Opportunity rover marks Magic Moment on 10th Year since Launch with Mountain Goal in View

Opportunity rover’s view across Botany Bay to Solander Point - her next destination - as NASA celebrates 10 Years since blastoff for Mars on July 7, 2003. The rover will climb up Solander Point because it which may harbor clay minerals indicative of a past Martian habitable environment. This pancam mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 3348 (June 24, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Opportunity rover’s view across Botany Bay to Solander Point – her next destination – as NASA celebrates 10 Years since blastoff for Mars on July 7, 2003. The rover will climb up Solander Point because it which may harbor clay minerals indicative of a past Martian habitable environment. This pancam mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 3348 (June 24, 2013.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)[/caption]

Today, NASA’s Opportunity rover marks a magical moment celebrating 10 years since launching to Mars on July 7, 2003 and with her impending Mountain destination filling the camera’s eye view.

The now legendary robot has vastly exceeded everyone’s expectations. Back in 2003 the science team promised us a mere 90 day ‘warranty’ following the suspenseful airbag landing on Jan. 24, 2004 at Meridiani Planum.

Today is Martian Day (or Sol) 3360. That amounts to a life expectancy and exploration ‘bonus’ of more than 37 times beyond the design lifetime.

Launch of NASA’s 2nd Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, aboard a Delta II Heavy rocket to Mars on July 7, 2003 at 11:18 p.m. EDT from Pad 17-B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.  Credit: NASA
Launch of NASA’s 2nd Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, aboard a Delta II Heavy rocket to Mars on July 7, 2003 at 11:18 p.m. EDT from Pad 17-B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: NASA

Opportunity’s twin sister Spirit blasted off three weeks earlier in June 2003 and continued functioning until 2010.

“I never thought we’d achieve nine months!” Principal Investigator Prof. Steve Squyres of Cornell University told me recently on the occasion of the rovers 9th anniversary on Mars in January 2013.

As you read this, the now decade old rover Opportunity is blazing a trail toward’s the oldest geological deposits she has ever explored – at a place called Solander Point, a raised ridge along the eroded rim of huge Endeavour Crater.

Opportunity has surpassed the halfway point in the traverse from the rim segment she has explored the past 22 months at ‘Cape York’ to her next rim segment destination at Solander.

From tip to tip, Cape York and Solander Point lie 1.2-mile (2-kilometer) apart along the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Both are raised portions of 14-mile-wide (22-kilometer-wide) Endeavour.

The rover has less than half a mile (800 meters) to go to finish the Martian dash from one rim segment to the next across an area called ‘Botany Bay’.

This view from July 2, 2013 (Sol 3355) shows the terrain that NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is crossing  in a flat area called "Botany Bay" on the way toward "Solander Point," which is visible on the horizon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This view from July 2, 2013 (Sol 3355) shows the terrain that NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is crossing in a flat area called “Botany Bay” on the way toward “Solander Point,” which is visible on the horizon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“We are making very good progress crossing ‘Botany Bay,’ said John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., who is project manager for the mission now entering its 2nd decade.

The flat terrain of fractured, light-toned bedrock is devoid of treacherous dunes and is easy to drive across, almost like a highway, which simplifies the daily planning by the rovers Earthly handlers.

“The surface that Opportunity is driving across in Botany Bay is polygonally fractured outcrop that is remarkably good for driving,” said Brad Joliff, an Opportunity science team member and long-term planner at Washington University in St. Louis. “The plates of outcrop, like a tiled mosaic pavement, have a thin covering of soil, not enough to form the wind-blown ripples we’ve had to deal with during some other long treks. The outcrop plates are light-toned, and the cracks between them are filled with dark, basaltic soil and our old friends the ‘blueberries.”

The “blueberries” are hematite-rich, erosion-resistant concretions about the size of BB’s that Opportunity discovered when she first opened her eyes at her Eagle crater landing site. During the multi year crater hopping tour that ensued, the rover continued finding patches of blueberries all the way to Endeavour crater.

1st color panorama taken by Opportunity after landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan. 24, 2004. Credit:  NASA/JPL/Cornell
1st color panorama taken by Opportunity after landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan. 24, 2004. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

Opportunity is expected to arrive at Solander’s foothills sometime in August – before the onset of the next southern hemisphere Martian winter, her 6th altogether.

Opportunity will scale Solander to continue the science quest in search of additional evidence of habitable environments with the chemical ingredients necessary to sustain Martian microbial life.

