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

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

13 Years on Mars!
On Christmas Day 2016, NASA’s Opportunity rover scans around vast Endeavour crater as she ascends steep rocky slopes on the way to reach a water carved gully along the eroded craters western rim. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4593 (25 Dec. 2016) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How was this incredible accomplishment achieved?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did Opportunity accomplish scientifically at Marathon Valley during 2016?

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

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

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

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

“Endeavour crater dates from the earliest Martian geologic history, a time when water was abundant and erosion was relatively rapid and somewhat Earth-like,” explains Larry Crumpler, a science team member from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science.

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

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

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

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

“Finish up work on Cape Tribulation, traverse to the head of the gully system and head downhill into one or more of the gullies to characterize the morphology and search for evidence of deposits,” Arvidson elaborated.

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

How long will it take to reach the gully?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Kremer

13 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2017. This map shows the entire 43 kilometer (27 mi) path the rover has driven on the Red Planet during more than 13 years and more than a marathon runners distance for over 4614 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 – to current location at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. After descending down Marathon Valley and after studying Spirit Mound, the rover is now ascending back uphill on the way to a Martian water carved gully. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 after reaching 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone – and searched for more at Marathon Valley. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Phenomenal New View of Ceres ‘Lonely Mountain’ Reveals Signs of Volcanic Activity

A lonely 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) mountain on Ceres is likely volcanic in origin, and the dwarf planet may have a weak, temporary atmosphere. These are just two of many new insights about Ceres from NASA's Dawn mission published this week in six papers in the journal Science. "Dawn has revealed that Ceres is a diverse world that clearly had geological activity in its recent past," said Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles. A Temporary Atmosphere A surprising finding emerged in the paper led by Russell: Dawn may have detected a weak, temporary atmosphere. Dawn's gamma ray and neutron (GRaND) detector observed evidence that Ceres had accelerated electrons from the solar wind to very high energies over a period of about six days. In theory, the interaction between the solar wind's energetic particles and atmospheric molecules could explain the GRaND observations. A temporary atmosphere would be consistent with the water vapor the Herschel Space Observatory detected at Ceres in 2012-2013. The electrons that GRaND detected could have been produced by the solar wind hitting the water molecules that Herschel observed, but scientists are also looking into alternative explanations. "We're very excited to follow up on this and the other discoveries about this fascinating world," Russell said. Ahuna Mons as a Cryovolcano Ahuna Mons is a volcanic dome unlike any seen elsewhere in the solar system, according to a new analysis led by Ottaviano Ruesch of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, and the Universities Space Research Association. Ruesch and colleagues studied formation models of volcanic domes, 3-D terrain maps and images from Dawn, as well as analogous geological features elsewhere in our solar system. This led to the conclusion that the lonely mountain is likely volcanic in nature. Specifically, it would be a cryovolcano -- a volcano that erupts a liquid made of volatiles such as water, instead of silicates. "This is the only known example of a cryovolcano that potentially formed from a salty mud mix, and that formed in the geologically recent past," Ruesch said. For more details on this study, see: http://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2016/ceres-cryo-volcano Ceres: Between a Rocky and Icy Place While Ahuna Mons may have erupted liquid water in the past, Dawn has detected water in the present, as described in a study led by Jean-Philippe Combe of the Bear Fight Institute, Winthrop, Washington. Combe and colleagues used Dawn's visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) to detect probable water ice at Oxo Crater, a small, bright, sloped depression at mid-latitudes on Ceres. Exposed water-ice is rare on Ceres, but the low density of Ceres, the impact-generated flows and the very existence of Ahuna Mons suggest that Ceres' crust does contain a significant component of water-ice. This is consistent with a study of Ceres' diverse geological features led by Harald Hiesinger of the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. The diversity of geological features on Ceres is further explored in a study led by Debra Buczkowski of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Maryland. Impact craters are clearly the most abundant geological feature on Ceres, and their different shapes help tell the intricate story of Ceres' past. Craters that are roughly polygonal -- that is, shapes bounded by straight lines -- hint that Ceres' crust is heavily fractured. In addition, several Cerean craters have patterns of visible fractures on their floors. Some, like tiny Oxo, have terraces, while others, such as the large Urvara Crater (106 miles, 170 kilometers wide), have central peaks. There are craters with flow-like features, and craters that imprint on other craters, as well as chains of small craters. Bright areas are peppered across Ceres, with the most reflective ones in Occator Crater. Some crater shapes could indicate water-ice in the subsurface. The dwarf planet's various crater forms are consistent with an outer shell for Ceres that is not purely ice or rock, but rather a mixture of both -- a conclusion reflected in other analyses. Scientists also calculated the ratio of various craters' depths to diameters, and found that some amount of crater relaxation must have occurred. Additionally, there are more craters in the northern hemisphere of Ceres than the south, where the large Urvara and Yalode craters are the dominant features. "The uneven distribution of craters indicates that the crust is not uniform, and that Ceres has gone through a complex geological evolution," Hiesinger said. Distribution of Surface Materials What are the rocky materials in Ceres' crust? A study led by Eleonora Ammannito of the University of California, Los Angeles, finds that clay-forming minerals called phyllosilicates are all over Ceres. These phyllosilicates are rich in magnesium and also have some ammonium embedded in their crystalline structure. Their distribution throughout the dwarf planet's crust indicates Ceres' surface material has been altered by a global process involving water. Although Ceres' phyllosilicates are uniform in their composition, there are marked differences in how abundant these materials are on the surface. For example, phyllosilicates are especially prevalent in the region around the smooth, "pancake"-like crater Kerwan (174 miles, 280 kilometers in diameter), and less so at Yalode Crater (162 miles, 260 kilometers in diameter), which has areas of both smooth and rugged terrain around it. Since Kerwan and Yalode are similar in size, this may mean that the composition of the material into which they impacted may be different. Craters Dantu and Haulani both formed recently in geologic time, but also seem to differ in composition. "In comparing craters such as Dantu and Haulani, we find that their different material mixtures could extend beneath the surface for miles, or even tens of miles in the case of the larger Dantu," Ammannito said. Looking Higher Now in its extended mission, the Dawn spacecraft has delivered a wealth of images and other data from its current perch at 240 miles (385 kilometers) above Ceres' surface, which is closer to the dwarf planet than the International Space Station is to Earth. The spacecraft will be increasing its altitude at Ceres on Sept. 2, as scientists consider questions that can be examined from higher up. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI
Whoa – what a sight! Ceres’ lonely mountain, Ahuna Mons, is seen in this simulated perspective view. The elevation has been exaggerated by a factor of two. The view was made using enhanced-color images from NASA’s Dawn mission in August from an altitude of 240 miles (385 km) in August 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

An isolated 3-mile-high (5 km) mountain Ahuna Mons on Ceres is likely volcanic in origin, and the dwarf planet may have a weak, temporary atmosphere. These are just two of many new insights about Ceres from NASA’s Dawn mission published this week in six papers in the journal Science.

