The Martian Dust Storm Has Covered the Entire Planet

Martian dust storms, which occur during the summer season in the planet’s southern hemisphere, can get pretty intense. Over the course of the past few weeks, a global dust storm has engulfed Mars and forced the Opportunity rover to suspend operations. Given that this storm is much like the one that took place back in 2007, which also raged for weeks, there have been concerns over how this development could affect rover operations.

Meanwhile the Curiosity rover managed to snap pictures of the thickening haze caused by the storm. Though Curiosity is on the other side of the planet from where Opportunity is currently located, atmospheric dust has been gradually increasing over it. But unlike Opportunity, which runs on solar power, Curiosity will remain unaffected by the global storm thanks to its nuclear-powered battery, and is therefore in a good position to study it.

As already noted, Martian storms occur during summer in the southern hemisphere, when sunlight warms dust particles and lifts them 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.

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

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. Though they are common and can begin suddenly, Martian dust storms typically stay contained to a local area and last only about a weeks.

By contrast, the current storm has lasted for several weeks and is currently covering an area that would span North America and Russia combined. While smaller than the storm that took place back in 2007, this storm has intensified to the point where it created a perpetual state of night over the rover’s location in Perseverance Valley and led to a level of atmospheric opacity that is much worse than the 2007 storm.

When dust storms occur, scientists measure them based on their opacity level (tau) to determine how much sunlight they will prevent from reaching the surface. Whereas the 2007 storm had a tau level of about 5.5, this most recent storm reached an estimated tau of 10.8 earlier this month over the Perseverance Valley – where Opportunity is located.

The intensity of the storm also led Bruce Canton, deputy principal investigator of the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) camera onboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), to declare that the storm has officially become a “planet-encircling” (or “global”) dust event. Above the Gale Crater, where Curiosity is located, the tau reading is now above 8.0 – the highest ever recorded by the mission.

In June 2018 NASA’s Curiosity Rover used its Mast Camera, or Mastcam, to snap photos of the intensifying haziness the surface of Mars, caused by a massive dust storm. The photos span about a couple of weeks, starting with a shot of the area before the storm appeared. Credits: NASA

While the storm has some worried about the fate of Opportunity, which is Mars’ oldest active rover (having remained in operation for over 14 years), it is also an chance to address one of the greatest questions scientists have about Mars. For example, why do some storms span the entire planet and last for months while others are confined to small areas and and last only a week?

While scientists don’t currently know what the answer is, Curiosity and a fleet of six scientific spacecraft in orbit of Mars are hoping this most recent storm will help them find out. These spacecraft include NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), 2001 Mars Odyssey and Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) missions, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) and the ESA’s Mars Express and ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter.

The animation (shown above) consists of a series of daily photos captures by Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam), which show the sky getting hazier over time. While taking these pictures, Curiosity was facing the crater rim, about 30 km (18.6) away from where it stands inside the crater. This sun-obstructing wall of haze is about six to eight times thicker than normal for this time of season.

Nevertheless, Curiosity’s engineers – which are based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California – have studied how the growing dust storm could affect the rover’s instruments and concluded that it poses little risk. Ironically enough, the largest impact will be on the rover’s cameras, which require extra exposure time due to the low lighting conditions.

Two images from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity rover depicting the change in the color of light illuminating the Martian surface since a dust storm engulfed Gale Crater. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

As Jim Watzin, the director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, explained in a NASA press release earlier this month:

“This is the ideal storm for Mars science. We have a historic number of spacecraft operating at the Red Planet. Each offers a unique look at how dust storms form and behave – knowledge that will be essential for future robotic and human missions.”

However, all dust events, regardless of size, help to shape the Martian surface. As such, studying their physics is critical to understanding the Martian climate, both past and present. As Rich Zurek, the chief scientist for the Mars Program Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, indicated:

“Each observation of these large storms brings us closer to being able to model these events – and maybe, someday, being able to forecast them. That would be like forecasting El Niño events on Earth, or the severity of upcoming hurricane seasons.”

The ability to understand the causes and dynamics of Martian dust storms would not only lead to a better understand of how weather works on other planets, it would also be of immense importance if and and when humans begin traveling to the Red Planet on a regular basis. For instance, if SpaceX really does intend to bring tourists to Mars in the future, said tourists will want to avoid booking during “storm season”.

And if humans should choose to someday make Mars their home, they will need to know when planet-spanning dust storms are coming, especially since their habitats will likely be relying on wind and solar power. In the meantime, NASA and other space agencies will continue to monitor this storm and the Opportunity rover is expected to come through (fingers crossed!) unscathed!

Further Reading: NASA

A Powerful Dust Storm Has Darkened the Skies Over Opportunity on Mars

NASA’s Opportunity mission can rightly be called the rover that just won’t quit. Originally, this robotic rover was only meant to operate on Mars for 90 Martian days (or sols), which works out to a little over 90 Earth days. However, since it made its landing on January 25th, 2004, it has remained in operation for 14 years, 4 months, and 18 days – exceeding its operating plan by a factor of 50!

However, a few weeks ago, NASA received disturbing news that potentially posed a threat to the “little rover that could”. A Martian storm, which has since grown to occupy an area larger than North America – 18 million km² (7 million mi²) – was blowing in over rover’s position in the Perseverance Valley. Luckily, NASA has since made contact with the rover, which is encouraging sign.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter first detected the storm on Friday, June 1st, and immediately notified the Opportunity team to begin preparing contingency plans. The storm quickly grew over the next few days and resulted in dust clouds that raised the atmosphere’s opacity, which blocked out most of the sunlight from reaching the surface. This is bad news for the rover since it relies on solar panels for power and to recharge its batteries.

Artist’s conception of a Mars Exploration Rover, which included Opportunity and Spirit. Credit: NASA

By Wednesday, June 6th, Opportunity’s power levels had dropped significantly and the rover was required to shift to minimal operations. But beyond merely limiting the rover’s operations, a prolonged dust storm also means that the rover might not be able to keep its energy-intensive survival heaters running – which protect its batteries from the extreme cold of Mars’ atmosphere.

The Martian cold is believed to be what resulted in the loss of the Spirit rover in 2010, Opportunity’s counterpart in the Mars Exploration Rover mission. Much like Opportunity, Spirit‘s mission as only meant to last for 90 days, but the rover managed to remain in operation for 2269 days (2208 sols) from start to finish. It’s also important to note that Opportunity has dealt with long-term storms before and emerged unscathed.

Back in 2007, a much larger storm covered the planet, which led to two weeks of minimal operations and no communications. However, the current storm has intensified as of Sunday morning (June 10th), creating a perpetual state of night over the rover’s location in Perseverance Valley and leading to a level of atmospheric opacity that is much worse than the 2007 storm.

Whereas the previous storm had an opacity level (tau) of about 5.5, this new storm has an estimated tau of 10.8. Luckily, NASA engineers received a transmission from the rover on Sunday, which was a positive indication since it proved that the rover still has enough battery charge to communicate with controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This latest transmission also showed that the rover’s temperature had reached about -29 °C (-20 °F).

