Opportunity rover Spied atop Martian Mountain Ridge from Orbit – Views from Above and Below

Opportunity Rover on ‘Murray Ridge’ Seen From Orbit on Valentine’s Day 2014
The telescopic High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter caught this view of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity on Feb. 14, 2014 by the summit of Solander Point. The red arrow points to Opportunity at the center of the image. Blue arrows point to tracks left by the rover since it entered the area seen here, in October 2013. The scene covers a patch of ground about one-quarter mile (about 400 meters) wide. North is toward the top. The location is the “Murray Ridge” section of the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
See below corresponding surface view snapped by Opportunity from this location[/caption]

NASA’s renowned Mars rover Opportunity has been spied anew in a fabulous new photo captured just days ago by NASA’s ‘Spy in the Sky’ orbiter circling overhead the Red Planet. See Opportunity from above and below – from today’s location. See orbital view above – just released today.

The highly detailed image was freshly taken on Feb. 14 (Valentine’s Day 2014) by the telescopic High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) as the decade old Opportunity was investigating the tasty alien terrain on ‘Murray Ridge’ – nearby the celebrated ‘jelly doughnut’ rock by the summit of Solander Point. See surface views below.

The fabulous orbital image shows not only rover Opportunity at her location today, but also the breathtaking landscape around the robots current location as well as some of the wheel tracks created by the Martian mountaineer as she climbed from the plains below up to near the peak of Solander Point.

The scene is narrowly focused on a spot barely one-quarter mile (400 meters) wide.

Murray Ridge and Solander Point lie at the western rim of a vast crater named Endeavour that spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter.

Here is the corresponding Martian surface view snapped by Opportunity on Feb. 16, 2014 (looking back and down to Endeavour crater), while she’s being imaged from Mars orbit on Feb. 14, 2014:

NASA’s Opportunity rover was imaged here from Mars orbit by MRO HiRISE camera on Feb. 14, 2014.  This mosaic shows Opportunity’s view today while looking back to vast Endeavour crater from atop Murray Ridge by summit of Solander Point.  Opportunity captured this photomosaic view on Feb. 16, 2014 (Sol 3579) from the western rim of Endeavour Crater where she is investigating outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water.  Assembled from Sol 3579 colorized navcam raw images.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
NASA’s Opportunity rover was imaged here from Mars orbit by MRO HiRISE camera on Feb. 14, 2014. This mosaic shows Opportunity’s view today while looking back to vast Endeavour crater from atop Murray Ridge by summit of Solander Point. Opportunity captured this photomosaic view on Feb. 16, 2014 (Sol 3579) from the western rim of Endeavour Crater where she is investigating outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water. Assembled from Sol 3579 colorized navcam raw images. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Endeavour is an impact scar created billions of years ago. See our 10 Year Opportunity traverse map below.

And believe it or not, that infamous ‘jelly doughnut’ rock was actually the impetus for this new imaging campaign by NASA’s MRO Martian ‘Spysat.’

To help solve the mystery of the origin of the shiny 1.5 inches wide (4 centimeters) ‘jelly doughnut’ rock, dubbed ‘Pinnacle Island’, the science team decided to enlist the unparalleled capabilities of the HiRISE camera and imaging team in pursuit of answers.

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 Endeavour Crater where she starts Decade 2 on the Red Planet. She is currently investigating outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water on her 1st mountain climbing adventure. 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 Endeavour Crater where she starts Decade 2 on the Red Planet. She is currently investigating outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water on her 1st mountain climbing adventure. Assembled from Sol 3512 navcam raw images. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

‘Pinnacle Island’ had suddenly appeared out of nowhere in a set of before/after pictures taken by Opportunity’s cameras on Jan, 8, 2014 (Sol 3540), whereas that exact same spot had been vacant of debris in photos taken barely 4 days earlier. And the rover hadn’t budged a single millimeter.

So the HiRISE research team was called in to plan a new high resolution observation of the ‘Murray Ridge’ area and gather clues about the rocky riddle.

The purpose was to “check the remote possibility that a fresh impact by an object from space might have excavated a crater near Opportunity and thrown this rock to its new location”- now known as Pinnacle Island, said NASA in a statement.

Well, no fresh crater impacting site was found in the new image.

“We see no obvious signs of a very recent crater in our image, but a careful comparison to prior images might reveal subtle changes,” wrote HiRISE principal investigator Alfred McEwen in a description today.