Ceres' mysterious mountain Ahuna Mons is seen in this mosaic of images from NASA's Dawn spacecraft. On its steepest side, this mountain is about 3 miles (5 kilometers) high. Its average overall height is 2.5 miles (4 kilometers). The diameter of the mountain is about 12 miles (20 kilometers). Dawn took these images from its low-altitude mapping orbit, 240 miles (385 kilometers) above the surface, in December 2015. Credits: NASA/JPL/Dawn mission
Ahuna Mons is seen in this mosaic of images from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. On its steepest side, this mountain is about 3 miles (5 km) high. Its average overall height is 2.5 miles (4 km). The diameter of the mountain is about 12 miles (20 km). Dawn took these images from its low-altitude mapping orbit, 240 miles (385 kilometers) above the surface, in December 2015.
Credits: NASA/JPL/Dawn mission

“Dawn has revealed that Ceres is a diverse world that clearly had geological activity in its recent past,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The Ahuna Mons dome compared to a dome in Russia. The similarity in appearance is striking though the difference in size is large. Credit: NASA
The Ahuna Mons dome compared to a dome in Russia. The similarity in appearance is striking though the difference in size is large. Credit: NASA

Ahuna Mons is a volcanic dome similar to earthly and lunar volcanic domes but unique in the solar system, according to a new analysis led by Ottaviano Ruesch of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Universities Space Research Association. While those on Earth erupt with molten rock, Ceres’ grandest peak likely formed as a salty-mud volcano. Instead of molten rock, salty-mud volcanoes, or “cryovolcanoes,” release frigid, salty water sometimes mixed with mud.


Learn more about Ahuna Mons

“This is the only known example of a cryovolcano that potentially formed from a salty mud mix, and that formed in the geologically recent past,” Ruesch said. Estimates place the mountain formation within the past billion years.

Dawn may also have detected a weak, temporary atmosphere; the probe’s gamma ray and neutron (GRaND) detector observed evidence that Ceres had accelerated electrons from the solar wind to very high energies over a period of about six days. In theory, the interaction between the solar wind’s energetic particles and atmospheric molecules could explain the GRaND observations.

Dwarf planet Ceres is located in the asteroid belt, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Observations by ESA’s Herschel space observatory between 2011 and 2013 find that the dwarf planet has a thin water-vapour atmosphere. It is the first unambiguous detection of water vapour around an object in the asteroid belt. The inset shows the water absorption signal detected by Herschel on 11 October 2012. Copyright ESA/ATG medialab/Küppers et al.
Dwarf planet Ceres is located in the asteroid belt, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Observations by ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory between 2011 and 2013 found that the dwarf planet has a thin water-vapor atmosphere, the first detection ever of water vapor around an asteroid in the asteroid belt. Copyright ESA/ATG medialab/Küppers et al.

A temporary atmosphere would confirm the water vapor the Herschel Space Observatory detected at Ceres in 2012-2013. The electrons that GRaND detected could have been produced by the solar wind hitting the water molecules that Herschel observed, but scientists are also looking into alternative explanations.

While Ahuna Mons may have erupted liquid water in the not-too-distant past, Dawn found probable water ice right now in the mid-latitude Oxo Crater using its visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR).

The small, bright crater Oxo (6 miles, 10 kilometers wide) on Ceres is seen in this perspective view. The elevation has been exaggerated by a factor of two. The view was made using enhanced-color images from NASA's Dawn mission. Dawn's visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) has found evidence of water ice at this crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
The small, bright crater Oxo (6 miles / 10 km wide) on Ceres is seen in this perspective view. The elevation has been exaggerated by a factor of two. The view was made using enhanced-color images from NASA’s Dawn mission. Dawn’s visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) has found evidence of water ice at this crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Exposed water-ice is rare on the dwarf planet, but the low density of Ceres — 2.08 grams/cm3 vs. 5.5 for Earth — the impact-generated ice detection and the the existence of Ahuna Mons suggest that Ceres’ crust does contain a significant amount of water ice.

Impact craters are clearly the most abundant geological feature on Ceres, and their different shapes help tell the complex story of Ceres’ past. Craters that are roughly polygonal — shapes bounded by straight lines — hint that Ceres’ crust is heavily fractured. In addition, several Cerean craters display fractures on their floors. There are craters with flow-like features. Bright areas are peppered across Ceres, with the most reflective ones in Occator Crater. Some crater shapes could indicate water-ice in the subsurface.

In this illustration, a mud slurry rises up through Ceres' crust to build a dome such as Ahuna Mons. Credit: Goddard Media Studios
In this illustration, a mud slurry rises up through Ceres’ crust to build a dome like Ahuna Mons. Click to see the animation. Credit: Goddard Media Studios

All these crater forms imply an outer shell for Ceres that is not purely ice or rock, but rather a mixture of both. Scientists also calculated the ratio of various craters’ depths to diameters, and found that some amount of crater relaxation must have occurred as icy walls gradually slump.

“The uneven distribution of craters indicates that the crust is not uniform, and that Ceres has gone through a complex geological evolution,” Hiesinger said.

The rim of Hamori Crater on Ceres is seen in the upper right portion of this image, which was taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft. Hamori is located in the southern hemisphere of Ceres and measures 37 miles (60 kilometers) wide. Researchers named Hamori for a Japanese god said to protect the leaves of trees.
The rim of Hamori Crater on Ceres is seen in the upper left portion of this image, which was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Clay is found at many locations on the dwarf planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Ceres’ crust also appears loaded with clay-forming minerals called phyllosilicates. These phyllosilicates are rich in magnesium and also have some ammonium embedded in their crystalline structure. Their distribution throughout the dwarf planet’s crust indicates Ceres’ surface material has been altered by a global process involving water.

Now in its extended mission, the Dawn spacecraft has been increasing its altitude since Sept. 2 as scientists stand back once again for a broader look at Ceres under different lighting conditions now compared to earlier in the mission.

Opportunity Discovers Dust Devil, Explores Steepest Slopes on Mars

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

A “beautiful dust devil” was just discovered today, April 1, on the Red Planet by NASA’s long lived Opportunity rover as she is simultaneously exploring water altered rock outcrops at the steepest slopes ever targeted during her 13 year long expedition across the Martian surface. Opportunity is searching for minerals formed in ancient flows of water that will provide critical insight into establishing whether life ever existed on the fourth rock from the sun.

“Yes a beautiful dust devil on the floor of Endeavour Crater,” Ray Arvidson, Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University in St. Louis, confirmed to Universe Today. Spied from where “Opportunity is located on the southwest part of Knudsen Ridge” in Marathon Valley.

The new dust devil – a mini tornado like feature – is seen scooting across the ever fascinating Martian landscape in our new photo mosaic illustrating the steep walled terrain inside Marathon Valley and overlooking the crater floor as Opportunity makes wheel tracks at the current worksite on a crest at Knudsen Ridge. The colorized navcam camera mosaic combines raw images taken today on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and stitched by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

“The dust devils have been kind to this rover,” Jim Green, Director of NASA Planetary Sciences at NASA HQ, said in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. They are associated with prior periods of solar array cleansing power boosts that contributed decisively to her longevity.

“Oppy’s best friend is on its way!”

Spotting dust devils has been relatively rare for Opportunity since landing on Mars on Jan. 24, 2004.

“There are 7 candidates, 6 of which are likely or certain,” Mark Lemmon, rover science team member from Texas A & M University, told Universe Today. “Most were seen in, on the rim of, or adjacent to Endeavour.”

Starting in late January, scientists commanded the golf cart sized Opportunity to drive up the steepest slopes ever attempted by any Mars rover in order to reach rock outcrops where she can conduct breakthrough science investigations on smectite (phyllosilicate) clay mineral bearing rocks yielding clues to Mars watery past.

“We are beginning an imaging and contact science campaign in an area where CRISM spectra show evidence for deep absorptions associated with Fe [Iron], Mg [Magnesium] smectites,” Arvidson explained.

A shadow and tracks of NASA's Mars rover Opportunity appear in this March 22, 2016, image, which has been rotated 13.5 degrees to adjust for the tilt of the rover. The hillside descends to the left into "Marathon Valley." The floor of Endeavour Crater is seen beneath the underside of a solar panel.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A shadow and tracks of NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity appear in this March 22, 2016, image, which has been rotated 13.5 degrees to adjust for the tilt of the rover. The hillside descends to the left into “Marathon Valley.” The floor of Endeavour Crater is seen beneath the underside of a solar panel. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is especially exciting to researchers because the phyllosilicate clay mineral rocks formed under water wet, non-acidic conditions that are more conducive to the formation of Martian life forms – billions of years ago when the planet was far warmer and wetter.