This 30-day time-lapse of the Martian atmosphere was capture by Opportunity during the 2007 dust storm. That storm blocked out 99% of the Sun's energy, limiting the effectiveness of the rover's solar panels, and putting the mission in jeopardy. Image: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2475872
This 30-day time-lapse of the Martian atmosphere was capture by Opportunity during the 2007 dust storm. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

Full dust storms like this and the one that took place in 2007 are rare, but not surprising. They occur during summer in the southern hemisphere, when sunlight warms dust particles and lifts them higher into the atmosphere, creating more wind. That wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists are still trying to understand. While they can begin suddenly, they tend to last on the order of weeks or even months.

A saving grace about these storms is that they limit the extreme temperature swings, and the dust they kick up can also absorb solar radiation, thus raising ambient temperatures around Opportunity. In the coming weeks, engineers at the JPL will continue to monitor the rover’s power levels and ensure that it maintains the proper balance to keep its batteries in working order.

In the meantime, Opportunity’s science operations remain suspended and the Opportunity team has requested additional communications coverage from NASA’s Deep Space Network – the global system of antennas that communicates with all of the agency’s deep space missions. And if there’s one thing Opportunity has proven, it is that it’s capable of enduring!

Fingers crossed the storm subsides as soon as possible and the little rover that could once again emerges unscathed. At this rate, it could have many more years of life left in it!

Further News: NASA

Opportunity Just Saw its 5,000th Sunrise on Mars

It’s been a time of milestones for Mars rovers lately! Last month (on January 26th, 2018), NASA announced that the Curiosity rover had spent a total of 2,000 days on Mars, which works out to 5 years, 5 months and 21 days. This was especially impressive considering that the rover was only intended to function on the Martian surface for 687 days (a little under two years).

But when it comes to longevity, nothing has the Opportunity rover beat! Unlike Curiosity, which relied on a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) for power, the solar-powered Opportunity recently witnessed its five-thousandth sunrise on Mars. This means that the rover has remained in continuous operation for 5000 sols, which works out to 5137.46 Earth days.

This five-thousandth sunrise began on Friday, Feb. 16th, 2018 – roughly 14 Earth years (and 7.48 Martian years) after the rover first landed. From its position on the western rim of the Endeavour Crater, the sunrise appeared over the basin’s eastern rim, about 22 km (14 mi) away. This location, one-third of the way down “Perseverance Valley”, is more than 45 km (28 mi) from Opportunity’s original landing site.

Mosaic view looking down from inside the upper end of “Perseverance Valley” on the inner slope of Endeavour Crater’s western rim. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

This is especially impressive when you consider that the original science mission was only meant to last 90 sols (92.47 Earth days) and NASA did not expect the rover to survive its first Martian winter. And yet, the rover has not only survived all this time, it continues to send back scientific discoveries from the Red Planet. As John Callas, the Opportunity Project Manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained in a NASA press release:

“Five thousand sols after the start of our 90-sol mission, this amazing rover is still showing us surprises on Mars… We’ve reached lots of milestones, and this is one more, but more important than the numbers are the exploration and the scientific discoveries.”

For instance, the rover has provided us with 225,000 images since its arrival, and revealed that ancient Mars was once home to extensive groundwater and surface water. Beginning in 2008, it began working its way across the  Endeavour Crater in order to get a glimpse deeper into Mars’ past. By 2011, it had reached the crater’s edge and confirmed that mineral-rich water once flowed through the area.

At present, researchers are using Opportunity to investigate the processes that shaped Perseverance Valley, an area that descends down the slope of the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Here too, Opportunity has learned some fascinating things about the Red Planet. For instance, the rover has conducted observations of possible “rock stripes” in the valley, which could be indicative of its valley’s origin.

Textured rows on the ground in this portion of “Perseverance Valley” are under investigation by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

These stripes are of interest to scientists because of the way they resemble rock stripes that appear on mountain slopes here on Earth, which are the result of repeated cycles of freezing and thawing on wet soil. On Mauna Kea, for example, soil freezes every night, but is often dry due to the extreme elevation. This causes soils that have high concentrations of silt, sand and gravel to expand, pushing the larger particles up.

These particles then form stripes as they fall downhill, or are moved by wind or rainwater, and cause the ground to expand less in this space. This process repeats itself over and over, creating a pattern that leads to distinct stripes. As Opportunity observed, there are slopes within the Perseverance Valley where soil and gravel particles appear to have formed into rows that run parallel to the slope, alternating between rows that have more and less gravel.

In the case of the Perseverance Valley’s stripes, scientists are not sure how they formed, but think they could be the result of water, wind, downhill transport, other processes, or a combination thereof. Another theory posits that features like these could be the result of changes in Mars tilt (obliquity) which happen over the course of hundreds of thousands of years.

During these periods, Mars’ axial tilt increases to the point where water frozen at the poles will vaporize and become deposited as snow or frost nearer to the equator. As Ray Arvidson, the Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator at Washington University, explahttps://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/long-lived-mars-rover-opportunity-keeps-finding-surprisesined:

“One possible explanation of these stripes is that they are relics from a time of greater obliquity when snow packs on the rim seasonally melted enough to moisten the soil, and then freeze-thaw cycles organized the small rocks into stripes. Gravitational downhill movement may be diffusing them so they don’t look as crisp as when they were fresh.”

Stone stripes on the side of a volcanic cone on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, which are made of small rock fragments that are aligned downhill. These are formed when freeze-thaw cycles lift them out of the finer-grained regolith and move them to the sides, forming stone stripes. Credits: Washington University in St. Louis/NASA

Having the chance to investigate these features is therefore quite the treat for the Opportunity science team. “Perseverance Valley is a special place, like having a new mission again after all these years.” said Arvidson. “We already knew it was unlike any place any Mars rover has seen before, even if we don’t yet know how it formed, and now we’re seeing surfaces that look like stone stripes. It’s mysterious. It’s exciting. I think the set of observations we’ll get will enable us to understand it.”

Given the state of the Martian surface, it is a safe bet that wind is largely responsible for the rock stripes observed in Perseverance Valley. In this respect, they would be caused by sand blown uphill from the crater floor that sorts larger particles into rows parallel to the slope. As Robert Sullivan, an Opportunity science-team member of Cornell University, explained:

“Debris from relatively fresh impact craters is scattered over the surface of the area, complicating assessment of effects of wind. I don’t know what these stripes are, and I don’t think anyone else knows for sure what they are, so we’re entertaining multiple hypotheses and gathering more data to figure it out.”

Despite being in service for a little over 14 years, and suffering its share of setbacks, Opportunity is once again in a position to reveal things about Mars’ past and how it evolved to become what it is today. Never let it be said that an old rover can’t reveal new secrets! If there’s one thing Opportunity has proven during its long history of service on Mars, it is that the underdog can make some of the greatest contributions.

Further Reading: NASA, NASA (2)

NASA’s Opportunity Rover Withstands Another Harsh Winter on Mars

When the Opportunity rover landed on Mars on January 25th, 2004, its mission was only meant to last for about 90 Earth days. But the little rover that could has exceeded all expectations by remaining in operation (as of the writing of this article) for a total of 13 years and 231 days and traveled a total of about 50 km (28 mi). Basically, Opportunity has continued to remain mobile and gather scientific data 50 times longer than its designated lifespan.

And according to a recent announcement from NASA’s Mars Exploration Program (MEP), the rover managed to survive yet another winter on Mars. Having endured the its eight Martian winter in a row, and with its solar panels in encouragingly clean condition, the rover will be in good shape for the coming dust-storm season. It also means the rover will live to see its 14th anniversary, which will take place on January 25th, 2018.