“Right now the rover team is discussing the best way to approach and drive up Solander,” Ray Arvidson told Universe Today. Arvidson is the mission’s deputy principal scientific investigator from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

‘Solander Point’ offers roughly about a 10 times taller stack of geological layering compared to ‘Cape York.’

Solander also offers north facing slopes where Opportunity’s solar wings can more effectively soak up the sun’s rays to generate life giving electrical power.

The robot remains in excellent health.

The total driving distance exceeds 23 miles (37 kilometers). She has snapped over 181,000 images.

Meanwhile on the opposite side of Mars at Gale Crater, Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity also discovered a habitable environment originating from a time when the Red Planet was far warmer and wetter billions of years ago.

And like Opportunity, Curiosity is also trekking towards a mountain rich in sedimentary layers, hoping to unveil the mysteries of Mars past.

Ken Kremer

Opportunity captures spectacular panoramic view ahead to her upcoming mountain climbing goal, the raised rim of “Solander Point” at right, located along the western edge of Endeavour Crater. It may harbor clay minerals indicative of a habitable zone.  The rise at left is "Nobbys Head" which the rover just passed on its southward drive to Solander Point from Cape York.  This pancam photo mosaic was taken on Sol 3335, June 11, 2013 shows vast expanse of the central crater mound and distant Endeavour crater rim.   Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com) See full panoramic scene below
Opportunity captures spectacular panoramic view ahead to her upcoming mountain climbing goal, the raised rim of “Solander Point” at right, located along the western edge of Endeavour Crater. It may harbor clay minerals indicative of a habitable zone. The rise at left is “Nobbys Head” which the rover just passed on its southward drive to Solander Point from Cape York. This pancam photo mosaic was taken on Sol 3335, June 11, 2013 shows vast expanse of the central crater mound and distant Endeavour crater rim. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2013.  This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during more than 9 years and over 3360 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location heading south to Solander Point from  Cape York ridge at the western rim of Endeavour Crater.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2013
This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during more than 9 years and over 3360 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location heading south to Solander Point from Cape York ridge at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

10 Years & Top 10 Discoveries from Marvelous Mars Express

Mars Express over water-ice crater. ESA Celebrates 10 Years since the launch of Mars Express. This artists concept shows Mars Express set against a 35 km-wide crater in the Vastitas Borealis region of Mars at approximately 70.5°N / 103°E. The crater contains a permanent patch of water-ice that likely sits upon a dune field – some of the dunes are exposed towards the top left in this image. Copyright ESA/DLR/FU-Berlin-G.Neukum

This week marks the 10th anniversary since the launch of the European Space Agencies’ (ESA) Mars Express orbiter from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Russia on June 2, 2003 and a decade of ground breaking science discoveries at the Red Planet.

2003 was a great year for Mars exploration as it also saw the dual liftoffs of NASA’s now legendary rovers Spirit & Opportunity from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

The immense quantity and quality of science data returned from Mars Express -simultaneously with Spirit and Opportunity – has completely transformed our understanding of the history and evolution of the Red Planet.

All three spacecraft have functioned far beyond their original design lifetime.

Earth’s exploration fleet of orbiters, landers and rovers have fed insights to each other that vastly multiplied the science output compared to working solo during thousands and thousands of bonus Sols at Mars.

Inside a central pit crater.  Perspective view of a 50 km diameter crater in Thaumasia Planum. The image was made by combining data from the High-Resolution Stereo Camera on ESA’s Mars Express with digital terrain models. The image was taken on 4 January 2013, during orbit 11467, and shows a close up view of the central ‘pit’ of this crater, which likely formed by a subsurface explosion as the heat from the impact event rapidly vapourised water or ice lying below the surface. Copyright ESA/DLR/FU-Berlin-G.Neukum
Inside a central pit crater. Perspective view of a 50 km diameter crater in Thaumasia Planum. The image was made by combining data from the High-Resolution Stereo Camera on ESA’s Mars Express with digital terrain models. The image was taken on 4 January 2013, during orbit 11467, and shows a close up view of the central ‘pit’ of this crater, which likely formed by a subsurface explosion as the heat from the impact event rapidly vapourised water or ice lying below the surface. Copyright ESA/DLR/FU-Berlin-G.Neukum

Mars Express derived its name from an innovative new way of working in planetary space science that sped up the development time and cut costs in the complex interactive relationships between the industrial partners, space agencies and scientists.