Back on sol 3365 we took this image of Solander Point as we approached it. Here I have plotted the subsequent route that Opportunity has taken in climbing up the ridge. The outcrop shown I the images below are near the end of the yellow traverse line.  Caption and mosaic by Larry Crumpler/NASA/JPL/
Back on sol 3365 we took this image of Solander Point as we approached it. Here I have plotted the subsequent route that Opportunity has taken in climbing up the ridge. The outcrop shown I the images below are near the end of the yellow traverse line. Caption and mosaic by Larry Crumpler/NASA/JPL/

In the meantime, as I reported here a few days ago the mystery was solved at last by the rover team after Opportunity drove a short distance away from the ‘jelly doughnut’ rock and snapped some ‘look back’ photographs to document the ‘mysterious scene’ for further scrutiny.

It turns out that the six wheeled Opportunity unknowingly ‘created’ the mystery herself when she drove over a larger rock, crushing and breaking it apart with the force from the wheels and her hefty 400 pound (185 kg) mass.

“Once we moved Opportunity a short distance, after inspecting Pinnacle Island, we could see directly uphill an overturned rock that has the same unusual appearance,” said Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, in a NASA statement.

“Murray Ridge” and the Solander Point mountaintop are of great scientific interest because the region is riven with outcrops of minerals, including clay minerals, that likely formed in flowing liquid neutral water conducive to life – potentially a scientific goldmine.

Today, Feb 19, marks Opportunity’s 3582nd Sol or Martian Day roving Mars. She is healthy with plenty of power.

So far she has snapped over 188,800 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.

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

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 and just crested over the Dingo Gap sand dune. 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.

Finally, China’s Yutu rover has awoken for her 3rd workday on the Moon.

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

Ken Kremer

This image from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA’s rover Opportunity shows the location of a rock called "Pinnacle Island" before it appeared in front of the rover in early January 2014.  Arrow at lower left. This image was taken during Sol 3567 of Opportunity's work on Mars (Feb. 4, 2014).  Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
This image from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA’s rover Opportunity shows the location of a rock called “Pinnacle Island” before it appeared in front of the rover in early January 2014. Arrow at lower left. This image was taken during Sol 3567 of Opportunity’s work on Mars (Feb. 4, 2014). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
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
NASA’s Opportunity rover was imaged here from Mars orbit by MRO HiRISE camera on Feb. 14, 2014.  This mosaic shows Opportunity’s view today while looking back to vast Endeavour crater from atop Murray Ridge by summit of Solander Point.  Opportunity captured this photomosaic view on Feb. 16, 2014 (Sol 3579) from the western rim of Endeavour Crater where she is investigating outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water.  Assembled from Sol 3579 navcam raw images.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
NASA’s Opportunity rover was imaged here from Mars orbit by MRO HiRISE camera on Feb. 14, 2014. This mosaic shows Opportunity’s view today while looking back to vast Endeavour crater from atop Murray Ridge by summit of Solander Point. Opportunity captured this photomosaic view on Feb. 16, 2014 (Sol 3579) from the western rim of Endeavour Crater where she is investigating outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water. Assembled from Sol 3579 navcam raw images. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Mystery of the Martian ‘Jelly Doughnut’ Rock – Solved

The mystery of the world famous “Jelly Doughnut” rock on Mars has at last been solved by diligent mission scientists toiling away in dank research labs on Earth.

The “Jelly Doughnut” rock achieved worldwide fame, or better yet infamy, when it suddenly appeared out of nowhere in pictures taken by NASA’s renowned Red Planet rover Opportunity in January.

And the answer is – well it’s not heretofore undetected Martian beings or even rocks falling from the sky.

Rather its ‘Alien Space Invaders’ – in some sense at least.

And that ‘Alien Space Invader’ is from – Earth! And her name is – Opportunity!

Indeed sister rover Curiosity may have unwittingly pointed to the culprit and helped resolve the riddle when she snapped a brand new photo of Earth – home planet to Opportunity and Curiosity and all their makers! See the evidence for yourselves – lurking here!

It turns out that the six wheeled Opportunity unknowingly ‘created’ the mystery herself when she drove over a larger rock, crushing it with the force from the wheels and her 400 pound (185 kg) mass.

Fragments were sent hurtling across the summit of the north facing Solander Point mountain top, where she is currently climbing up ‘Murray Ridge’ along the western rim of a vast crater named Endeavour that spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter. See traverse map below.

One piece unwittingly rolled downhill.

That rock fragment – now dubbed ‘Pinnacle Island’ – suddenly appeared in pictures taken by Opportunity’s cameras on Jan, 8, 2014 (Sol 3540).