On Mars, a single year lasts the equivalent of 686.971 Earth days (or 1.88 Earth years). And since Mars’ axis is inclined 25.19° to its orbital plane (compared to Earth’s axial tilt of just over 23°), Mars also experiences seasons. However, these tend to last about twice as long as the seasons on Earth. And of course, the seasons on Mars’ are also much colder, with temperatures averaging about -63 °C (-82°F).

Enhanced-color view of ground sloping downward to the right in “Perseverance Valley”, taken by the Pancam on the Opportunity rover in October of 2017. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ

As Jennifer Herman, the power subsystem operations team lead for Opportunity at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, recalled in a NASA MEP press statement:

“I didn’t start working on this project until about Sol 300, and I was told not to get too settled in because Spirit and Opportunity probably wouldn’t make it through that first Martian winter. Now, Opportunity has made it through the worst part of its eighth Martian winter.”

At present, both the Opportunity and Spirit rover are in Mars’ southern hemisphere. Here, the Sun appears in the northern sky during the fall and winter, so the rovers need to tilt their solar-arrays northward. Back in 2004, the Spirit rover had lost the use of two of its wheels, and could therefore not maneuver out of a sand trap it had become stuck in. As such, it was unable to tilt itself northward and did not survive its fourth Martian winter (in 2009).

However, Opportunity’s current position – Perseverance Valley, a fluid-carved region on the inner slope at the edge of the Endeavour Crater – meant that it was well-positioned to keep working through late fall and early winter this year. This was ensured by the stops the rover made at energy-favorable locations, where it would inspect local rocks, examine the valley’s shape and image the surrounding area, all the while absorbing ample energy from the Sun.

Image of the floor of Endeavour Crater, taken by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity on Nov. 11th, 2017, about a week before Opportunity’s eighth Martian winter solstice. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ

Five months ago, the rover entered the top of the valley, which runs eastward down the inner slope of the Endurance Crater’s western rim. Since that time, Opportunity has been conducting stops between drives at north-facing sites, which are situated along the southern edge of the channel. The rover team calls the sites “lily pads”, since these places are spots that the rover need to hop across during its mission.

This is necessary, given that Opportunity does not rely on a radioisotope thermoelectric generator like Curiosity does. While winter conditions affect the use of electrical heaters and batteries on both rovers, Opportunity is different in that it’s activities are more subject to seasonal change. Whereas Curiosity will simply allocate less energy to performing tasks in the winter, Opportunity needs to pick its routes to ensure it stays powered up.

During some of its previous winters, the Opportunity rover was not as well-situated as it currently is. During its fifth winter (2011-2012) the rover spent 19 weeks at one spot because no other places that allowed for a northward-facing tilt were available within driving distance. On the other hand, its first winter (2004-2005) was spent in the southern half of the Endurance Crater, where all grounds are favorable since they face north.

As the person who is chiefly responsible for advising other mission scientists on how much energy Opportunity has available on each Martian day (sol) for conducting activities like driving and observing – a task she performs for Curiosity as well – Herman understand the relationship between power usage and the seasons all too well. “Relying on solar energy for Opportunity keeps us constantly aware of the season on Mars and the terrain that the rover is on, more than for Curiosity,” she said.

A self-portrait of the Opportunity rover shortly after dust cleared its solar panels in March 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

Another factor which can influence Opportunity‘s power supply is how much dust is in the sky and how much of it gets onto the rover’s solar arrays. This is highly-dependent on prevailing wind conditions, which can both stir up dust storms and clear away dust deposits on the rover – basically, they are a real mixed blessing! During autumn and winter in the southern-hemisphere, the skies are generally clear where Opportunity operates.

Spring and summer is when the storms are most common in Mars’ southern hemisphere, though they don’t happen every year. The latest example took place in 2007, which led to a severe reduction in the amount of sunlight (and hence, solar energy) Spirit and Opportunity were able to receive. This required both rovers to enact emergency protocols and reduce the amount of operations and communications they conducted.

The amount of dust on the rover’s solar arrays going into autumn can also vary from year to year. This year, the array was dustier than in all but one of the previous Martian autumns it experienced. Luckily, as Herman explained, things worked out for the rover:

“We were worried that the dust accumulation this winter would be similar to some of the worst winters we’ve had, and that we might come out of the winter with a very dusty array, but we’ve had some recent dust cleaning that was nice to see. Now I’m more optimistic. If Opportunity’s solar arrays keep getting cleaned as they have recently, she’ll be in a good position to survive a major dust storm. It’s been more than 10 Earth years since the last one and we need to be vigilant.”

Image of the Opportunity rover’s front wheel, taken on June 9th, 2004, inside the Endurance Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

In the coming months, the Opportunity team hopes to investigate how the Perseverance Valley was cut into the rim of the Endeavor crater. As Matt Golombek, an Opportunity Project Scientist at JPL, related:

“We have not been seeing anything screamingly diagnostic, in the valley itself, about how much water was involved in the flow. We may get good diagnostic clues from the deposits at the bottom of the valley, but we don’t want to be there yet, because that’s level ground with no more lily pads.”

With its eighth winter finished and Opportunity still in good working order, we can expect the tenacious rover to keep turning up interesting finds on Mars. These include clues about Mars’ warmer, wetter past, which likely included a standing body of water in the Endeavor crater. And assuming conditions are favorable in the coming year, we can expect that Opportunity will continue to push the boundaries of both science and its own endurance!

Further Reading: NASA

Sky Pointing Curiosity Captures Breathtaking Vista of Mount Sharp and Crater Rim, Climbs Vera Rubin Seeking Hydrated Martian Minerals

NASA’s Curiosity rover raised robotic arm with drill pointed skyward while exploring Vera Rubin Ridge at the base of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater – backdropped by distant crater rim. This navcam camera mosaic was stitched from raw images taken on Sol 1833, Oct. 2, 2017 and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

5 years after a heart throbbing Martian touchdown, Curiosity is climbing Vera Rubin Ridge in search of “aqueous minerals” and “clays” for clues to possible past life while capturing “truly breathtaking” vistas of humongous Mount Sharp – her primary destination – and the stark eroded rim of the Gale Crater landing zone from ever higher elevations, NASA scientists tell Universe Today in a new mission update.

“Curiosity is doing well, over five years into the mission,” Michael Meyer, NASA Lead Scientist, Mars Exploration Program, NASA Headquarters told Universe Today in an interview.

“A key finding is the discovery of an extended period of habitability on ancient Mars.”

The car-sized rover soft landed on Mars inside Gale Crater on August 6, 2012 using the ingenious and never before tried “sky crane” system.

A rare glimpse of Curiosity’s arm and turret mounted skyward pointing drill is illustrated with our lead mosaic from Sol 1833 of the robot’s life on Mars – showing a panoramic view around the alien terrain from her current location in October 2017 while actively at work analyzing soil samples.

“Your mosaic is absolutely gorgeous!’ Jim Green, NASA Director Planetary Science Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington D.C., told Universe Today

“We are at such a height on Mt Sharp to see the rim of Gale Crater and the top of the mountain. Truly breathtaking.”