Indeed the lessons learned from building and operating Mars Express spawned a sister ship, Venus Express that also still operates in Venusian orbit.

Mars Express (MEX) achieved orbit in December 2003.

MEX began science operations in early 2004 with an array of seven instruments designed to study all aspects of the Red Planet, including its atmosphere and climate, and the mineralogy and geology of the surface and subsurface with high resolution cameras, spectrometers and radar.

The mission has been granted 5 mission extensions that will carry it to at least 2014.

The mission has been wildly successful except for the piggybacked lander known as Beagle 2, which was British built.

Beagle 2
Beagle 2
The ambitious British lander was released from the mothership on December 19, 2003, six days before MEX braked into orbit around Mars. Unfortunately the Beagle 2 was never heard from again as it plummeted to the surface and likely crashed.

The high resolution camera (HRSC) has transmitted thousands of dramatic 3D images all over Mars ranging from immense volcanoes, steep-walled canyons, dry river valleys, ancient impact craters of all sizes and shapes and the ever-changing polar ice caps.

It carried the first ever radar sounder (MARSIS) to orbit another planet and has discovered vast caches of subsurface water ice.

MEX also played a significant role as a data relay satellite for transmissions during the landings of NASA’s Phoenix lander and Curiosity rover. It also occasionally relays measurements from Spirit & Opportunity to NASA.

Arima twins topography. This colour-coded overhead view is based on an ESA Mars Express High-Resolution Stereo Camera digital terrain model of the Thaumasia Planum region on Mars at approximately 17°S / 296°E. The image was taken during orbit 11467 on 4 January 2013. The colour coding reveals the relative depth of the craters, in particular the depths of their central pits, with the left-hand crater penetrating deeper than the right (Arima crater).  Copyright: ESA/DLR/FU-Berlin-G.Neukum
Arima twins topography. This colour-coded overhead view is based on an ESA Mars Express High-Resolution Stereo Camera digital terrain model of the Thaumasia Planum region on Mars at approximately 17°S / 296°E. The image was taken during orbit 11467 on 4 January 2013. The colour coding reveals the relative depth of the craters, in particular the depths of their central pits, with the left-hand crater penetrating deeper than the right (Arima crater). Copyright: ESA/DLR/FU-Berlin-G.Neukum

Here is a list of the Top 10 Discoveries from Mars Express from 2003 to 2013:

Mars Express mineralogy maps. This series of five maps shows near-global coverage of key minerals that help plot the history of Mars. The map of hydrated minerals indicates individual sites where a range of minerals that form only in the presence of water were detected. The maps of olivine and pyroxene tell the story of volcanism and the evolution of the planet’s interior. Ferric oxides, a mineral phase of iron, are present everywhere on the planet: within the bulk crust, lava outflows and the dust oxidised by chemical reactions with the martian atmosphere, causing the surface to ‘rust’ slowly over billions of years, giving Mars its distinctive red hue. Copyright:  ESA/CNES/CNRS/IAS/Université Paris-Sud, Orsay; NASA/JPL/JHUAPL; Background images: NASA MOLA
Mars Express mineralogy maps. This series of five maps shows near-global coverage of key minerals that help plot the history of Mars. The map of hydrated minerals indicates individual sites where a range of minerals that form only in the presence of water were detected. The maps of olivine and pyroxene tell the story of volcanism and the evolution of the planet’s interior. Ferric oxides, a mineral phase of iron, are present everywhere on the planet: within the bulk crust, lava outflows and the dust oxidised by chemical reactions with the martian atmosphere, causing the surface to ‘rust’ slowly over billions of years, giving Mars its distinctive red hue. Copyright: ESA/CNES/CNRS/IAS/Université Paris-Sud, Orsay; NASA/JPL/JHUAPL; Background images: NASA MOLA
#1. First detection of hydrated minerals in the form of phyllosilicates and hydrated sulfates – evidence of long periods of flowing liquid water from the OMEGA visible and infrared spectrometer provided confirmation that Mars was once much wetter than it is today and may have been favorable for life to evolve.

#2. Possible detection of methane in the atmosphere from the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS) which could originate from biological or geological activity.

#3. Identification of recent glacial landforms via images from the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) are stem from viscous flow features composed of ice-rich material derived from adjacent highlands.

