NASA’s decade old Opportunity rover has reached a long sought after region of aluminum-rich clay mineral outcrops at a new Endeavour crater ridge now “named ‘Pillinger Point’ after Colin Pillinger the Principal Investigator for the [British] Beagle 2 Mars lander”, Prof. Ray Arvidson, Deputy Principal Investigator for the rover, told Universe Today exclusively. See above the spectacular panoramic view from ‘Pillinger Point’ – where ancient water once flowed billions of year ago.
The Beagle 2 lander was built to search for signs of life on Mars.
The Mars Exploration Rover (MER) team named the noteworthy ridge in honor of Prof. Colin Pillinger – a British planetary scientist at the Open University in Milton Keynes, who passed away at the age of 70 on May 7, 2014.
‘Pillinger Point’ is a scientifically bountiful place possessing both clay mineral outcrops and mineral veins where “waters came up through the cracks”, Arvidson explained to me.
Since water is a prerequisite for life as we know it, this is a truly fitting tribute to name Opportunity’s current exploration site ‘Pillinger Point’ after Prof. Pillinger.
See our new photo mosaic above captured by Opportunity peering out from ‘Pillinger Point’ ridge on June 5, 2014 (Sol 3684) and showing a panoramic view around the eroded mountain ridge and into vast Endeavour crater.
The gigantic crater spans 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter.
See below our Opportunity 10 Year traverse map showing the location of Pillinger Point along the segmented rim of Endeavour crater.
Pillinger Point is situated south of Solander Point and Murray Ridge along the western rim of Endeavour in a region with caches of clay minerals indicative of an ancient Martian habitable zone.
For the past several months, the six wheeled robot has been trekking southwards from Solander towards the exposures of aluminum-rich clays – now named Pillinger Point- detected from orbit by the CRISM spectrometer aboard NASA’s powerful Martian ‘Spysat’ – the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – while gathering context data at rock outcrops along the winding way.
“We are about 3/5 of the way along the outcrops that show an Al-OH [aluminum-hydroxl] montmorillonite [clay mineral] signature at 2.2 micrometers from CRISM along track oversampled data,” Arvidson told me.
“We have another ~160 meters to go before reaching a break in the outcrops and a broad valley.”
The rover mission scientists ultimate goal is travel even further south to ‘Cape Tribulation’ which holds a motherlode of the ‘phyllosilicate’ clay minerals based on extensive CRISM measurements accomplished earlier at Arvidson’s direction.
“The idea is to characterize the outcrops as we go and then once we reach the valley travel quickly to Cape Tribulation and the smectite valley, which is still ~2 km to the south of the present rover location,” Arvidson explained.
Mars Express and Beagle 2 were launched in 2003, the same year as NASA’s twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity, on their interplanetary voyages to help unlock the mysteries of Mars potential for supporting microbial life forms.
Pillinger was the driving force behind the British built Beagle 2 lander which flew to the Red Planet piggybacked on ESA’s Mars Express orbiter. Unfortunately Beagle 2 vanished without a trace after being deployed from the orbiter on Dec. 19, 2003 with an expected air bag assisted landing on Christmas Day, Dec. 25, 2003.
In an obituary by the BBC, Dr David Parker, the chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said that Prof. Pillinger had played a critical role in raising the profile of the British space programme and had inspired “young people to dream big dreams”.
During his distinguished career Pillinger also analyzed lunar rock samples from NASA’s Apollo moon landing missions and worked on ESA’s Rosetta mission.
“It’s important to note that Colin’s contribution to planetary science goes back to working on Moon samples from Apollo, as well as his work on meteorites,” Dr Parker told the BBC.
Today, June 16, marks Opportunity’s 3696th Sol or Martian Day roving Mars – compared to a warranty of just 90 Sols.
So far she has snapped over 193,400 amazing images on the first overland expedition across the Red Planet.
Her total odometry stands at over 24.51 miles (39.44 kilometers) since touchdown on Jan. 24, 2004 at Meridiani Planum.
Meanwhile on the opposite side of Mars, Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity is trekking towards gigantic Mount Sharp after drilling into her 3rd Red Planet rock at Kimberley.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more planetary and human spaceflight news.