“We have been in the smectite [phyllosilicate clay mineral] zone for months, ever since we entered Marathon Valley.”

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

So the ancient, weathered slopes around Marathon Valley became a top priority science destination after they were found to hold a motherlode of ‘smectite’ clay minerals based on the CRISM data.

“Marathon Valley is unlike anything we have ever seen. Looks like a mining zone!”

At this moment, the rover is driving to an alternative rock outcrop located on the southwest area of the Knudsen Ridge hilltops after trying three times to get within reach of the clay minerals by extending her instrument laden robotic arm.

NASA’s Opportunity rover images current worksite at Knudsen Ridge on Sol 4228 where the robot is grinding into rock targets inside Marathon Valley during 12th Anniversary of touchdown on Mars in Jan. 2016.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s Opportunity rover images current worksite at Knudsen Ridge on Sol 4228 where the robot is grinding into rock targets inside Marathon Valley during 12th Anniversary of touchdown on Mars in Jan. 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the rover kept slipping on the steep walled slopes – tilted as much as 32 degrees – while repeatedly attempting close approaches to the intended target. Ultimately she came within 3 inches of the surface science target ‘Pvt. Joseph Whitehouse’ – named after a member of the Corps of Discovery.

In fact despite rotating her wheels enough to push uphill about 66 feet (20 meters) if there had been no slippage, engineers discerned from telemetry that slippage was so great that “the vehicle progressed only about 3.5 inches (9 centimeters). This was the third attempt to reach the target and came up a few inches short,” said NASA.

“The rover team reached a tough decision to skip that target and move on.”

So they backed Opportunity downhill about 27 feet (8.2 meters), then drove about 200 feet (about 60 meters) generally southwestward and uphill, toward the next target area.

NASA officials noted that “the previous record for the steepest slope ever driven by any Mars rover was accomplished while Opportunity was approaching “Burns Cliff” about nine months after the mission’s January 2004 landing on Mars.”

Marathon Valley measures about 300 yards or meters long. It cuts downhill through the west rim of Endeavour crater from west to east – the same direction in which Opportunity is currently driving downhill from a mountain summit area atop the crater rim. See our route map below showing the context of the rovers over dozen year long traverse spanning more than the 26 mile distance of a Marathon runners race.

Endeavour crater spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter. Opportunity has been exploring Endeavour since arriving at the humongous crater in 2011.

NASA’s Opportunity rover peers outwards across to the vast expense of Endeavour Crater from current location descending along steep walled Marathon Valley in early November 2015. Marathon Valley holds significant deposits of water altered clay minerals holding clues to the planets watery past.  Shadow of Pancam Mast assembly and robots deck visible at right. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 4181 (Oct. 29, 2015) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Opportunity rover peers outwards across to the vast expense of Endeavour Crater from current location descending along steep walled Marathon Valley in early November 2015. Marathon Valley holds significant deposits of water altered clay minerals holding clues to the planets watery past. Shadow of Pancam Mast assembly and robots deck visible at right. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 4181 (Oct. 29, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Why are the dust devils a big deal?

Offering more than just a pretty view, the dust devils actually have been associated with springtime Martian winds that clear away the dust obscuring the robots life giving solar panels.

“Opportunity is largely in winter mode sitting on a hill side getting maximum power. But it is in a better power status than in many past winters,” Jim Green, Director of NASA Planetary Sciences at NASA HQ, told Universe Today exclusively.

“I think I know the reason. As one looks across the vistas of Mars in this mosaic Oppys best friend is on its way.”

“The dust devils have been kind to this rover. Even I have a smile on my face when I see what’s coming.”

12 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2016. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during almost 12 years and more than a marathon runners distance on Mars for over 4332 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 - to current location at the western rim of Endeavour Crater and descending into Marathon Valley. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 and marked 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone - and is currently searching for more at Marathon Valley.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
12 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2016. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during almost 12 years and more than a marathon runners distance on Mars for over 4332 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 – to current location at the western rim of Endeavour Crater and descending into Marathon Valley. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 and marked 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone – and is currently searching for more at Marathon Valley. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

As of today, Sol 4332, Apr. 1, 2016, Opportunity has taken over 209,200 images and traversed over 26.53 miles (42.69 kilometers) – more than a marathon.

The power output from solar array energy production has climbed to 576 watt-hours, now just past the depths of southern hemisphere Martian winter.

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

This March 21, 2016, image from the navigation camera on NASA's Mars rover Opportunity shows streaks of dust or sand on the vehicle's rear solar panel after a series of drives during which the rover was pointed steeply uphill. The tilt and jostling of the drives affected material on the rover deck.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This March 21, 2016, image from the navigation camera on NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity shows streaks of dust or sand on the vehicle’s rear solar panel after a series of drives during which the rover was pointed steeply uphill. The tilt and jostling of the drives affected material on the rover deck. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about NASA Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, ISS, Orbital ATK, ULA, SpaceX, Boeing, Space Taxis, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Apr 9/10: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs” and “Curiosity explores Mars” at NEAF (NorthEast Astronomy and Space Forum), 9 AM to 5 PM, Suffern, NY, Rockland Community College and Rockland Astronomy Club – http://rocklandastronomy.com/neaf.html

Apr 12: Hosting Dr. Jim Green, NASA, Director Planetary Science, for a Planetary sciences talk about “Ceres, Pluto and Planet X” at Princeton University; 7:30 PM, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton, Peyton Hall, Princeton, NJ – http://www.princetonastronomy.org/

Apr 17: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs”- 1:30 PM at Washington Crossing State Park, Nature Center, Titusville, NJ – http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/washcros.html

A shadow and tracks of NASA's Mars rover Opportunity appear in this March 22, 2016, colorized hazcam camera image, which has been rotated 13.5 degrees to adjust for the tilt of the rover. The hillside descends to the left into "Marathon Valley." The floor of Endeavour Crater is seen beneath the underside of a solar panel.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A shadow and tracks of NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity appear in this March 22, 2016, colorized hazcam camera image, which has been rotated 13.5 degrees to adjust for the tilt of the rover. The hillside descends to the left into “Marathon Valley.” The floor of Endeavour Crater is seen beneath the underside of a solar panel. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Composite hazcam camera image (left) shows the robotic arm in motion as NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity places the tool turret on the target named “Private John Potts” on Sol 4234 to brush away obscuring dust. Rover is actively working on the southern side of “Marathon Valley” which slices through western rim of Endeavour Crater. On Sol 4259 (Jan. 16, 2016), Opportunity completed grinds with the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) to exposure rock interior for elemental analysis, as seen in mosaic (right) of four up close images taken by Microscopic Imager (MI). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Composite hazcam camera image (left) shows the robotic arm in motion as NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity places the tool turret on the target named “Private John Potts” on Sol 4234 to brush away obscuring dust. Rover is actively working on the southern side of “Marathon Valley” which slices through western rim of Endeavour Crater. On Sol 4259 (Jan. 16, 2016), Opportunity completed grinds with the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) to exposure rock interior for elemental analysis, as seen in mosaic (right) of four up close images taken by Microscopic Imager (MI). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Opportunity Rover Driving Between ‘Lily Pads’ in Search of Martian Sun and Science

NASA’s Opportunity rover peers outwards across to the vast expense of Endeavour Crater from current location descending along steep walled Marathon Valley in early November 2015. Marathon Valley holds significant deposits of water altered clay minerals holding clues to the planets watery past.  Shadow of Pancam Mast assembly and robots deck visible at right. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 4181 (Oct. 29, 2015) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Opportunity rover peers outwards across to the vast expense of Endeavour Crater from current location descending along steep walled Marathon Valley in early November 2015. Marathon Valley holds significant deposits of water altered clay minerals holding clues to the planets watery past. Shadow of Pancam Mast assembly and robots deck visible at right. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 4181 (Oct. 29, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Just shy of an unfathomable 4200 Sols traversing ravishing alien terrain on the Red Planet, the longest living ‘Martian’ – NASA’s robot ‘Opportunity’ – is driving between “lily pads” down steep walled Marathon Valley in search of life giving sun that enables spectacular science yielding clues to Mars watery past. All this as she strives to survive utterly harsh climate extremes, because ‘winter is coming’ for her seventh time on the fourth rock from the sun!