#4. Probing the polar regions. OMEGA and MARSIS determined that the south pole consists of a mixture frozen water ice and carbon dioxide. If all the polar ice melted the planet would be covered by an ocean 11 meters deep.

#5. Recent and episodic volcanism perhaps as recently as 2 million years ago. Mars has the largest volcanoes in the solar system . They are a major factor in the evolution of the martian surface, atmosphere and climate.

#6. Estimation of the current rate of atmospheric escape, helps researchers explain how Mars changed from a warm, wet place to the cold, dry place it is today.

#7. Discovery of localised aurora on Mars

#8. A new, meteoric layer in the martian ionosphere created by fast-moving cosmic dust which burns up as it hits the atmosphere.

#9. Unambiguous detection of carbon dioxide clouds. The freezing and vaporisation of CO2 is one of the main climatic cycles of Mars, and it controls the seasonal variations in surface air pressure.

#10. Unprecedented probing of the Martian moon Phobos – which could be a target for future landers and human missions.

The Mars-facing side of Phobos. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)
The Mars-facing side of Phobos. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

And don’t forget to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Conjunctions, Mars, Curiosity, Opportunity, MAVEN, LADEE, CIBER and NASA missions at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations

June 11: “Send your Name to Mars on MAVEN” and “LADEE Lunar & Antares Rocket Launches from Virginia”; NJ State Museum Planetarium and Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton (AAAP), Trenton, NJ, 730 PM.

June 12: “Send your Name to Mars on MAVEN” and “LADEE Lunar & Antares Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Franklin Institute and Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, Philadelphia, PA, 8 PM.

June 23: “Send your Name to Mars on MAVEN” and “CIBER Astro Sat, LADEE Lunar & Antares Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, 8 PM

Opportunity Mars Rover Blazes Past 40 Year Old Space Driving Record

Opportunity pops a ‘wheelie’ on May 15, 2013 (Sol 3308) and then made history by driving further to the mountain ahead on the next day, May 16 (Sol 3309), to establish a new American driving record for a vehicle on another world. This navcam mosaic shows the view forward to Opportunity’s future destinations of Solander Point and Cape Tribulation along the lengthy rim of huge Endeavour crater spanning 14 miles (22 km) in diameter. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Kenneth Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo.

Now more than 9 years and counting into her planned mere 90 day mission to Mars, NASA’s legendary Opportunity rover has smashed past another space milestone and established a new distance driving record for an American vehicle on another world this week.

On Thursday, May 16, the long-lived Opportunity drove another 263 feet (80 meters) on Mars – bringing her total odometry since landing on 24 January 2004 to 22.220 miles (35.760 kilometers) – and broke through the 40 year old driving record set back in December 1972 by Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt.

See below our complete map of the 9 Year Journey of Opportunity on Mars.

Cernan and Schmitt visited Earth’s moon on America’s final lunar landing mission and drove their mission’s Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV-3) 22.210 miles (35.744 kilometers) over the course of three days on the moon’s surface at Taurus-Littrow.

Apollo 17 lunar rover at final resting place. Credit: NASA
Apollo 17 lunar rover at final resting place on the Moon. Lunar module in the background. Credit: NASA

Cernan was ecstatic at the prospect of the Apollo 17 record finally being surpassed.

“The record we established with a roving vehicle was made to be broken, and I’m excited and proud to be able to pass the torch to Opportunity, ” said Cernan to team member Jim Rice of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md, in a NASA statement.

And Opportunity still has plenty of juice left!

So, although there are no guarantees, one can reasonably expect the phenomenal Opportunity robot to easily eclipse the ‘Solar System World Record’ for driving distance on another world that is currently held by the Soviet Union’s remote-controlled Lunokhod 2 rover. See detailed graphic below.

In 1973, Lunokhod 2 traveled 23 miles (37 kilometers) on the surface of Earth’s nearest neighbor.

Why could Opportunity continue farther into record setting territory ?

Because Opportunity’s handlers back on Earth have dispatched the Martian robot on an epic trek to continue blazing a path forward around the eroded rim of the huge crater named ‘Endeavour’ – where she has been conducting ground breaking science since arriving at the “Cape York” rim segment in mid 2011.