The rover has ascended more than 300 meters in elevation over the past 5 years of exploration and discovery from the crater floor to the mountain ridge. She is driving to the top of Vera Rubin Ridge at this moment and always on the lookout for research worthy targets of opportunity.

Additionally, the Sol 1833 Vera Rubin Ridge mosaic, stitched by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo, shows portions of the trek ahead to the priceless scientific bounty of aqueous mineral signatures detected by spectrometers years earlier from orbit by NASA’s fleet of Red Planet orbiters.

NASA’s Curiosity rover as seen simultaneously on Mars surface and from orbit on Sol 1717, June 5, 2017. The robot snapped this self portrait mosaic view while approaching Vera Rubin Ridge at the base of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater – backdropped by distant crater rim. This navcam camera mosaic was stitched from raw images and colorized. Inset shows overhead orbital view of Curiosity (blue feature) amid rocky mountainside terrain taken the same day by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

“Curiosity is on Vera Rubin Ridge (aka Hematite Ridge) – it is the first aqueous mineral signature that we have seen from space, a driver for selecting Gale Crater,” NASA HQ Mars Lead Scientist Meyer elaborated.

“And now we have access to it.”

The Sol 1833 photomosaic illustrates Curiosity maneuvering her 7 foot long (2 meter) robotic arm during a period when she was processing and delivering a sample of the “Ogunquit Beach” for drop off to the inlet of the CheMin instrument earlier in October. The “Ogunquit Beach” sample is dune material that was collected at Bagnold Dune II this past spring.

The sample drop is significant because the drill has not been operational for some time.

“Ogunquit Beach” sediment materials were successfully delivered to the CheMin and SAM instruments over the following sols and multiple analyses are in progress.

To date three CheMin integrations of “Ogunquit Beach” have been completed. Each one brings the mineralogy into sharper focus.

Researchers used the Mastcam on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover to gain this detailed view of layers in “Vera Rubin Ridge” from just below the ridge. The scene combines 70 images taken with the Mastcam’s right-eye, telephoto-lens camera, on Aug. 13, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

What’s the status of the rover health at 5 years, the wheels and the drill?

“All the instruments are doing great and the wheels are holding up,” Meyer explained.

“When 3 grousers break, 60% life has been used – this has not happened yet and they are being periodically monitored. The one exception is the drill feed (see detailed update below).”

NASA’s Curiosity rover explores sand dunes inside Gale Crater with Mount Sharp in view on Mars on Sol 1611, Feb. 16, 2017, in this navcam camera mosaic, stitched from raw images and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA’s 1 ton Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover is now closer than ever to the mineral signatures that were the key reason why Mount Sharp was chosen as the robots landing site years ago by the scientists leading the unprecedented mission.

Along the way from the ‘Bradbury Landing’ zone to Mount Sharp, six wheeled Curiosity has often been climbing. To date she has gained over 313 meters (1027 feet) in elevation – from minus 4490 meters to minus 4177 meters today, Oct. 19, 2017, said Meyer.

The low point was inside Yellowknife Bay at approx. minus 4521 meters.

VRR alone stands about 20 stories tall and gains Curiosity approx. 65 meters (213 feet) of elevation to the top of the ridge. Overall the VRR traverse is estimated by NASA to take drives totaling more than a third of a mile (570 m).

Curiosity images Vera Rubin Ridge during approach backdropped by Mount Sharp. This navcam camera mosaic was stitched from raw images taken on Sol 1726, June 14, 2017 and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“Vera Rubin Ridge” or VRR is also called “Hematite Ridge.” It’s a narrow and winding ridge located on the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. It was informally named earlier this year in honor of pioneering astrophysicist Vera Rubin.

The intrepid robot reached the base of the ridge in early September.

The ridge possesses steep cliffs exposing stratifications of large vertical sedimentary rock layers and fracture filling mineral deposits, including the iron-oxide mineral hematite, with extensive bright veins.

VRR resists erosion better than the less-steep portions of the mountain below and above it, say mission scientists.

Curiosity rover raises robotic arm high while scouting the Bagnold Dune Field and observing dust devils inside Gale Crater on Mars on Sol 1625, Mar. 2, 2017, in this navcam camera mosaic stitched from raw images and colorized. Note: Wheel tracks at right, distant crater rim in background. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

What’s ahead for Curiosity in the coming weeks and months exploring VRR before moving onward and upwards to higher elevation?

“Over the next several months, Curiosity will explore Vera Rubin Ridge,” Meyer replied.

“This will be a big opportunity to ground-truth orbital observations. Of interest, so far, the hematite of VRR does not look that different from what we have been seeing all along the Murray formation. So, big question is why?”

“The view from VRR also provides better access to what’s ahead in exploring the next aqueous mineral feature – the clay, or phyllosilicates, which can be indicators of specific environments, putting constraints on variables such as pH and temperature,” Meyer explained.

The clay minerals or phyllosilicates form in more neutral water, and are thus extremely scientifically interesting since pH neutral water is more conducive to the origin and evolution of Martian microbial life forms, if they ever existed.

How far away are the clays ahead and when might Curiosity reach them?

“As the crow flies, the clays are about 0.5 km,” Meyer replied. “However, the actual odometer distance and whether the clays are where we think they are – area vs. a particular location – can add a fair degree of variability.”

The clay rich area is located beyond the ridge.

Over the past few months Curiosity make rapid progress towards the hematite-bearing location of Vera Rubin Ridge after conducting in-depth exploration of the Bagnold Dunes earlier this year.

“Vera Rubin Ridge is a high-standing unit that runs parallel to and along the eastern side of the Bagnold Dunes,” said Mark Salvatore, an MSL Participating Scientist and a faculty member at Northern Arizona University, in a mission update.

“From orbit, Vera Rubin Ridge has been shown to exhibit signatures of hematite, an oxidized iron phase whose presence can help us to better understand the environmental conditions present when this mineral assemblage formed.”

Curiosity is using the science instruments on the mast, deck and robotic arm turret to gather detailed research measurements with the cameras and spectrometers. The pair of miniaturized chemistry lab instruments inside the belly – CheMin and SAM – are used to analyze the chemical and elemental composition of pulverized rock and soil gathered by drilling and scooping selected targets during the traverse.

A key instrument is the drill which has not been operational. I asked Meyer for a drill update.

“The drill feed developed problems retracting (two stabilizer prongs on either side of the drill retract, controlling the rate of drill penetration),” Meyer replied.

“Because the root cause has not been found (think FOD) and the concern about the situation getting worse, the drill feed has been retracted and the engineers are working on drilling without the stabilizing prongs.”

“Note, a consequence is that you can still drill and collect sample but a) there is added concern about getting the drill stuck and b) a new method of delivering sample needs to be developed and tested (the drill feed normally needs to be moved to move the sample into the chimera). One option that looks viable is reversing the drill – it does work and they are working on the scripts and how to control sample size.”

Ascending and diligently exploring the sedimentary lower layers of Mount Sharp, which towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky, is the primary destination and goal of the rover’s long term scientific expedition on the Red Planet.

“Lower Mount Sharp was chosen as a destination for the Curiosity mission because the layers of the mountain offer exposures of rocks that record environmental conditions from different times in the early history of the Red Planet. Curiosity has found evidence for ancient wet environments that offered conditions favorable for microbial life, if Mars has ever hosted life,” says NASA.