Opportunity is driving east and southeast down Marathon Valley, bisecting the region in which we detect smectites [clay minerals] using CRISM [spectrometer] data,” Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis, told Universe Today.

The ancient, weathered slopes around Marathon Valley became a top Continue reading “Opportunity Rover Driving Between ‘Lily Pads’ in Search of Martian Sun and Science”

Opportunity Rover Prospecting for Water Altered Minerals at Crater Rim in Marathon Valley

As NASA’s Opportunity rover approaches the 12th anniversary of landing on Mars, her greatest science discoveries yet are likely within grasp in the coming months since she has successfully entered Marathon Valley from atop a Martian mountain and is now prospecting downhill for outcrops of water altered clay minerals.

The valley is the gateway to alien terrain holding significant caches of the water altered minerals that formed under environmental conditions conducive to support Martian microbial life forms, if they ever existed. But as anyone who’s ever climbed down a steep hill knows, you have to be extra careful not to slip and slide and break something, no matter how beautiful the view is – Because no one can hear you scream on Mars! See the downward looking valley view above.

After a years long Martian mountain climbing and mountain top exploratory trek, Opportunity entered a notch named Marathon Valley from atop a breathtakingly scenic ridge overlook atop the western rim of Endeavour Crater.

Marathon Valley measures about 300 yards or meters long and cuts downhill through the west rim of Endeavour crater from west to east. Endeavour crater spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter.

See our photo mosaics illustrating Opportunity’s view around and about Marathon Valley and Endeavour Crater, created by the image processing team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

Our mosaic above affords a downward looking view from Marathon Valley on Sol 4144, Sept. 20. It uniquely combines raw images from the hazcam and navcam cameras to gain a wider perspective panoramic view of the steep walled valley, and also shows the rover at work stretching out the robotic arm to potential clay mineral rock targets at left. Opportunity’s shadow and wheel tracks are visible at right.

Mosaic view from Opportunity rover looking along the high walls and down the floor of Marathon Valley with deposits of water altered clay minerals and out to the vast expense of Endeavour Crater. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 4159  (Oct. 5, 2015) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Mosaic view from Opportunity rover looking along the high walls and down the floor of Marathon Valley with deposits of water altered clay minerals and out to the vast expense of Endeavour Crater. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 4159 (Oct. 5, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

In late July, Opportunity began the decent into the valley from the western edge and started investigating scientifically interesting rock targets by conducting a month’s long “walkabout” survey ahead of the upcoming frigid Martian winter – the seventh since touchdown at Meridiani Planum in January 2004.

The walkabout was done to identify targets of interest for follow up scrutiny in and near the valley floor. Opportunity’s big sister Curiosity conducted a similarly themed “walkabout” at the base of Mount Sharp near her landing site located on the opposite side of the Red Planet.

“The valley is somewhat like a chute directed into the crater floor, which is a long ways below. So it is somewhat scary, but also pretty interesting scenery,” writes Larry Crumpler, a science team member from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, in a mission update.

“Its named Marathon Valley because the rover traveled one marathon’s distance to reach it,” Prof. Ray Arvidson, the rover Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University told Universe Today.

The NASA rover exceeded the distance of a marathon on the surface of Mars on March 24, 2015, Sol 3968. Opportunity has now driven over 26.46 miles (42.59 kilometers) over nearly a dozen Earth years.

Opportunity’s view (annotated) on the day the NASA rover exceeded the distance of a marathon on the surface of Mars on March 24, 2015, Sol 3968 with features named in honor of Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Rover stands at Spirit of Saint Louis Crater near mountaintop at Marathon Valley overlook and Martian cliffs at Endeavour crater holding deposits of water altered clay minerals.  This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3968 (March 24, 2015) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Opportunity’s view (annotated) on the day the NASA rover exceeded the distance of a marathon on the surface of Mars on March 24, 2015, Sol 3968 with features named in honor of Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Rover stands at Spirit of Saint Louis Crater near mountaintop at Marathon Valley overlook and Martian cliffs at Endeavour crater holding deposits of water altered clay minerals. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3968 (March 24, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Now for the first time in history, a human emissary has arrived to conduct an up close inspection of and elucidate clues into this regions potential regarding Martian habitability.

The ancient, weathered slopes around Marathon Valley hold a motherlode of ‘phyllosilicate’ clay minerals, based on data obtained from the extensive Mars orbital measurements gathered by the CRISM spectrometer on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – accomplished earlier at the direction of Arvidson.

'Hinners Point' Above Floor of 'Marathon Valley' on Mars. This Martian scene shows contrasting textures and colors of "Hinners Point," at the northern edge of "Marathon Valley," and swirling reddish zones on the valley floor to the left. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
‘Hinners Point’ Above Floor of ‘Marathon Valley’ on Mars. This Martian scene shows contrasting textures and colors of “Hinners Point,” at the northern edge of “Marathon Valley,” and swirling reddish zones on the valley floor to the left. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

Initially the science team was focused on investigating the northern region of the valley while the sun was still higher in the sky and generating more power for research activities from the life giving solar arrays.

“We have detective work to do in Marathon Valley for many months ahead,” said Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis.

But now that the rover is descending into a narrow valley with high walls, the rovers engineering handlers back on Earth have to exercise added caution regarding exactly where they send the Opportunity on her science forays during each sols drive, in order to maintain daily communications.

The high walls to the north and west of the valley ridgeline has already caused several communications blackouts for the “low-elevation Ultra-High-Frequency (UHF) relay passes to the west,” according to the JPL team controlling the rover.

Indeed on two occasions in mid September – coinciding with the days just before and after our Sol 4144 (Sept. 20) photo mosaic view above, “no data were received as the orbiter’s flight path was below the elevation on the valley ridgeline.

On Sept 17 and Sept. 21 “the high ridgeline of the valley obscured the low-elevation pass” and little to no data were received. However the rover did gather imagery and spectroscopic measurements for later transmission.

Now that winter is approaching the rover is moving to the southern side of Marathon Valley to soak up more of the sun’s rays from the sun-facing slope and continue research activities.

“During the Martian late fall and winter seasons Opportunity will conduct its measurements and traverses on the southern side of the valley,” says Arvidson.

“When spring arrives the rover will return to the valley floor for detailed measurements of outcrops that may host the clay minerals.”

The shortest-daylight period of this seventh Martian winter for Opportunity will come in January 2016.

NASA’s Opportunity Rover scans along a spectacular overlook toward Marathon Valley on March 3, 2015, showing flat-faced rocks exhibiting a completely new composition from others examined earlier. Marathon Valley and Martian cliffs on Endeavour crater hold deposits of water altered clay minerals. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3948 (March 3, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Opportunity Rover scans along a spectacular overlook toward Marathon Valley on March 3, 2015, showing flat-faced rocks exhibiting a completely new composition from others examined earlier. Marathon Valley and Martian cliffs on Endeavour crater hold deposits of water altered clay minerals. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3948 (March 3, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

As of today, Sol 4168, Oct, 15, 2015 Opportunity has taken over 206,300 images and traversed over 26.46 miles (42.59 kilometers).