Out-of-this-World Records. This chart illustrates comparisons among the distances driven by various wheeled vehicles on the surface of Earth's moon and Mars. Of the vehicles shown, the NASA Mars rovers Opportunity and Curiosity are still active and the totals for those two are distances driven as of May 15, 2013. Opportunity set the new NASA driving record on May 15, 2013 by traveling 22.220 miles (35.760 kilometers).  The international record for driving distance on another world is still held by the Soviet Union's remote-controlled Lunokhod 2 rover, which traveled 23 miles (37 kilometers) on the surface of Earth's moon in 1973. Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech
Out-of-this-World Records. This chart illustrates comparisons among the distances driven by various wheeled vehicles on the surface of Earth’s moon and Mars. Of the vehicles shown, the NASA Mars rovers Opportunity and Curiosity are still active and the totals for those two are distances driven as of May 15, 2013. Opportunity set the new NASA driving record on May 15, 2013 by traveling 22.220 miles (35.760 kilometers). The international record for driving distance on another world is still held by the Soviet Union’s remote-controlled Lunokhod 2 rover, which traveled 23 miles (37 kilometers) on the surface of Earth’s moon in 1973. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Opportunity has just now set sail for her next crater rim destination named “Solander Point”, an area about 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers) away – due south from “Cape York.”

Endeavour Crater is 14 miles (22 km) wide, featuring terrain with older rocks than previously inspected and unlike anything studied before. It’s a place no one ever dared dream of reaching prior to Opportunity’s launch in the summer of 2003 and landing on the Meridiani Planum region in 2004.

Opportunity will blast through the world record milestone held by the Lunokhod 2 rover somewhere along the path to “Solander Point.”

Thereafter Opportunity will rack up ever more miles as the rover continues driving further south to a spot called “Cape Tribulation”, that is believed to hold caches of clay minerals that formed eons ego when liquid water flowed across this region of the Red Planet.

It’s a miracle that Opportunity has lasted so far beyond her design lifetime – 37 times longer than the 3 month “warranty.”

“Regarding achieving nine years, I never thought we’d achieve nine months!” Principal Investigator Prof. Steve Squyres of Cornell University told me recently on the occasion of the rovers 9th anniversary on Mars in January 2013.

“Our next destination will be Solander Point,” said Squyres.

Opportunity was joined on Mars by her younger sister Curiosity, currently exploring the crater floor inside Gale Crater since landing on Aug. 6, 2012.

Curiosity is likewise embarked on a epic trek – towards 3 mile high (5.5 km) Mount Sharp some 6 miles away.

Both rovers Opportunity & Curiosity have discovered phyllosilicates, hydrated calcium sulfate mineral veins and vast evidence for flowing liquid water on Mars. All this data enhances the prospects that Mars could have once supported microbial life forms.

The Quest for Life beyond Earth continues ably with NASA’s Martian sister rovers.

And don’t forget to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about NASA missions, Opportunity, Curiosity and more at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentation:

June 12: “Send your Name to Mars” and “Antares Rocket Launch from Virginia”; Franklin Institute and Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, Philadelphia, PA, 8 PM.

Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2013 to Record Setting Drive on May 15. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during more than 9 years and over 3309 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location heading south from  Cape York ridge at the western rim of Endeavour Crater.  On May 15, 2013 Opportunity drove 263 feet (80 meters) southward - achieving a total traverse distance on Mars of 22.22 miles (35.76 kilometers) - and broke the driving record by any NASA vehicle that was previously held by the astronaut-driven Apollo 17 Lunar Rover in 1972. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2013 to Record Setting Drive on May 15. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during more than 9 years and over 3309 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location heading south from Cape York ridge at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. On May 15, 2013 Opportunity drove 263 feet (80 meters) southward – achieving a total traverse distance on Mars of 22.22 miles (35.76 kilometers) – and broke the driving record by any NASA vehicle that was previously held by the astronaut-driven Apollo 17 Lunar Rover in 1972.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
View Back at Record-Setting Drive by Opportunity. On the 3,309th Martian day, or sol, of its mission on Mars (May 15, 2013) NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity drove 263 feet (80 meters) southward along the western rim of Endeavour Crater. That drive put the total distance driven by Opportunity since the rover's January 2004 landing on Mars at 22.220 miles (35.760 kilometers. This exceeded the distance record by any NASA vehicle, previously held by the astronaut-driven Apollo 17 Lunar Rover in 1972. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
View Back at Record-Setting Drive by Opportunity. On the 3,309th Martian day, or sol, of its mission on Mars (May 15, 2013) NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity drove 263 feet (80 meters) southward along the western rim of Endeavour Crater. That drive put the total distance driven by Opportunity since the rover’s January 2004 landing on Mars at 22.220 miles (35.760 kilometers. This exceeded the distance record by any NASA vehicle, previously held by the astronaut-driven Apollo 17 Lunar Rover in 1972. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Soviet Lunokhod-2 lunar rover.  Credit: Ria Novosti
Soviet Lunokhod-2 lunar rover. Credit: Ria Novosti