Mosaic of Opportunity and mysterious Pinnacle Island rock by Solander Point peak.  Mysterious Pinnacle Island rock suddenly appeared out of nowhere in images snapped on Sol 3540.  It was absent in earlier images on Sol 3528.  This mosaic shows the rock nearby the solar panels of NASA’s Opportunity rover.  Assembled from Sol 3528 and 3540 pancam raw images.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Mosaic of Opportunity and mysterious Pinnacle Island rock by Solander Point peak. Mysterious Pinnacle Island rock suddenly appeared out of nowhere in images snapped on Sol 3540. It was absent in earlier images on Sol 3528. This mosaic shows the rock nearby the solar panels of NASA’s Opportunity rover. Assembled from Sol 3528 and 3540 pancam raw images. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

And that exact same spot had been vacant of debris in photos taken barely 4 days earlier – during which time the rover didn’t move a single millimeter.

Pinnacle Island measures only about 1.5 inches wide (4 centimeters) with a noticeable white rim and red center – hence its jelly doughnut nickname.

The Martian riddle was finally resolved when Opportunity roved a tiny stretch and took some look back photographs to document the ‘mysterious scene’ for further scrutiny.

“Once we moved Opportunity a short distance, after inspecting Pinnacle Island, we could see directly uphill an overturned rock that has the same unusual appearance,” said Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, in a NASA statement.

“We drove over it. We can see the track. That’s where Pinnacle Island came from.”

New pictures showed another fragment of the rock – dubbed ‘Stuart Island’ – eerily similar in appearance to the ‘Pinnacle Island’ doughnut.

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 Endeavour Crater where she starts Decade 2 on the Red Planet. She is currently investigating outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water on her 1st mountain climbing adventure. 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 Endeavour Crater where she starts Decade 2 on the Red Planet. She is currently investigating outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water on her 1st mountain climbing adventure. Assembled from Sol 3512 navcam raw images. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

To gather some up-close clues before driving away, the rover deployed its robotic arm to investigate ‘Pinnacle Island’ with her microscopic imager and APXS mineral mapping spectrometer.

The results revealed high levels of the elements manganese and sulfur “suggesting these water-soluble ingredients were concentrated in the rock by the action of water,” says NASA.

“This may have happened just beneath the surface relatively recently,” Arvidson noted, “or it may have happened deeper below ground longer ago and then, by serendipity, erosion stripped away material above it and made it accessible to our wheels.”

This before-and-after pair of images of the same patch of ground in front of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity 13 days apart documents the arrival of a bright rock onto the scene.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
This before-and-after pair of images of the same patch of ground in front of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity 13 days apart documents the arrival of a bright rock onto the scene. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

The Solander Point mountaintop is riven with outcrops of minerals, including clay minerals, that likely formed in flowing liquid neutral water conducive to life – potentially a scientific goldmine.

Opportunity
is NASA’s 1st ever ‘Decade Old’ living Mars rover.

She has been uncovering and solving Mars’ billion years old secrets for over 10 years now since landing back on January 24, 2004 on Meridiani Planum – although she was only expected to function a mere 90 days!

Today, Feb 15, marks Opportunity’s 3578th Sol or Martian Day roving Mars.

So far she has snapped over 188,700 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 and just crested over the Dingo Gap sand dune. 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.

Finally, China’s Yutu rover has awoken for her 3rd workday on the Moon.

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

Ken Kremer

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

Spirit Rover Landed on Mars 10 Years Ago Today

Ten Years Ago, Spirit Rover Lands on Mars
This bird’s-eye view from August 2005 combines a self-portrait of the spacecraft deck and a panoramic mosaic of the Martian surface as viewed by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit. The rover’s solar panels are still gleaming in the sunlight, having acquired only a thin veneer of dust two years after the rover landed and commenced exploring the red planet. Spirit captured this 360-degree panorama on the summit of “Husband Hill” inside Mars’ Gusev Crater. During the period from Spirit’s Martian days, or sols, 583 to 586 (Aug. 24 to 27, 2005), the rover’s panoramic camera acquired the hundreds of individual frames for this largest panorama ever photographed by Spirit. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
See Spirit’s 1st and last panoramas and more imagery below[/caption]

Today, Jan. 3, marks the 10th anniversary since the safe landing of NASA’s renowned Spirit rover on the plains of Mars on Jan. 3, 2004.