Stay tuned. In part 2 we’ll discuss the key findings from Curiosity’s first 5 years exploring the Red Planet.

As of today, Sol 1850, Oct. 19, 2017, Curiosity has driven over 10.89 miles (17.53 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater from the landing site to the ridge, and taken over 445,000 amazing images.

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

Ken Kremer

Map shows route driven by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity through Sol 1827 of the rover’s mission on Mars (September 27, 2017). Numbering of the dots along the line indicate the sol number of each drive. North is up. Since touching down in Bradbury Landing in August 2012, Curiosity has driven 10.84 miles (17.45 kilometers). The base image from the map is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera (HiRISE) in NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/UA
Curiosity’s Traverse Map Through Sol 1717. This map shows the route driven by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity through the 1717 Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission on Mars (June 05, 2017). The base image from the map is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera (HiRISE) in NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

New Study Could Help Locate Subsurface Deposits of Water Ice on Mars

It is a well-known fact that today, Mars is a very cold and dry place. Whereas the planet once had a thicker atmosphere that allowed for warmer temperatures and liquid water on its surface, the vast majority of water there today consists of ice that is located in the polar regions. But for some time, scientists have speculated that there may be plenty of water in subsurface ice deposits.

If true, this water could be accessed by future crewed missions and even colonization efforts, serving as a source of rocket fuel and drinking water. Unfortunately, a new study led by scientists from the Smithsonian Institution indicates that the subsurface region beneath Meridiani Planum could be ice-free. Though this may seem like bad news, the study could help point the way towards accessible areas of water ice on Mars.

This study, titled “Radar Sounder Evidence of Thick, Porous Sediments in Meridiani Planum and Implications for Ice-Filled Deposits on Mars“, recently appeared in the Geophysical Research Letters. Led by Dr. Thomas R. Watters, the Senior Scientist with the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the Smithsonian Institution, the team examined data collected by the ESA’s Mars Express mission in the Meridiani Planum region.

Artist’s impression of a global view of Mars, centered on the Meridiani Planum region. Credit: Air and Space Museum/Smithsonian Institution

Despite being one of the most intensely explored regions on Mars, particularly by missions like the Opportunity rover, the subsurface structure of Meridiani Planum has remained largely unknown. To remedy this, the science team led by Dr. Watters examined data that had been collected by the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding (MARSIS) instrument aboard the ESA’s Mars Express orbiter.

Developed by researchers at the University of Rome in partnership with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (and with the help of private contractors), this device used low-frequency radio pulses to study Mars’ ionosphere, atmosphere, surface, and interior structure. The way these pulses penetrated into certain materials and were reflected back to the orbiter was then used to determine the bulk density and compositions of those materials.

After examining the Meridiani Planum region, the Mars Express probe obtained readings that indicated that the subsurface area had a relatively low dielectric constant. In the past, these kinds of readings have been interpreted as being due to the presence of pure water ice. And in this case, the readings seemed to indicate that the subsurface was made up of porous rock that was filled with water ice.

However, with the help of newly-derived compaction models for Mars, the team concluded that these signals could be the result of ice-free, porous, windblown sand (aka. eolian sands). They further theorized that the Meridiani Planum region, which is characterized by some rather unique physiographic and hydrologic features, could have provided an ideal sediment trap for these kinds of sands.

Artist’s impression of the Mars Express rover, showing radar returns from its MARSIS instrument. Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/KU/Smithsonian

“The relatively low gravity and the cold, dry climate that has dominated Mars for billions of years may have allowed thick eolian sand deposits to remain porous and only weakly indurated,” they concluded. “Minimally compacted sedimentary deposits may offer a possible explanation for other nonpolar region units with low apparent bulk dielectric constants.”

As Watters also indicated in a Smithsonian press statement:

“It’s very revealing that the low dielectric constant of the Meridiani Planum deposits can be explained without invoking pore-filling ice. Our results suggest that caution should be exercised in attributing non-polar deposits on Mars with low dielectric constants to the presence of water ice.”

On its face, this would seem like bad news to those who were hoping that the equatorial regions on Mars might contain vast deposits of accessible water ice. It has been argued that when crewed missions to Mars begin, this ice could be accessed in order to supply water for surface habitats. In addition, ice that didn’t need to come from there could also be used to manufacture hydrazine fuel for return missions.

This would reduce travel times and the cost of mounting missions to Mars considerably since the spacecraft would not need to carry enough fuel for the entire journey, and would therefore be smaller and faster. In the event that human beings establish a colony on Mars someday, these same subsurface deposits could also used for drinking, sanitation, and irrigation water.

A subsurface view of Miyamoto crater in Meridiani Planum from the MARSIS radar sounder. . Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/KU/Smithsonian

As such, this study – which indicates that low dielectric constants could be due to something other than the presence of water ice – places a bit of a damper on these plans. However, understood in context, it provides scientists with a means of locating subsurface ice. Rather than ruling out the presence of subsurface ice away from the polar regions entirely, it could actually help point the way to much-needed deposits.

One can only hope that these regions are not confined to the polar regions of the planet, which would be far more difficult to access. If future missions and (fingers crossed!) permanent outposts are forced to pump in their water, it would be far more economical to do from underground sources, rather than bringing it in all the way from the polar ice caps.

Further Reading: Smithsonian NASM, Geophysical Research Letters

Opportunity Starts Historic Descent of Tantalizing Martian Gully to Find Out How Was It Carved

Historic 1st descent down Martian gully. Panoramic view looking down Perseverance Valley after entry at top was acquired by NASA’s Opportunity rover scanning from north to south. It shows numerous wheel tracks at left, center and right as rover conducted walkabout tour prior to starting historic first decent down a Martian gully – possibly carved by water – and looks into the interior of Endeavour crater. Perseverance Valley terminates down near the crater floor in the center of the panorama. The far rim of Endeavour crater is seen in the distance, beyond the dark floor. Rover mast shadow at center and deck at left. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo from raw images taken on Sol 4780 (5 July 2017) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

From the precipice of “Perseverance Valley” NASA’s teenaged Red Planet robot Opportunity has begun the historic first ever descent of an ancient Martian gully – that’s simultaneously visually and scientifically “tantalizing” – on an expedition to discern ‘How was it carved?’; by water or other means, Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Sciences Chief tells Universe Today.

Since water is an indispensable ingredient for life as we know it, the ‘opportunity’ for Opportunity to study a “possibly water-cut” gully on Mars for the first time since they were discovered over four decades ago by NASA orbiters offers a potential scientific bonanza.

“Gullies on Mars have always been of intense interest since first observed by our orbiters,” Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Sciences Chief explained to Universe Today.

“How were they carved? muses Green. “Water is a natural explanation but this is another planet. Now we have a chance to find out for real!”

Their origin and nature has been intensely debated by researchers for decades. But until now the ability to gather real ‘ground truth’ science by robotic or human explorers has remained elusive.

“This will be the first time we will acquire ground truth on a gully system that just might be formed by fluvial processes,” Ray Arvidson, Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University in St. Louis, told Universe Today.

“Perseverance Valley” is located along the eroded western rim of gigantic Endeavour crater – as illustrated by our exclusive photo mosaics herein created by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

After arriving at the upper entryway to “Perseverance Valley” the six wheeled rover drove back and forth to gather high resolution imagery of the inner slope for engineers to create a 3D elevation map and plot a safe driving path down – as illustrated in our lead mosaic showing the valley and extensive wheel tracks at left, center and right.