Opportunity starts Martian Mountaineering
NASA’s Opportunity rover captured this southward uphill panoramic mosaic on Oct. 21, 2013 (Sol 3463) after beginning to ascend the northwestern slope of “Solander Point” on the western rim of Endeavour Crater – her 1st mountain climbing adventure. The northward-facing slope will tilt the rover’s solar panels toward the sun in the southern-hemisphere winter sky, providing an important energy advantage for continuing mobile operations through the upcoming winter. Assembled from Sol 3463 navcam raw images by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer Story and imagery updated[/caption]
“This is our first real Martian mountaineering with Opportunity,” said the principal investigator for the rover, Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
And it happened right in the middle of the utterly chaotic US government shutdown ! – that seriously harmed some US science endeavors. And at a spot destined to become a science bonanza in the months and years ahead – so long as she stays alive to explore ever more new frontiers.
On Oct. 8, mission controllers on Earth directed the nearly decade old robot to start the ascent of Solander Point – the northern tip of the tallest hill she has encountered after nearly 10 Earth years on Mars.
The northward-facing slopes at Solander also afford another major advantage. They will tilt the rover’s solar panels toward the sun in the southern-hemisphere winter sky, providing an important energy boost enabling continued mobile operations through the upcoming frigidly harsh winter- her 6th since landing in 2004.
Opportunity will first explore outcrops on the northwestern slopes of Solander Point in search of the chemical ingredients required to sustain life before gradually climbing further uphill to investigate intriguing deposits distributed amongst its stratographic layers.
The rover will initially focus on outcrops located in the lower 20 feet (6 meters) above the surrounding plains on slopes as steep as 15 to 20 degrees.
At some later time, Opportunity may ascend Solander farther upward, which peaks about 130 feet (40 meters) above the crater plains.
“We expect we will reach some of the oldest rocks we have seen with this rover — a glimpse back into the ancient past of Mars,” says Squyres.
NASA’s powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) circling overhead recently succeeded in identifying clay-bearing rocks during new high resolution survey scans of Solander Point!
As I reported previously, the specially collected high resolution observations by the orbiters Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) were collected in August and being analyzed by the science team. They will be used to direct Opportunity to the most productive targets of interest
“CRISM data were collected,” Ray Arvidson told Universe Today. Arvidson is the mission’s deputy principal scientific investigator from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.
“They show really interesting spectral features in the [Solander Point] rim materials.”
The new CRISM survey from Mars orbit yielded mineral maps which vastly improves the spectral resolution – from 18 meters per pixel down to 5 meters per pixel.
This past spring and summer, Opportunity drove several months from the Cape York rim segment to Solander Point.
“At Cape York, we found fantastic things,” Squyres said. “Gypsum veins, clay-rich terrain, the spherules we call newberries. We know there are even larger exposures of clay-rich materials where we’re headed. They might look like what we found at Cape York or they might be completely different.”
Clay minerals, or phyllosilicates, form in neutral water that is more conducive to life.
At the base of Solander, the six wheeled rover discovered a transition zone between a sulfate-rich geological formation and an older formation. Sulfate-rich rocks form in a wet environment that was very acidic and less favorable to life.
Solander Point is located at the western rim of the vast expanse of Endeavour crater – some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter.
Today marks Opportunity’s 3466th Sol or Martian Day roving Mars – for what was expected to be only a 90 Sol mission.
So far she has snapped over 185,200 amazing images on the first overland expedition across the Red Planet.
Her total odometry stands at over 23.89 miles (38.45 kilometers) since touchdown on Jan. 24, 2004 at Meridiani Planum.
Opportunity starts scaling Solander Point – her 1st mountain climbing goal
See the tilted terrain and rover tracks in this look-back mosaic view from Solander Point peering across the vast expanse of huge Endeavour Crater. Opportunity will ascend the mountain looking for clues indicative of a Martian habitable environment. This navcam camera mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 3431 (Sept.18, 2013). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com). See the complete panoramic view below[/caption]
NASA’s intrepid Opportunity rover has begun an exciting new phase in her epic journey – the ascent of Solander Point, the first mountain she will ever climb, after roving the Red Planet for nearly a decade. See the rovers tilted look-back view in our Sol 3431 mosaic above.
Furthermore, ground breaking discoveries providing new clues in search of the chemical ingredients required to sustain life are sure to follow as the rover investigates intriguing stratographic deposits distributed amongst Solander’s hills layers.
Why ? Because NASA’s powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) circling overhead has also recently succeeded in collecting “really interesting” new high resolution survey scans of Solander Point! Read my prior pre-survey account – here.