Spirit comprises one half of NASA’s now legendary pair of Mars Exploration Rovers (MER). Opportunity, her twin sister landed, on the opposite side of the Red Planet three weeks later – on Jan. 24, 2004. 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.

Exactly a decade ago, the famous robot survived the scorching atmospheric heating of the 6 minute plunge through the thin Martian atmosphere, bounced some two dozen times cocooned inside cushioning airbags, and gradually rolled to a stop inside 100 mile wide Gusev Crater. It was known as the “6 minutes of Terror”.

The three petaled landing pad opened and Spirit was dramatically born in a milestone event that will be forever remembered in the annuls of history because of the groundbreaking scientific discoveries that ensued and the unbelievable longevity of the twins.

Ten Years Ago, Spirit Rover Lands on Mars . This mosaic image taken on Jan. 4, 2004, by the navigation camera on the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, shows a 360 degree panoramic view of the rover on the surface of Mars.   Spirit operated for more than six years after landing in January 2004 for what was planned as a three-month mission. Credit: NASA/JPL
Ten Years Ago, Spirit Rover Lands on Mars
This mosaic image taken on Jan. 4, 2004, by the navigation camera on the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, shows a 360 degree panoramic view of the rover on the surface of Mars. Spirit operated for more than six years after landing in January 2004 for what was planned as a three-month mission. Credit: NASA/JPL

Before they were launched atop Delta II rockets in the summer of 2003 from Cape Canaveral, the dynamic, solar powered robo duo were expected to last a mere three months – with a ‘warranty’ of 90 Martian days (Sols).

Either dust accumulation on the life giving solar panels, an engineering issue or the extremely harsh Martian environment was expected to somehow terminate them mercilessly.

In reality, both robots enormously exceeded expectations and accumulated a vast bonus time of exploration and discovery in numerous extended mission phases.

'McMurdo' Panorama from Spirit's 'Winter Haven' . This beautiful scene reveals a tremendous amount of detail in Spirit's surroundings at a place called "Winter Haven," where the rover spent many months parked on a north-facing slope in order to keep its solar panels pointed toward the sun for the winter. During this time, it captured several images to create this high resolution panorama. During that time, while the rover spent the daylight hours conducting as much scientific research as possible, science team members assigned informal names to rock outcrops, boulders, and patches of soil commemorating exploration sites in Antarctica and the southernmost islands of South America. Antarctic bases are places where researchers, like the rovers on Mars, hunker down for the winter in subzero temperatures. During the past Martian winter, Spirit endured temperatures lower than minus 100 degrees Celsius (minus 148 degrees Fahrenheit). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell
‘McMurdo’ Panorama from Spirit’s ‘Winter Haven’
This beautiful scene reveals a tremendous amount of detail in Spirit’s surroundings at a place called “Winter Haven,” where the rover spent many months parked on a north-facing slope in order to keep its solar panels pointed toward the sun for the winter. During this time, it captured several images to create this high resolution panorama. During that time, while the rover spent the daylight hours conducting as much scientific research as possible, science team members assigned informal names to rock outcrops, boulders, and patches of soil commemorating exploration sites in Antarctica and the southernmost islands of South America. Antarctic bases are places where researchers, like the rovers on Mars, hunker down for the winter in subzero temperatures. During the past Martian winter, Spirit endured temperatures lower than minus 100 degrees Celsius (minus 148 degrees Fahrenheit). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

No one foresaw that Martian winds would occasionally clean the solar panels to give them a new lease on life or that the components would miraculously continue functioning.

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

Opportunity is still roving Mars today, and doing so in rather good condition!

Altogether, Spirit drove 4.8 miles (7.73 kilometers),that’s about 12 times more than the original goal set for the mission.

She transmitted over 128,000 images.

After landing in the dusty plains, she headed for the nearby Columbia Hills some 2 miles away and ultimately became the first Martian mountaineer, when she scaled Husband Hill and found evidence for the flow of liquid water at the Hillary outcrop.

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

The rovers were not designed to climb hills. But eventually she scaled 30 degree inclines.

The rover was equipped with a rock grinder named the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) built by Honeybee Robotics.

Spirit ground the surfaces off 15 rock targets and scoured 92 targets with a brush to prepare the targets for inspection with spectrometers and a microscopic imager, according to NASA.

Eventually she drove back down the hill and made even greater scientific discoveries in the area known as ‘Home Plate’.

Spirit survived three harsh Martian winters and only succumbed to the Antarctic-like temperatures when she unexpectedly became mired in an unseen sand trap driving beside an ancient volcanic feature named ‘Home Plate’ that prevented the solar arrays from generating life giving power to safeguard critical electronic and computer components.