Having just this week notched an astounding 4800 Sols roving the Red Planet, NASA’s resilient Opportunity rover has started driving down from the top of “Perseverance Valley” from the spillway overlooking the upper end of the ancient fluid-carved Martian valley into the unimaginably vast eeriness of alien Endeavour crater.

Water, ice or wind may have flowed over the crater rim and into the crater from the spillway.

“It is a tantalizing scene,” said Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, in a statement. “You can see what appear to be channels lined by boulders, and the putative spillway at the top of Perseverance Valley. We have not ruled out any of the possibilities of water, ice or wind being responsible.”

Toward the right side of this scene is a broad notch in the crest of the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Wheel tracks in that area were left by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity as it observed “Perseverance Valley” from above in the spring of 2017. The valley is a major destination for the rover’s extended mission. It descends out of sight on the inner slope of the rim, extending down and eastward from that notch. The component pancam images for this view from a position outside the crater were taken during the span of June 7 to June 19, 2017, sols 4753 to 4765. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.

“With the latest drive on sol 4782, Opportunity began the long drive down the floor of Perseverance Valley here on Endeavour crater, says Larry Crumpler, a rover science team member from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science.

“This is rather historic in that it represents the first time that a rover has driven down an apparent water-cut valley on Mars. Over the next few months Opportunity will explore the floor and sides of the valley for evidence of the scale and timing of the fluvial activity, if that is what is represents.”

This mosaic view looks down from inside the upper end of “Perseverance Valley” on the inner slope of Endeavour Crater’s western rim after Opportunity started driving down the Martian gully. The scene behind the shadow of the rover’s mast shows Perseverance Valley descending to the floor of Endeavour Crater. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4782 (7 July 2017) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

“Investigations in the coming weeks will “endeavor” to determine whether this valley was eroded by water or some other dry process like debris flows,” explains Crumpler.

“It certainly looks like a water cut valley. But looks aren’t good enough. We need additional evidence to test that idea.”

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

The valley slices downward from the crest line through the rim from west to east at a breathtaking slope of about 15 to 17 degrees – and measures about two football fields in length!

Huge Endeavour crater spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter on the Red Planet. Perseverance Valley slices eastwards at approximately the 8 o’clock position of the circular shaped crater. It sits just north of a rim segment called “Cape Byron.”

Why go and explore the gully at Perseverance Valley?

“Opportunity will traverse to the head of the gully system [at Perseverance] and head downhill into one or more of the gullies to characterize the morphology and search for evidence of deposits,” Arvidson elaborated to Universe Today.

“Hopefully test among dry mass movements, debris flow, and fluvial processes for gully formation. The importance is that this will be the first time we will acquire ground truth on a gully system that just might be formed by fluvial processes. Will search for cross bedding, gravel beds, fining or coarsening upward sequences, etc., to test among hypotheses.”

Exploring the ancient valley is the main science destination of the current two-year extended mission (EM #10) for the teenaged robot, that officially began Oct. 1, 2016. It’s just the latest in a series of extensions going back to the end of Opportunity’s prime mission in April 2004.

Before starting the gully descent, Opportunity conducted a walkabout at the top of the Perseverance Valley in the spillway to learn more about the region before driving down.

“The walkabout is designed to look at what’s just above Perseverance Valley,” said Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, in a statwemwent. “We see a pattern of striations running east-west outside the crest of the rim.”

“We want to determine whether these are in-place rocks or transported rocks,” Arvidson said. “One possibility is that this site was the end of a catchment where a lake was perched against the outside of the crater rim. A flood might have brought in the rocks, breached the rim and overflowed into the crater, carving the valley down the inner side of the rim. Another possibility is that the area was fractured by the impact that created Endeavour Crater, then rock dikes filled the fractures, and we’re seeing effects of wind erosion on those filled fractures.”

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

Having begun the long awaited gully descent, further movements are temporarily on hold since the start of the solar conjunction period which blocks communications between Mars and Earth for about the next two weeks, since Mars is directly behind the sun.

In the meantime, Opportunity will still collect very useful panoramic images and science data while standing still.

The solar conjunction moratorium on commanding extends from July 22 to Aug. 1, 2017.

As of today, July 27, 2017, long lived Opportunity has survived over 4800 Sols (or Martian days) roving the harsh environment of the Red Planet.

Opportunity has taken over 221,625 images and traversed over 27.95 miles (44.97 kilometers.- more than a marathon.

See our updated route map below. It shows the context of the rovers over 13 year long traverse spanning more than the 26 mile distance of a Marathon runners race.

The rover surpassed the 27 mile mark milestone on November 6, 2016 (Sol 4546) and will soon surpass the 28 mile mark.

As of Sol 4793 (July 18, 2017) the power output from solar array energy production is currently 332 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 0.774 and a solar array dust factor of 0.534, before heading into another southern hemisphere Martian winter later in 2017. It will count as Opportunity’s 8th winter on Mars.

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

And NASA continues building the next two robotic missions due to touch down in 2018 and 2020.

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

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 over 13 years and more than a marathon runners distance for over 4782 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 – to current location at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. After studying Spirit Mound and ascending back uphill the rover has reached her next destination in May 2017- the Martian water carved gully at Perseverance Valley near Orion crater. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 after reaching 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone – and searched for more at Marathon Valley. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

See NASA’s Curiosity Rover Simultaneously from Orbit and Red Planet’s Surface Climbing Mount Sharp

NASA’s Curiosity rover as seen simultaneously on Mars surface and from orbit on Sol 1717, June 5, 2017. The robot snapped this self portrait mosaic view while approaching Vera Rubin Ridge at the base of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater – backdropped by distant crater rim. This navcam camera mosaic was stitched from raw images and colorized. Inset shows overhead orbital view of Curiosity (blue feature) amid rocky mountainside terrain taken the same day by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

You can catch a glimpse of what its like to see NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover simultaneously high overhead from orbit and trundling down low across the Red Planet’s rocky surface as she climbs the breathtaking terrain of Mount Sharp – as seen in new images from NASA we have stitched together into a mosaic view showing the perspective views; see above.

Earlier this month on June 5, researchers commanded NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to image the car sized Curiosity rover from Mars orbit using the spacecrafts onboard High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) telescopic camera during Sol 1717 of her Martian expedition – see below.

HiRISE is the most powerful telescope ever sent to Mars.

And as she does nearly every Sol, or Martian day, Curiosity snapped a batch of new images captured from Mars surface using her navigation camera called navcam – likewise on Sol 1717.

Since NASA just released the high resolution MRO images of Curiosity from orbit, we assembled together the navcam camera raw images taken simultaneously on June 5 (Sol 1717), in order to show the actual vista seen by the six wheeled robot from a surface perspective on the same day.

The lead navcam photo mosaic shows a partial rover selfie backdropped by the distant rim of Gale Crater – and was stitched together by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

The feature that appears bright blue at the center of this scene is NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover amid tan rocks and dark sand on Mount Sharp, as viewed by the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on June 5, 2017. The rover is about 10 feet long and not really as blue as it looks here. The image was taken as Curiosity was partway between its investigation of active sand dunes lower on Mount Sharp, and “Vera Rubin Ridge,” a destination uphill where the rover team intends to examine outcrops where hematite has been identified from Mars orbit. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Right now NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover is approaching her next science destination named “Vera Rubin Ridge” while climbing up the lower reaches of Mount Sharp, the humongous mountain that dominates the rover’s landing site inside Gale Crater.