Opportunity Rover Starts Year 10 on Mars with Remarkable Science Discoveries

Image caption: Opportunity Celebrates 9 Years and 3200 Sols on Mars snapping this panoramic view from her current location on ‘Matijevic Hill’ at Endeavour Crater. The 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). “Copper Cliff” is the dark outcrop, at top center. Darker “Kirkwood” outcrop, at left, is site of mysterious “newberries” concretions. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

9 Years ago, NASA’s pair of identical twin sister rovers – christened Spirit & Opportunity- bounced to daunting airbag-cushioned landings on opposite sides of the Red Planet for what was supposed to be merely 90 day missions, or maybe a little bit longer scientists hoped.

Today, Opportunity celebrates a truly unfathomable achievement, starting Year 10 on Mars since she rolled to a bumpy stop on January 24, 2004 inside tiny Eagle crater. And she’s now at a super sweet spot for science (see our photo mosaic above) loaded with clays and veined minerals and making the most remarkable findings yet about the planets watery past – thus building upon a long string of previously unthinkable discoveries due to her totally unforeseen longevity.

“Regarding achieving nine years, I never thought we’d achieve nine months!” Principal Investigator Prof. Steve Squyres of Cornell University told Universe Today for this article commemorating Opportunity’s 9th anniversary.

Opportunity reached 3200 Sols, or Martian days, and counting , by her 9th birthday. She is now 108 months into the 3 month primary mission – that’s 36 times longer than the 3 month “warranty.”

“Every sol is a gift,” Squyres told me. He always refers to the rovers as our “Priceless assets on Mars”, that have to be taken good care of to wring out the maximum science data possible and for as long as humanly, or more aptly, robotically possible.

PIA16703_Sol3137B_Matijevic_Pan_L257atc_br2

Image Caption: ‘Matijevic Hill’ Panorama for Rover’s Ninth Anniversary. As Opportunity neared the ninth anniversary of its landing on Mars, the rover was working in the ‘Matijevic Hill’ area seen in this view from Opportunity’s panoramic camera (Pancam). Two of the features investigated at Matijevic Hill are “Copper Cliff,” the dark outcrop in the left center of the image, and “Whitewater Lake,” the bright outcrop on the far right. The component images for this mosaic were taken from Sol 3137 (Nov. 19, 2012) through Sol 3150 (Dec. 3, 2012). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.

The resilient, solar powered Opportunity robot begins her 10th year roving around beautifully Earth-like Martian terrain where where she proved that potentially life sustaining liquid water once flowed billions of years ago when the planet was warmer and wetter.

Opportunity is healthy and has driven over 22 miles (35 kilometers )- marking the first overland expedition on another planet. See our photo mosaics and route map by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

She is now working at the inboard edge of “Cape York” – a hilly segment of the eroded rim of 14 mile (22 km) wide Endeavour Crater, featuring terrain with older rocks than previously inspected and unlike anything studied before. It’s a place no one ever dared dream of reaching prior to launch in the summer of 2003 and landing on the Meridiani Planum region of Mars.

“It’s like a whole new mission since we arrived at Cape York,” says Squyres.

Opportunity Sol 3182_3Ba_Ken Kremer

Image caption: Opportunity Celebrates 9 Years on Mars snapping this panoramic view of the vast expanse of 14 mile (22 km) wide Endeavour Crater from atop ‘Matijevic Hill’ on Sol 3182 (Jan. 5, 2013). The rover then drove 43 feet to arrive at ‘Whitewater Lake’ and investigate clay minerals. Photo mosaic was stitched from Navcam images and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

Today Opportunity is poised for breakthrough science at deposits of phyllosilicates – clay minerals which stem from an earlier epoch when liquid water flowed on Mars eons ago and perhaps may have been more favorable to sustaining microbial life because they form in more neutral pH water. Endeavour Crater is more than 3 Billion years old.