So says Ray Arvidson, the mission’s deputy principal scientific investigator, in an exclusive Opportunity news update to Universe Today. The new MRO data are crucial for targeting the rover’s driving in coming months.
After gaining approval from NASA, engineers successfully aimed the CRISM mineral mapping spectrometer aboard MRO at Solander Point and captured reams of new high resolution measurements that will inform the scientists about the mineralogical make up of Solander.
“CRISM data were collected,” Arvidson told Universe Today.
“They show really interesting spectral features in the [Endeavour Crater] rim materials.”
Solander Point is an eroded ridge located along the western rim of huge Endeavour Crater where Opportunity is currently located.
“Opportunity is on the bench at the tip of Solander Point,” Ray Arvidson told Universe Today exclusively. Arvidson is the mission’s deputy principal scientific investigator from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.
At the bench, the long lived rover has begun scaling Solander in search of science and life giving sun.
“The CRISM data are being discussed by the MER [Mars Exploration Rover] Team this week,” Arvidson told me.
And it will take some time to review and interpret the bountiful new spectral data and decide on a course of action.
“For the CRISM data analysis we will have the MER Team see the results and agree.”
Expect that analysis to take a “couple of weeks” said Arvidson.
The new CRISM survey from Mars orbit will vastly improve the spectral resolution – from 18 meters per pixel down to 5 meters per pixel.
Another important point about ‘Solander Point’ is that it also offers northerly tilted slopes that will maximize the power generation during Opportunity’s upcoming 6th Martian winter.
In order to survive those Antarctic like, ‘bone chilling” winter temperatures on the Red Planet and continue with her epic mission, the engineers must drive the rover so that the solar wings are pointed favorably towards the sun.
And don’t forget that winter’s last six full months – that’s twice as long on Mars as compared to Earth.
The daily solar power output has been declining as Mars southern hemisphere enters late fall.
After traversing several months across the crater floor from the Cape York rim segment to Solander, Opportunity arrived at the foothills of Solander Point.
Solander and Cape York are part of a long chain of eroded segments of the crater wall of Endeavour crater which spans a humongous 14 miles (22 kilometers) wide.
Solander Point may harbor deposits of phyllosilicate clay minerals – which form in neutral pH water – in a thick layer of rock stacks indicative of a past Martian habitable zone.
The science team is looking at the new CRISM measurements, hunting for signatures of phyllosilicate clay minerals and other minerals and features of interest.
“Opportunity is on the bench on the northwest side of the tip of Solander Point,” Arvidson explained.
Since pulling up to Solander, the robot has spent over a month investigating the bench surrounding the mountain to put it the entire alien Martian terrain in context for a better understanding of Mars geologic history over billions of years.
Eons ago, Mars was far warmer and wetter and more hospitable to life.
“The rover is finishing up work on defining the stratigraphy, structure, and composition of the bench materials.”
“We are working our way counterclockwise on the bench to reach the steep slopes associated with the Noachian outcrops that are part of the Endeavour rim,” Arvidson elaborated.
“Opportunity is slightly tipped to the north to catch the sun.”
“Probably this week we will direct the rover to head south along the western boundary between the bench and the rim materials, keeping on northerly tilts,” Arvidson told me.
How does the bench at Solander compare to other areas investigated at Endeavour crater, I asked.
“The Solander Bench looks like the bench we saw around Cape York and around Sutherland Point and Nobbys Head,” replied Arvidson.
The rover recently investigated an outcrop target called ‘Poverty Bush’. She deployed her 3 foot long (1 meter) robotic arm and collected photos with the Microscopic Imager (MI) and collected several days of spectral measurements with the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS).
Thereafter she resumed driving to the west/northwest around Solander.
“On September 13, Opportunity finally landed on the bed rock of Solander Point,” wrote Larry Crumpler, a science team member from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, in his latest field report about the MER mission.
“The terrain right here is awesome,” according to Crumpler.
“There are several geologic units that are overlapping here. And Opportunity is sitting on the contact.”
“On the east side of the contact are rocks maybe a billion years older than those on the west side of the contact. This sort of age progression is what geologists look for when trying to understand the past by reading the rocks.”
“Opportunity is allowing us for the first time to do not only fundamental geographic exploration, but it is enabling on the ground geologic study of past climatic history on Mars,” notes Crumpler.
Today marks Opportunity’s 3441st Sol or Martian Day roving Mars – for what was expected to be only a 90 Sol mission.
So far she has snapped over 184,500 amazing images on the first overland expedition across the Red Planet.