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

Ken Kremer

Nearly 12 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2015. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during almost 12 years and more than a marathon runners distance on Mars for over 4163 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 - to current location at the western rim of Endeavour Crater and descending into Marathon Valley. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 and marked 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone - and is currently searching for more at Marathon Valley.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Nearly 12 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2015
This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during almost 12 years and more than a marathon runners distance on Mars for over 4163 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 – to current location at the western rim of Endeavour Crater and descending into Marathon Valley. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 and marked 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone – and is currently searching for more at Marathon Valley. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

With a newly cleared memory, it’s time for Opportunity to resume the next stage of its long, long Martian drive. The next major goal for the long-lived rover is to go to Marathon Valley, a spot that (in images from orbit) appears to have clay minerals on site. Clay tends to form in the presence of water, so examining the region could provide more information about Mars’ wet, ancient past.

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

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

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

A NASA planetary senior review panel from early September, which was evaluating the science value of several extended missions, said there are “software and communication issues that afflict the rover” that could affect its ability to send data. (This was written before the memory reformat.)

The major goal of Opportunity’s latest extended mission, the review continued, is to find out what habitability conditions existed on Mars. This includes looking at the water, the geology and the environment.

“This will be achieved by measurements of rocks and soils, as well as atmospheric observations, as it traverses from Murray Ridge to Cape Tribulation,” the report read.

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

“This extended mission will focus on the orbitally detected phyllosilicate deposits near Endeavour crater, which are considered to represent deposits from the ancient Noachian period. This would represent the first time that such ancient deposits have been analyzed on the Martian surface.”

The report further cautioned that there is no proof yet that the phyllosilicates (which are sheet salt silicate materials made of silicon and oxygen) are from the Noachian era, which represents geology that is more than 3.5 billion years old (depending on which source you consult). It added, however, that Opportunity is expected to be able to complete the science.

Meanwhile, enjoy these pictures from the rim of Endeavour Crater that Opportunity sent in the past few days.

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

Curiosity Celebrates Two Years on Mars Approaching Bedrock of Mountain Climbing Destination

2 Years on Mars!
Curiosity treks to Mount Sharp, her primary science destination, in this photo mosaic view captured on Sol 669, June 24, 2014. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Story and mosaics updated[/caption]

NASA’s most scientifically powerful rover ever dispatched to the Red Planet, Curiosity, is celebrating her 2nd anniversary on Mars since the dramatic touchdown inside Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012, EDT (Aug. 5, 2012, PDT) while simultaneously approaching a bedrock unit that for the first time is actually part of the humongous mountain she will soon scale and is the primary science destination of the mission.

Mount Sharp is a layered mountain that dominates most of Gale Crater and towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky and is taller than Mount Rainier.

Aug. 6, 2014 marks ‘2 Years on Mars’ and Sol 711 for Curiosity in an area called “Hidden Valley.”

“Getting to Mount Sharp is the next big step for Curiosity and we expect that in the Fall of this year,” Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences at NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC, told me in an interview making the 2nd anniversary.

The 1 ton rover is equipped with 10 state-of-the-art science instruments and searching for signs of life.

The mysterious mountain is so huge that outcrops of bedrock extend several miles out from its base and Curiosity is now within striking distance of reaching the area the rover team calls “Pahrump Hills.”

2 Earth Years on Mars!  NASA’s Curiosity rover celebrated the 2nd anniversary on Mars at ‘Hidden Valley’ as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 6, 2014, Sol 711.  Note the valley walls, rover tracks and distant crater rim. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
2 Earth Years on Mars!
NASA’s Curiosity rover celebrated the 2nd anniversary on Mars at ‘Hidden Valley’ as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 6, 2014, Sol 711. Note the valley walls, rover tracks and distant crater rim. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Scientists anticipate that the outcrops at “Pahrump Hills” offer a preview of a geological unit that is part of the base of Mount Sharp for the first time since landing rather than still belonging to the floor of Gale Crater.

“We’re coming to our first taste of a geological unit that’s part of the base of the mountain rather than the floor of the crater,” said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, in a statement.

“We will cross a major terrain boundary.”

Since “Pahrump Hills” is less than one-third of a mile (500 meters) from Curiosity she should arrive soon.

In late July 2014, the rover arrived in an area of sandy terrain called “Hidden Valley” which is on the planned route ahead leading to “Pahrump Hills” and easily traversable with few of the sharp edged rocks that have caused significant damage to the rovers six aluminum wheels.

This full-circle panorama of the landscape surrounding NASA's Curiosity Mars rover on July 31, 2014, Sol 705, offers a view into sandy lower terrain called "Hidden Valley," which is on the planned route ahead. It combines several images from Curiosity's Navigation Camera. South is at the center. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This full-circle panorama of the landscape surrounding NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover on July 31, 2014, Sol 705, offers a view into sandy lower terrain called “Hidden Valley,” which is on the planned route ahead. It combines several images from Curiosity’s Navigation Camera. South is at the center. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The sedimentary layers in the lower slopes of Mount Sharp have been Curiosity’s long-term science destination.

They are the principal reason why the science team specifically chose Gale Crater as the primary landing site based on high resolution spectral observations collected by NASA’s powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) indicating the presence of deposits of clay-bearing sedimentary rocks.

Curiosity’s goal all along has been to determine whether Mars ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. Finding clay bearing minerals. or phyllosilicates, in Martian rocks is the key to fulfilling its major objective.

The team expected to find the clay bearing minerals only in the sedimentary layers at the lower reaches of Mount Sharp.

Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014 (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater.  Note rover wheel tracks at left.  She will eventually ascend the mountain at the ‘Murray Buttes’ at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.   Credit:   NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014 (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater. Note rover wheel tracks at left. She will eventually ascend the mountain at the ‘Murray Buttes’ at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Soon after landing, the team spotted some rather interesting looking outcrops barely a half mile away from the touchdown zone at a spot dubbed ‘Yellowknife Bay” and decided to take a detour towards it to investigate.

Well the scientists won the bet and struck scientific gold barely six months after landing when they drilled into a rock outcrop named “John Klein” at “Yellowknife Bay” and unexpectedly discovered the clay bearing minerals on the crater floor.

Yellowknife Bay was found to be an ancient lakebed where liquid water flowed on Mars surface billions of years ago.

The discovery of phyllosilicates in the 1st drill sample during the spring of 2013 meant that Curiosity had rather remarkably already fulfilled its primary goal of finding a habitable zone during its first year of operations!

The rock analysis “yielded evidence of a lakebed environment billions of years ago that offered fresh water, all of the key elemental ingredients for life, and a chemical source of energy for microbes, if any existed there,” according to NASA.

Curiosity accomplished Historic 1st drilling into Martian rock at John Klein outcrop on Feb 8, 2013 (Sol 182) and discovered a habitable zone, shown in this context mosaic view of the Yellowknife Bay basin taken on Jan. 26 (Sol 169). The robotic arm is pressing down on the surface at John Klein outcrop of veined hydrated minerals – dramatically back dropped with her ultimate destination; Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity accomplished Historic 1st drilling into Martian rock at John Klein outcrop on Feb 8, 2013 (Sol 182) and discovered a habitable zone, shown in this context mosaic view of the Yellowknife Bay basin taken on Jan. 26 (Sol 169). The robotic arm is pressing down on the surface at John Klein outcrop of veined hydrated minerals – dramatically back dropped with her ultimate destination; Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

“Before landing, we expected that we would need to drive much farther before answering that habitability question,” said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. “We were able to take advantage of landing very close to an ancient streambed and lake. Now we want to learn more about how environmental conditions on Mars evolved, and we know where to go to do that.”