In 2007, Spirit made one of the key discoveries of the mission at ‘Home Plate’ when her stuck right front wheel churned up a trench of bright Martian soil that exposed a patch of nearly pure silica, which was formed in a watery hot spring or volcanic environment.

Spirit was heading towards another pair of volcanic objects named ‘von Braun’ and ‘Goddard’ and came within just a few hundred feet when she died in the sand trap.

See Spirits last panorama below – created from raw images taken in Feb. 2010 by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.

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

Here’s how the rovers’ principal investigator, Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., described some of the key findings in a NASA statement, starting with what Spirit found after driving from the crater floor where it landed into the Columbia hills to the east:

“In the Columbia Hills, we discovered compelling evidence of an ancient Mars that was a hot, wet, violent place, with volcanic explosions, hydrothermal activity, steam vents — nothing like Mars today.

“At Opportunity’s landing site, we found evidence of an early Mars that had acidic groundwater that sometimes reached the surface and evaporated away, leaving salts behind. It was an environment with liquid water, but very different from the environment that Spirit told us about.

“When Opportunity got to the rim of Endeavour Crater, we began a whole new mission. We found gypsum veins and a rich concentration of clay minerals. The clay minerals tell us about water chemistry that was neutral, instead of acidic — more favorable for microbial life, if any ever began on Mars.”

“Because of the rovers’ longevity, we essentially got four different landing sites for the price of two.”

MER10-SpiritAndOpportunity_ByTheNumbers[1]

Meanwhile, NASA’s new Curiosity rover just celebrated 500 Sols on Mars and is speeding towards Mount Sharp from inside Gale Crater – which is about the same size as Gusev crater.

And a pair of newly launched orbiters are streaking to the Red Planet; NASA’s MAVEN and India’s MOM.

And China’s new Yutu lunar rover and Chang’e-3 lander are napping through the lunar night until mid-January.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Curiosity, Chang’e-3, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, LADEE, MAVEN, Mars rover and MOM news.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Curiosity, MAVEN, MOM, Mars rovers, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences Antares Jan. 8 launch, and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Jan 6-8: “Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launch from Virginia on Jan. 8” & “Space mission updates”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, evening

Curiosity Discovers Ancient Mars Lake Could Support Life

NASA’s Curiosity rover has discovered evidence that an ancient Martian lake had the right chemical ingredients that could have sustained microbial life forms for long periods of time – and that these habitable conditions persisted on the Red Planet until a more recent epoch than previously thought.

Furthermore researchers have developed a novel technique allowing Curiosity to accurately date Martian rocks for the first time ever – rather than having to rely on educated guesses based on counting craters.

All that and more stems from science results just announced by members of the rover science team.

Researchers outlined their remarkable findings in a series of six new scientific papers published today (Dec. 9) in the highly respected journal Science and at talks held today at the Fall 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco.

The Curiosity team also revealed that an investigation of natural Martian erosion processes could be used to direct the rover to spots with a higher likelihood of holding preserved evidence for the building blocks of past life – if it ever existed.

View of Yellowknife Bay Formation, with Drilling Sites. This mosaic of images from Curiosity's Mast Camera (Mastcam) shows geological members of the Yellowknife Bay formation, and the sites where Curiosity drilled into the lowest-lying member, called Sheepbed, at targets "John Klein" and "Cumberland." The scene has the Sheepbed mudstone in the foreground and rises up through Gillespie Lake member to the Point Lake outcrop. These rocks record superimposed ancient lake and stream deposits that offered past environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. Rocks here were exposed about 70 million years ago by removal of overlying layers due to erosion by the wind. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
View of Yellowknife Bay Formation, with Drilling Sites
This mosaic of images from Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) shows geological members of the Yellowknife Bay formation, and the sites where Curiosity drilled into the lowest-lying member, called Sheepbed, at targets “John Klein” and “Cumberland.” The scene has the Sheepbed mudstone in the foreground and rises up through Gillespie Lake member to the Point Lake outcrop. These rocks record superimposed ancient lake and stream deposits that offered past environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. Rocks here were exposed about 70 million years ago by removal of overlying layers due to erosion by the wind. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The ancient fresh water lake at the Yellowknife Bay area inside the Gale Crater landing site explored earlier this year by Curiosity existed for periods spanning perhaps millions to tens of millions of years in length – before eventually evaporating completely after Mars lost its thick atmosphere.

