrometer (APXS) spectrum and a MB spectrum from the RAT hole, before resuming the drive toward Endeavour crater. Obviously, the science team must find Marquette Island quite interesting to spend so much time there, and it will be interesting to hear the results of the observations.

As of Sol 2110 (Dec. 24, 2009), Opportunity’s solar-array energy production was 315 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (tau) of 0.491 and a dust factor of 0.509. Total odometry was 18,927.56 meters (11.76 miles).

Source: Mars Rover website