“When the MRO image was taken, Curiosity was partway between its investigation of active sand dunes lower on Mount Sharp, and “Vera Rubin Ridge,” a destination uphill where the rover team intends to examine outcrops where hematite has been identified from Mars orbit,” says NASA.

“HiRISE has been imaging Curiosity about every three months, to monitor the surrounding features for changes such as dune migration or erosion.”

The MRO image has been color enhanced and shows Curiosity as a bright blue feature. It is currently traveling on the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. Curiosity is approximately 10 feet long and 9 feet wide (3.0 meters by 2.8 meters).

“The exaggerated color, showing differences in Mars surface materials, makes Curiosity appear bluer than it really looks. This helps make differences in Mars surface materials apparent, but does not show natural color as seen by the human eye.”

See our mosaic of “Vera Rubin Ridge” and Mount Sharp below.

Curiosity images Vera Rubin Ridge during approach backdropped by Mount Sharp. This navcam camera mosaic was stitched from raw images taken on Sol 1726, June 14, 2017 and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Curiosity is making rapid progress towards the hematite-bearing location of Vera Rubin Ridge after conducting in-depth exploration of the Bagnold Dunes earlier this year.

“Vera Rubin Ridge is a high-standing unit that runs parallel to and along the eastern side of the Bagnold Dunes,” says Mark Salvatore, an MSL Participating Scientist and a faculty member at Northern Arizona University, in a new mission update.

“From orbit, Vera Rubin Ridge has been shown to exhibit signatures of hematite, an oxidized iron phase whose presence can help us to better understand the environmental conditions present when this mineral assemblage formed.”

Curiosity will use her cameras and spectrometers to elucidate the origin and nature of Vera Rubin Ridge and potential implications or role in past habitable environments.

“The rover will turn its cameras to Vera Rubin Ridge for another suite of high resolution color images, which will help to characterize any observed layers, fractures, or geologic contacts. These observations will help the science team to determine how Vera Rubin Ridge formed and its relationship to the other geologic units found within Gale Crater.”

To reach Vera Rubin Ridge, Curiosity is driving east-northeast around two small patches of dunes just to the north. She will then turn “southeast and towards the location identified as the safest place for Curiosity to ascend the ridge. Currently, this ridge ascent point is approximately 370 meters away.”

Curiosity rover raises robotic arm high while scouting the Bagnold Dune Field and observing dust devils inside Gale Crater on Mars on Sol 1625, Mar. 2, 2017, in this navcam camera mosaic stitched from raw images and colorized. Note: Wheel tracks at right, distant crater rim in background. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Ascending and diligently exploring the sedimentary lower layers of Mount Sharp, which towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky, is the primary destination and goal of the rovers long term scientific expedition on the Red Planet.

“Lower Mount Sharp was chosen as a destination for the Curiosity mission because the layers of the mountain offer exposures of rocks that record environmental conditions from different times in the early history of the Red Planet. Curiosity has found evidence for ancient wet environments that offered conditions favorable for microbial life, if Mars has ever hosted life,” says NASA.

NASA’s Curiosity rover explores sand dunes inside Gale Crater with Mount Sharp in view on Mars on Sol 1611, Feb. 16, 2017, in this navcam camera mosaic, stitched from raw images and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

As of today, Sol 1733, June 21, 2017, Curiosity has driven over 10.29 miles (16.57 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater, and taken over 420,000 amazing images.

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

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about the upcoming SpaceX launch of BulgariaSat 1, recent SpaceX Dragon CRS-11 resupply launch to ISS, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

June 22-24: “SpaceX BulgariaSat 1 launch, SpaceX CRS-11 and CRS-10 resupply launches to the ISS, Inmarsat 5 and NRO Spysat, EchoStar 23, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity and Opportunity explore Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Curiosity’s Traverse Map Through Sol 1717. This map shows the route driven by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity through the 1717 Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission on Mars (June 05, 2017). The base image from the map is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera (HiRISE) in NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

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

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

Now well into her 13th year roving the Red Planet, NASA’s astoundingly resilient Opportunity rover has arrived at the precipice of “Perseverance Valley” – overlooking the upper end of an ancient fluid-carved valley on Mars “possibly water-cut” that flows down into the unimaginably vast eeriness of alien Endeavour crater.

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

In a remarkable first time feat and treat for having ‘persevered’ so long on the inhospitably frigid Martian terrain, Opportunity has been tasked by her human handlers to drive down a Martian gully carved billions of years ago – by a fluid that might have been water – and conduct unparalleled scientific exploration, that will also extend into the interior of Endeavour Crater for the first time.

No Mars rover has done that before.

“This will be the first time we will acquire ground truth on a gully system that just might be formed by fluvial processes,” Ray Arvidson, Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University in St. Louis, told Universe Today.

“Opportunity has arrived at the head of Perseverance Valley, a possible water-cut valley here at a low spot along the rim of the 22-km diameter Endeavour impact crater,” says Larry Crumpler, a rover science team member from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science.

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

“The next month or so will be an exciting time, for no rover has ever driven down a potential ancient water-cut valley before,” Crumpler gushes.

“Perseverance Valley” is located along the eroded western rim of gigantic Endeavour crater – as illustrated by our exclusive photo mosaics herein created by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

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

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

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

“Investigations in the coming weeks will “endeavor” to determine whether this valley was eroded by water or some other dry process like debris flows,” explains Crumpler.

“It certainly looks like a water cut valley. But looks aren’t good enough. We need additional evidence to test that idea.”

The valley slices downward from the crest line through the rim from west to east at a breathtaking slope of about 15 to 17 degrees – and measures about two football fields in length!

Huge Endeavour crater spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter on the Red Planet. Perseverance Valley slices eastwards at approximately the 8 o’clock position of the circular shaped crater. It sits just north of a rim segment called “Cape Byron.”

Why go and explore the gully at Perseverance Valley?

“Opportunity will traverse to the head of the gully system [at Perseverance] and head downhill into one or more of the gullies to characterize the morphology and search for evidence of deposits,” Arvidson elaborated.

“Hopefully test among dry mass movements, debris flow, and fluvial processes for gully formation. The importance is that this will be the first time we will acquire ground truth on a gully system that just might be formed by fluvial processes. Will search for cross bedding, gravel beds, fining or coarsening upward sequences, etc., to test among hypotheses.”

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

Exploring the ancient valley is the main science destination of the current two-year extended mission (EM #10) for the teenaged robot, that officially began Oct. 1, 2016. It’s just the latest in a series of extensions going back to the end of Opportunity’s prime mission in April 2004.

What are the immediate tasks ahead that Opportunity must accomplish before descending down the gully to thoroughly and efficiently investigate the research objectives?

In a nutshell, extensive imaging from a local high point promontory to create a long-baseline 3 D stereo image of the valley and a “walk-about” to assess the local geology.

The rover is collecting images from two widely separated points at a dip at the valley spillway to build an “extraordinarily detailed three-dimensional analysis of the terrain” called a digital elevation map.