Furthermore the lake may have existed until as recently as 3.7 Billion years ago, much later than researchers expected which means that life had a longer and better chance of gaining a foothold on the Red Planet before it was transformed into its current cold, arid state.

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity took this self-portrait, composed of more than 50 images using its robotic arm-mounted MAHLI camera, on Feb. 3. The image shows Curiosity at the John Klein drill site. A drill hole is visible at bottom left.  Credit: NASA / JPL / MSSS / Marco Di Lorenzo / Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity took this self-portrait, composed of more than 50 images using its robotic arm-mounted MAHLI camera, on Feb. 3. The image shows Curiosity at the John Klein drill site. A drill hole is visible at bottom left. Credit: NASA / JPL / MSSS / Marco Di Lorenzo / Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Researchers also announced that they are shifting the missions focus from searching for habitable environments to searching for organic molecules – the building blocks of all life as we know it.

Why the shift? Because the team believes they have found a way to increase the chance of finding organics preserved in the sedimentary rock layers.

“Really what we’re doing is turning the corner from a mission that is dedicated to the search for habitable environments to a mission that is now dedicated to the search for that subset of habitable environments which also preserves organic carbon,” Curiosity Principal Investigator John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, said at an AGU press conference today.

“That’s the step we need to take as we explore for evidence of life on Mars.”

Earlier this year, Curiosity drilled into a pair of sedimentary Martian mudstone rock outcrops at Yellowknife Bay known as “John Klein” and “Cumberland” – for the first time in history.

Grotzinger said the ancient lake at Yellowknife Bay was likely about 30 miles long and 3 miles wide.

Powdered samples deposited into the rovers miniaturized chemistry labs – SAM and CheMin – revealed the presence of significant levels of phyllosilicate clay minerals.

These clay minerals form in neutral pH water that is ‘drinkable” and conducive to the formation of life.

“Curiosity discovered that the fine-grained sedimentary rocks preserve evidence of an environment that would have been suited to support a Martian biosphere founded on chemolithoautotrophy,” according to one of the science papers co-authored by Grotzinger.

“This aqueous environment was characterized by neutral pH, low salinity, and variable redox states of both iron and sulfur species.”

The rover has detected key elements required for life including carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sulfur nitrogen and phosphorous.

The team is still looking for signatures of organic molecules.

Right now the researchers are driving Curiosity along a 6 mile path to the base of Mount Sharp -the primary mission destination – which they hope to reach sometime in Spring 2014.

But along the way they hope to stop at a spot where wind has eroded the sedimentary rocks just recently enough to expose an area that may still preserve evidence for organic molecules – since it hasn’t been bombarded by destructive cosmic radiation for billions of years.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Curiosity, Chang’e 3, LADEE, MAVEN and MOM news.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Curiosity, Orion, MAVEN, MOM, Mars rovers, Chang’e 3, SpaceX, and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Dec 10: “Antares ISS Launch from Virginia, Mars and SpaceX Mission Update”, Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, 8 PM

Dec 11: “Curiosity, MAVEN and the Search for Life on Mars”, “LADEE & Antares ISS Launches from Virginia”, Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, Franklin Institute, Phila, PA, 8 PM

Water Likely Flowed In This Parched Martian Region

Don’t let the dry appearance of the Martian desert region near Tagus Valles fool you. Some pictures snapped by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express shows there was plenty of water in that area of the Red Planet in the past. The pictures show yet another example of how water once shaped the planet, as scientists try to figure out when and how it disappeared.

“This region is one of many that exposes evidence of the Red Planet’s active past, and shows that the marks of water are engraved in even the most unlikely ancient crater-strewn fields,” ESA stated.

The unnamed region, which is just a few degrees south of the Martian equator, partially caught scientists’ attention because of that crater you see in the top left of the image. (A closer view is below.)

Deformation in a crater that was once flooded on Mars. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)
Deformation in a crater that was once flooded on Mars. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

“Numerous landslides have occurred within this crater, perhaps facilitated by the presence of water weakening the crater walls,” ESA stated. “Grooves etched into the crater’s inner walls mark the paths of tumbling rocks, while larger piles of material have slumped en masse to litter the crater floor.”

Scientists saw evidence of mesas (flat-topped blocks) and yardangs, which were both features that were built from sediments that a regional flood once deposited there. The lighter bits have eroded away, but you can still see the leftovers.

There also is evidence of volcanic activity, as there was ash scattered around the area. Scientists guess the origin was the Elysium volcanic region to the northeast.

Check out more details in this ESA press release.