I asked Squyres to discuss the discovery of the phyllosilicates – which have never before been analyzed up close on the Martian surface and are actually a main target of NASA’s new Curiosity rover at Gale Crater.

“We have found the phyllosilicates at Cape York: they’re in the Whitewater Lake materials,” Squyres explained. Spectral data collected from Mars orbit by the CRISM spectrometer aboard NASA’s MRO circling spacecraft allowed the researchers to direct Opportunity to this exact spot.

“Whitewater Lake” is an area of bright local outcrops currently being investigated and providing information about a different and apparently less acidic environment compared to other areas and craters visited earlier in the mission – and potentially more conducive to life.

Opportunity also discovered more mineral veins at “Whitewater Lake”, in addition to those hydrated mineral veins discovered earlier at Cape York at a spot named “Homestake” – see our mosaic below.

“We have investigated the veins in these materials, and we have determined that they are calcium sulfate,” Squyres confirmed to me.

Opportunity Sol 2761_2a_Ken Kremer

Image caption: 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. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Kenneth Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo.

How do the new mineral veins compare to those at ‘Homestake’ and those just found by Curiosity at Yellowknife Bay inside Gale crater? I asked Sqyures.

“Much narrower, and possibly older,” he said compared to the Homestake calcium sulfate veins .

“It’s too early to say how they compare to the veins at Gale, though.”

The local area at “Cape York” is called “Matijevic Hill” – in honor of a recently deceased team member who played a key role on NASA’s Mars rovers.

The rover has already spent a few months at “Matijevic Hill” on a ‘walk about’ scouting survey and also found concretions dubbed “newberries” that are different from the “blueberry” concretions found earlier in the mission.

How widespread are the phyllosilicates ?

“Matijevic Hill is the only exposure of phyllosilicates we know of at Cape York, so in order to find more we’re going to have to go elsewhere,” Squyres replied. “We haven’t figured out what the “newberries” are yet, but attempting to do that will be our next task.”

It is likely to take many more weeks and even months to “figure out” what this all means for science.

Therefore, no one should expect the robot to move much in the near future. Since the rover made landfall at the western rim of Endeavour crater at Spirit Point in August 2011, she has been circling around Cape York ever since.

Opportunity Sol 2678c_Ken Kremer

Image caption: Opportunity rover first arrived at the western rim of Endeavour Crater (14 miles, 22 km wide) in August 2011. This photo mosaic of navcam images shows portions of the segmented rim of Endeavour crater on Sol 2678. Large ejecta blocks from a smaller nearby crater are visible in the middle. At Endeavour, Opportunity will investigate the oldest minerals deposits she has ever visited from billions of years ago and which may hold clues to environments that were potentially habitable for microbial life. The rover may eventually drive to Cape Tribulation at right if she survives. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

What is the next destination for Opportunity?

“Once we’re done at Cape York, our next destination will be Solander Point [to the south],” Squyres confirmed. It’s the next rim segment south of Cape York (see map).

Eventually, if Opportunity continues to function and survives the next Martian winter, she may be directed several miles even further south, along the crater rim to a spot called Cape Tribulation – because it also harbors caches of phyllosilicate clay minerals. But there is no telling when that might be.

“One step at a time,” said Squyres as always. He is not making any guesses or predictions. The mission is totally discovery driven.

Well after so many great science discoveries over the past 9 years, I asked Squyres to describe the context and significance of the phyllosilicates discovery?

“Impossible to say, I’m afraid… we’re still figuring this place out; I can’t put it in context yet,” Squyres concluded.

Thus, there is still so much more bountiful science research still to be done by Opportunity – and nobody is making any forecasts on how long she might yet survive.

So just keep praying to the Martian weather gods for occasional winds and “dust devils” to clean off those life giving solar panels – and to the US Congress to provide the essential funding.