“Opportunity has been working on a panorama from the overlook for the past couple of sols. The idea is to get a good overview of the valley from a high point before driving down it,” Crumpler explains.

“But before we drive down the valley, we want to get a good sense of the geologic features here on the head of the valley. It could come in handy as we drive down the valley and may help us understand some things, particularly the lithology of any materials we find on the valley floor or at the terminus down near the crater floor.”

“So we will be doing a short “walk-about” here on the outside of the crater rim near the “spillway” into the valley.”

“We will drive down it to further assess its origin and to further explore the structure and stratigraphy of this large impact crater.”

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

The six wheeled rover landed on Mars on January 24, 2004 PST on the alien Martian plains at Meridiani Planum – as the second half of a stupendous sister act.

Expected to last just 3 months or 90 days, Opportunity has now endured nearly 13 ½ years or an unfathomable 53 times beyond the “warrantied” design lifetime.

Her twin sister Spirit, had successfully touched down 3 weeks earlier on January 3, 2004 inside 100-mile-wide Gusev crater and survived more than six years.

Opportunity has been exploring Endeavour almost six years – since arriving at the humongous crater in 2011. Endeavour crater was formed when it was carved out of the Red Planet by a huge meteor impact billions of years ago.

“Endeavour crater dates from the earliest Martian geologic history, a time when water was abundant and erosion was relatively rapid and somewhat Earth-like,” explains Crumpler.

Exactly what the geologic process was that carved Perseverance Valley into the rim of Endeavour Crater billions of years ago has not yet been determined, but there are a wide range of options researchers are considering.

“Among the possibilities: It might have been flowing water, or might have been a debris flow in which a small amount of water lubricated a turbulent mix of mud and boulders, or might have been an even drier process, such as wind erosion,” say NASA scientists.

“The mission’s main objective with Opportunity at this site is to assess which possibility is best supported by the evidence still in place.”

Extensive imaging with the mast mounted pancam and navcam cameras is currently in progress.

“The long-baseline stereo imaging will be used to generate a digital elevation map that will help the team carefully evaluate possible driving routes down the valley before starting the descent,” said Opportunity Project Manager John Callas of JPL, in a statement.

“Reversing course back uphill when partway down could be difficult, so finding a path with minimum obstacles will be important for driving Opportunity through the whole valley. Researchers intend to use the rover to examine textures and compositions at the top, throughout the length and at the bottom, as part of investigating the valley’s history.”

The team is also dealing with a new wheel issue and evaluating fixes. The left-front wheel is stuck due to an actuator stall.

“The rover experienced a left-front wheel steering actuator stall on Sol 4750 (June 4, 2017) leaving the wheel ‘toed-out’ by 33 degrees,” the team reported in a new update.

Thus the extensive Pancam panorama is humorously being called the “Sprained Ankle Panorama.” Selected high-value targets of the surrounding area will be imaged with the full 13-filter Pancam suite.

After reaching the bottom of Perseverance Valley, Opportunity will explore the craters interior for the first time during the mission.

“Once down at the end of the valley, Opportunity will be directed to explore the crater fill on a drive south at the foot of the crater walls,” states Crumpler.

As of today, June 17, 2017, long lived Opportunity has survived over 4763 Sols (or Martian days) roving the harsh environment of the Red Planet.

Opportunity has taken over 220,800 images and traversed over 27.87 miles (44.86 kilometers) – more than a marathon.

See our updated route map below. It shows the context of the rovers over 13 year long traverse spanning more than the 26 mile distance of a Marathon runners race.

The rover surpassed the 27 mile mark milestone on November 6, 2016 (Sol 4546).

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

As of Sol 4759 (June 13, 2017) the power output from solar array energy production is currently 343 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 0.842 and a solar array dust factor of 0.529, before heading into another southern hemisphere Martian winter later in 2017. It will count as Opportunity’s 8th winter on Mars.

“The science team is really jazzed at starting to see this area up close and looking for clues to help us distinguish among multiple hypotheses about how the valley formed,” said Opportunity Project Scientist Matt Golombek of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

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

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

And NASA continues building the next two robotic missions due to touch down in 2018 and 2020.

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

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

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

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about the Opportunity rover and upcoming SpaceX launch of BulgariaSat 1, recent SpaceX Dragon CRS-11 resupply launch to ISS, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

June 17-19: “Opportunity Mars rover, SpaceX BulgariaSat 1 launch, SpaceX CRS-11 and CRS-10 resupply launches to the ISS, Inmarsat 5 and NRO Spysat, EchoStar 23, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

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

Exciting New Views Of Opportunity’s Remarkable Landing Site

This image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRise camera shows the bright landing platform left behind by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity when it landed in 2004. Opportunity landed on the surface of Mars and then bounced and tumbled into the Eagle Crater. The image was taken on April 8, 2017. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

NASA’s eagle-eyed Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has captured orbital images of Opportunity’s Hole-In-One landing site, smack dab in the middle of Eagle Crater on the surface of Mars.

Opportunity arrived at Mars on January 25th, 2005. It’s landing was slowed by parachute, and cushioned by airbags. Once it hit the surface, it bounced its way into “Eagle Crater“, a feature a mere 22 meters across. Not a bad shot!

This is the first color image that the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRise) has captured of Opportunity’s landing site. It shows the remarkable landing site inside the crater, where the landing pad was left behind after Opportunity rolled off of it and got going. It also shows the rover’s parachute and backshell.

It’s amazing that, given the relatively smooth surface in Opportunity’s landing area, the rover came to rest inside a small crater. When Opportunity “woke up” at its landing site, its first images were of the inside of Eagle Crater. This was the first look we ever got at the sedimentary rocks on Mars, taken by the rover’s navigation camera.

Opportunity's navigation camera took this picture, one of the rover's first, of the inside of Eagle Crater. Exposed Martian rocks are visible. NASA/JPL
Opportunity’s navigation camera took this picture, one of the rover’s first, of the inside of Eagle Crater. Exposed Martian rocks are visible. NASA/JPL

After leaving Eagle Crater, Opportunity took a look back and captured a panoramic image. Plainly visible is the rover’s landing pad, the exposed sedimentary rock, and the rover’s tracks in the Martian soil.

This panorama image, called "Lion King" was assembled from 558 images totalling over 75 megabytes. The rock outcrop, the landing pad, and the rover's tracks are all clearly visible. Image: NASA/JPL/Cornell
This panorama image, called “Lion King” was assembled from 558 images totalling over 75 megabytes. The rock outcrop, the landing pad, and the rover’s tracks are all clearly visible. Image: NASA/JPL/Cornell

MRO arrived at Mars a couple years later, and by that time Opportunity had already left its landing site and made its way south to the much larger Victoria Crater.

When the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter arrived at Mars, 2 years after Opportunity touched down there, Opportunity had left Eagle Crater and travelled the 6 km to Victoria Crater. By NASA/JPL/University of Arizona - http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA08813, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4211043
When the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter arrived at Mars, 2 years after Opportunity touched down there, Opportunity had left Eagle Crater and travelled the 6 km to Victoria Crater. By NASA/JPL/University of Arizona – http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA08813, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4211043

Opportunity is still chugging along, doing valuable work. And so is the MRO and its HiRise instrument. At this point, Opportunity has to be considered one of the most successful scientific undertakings ever.