During the rovers second Earth year on the Red Planet, Curiosity has been driving as fast as possible towards a safe entry point to the slopes of Mount Sharp. The desired destination for the car sized rover is now about 2 miles (3 kilometers) southwest of its current location.

‘Driving, Driving, Driving’
is indeed the rover teams mantra.

The main map here shows the assortment of landforms near the location of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover as the rover's second anniversary of landing on Mars nears. The gold traverse line entering from upper right ends at Curiosity's position as of Sol 705 on Mars (July 31, 2014). The inset map shows the mission's entire traverse from the landing on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (Aug. 6, EDT) to Sol 705, and the remaining distance to long-term science destinations near Murray Buttes, at the base of Mount Sharp. The label "Aug. 5, 2013" indicates where Curiosity was one year after landing.    Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
The main map here shows the assortment of landforms near the location of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover as the rover’s second anniversary of landing on Mars nears. The gold traverse line entering from upper right ends at Curiosity’s position as of Sol 705 on Mars (July 31, 2014). The inset map shows the mission’s entire traverse from the landing on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (Aug. 6, EDT) to Sol 705, and the remaining distance to long-term science destinations near Murray Buttes, at the base of Mount Sharp. The label “Aug. 5, 2013” indicates where Curiosity was one year after landing. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

To date, Curiosity’s odometer totals over 5.5 miles (9.0 kilometers) since landing inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012. She has taken over 174,000 images.

Curiosity still has about another 2 miles (3 kilometers) to go to reach the entry way at a gap in the treacherous sand dunes at the foothills of Mount Sharp sometime later this year.

And NASA is moving forward with future Red Planet missions when it recently announced the selection of 7 instruments chosen to fly aboard the Mars 2020 rover, the agency’s next rover going to Mars that will search for signs of ancient life as well as carry a technology demonstration that will help pave the way for ‘Humans to Mars’ in the 2030s. Read my story – here.

Coincidentally, ESA’s Rosetta comet hunting spacecraft arrived in orbit at its destination Comet 67P after a 10 year voyage on the same day as Curiosity’s 2 Earth year anniversary.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Rosetta, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Up close view of hole in one of rover Curiosity’s six wheels caused by recent driving over rough Martian rocks. Mosaic assembled from Mastcam raw images taken on Dec. 22, 2013 (Sol 490).  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Up close view of hole in one of rover Curiosity’s six wheels caused by recent driving over rough Martian rocks. Mosaic assembled from Mastcam raw images taken on Dec. 22, 2013 (Sol 490). Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Spirit and Opportunity Top 10 Decade 1 Discoveries – Top Rover Scientist Tells Universe Today

A Top 10 Decade 1 Discovery by NASA’s Twin Mars Exploration Rovers
Carbonate-Containing Martian Rocks discovered by Spirit Mars Rover
Spirit collected data in late 2005 which confirmed that the Comanche outcrop contains magnesium iron carbonate, a mineral indicating the past environment was wet and non-acidic, possibly favorable to life. This view was captured during Sol 689 on Mars (Dec. 11, 2005). The find at Comanche is the first unambiguous evidence from either Spirit or Opportunity for a past Martian environment that may have been more favorable to life than the wet but acidic conditions indicated by the rovers’ earlier finds. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University
Story updated[/caption]

January 2014 marks the 10th anniversary since the nail biting and history making safe landings of NASA’s renowned Mars Explorations Rovers – Spirit and Opportunity – on the Red Planet barely three weeks apart during January 2004.

Due to their completely unforeseen longevity, a decade of spectacular and groundbreaking scientific discoveries continuously flowed from the robot sisters that have graced many articles, magazine covers, books, documentaries and refereed scientific papers.

What are the Top 10 Decade 1 discoveries from Spirit and Opportunity?

Find out below what a top Mars rover team scientist told Universe Today!

Ray Arvidson, the rovers Deputy Principal Investigator and professor at Washington University in St. Louis, has kindly shared with me his personal list of the Top 10 discoveries from Spirit and Opportunity for the benefit of readers of Universe Today.

The Top 10 list below are Ray’s personal choices and does not necessarily reflect the consensus of the Mars Explorations Rover (MER) team.

First some background.

The dynamic duo were launched on their interplanetary voyages from Cape Canaveral Florida atop Delta II rockets during the summer of 2003.

The now legendary pair landed on opposite sides of the Red Planet. Spirit landed first on Jan. 3 inside Gusev Crater and twin sister Opportunity landed second on Jan. 24 on the dusty plains of Meridiani Planum.

A Moment Frozen in Time On May 19th, 2005, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit captured this stunning view as the Sun sank below the rim of Gusev crater on Mars. This Panoramic Camera (Pancam) mosaic was taken around 6:07 in the evening of Sol 489. The terrain in the foreground is the rock outcrop "Jibsheet," a feature that Spirit has been investigating for several weeks (rover tracks are dimly visible leading up to "Jibsheet"). The floor of Gusev crater is visible in the distance, and the Sun is setting behind the wall of Gusev some 80 km (50 miles) in the distance. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Texas A&M/Cornell
A Moment Frozen in Time
On May 19th, 2005, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit captured this stunning view as the Sun sank below the rim of Gusev crater on Mars. This Panoramic Camera (Pancam) mosaic was taken around 6:07 in the evening of Sol 489. The terrain in the foreground is the rock outcrop “Jibsheet,” a feature that Spirit has been investigating for several weeks (rover tracks are dimly visible leading up to “Jibsheet”). The floor of Gusev crater is visible in the distance, and the Sun is setting behind the wall of Gusev some 80 km (50 miles) in the distance. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Texas A&M/Cornell

The goal was to “follow the water” as a potential enabler for past Martian microbes if they ever existed.

Together, the long-lived, golf cart sized robots proved that early Mars was warm and wet, billions of years ago – a key finding in the search for habitats conducive to life beyond Earth.

The solar powered robo duo were expected to last a mere three months – with a ‘warrenty’ of 90 Martian days (Sols).

Spirit endured the utterly extreme Red Planet climate for more than six years until communications ceased in 2010.

Last View from Spirit rover on Mars.  Spirit’s last panorama from Gusev Crater was taken during February 2010 before her death from extremely low temperatures during her 4th Martian winter.  Spirit was just 500 feet from her next science target - dubbed Von Braun – at center, with Columbia Hills as backdrop.  Mosaic Credit: Marco Di Lorenzo/ Kenneth Kremer/ NASA/JPL/Cornell University.  Mosaic featured on Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on 30 May 2011 - http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap110530.html
Last View from Spirit rover on Mars
Spirit’s last panorama from Gusev Crater was taken during February 2010 before her death from extremely low temperatures during her 4th Martian winter. Spirit was just 500 feet from her next science target – dubbed Von Braun – at center, with Columbia Hills as backdrop. Mosaic Credit: Marco Di Lorenzo/ Kenneth Kremer/ NASA/JPL/Cornell University.
Mosaic featured on Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on 30 May 2011 – http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap110530.html

Opportunity lives on TODAY and is currently exploring by the summit of Solander Point on the western rim of a vast crater named Endeavour that spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter.

“Because of the rovers’ longevity, we essentially got four different landing sites for the price of two,” says the rovers’ Principal Investigator, Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

Here are the Top 10 MER discoveries from Ray Arvidson, Deputy Principal Investigator

1. Opportunity: Ancient Acidic Martian Lakes

The Meridiani plains Burns formation as sulfate-rich sandstones with hematitic concretions formed in ancient acidic and oxidizing shallow lakes and reworked into sand dunes and cemented by rising groundwaters.