Her total odometry stands at over 23.82 miles (38.34 kilometers) since touchdown on Jan. 24, 2004 at Meridiani Planum.
Meanwhile on the opposite side of Mars, Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity is trekking towards gigantic Mount Sharp and just discovered water altered pebbles at the intriguing ‘Darwin’ outcrop.
And NASA is in the final stages of processing of MAVEN, the agencies next orbiter, scheduled to blast off from Cape Canaveral on Nov.18 – see my upcoming up close article.
On the cusp of the 10th anniversary since launching to the Red Planet, NASA’s long lived Opportunity rover has discovered a habitable zone on Mars that once coursed with ‘drinkable water’ and possesses the chemical ingredients necessary to support a path to potential Martian microbes.
At a rock called “Esperance”, Opportunity found a cache of phyllosilicate clay minerals that typically form in neutral, drinkable water that is not extremely acidic or basic.
The finding ranks as “One of my personal Top 5 discoveries of the mission,” said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., principal investigator for NASA’s rover mission at a media briefing.
And despite her advancing age Opportunity remains healthy after surviving in excess of an incredible 3333 Sols, or days, trekking across the alien and ever harsh Martian crater plains.
Furthermore the intrepid robot just sat sail on a southerly course for a new destination called “Solander Point” where researches hope to find more even evidence of habitable environments since they already spotted deeper stakes of ancient rocks transformed by water eons ago. See our current photo mosaics showing Solander Point as Opportunity roves across the crater floor – above and below by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.
After weeks of trying, the rover deployed the robotic arm to drill at a sweet spot inside “Esperance” and collected convincing X-Ray spectroscopic data in the area she just investigated in May 2013 around the eroded rim of giant Endeavour Crater.
“Esperance is rich in clay minerals and shows powerful evidence of water alteration,” Squyres elaborated.
“This is the most powerful evidence we found for neutral pH water.”
“Clay minerals only tend to form at a more neutral pH. This is water you could drink,” Squyres gushed.
These finding represent the most favorable conditions for biology that Opportunity has yet seen in the rock histories it has encountered after nearly a decade roving the Red Planet.
“This is water that was much more favorable for things like pre-biotic chemistry – the kind of chemistry that could lead to the origin of life,” Squyres stated.
Esperance is unlike any rock previously investigated by Opportunity; rich in aluminum, which is strongly indicative of clay minerals, perhaps like montmorillonite.
Most rocks inspected to date by Opportunity were formed in an environment of highly acidic water that is extremely harsh to most life forms.
“If you look at all of the water-related discoveries that have been made by Opportunity, the vast majority of them point to water that was a very low pH – it was acid,” Squyres explained.
Esperance was found on ‘Cape York’, a hilly segment of the western rim of Endeavour crater which spans 14 miles (22 km) across. The robot arrived at the edge of Endeavour crater in mid-2011 and will spend her remaining life driving around the scientifically rich crater rim segments.
NASA’s new Curiosity rover also recently discovered clay minerals and a habitable environment at Gale Crater – on the other side of Mars – stemming from a time when Mars was warmer and wetter billions of years ago.
Over time Mars became the cold and dry place it is today. Scientists hope the rovers provide clues to Mars dramatic transformation.
The solar powered rover is now driving as quick as possible to reach the northerly tilled slopes of ‘Solander Point’ in August, before the onset of the next Martian winter.
‘Solander Point’ offers a much taller stack of geological layering than ‘Cape York.’ Both areas are raised segments of the western rim of Endeavour Crater.
“There’s a lot to explore there. In effect, it’s a whole new mission,” said Ray Arvidson, the mission’s deputy principal scientific investigator from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.
Opportunity and her twin “Spirit” were launched to Mars on planned 90 day missions.
Both rovers have far exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations. Spirit endured more than 6 years inside Gusev Crater until succumbing to the bone chilling Martian winter in 2011.
Opportunity has lasted more than 37 times beyond the three month “warranty”.
“This is like your car not lasting 200,000 miles, or even a million miles. You’re talking about a car that lasts 2 million miles without an oil change,” Callas said. “At this point, how long Opportunity lasts is anyone’s guess.”
“Remember, the rover continues to operate in a very hostile environment, where we have extreme temperature changes every day, and the rover could have a catastrophic failure at anytime,” said John Callas, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., project manager for the Mars Exploration Rover Project.
“So every day is a gift.”
And don’t forget to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013