'Burns Cliff' Color Panorama Opportunity captured this view of "Burns Cliff" after driving right to the base of this southeastern portion of the inner wall of "Endurance Crater." The view combines frames taken by Opportunity's panoramic camera between the rover's 287th and 294th martian days (Nov. 13 to 20, 2004). The mosaic spans more than 180 degrees side to side. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
‘Burns Cliff’ Color Panorama Opportunity captured this view of “Burns Cliff” after driving right to the base of this southeastern portion of the inner wall of “Endurance Crater.” The view combines frames taken by Opportunity’s panoramic camera between the rover’s 287th and 294th martian days (Nov. 13 to 20, 2004). The mosaic spans more than 180 degrees side to side. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

2. Opportunity: Phyllosilicate Clays at ‘Whitewater Lake’ at Endeavour Crater indicate Ancient Habitable Zone

At the rim of Endeavour crater and the Cape York rim segment the discovery of ferric and aluminous smectite [phyllosilicate] clays in the finely-layered Matijevic formation rocks that pre-exist the Endeavour impact event.

Pancam false-color view acquired on Sol 3066 (Sept. 8 2012) of fine-scale layering in the Whitewater Lake locality that is indicative of an ancient aqueous environment on Mars. Veneers have been resistant to wind erosion and enhanced the layered appearance of the outcrop. Layers are typically several millimeters thick.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State University
Pancam false-color view acquired on Sol 3066 (Sept. 8 2012) of fine-scale layering in the Whitewater Lake locality that is indicative of an ancient aqueous environment on Mars. Veneers have been resistant to wind erosion and enhanced the layered appearance of the outcrop. Layers are typically several millimeters thick. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State University

Alteration in moderately acidic and reducing waters, perhaps mildly oxidizing for ferric smectites. These are the oldest rocks examined by Opportunity and the waters are much more habitable than waters that led to Burns formation.

Opportunity rover discovered phyllosilicate clay minerals and calcium sulfate veins at the bright outcrops of ‘Whitewater Lake’, at right, imaged by the Navcam camera on Sol 3197 (Jan. 20, 2013, coinciding with her 9th anniversary on Mars.  “Copper Cliff” is the dark outcrop, at top center. Darker “Kirkwood” outcrop, at left, is site of mysterious “newberries” concretions. This panoramic view was snapped from ‘Matijevic Hill’ on Cape York ridge at Endeavour Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Opportunity rover discovered phyllosilicate clay minerals and calcium sulfate veins at the bright outcrops of ‘Whitewater Lake’, at right, imaged by the Navcam camera on Sol 3197 (Jan. 20, 2013, coinciding with her 9th anniversary on Mars. “Copper Cliff” is the dark outcrop, at top center. Darker “Kirkwood” outcrop, at left, is site of mysterious “newberries” concretions. This panoramic view was snapped from ‘Matijevic Hill’ on Cape York ridge at Endeavour Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

3. Opportunity: Martian Meteorites

Many meteorites were found [throughout the long traverse] that are dispersed across the Meridiani plains landing site

4. Opportunity: Wind-blown sand ripples

Wind-blown sand ripples throughout the Meridiani plains relict from the previous wind regime, probably when Mars spin axis tilt was different than today’s value

5. Spirit: Opaline silica indicates Ancient Hydrothermal system

Discovery of Opaline silica at Home Plate, Gusev Crater. This formed in volcanic fumeroles and/or hydrothermal vents indicating that water was interacting with magma.

Spirit acquired this mosaic on Sol 1202  (May 21, 2007), while investigating the area east of the elevated plateau known as "Home Plate" in the "Columbia Hills." The mosaic shows an area of disturbed soil, nicknamed "Gertrude Weise" by scientists, made by Spirit's stuck right front wheel. The trench exposed a patch of nearly pure silica, with the composition of opal. It could have come from either a hot-spring environment or an environment called a fumarole, in which acidic, volcanic steam rises through cracks. Either way, its formation involved water, and on Earth, both of these types of settings teem with microbial life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
Spirit acquired this mosaic on Sol 1202 (May 21, 2007), while investigating the area east of the elevated plateau known as “Home Plate” in the “Columbia Hills.” The mosaic shows an area of disturbed soil, nicknamed “Gertrude Weise” by scientists, made by Spirit’s stuck right front wheel. The trench exposed a patch of nearly pure silica, with the composition of opal. It could have come from either a hot-spring environment or an environment called a fumarole, in which acidic, volcanic steam rises through cracks. Either way, its formation involved water, and on Earth, both of these types of settings teem with microbial life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

6. Spirit: Carbonates at Comanche – see lead image above

The discovery of Fe-Mg [iron-magnesium] carbonates at the Comanche outcrop on Husband Hill, Gusev Crater, again showing that water interacted with magma.

Note: Carbonates form in neutral, non-acid water. This was the first time they were found and investigated examined on the surface Mars during Dec. 2005.

7. Spirit: Ferric sulfates moved by modern water

Ferric sulfates moved down the soil column by modern waters at Troy and Husband Hill in Gusev Crater.

'Calypso' Panorama of Spirit's View from 'Troy'. This full-circle view from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit shows the terrain surrounding the location called "Troy," where Spirit became embedded in soft soil during the spring of 2009. The hundreds of images combined into this view were taken beginning on the 1,906th Martian day (or sol) of Spirit's mission on Mars (May 14, 2009) and ending on Sol 1943 (June 20, 2009). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University
‘Calypso’ Panorama of Spirit’s View from ‘Troy’. This full-circle view from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit shows the terrain surrounding the location called “Troy,” where Spirit became embedded in soft soil during the spring of 2009. The hundreds of images combined into this view were taken beginning on the 1,906th Martian day (or sol) of Spirit’s mission on Mars (May 14, 2009) and ending on Sol 1943 (June 20, 2009). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University

8. Spirit: Modern water alters rocks

Complex coatings on olivine basalts on the Gusev Crater plains showing modern water or frost has altered rock surfaces

9. Both rovers: Martian Dust Devils

The finding [and imaging] of dust devil frequency and dynamics, showing how dust and sand are moved by wind in the very thin Martian atmosphere.

Note: Wind action occasionally cleaning off the solar panels led to their unexpected longevity

See a dust devil imaged in our Solander Point mosaic below

Spirit Mars rover - view from Husband Hill summit - panels cleaned by wind action Spirit snapped this unique self portrait view from the summit of Husband Hill inside Gusev crater on Sol 618 on 28 September 2005.  The rovers were never designed or intended to climb mountains. It took more than 1 year for Spirit to scale the Martian mountain.  This image was created from numerous raw images by an international team of astronomy enthusiasts and appeared on the cover of the 14 November 2005 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine and the April 2006 issue of Spaceflight magazine.  Also selected by Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on 28 November 2005. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Doug Ellison/Bernhard Braun/Ken Kremer
Spirit Mars rover – view from Husband Hill summit – panels cleaned by wind action
Spirit snapped this unique self portrait view from the summit of Husband Hill inside Gusev crater on Sol 618 on 28 September 2005. The rovers were never designed or intended to climb mountains. It took more than 1 year for Spirit to scale the Martian mountain. This image was created from numerous raw images by an international team of astronomy enthusiasts and appeared on the cover of the 14 November 2005 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine and the April 2006 issue of Spaceflight magazine. Also selected by Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on 28 November 2005. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Doug Ellison/Bernhard Braun/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

10. Both rovers: Atmospheric Argon measurements

Argon gas was used as a tracer of atmospheric dynamics by both rovers. It was measured by using the APXS (Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer) on the robotic arm to measure the Martian atmosphere and detect argon

Another major discovery by Opportunity was the finding of hydrated mineral veins of calcium sulfate in the bench surrounding Cape York. The vein discovery is another indication of the ancient flow of liquid water in this region on Mars.

Opportunity discovers hydrated Mineral Vein at Endeavour Crater - November 2011. Opportunity determined that the ‘Homestake’ mineral vein was composed of calcium sulfate,or gypsum, while exploring around the base of Cape York ridge at the western rim of Endeavour Crater.  The vein discovery indicates the ancient flow of liquid water at this spot on Mars. This panoramic mosaic of images was taken on Sol 2761, November 2011, and illustrates the exact spot of the mineral vein discovery. Featured on NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on 12 Dec 2011 -  http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap111212.html. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Kenneth Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo.
Opportunity discovers hydrated Mineral Vein at Endeavour Crater – November 2011. Opportunity determined that the ‘Homestake’ mineral vein was composed of calcium sulfate,or gypsum, while exploring around the base of Cape York ridge at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. The vein discovery indicates the ancient flow of liquid water at this spot on Mars. This panoramic mosaic of images was taken on Sol 2761, November 2011, and illustrates the exact spot of the mineral vein discovery. Featured on NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on 12 Dec 2011 – http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap111212.html. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Kenneth Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo.

Altogether, Spirit snapped over 128,000 raw images, drove 4.8 miles (7.7 kilometers) and ground into 15 rock targets.

MER10-SpiritAndOpportunity_ByTheNumbers[1]

Opportunity is currently investigating a new cache of exposed clay mineral outcrops by the summit of Solander Point, a rim segment just south of Cape York and Matejivic Hill.

These new outcrops at ‘Cape Darby’ like those at ‘Esperance’ at Matijevic Hill were detected based on spectral observations by the CRISM spectrometer aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) circling overhead, Arvidson told me.

Opportunity by Solander Point peak – 2nd Mars Decade Starts here!  NASA’s Opportunity rover captured this panoramic mosaic on Dec. 10, 2013 (Sol 3512) near the summit of “Solander Point” on the western rim of vast Endeavour Crater where she starts Decade 2 on the Red Planet. She is currently investigating summit outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water on her 1st mountain climbing adventure. See wheel tracks at center and dust devil at right. Assembled from Sol 3512 navcam raw images. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Opportunity by Solander Point peak – 2nd Mars Decade Starts here!
NASA’s Opportunity rover captured this panoramic mosaic on Dec. 10, 2013 (Sol 3512) near the summit of “Solander Point” on the western rim of vast Endeavour Crater where she starts Decade 2 on the Red Planet. She is currently investigating summit outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water on her 1st mountain climbing adventure. See wheel tracks at center and dust devil at right. Assembled from Sol 3512 navcam raw images. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Today, Jan. 31, marks Opportunity’s 3563rd Sol or Martian Day roving Mars – for what was expected to be only a 90 Sol mission.

So far she has snapped over 188,200 amazing images on the first overland expedition across the Red Planet.

Her total odometry stands at over 24.07 miles (38.73 kilometers) since touchdown on Jan. 24, 2004 at Meridiani Planum.

Read more about sister Spirit – here and here.

Meanwhile on the opposite side of Mars, Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity is trekking towards gigantic Mount Sharp. She celebrated 500 Sols on Mars on New Years Day 2014.

And a pair of new orbiters are streaking to the Red Planet to fortify Earth’s invasion fleet- NASA’s MAVEN and India’s MOM.

What’s Ahead for Opportunity in Decade 2 on Mars ?

Many more ground breaking discoveries surely lie ahead for Opportunity since she is currently exploring ancient terrain at Endeavour crater that’s chock full of minerals indicative of a Martian habitable zone.

She remains healthy and the solar panels are generating enough power to actively continue science investigations throughout her 6th frigid Martian winter!

NASA's Opportunity Mars rover recorded the component images for this self-portrait near the peak of Solander Point and about three weeks before completing a decade of work on Mars. The rover's panoramic camera (Pancam) took the images during the interval Jan. 3, 2014, to Jan. 6, 2014.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State University
NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover recorded the component images for this self-portrait near the peak of Solander Point and about three weeks before completing a decade of work on Mars. The rover’s panoramic camera (Pancam) took the images during the interval Jan. 3, 2014, to Jan. 6, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State University

Therefore – Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Opportunity, Curiosity, Chang’e-3, LADEE, MAVEN, Mars rover and MOM news.

Ken Kremer

Spirit Rover traverse map from Gusev Crater landing site to Home Plate: 2004 to 2011
Spirit Rover traverse map from Gusev Crater landing site to Home Plate: 2004 to 2011
Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2014  This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during a decade on Mars and over 3560 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location by Solander Point summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Rover will spend 6th winter here atop Solander. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2014
This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during a decade on Mars and over 3560 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location by Solander Point summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Rover will spend 6th winter here atop Solander. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The Search For Life On Europa Could Center On Celestial Party-Crashers

The cool thing about space missions is long after they conclude, the data can yield the most interesting information. Here’s an example: Jupiter’s moon Europa may have a ripe spot for organic materials to take root.

Scouring the data from NASA’s past Galileo mission — which ended a decade ago — scientists unveiled an area with “clay-like minerals” on it that came to be after an asteroid or comet smashed into the surface. The connection? These celestial party-crashers often carry organics with them.

“Organic materials, which are important building blocks for life, are often found in comets and primitive asteroids,” stated Jim Shirley, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Finding the rocky residues of this comet crash on Europa’s surface may open up a new chapter in the story of the search for life on Europa.”

Reprocessed Galileo image of Europa's frozen surface by Ted Stryk (NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk)
Reprocessed Galileo image of Europa’s frozen surface by Ted Stryk (NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk)

Europa is considered one of the best spots in our solar system to look for life, due to the ocean lurking beneath its icy surface, surface salts that can provide energy, and a source of heat as the mighty Jupiter squeezes and releases the moon like a tennis ball.

The minerals (called phyllosilicates) emerged after Shirley’s team ran a new analysis on infrared pictures snapped by Galileo in 1998, basically working to refine the signal out of the images (which are much lower quality than what we are capable of today).

After the analysis, the phyllosilicates appeared in a “broken ring”, NASA stated, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) away from a crater site. The crater itself is about 20 miles (30 kilometers) in diameter. Scientists are betting that the ring of phyllosilicates is debris (“splash back of material”, NASA says), after a celestial body struck at or around a 45 degree angle from vertical. It’s unlikely the phyllosilicates came from Europa’s ocean given the crust, which can be as thick as 60 miles (100 kilometers).

Europa Report was a 2013 film that focused on a human mission to the Jovian moon. Poster by Start Motion Pictures.
Europa Report was a 2013 film that focused on a human mission to the Jovian moon. Poster by Start Motion Pictures.

“If the body was an asteroid, it was likely about 3,600 feet (1,100 meters) in diameter. If the body was a comet, it was likely about 5,600 feet (1,700 meters) in diameter. It would have been nearly the same size as the comet ISON before it passed around the sun a few weeks ago,” NASA stated.

To be clear, nobody has found organic materials on Europa directly, and even if they were detected it would then be another feat of science to determine if they related to life or not. This does, however, lend credence to theories that life came to Earth through comets and asteroids.

Ample fodder to consider as the community waits for the European Space Agency’s JUICE (JUpiter ICy moons Explorer) to get going to Europa and Jupiter upon its expected launch in 2022. The probe should arrive there in 2030.

Shirley will give a talk on this topic at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting on Friday.

Source: NASA