Ken Kremer

Opportunity Sol 2852a_Ken Kremer

Image caption: Opportunity Phones Home – Dusty Self Portrait from Endeavour Crater on Mars on Sol 2852, February 2012. NASA’s rover Opportunity snaps self-portrait where she endured 5th frigid Martian winter at Greeley Haven. Opportunity is currently investigating Cape York ridge and Matijevic Hill at right. Vast expanse of Endeavour Crater and rim in background with dusty solar panels and full on view of the High Gain Antenna (HGA) in the foreground. Mosaic: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Opportunity Sol 2681a_annotated_Ken Kremer

Image caption: Endeavour Crater Panorama from Opportunity, Sol 2681, August 2011 on arrival at the rim of Endeavour and Cape York ridge. Odyssey crater visible at left. Mineral veins were later found to surround Cape York. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Opportunity Route map_3187s_Ken Kremer

Image caption: Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2013 – shows the entire path the rover has driven over 9 years, 3200 Sols and more than 22 miles (35 km) from Eagle Crater landing site to current location at Cape York ridge at Endeavour Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Rover Team Chooses 1st Rock Drilling Target for Curiosity

Image caption: Time lapse mosaic shows Curiosity rover’s arm movement from raised position to surface deployment on Sol 149 (Jan. 5) for contact science near the lower point of the slithery chain of narrow protruding rocks known as ‘Snake River’ – located inside the basin called “Yellowknife Bay’. The rover team will soon conduct historic first rock drilling in these surroindings. Curiosity has now driven to the larger, broken rock just above, right of the sinuous ‘Snake River’ rock formation. Photomosaic was stitched from Navcam raw images and is colorized with patches of sky added to fill in image gaps. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

A team of Mars scientists and engineers have chosen the 1st rock drilling target for NASA’s Curiosity rover after carefully considering a range of options over the past several weeks at the robots current location inside a shallow depression known as ‘Yellowknife Bay’, which is replete with light toned rocks.

An official NASA announcement with further information is forthcoming on Tuesday this week, according to a source for this report.

Curiosity is now conducting a detailed science evaluation of the vicinity around a slithery chain of rocks called ‘Snake River’, jutting up from the sandy, rock strewn Martian floor – see our illustrative photo mosaics above & below and earlier story here.

Drilling goes to the heart of the mission and will mark a historic feat in planetary exploration – as the first time that an indigenous sample has been cored from the interior of a rock on another planet and subsequently analyzed by chemical spectrometers to determine its elemental composition and determine if organic molecules are present.

The first report of the drill target selection came just a day ago from Craig Covault at NASA Watch/Spaceref in an article, here – featuring our ‘Snake River’ time lapse mosaic (by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo). The mosaic shows the arm in action deploying its science instruments and rotating to capture pictures with the MAHLI microscopic imager and contact science with the APXS mineral spectrometer.

The exact drilling spot has not been divulged but is likely near ‘Snake River’ and visible in our mosaics from Sol 149 and earlier Sols inside the ‘Yellowknife Bay’ basin – which exhibits cross bedding and is reminiscent of a dried up shoreline. Curiosity has now driven to the larger, broken rock just above, right of the sinuous ‘Snake River’ rock formation for up-close contact science investigations.

Curiosity 1st brushoff sol 150_1a_Ken Kremer

Image Caption: Before and after comparison of images of 1st ever rock brush off by Curiosity’s Dust Removal Tool (DRT) on Sol 150 (Jan 6, 2013), nearby to Snake River. Images taken by the high resolution Mastcam 100 camera, contrast enhanced. The brushed patch of rock target called “Ekwir_1” ‘is about 1.85 inches by 2.44 inches (47 millimeters by 62 millimeters). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer

The Mars Science Lab (MSL) team is coordinating with top JPL & NASA management to get approval for the drilling location chosen or select another rock.

The high powered hammering drill is located on the tool turret at the end of the car-sized robots 7 foot (2.1 meter) long mechanical arm.

The percussive drill is the last component of Curiosity’s ten state-of-the-art science instruments that remains to be checked out and put into action.

Rock samples collected from the first test bore holes will be pulverized and the powdery mix will initially be used to rinse the interior chambers of the drill mechanisms and cleanse out residual earthly contaminants – and then dumped. The same procedure was carried out at the windblown ‘Rocknest’ ripple with the initial scoops of soil to cleanse the CHIMRA sample processing systems.

So it’s likely to take several weeks and possible a month or more until sieved samples are finally delivered to the CheMin and SAM analytical chemistry labs on the rover deck for analysis of their inorganic and organic chemical composition.

Curiosity touches Yellowknife Bay Sol 132_4c_Ken Kremer

Image caption: Photo mosaic shows NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover reaching out to investigate rocks at a spot inside Yellowknife Bay on Sol 132, Dec 19, 2012. In search of first drilling target the rover drove to a spot at the right edge of this mosaic called Snake River rock. Curiosity’s navigation camera captured the scene surrounding the rover with the arm deployed and the APXS and MAHLI science instruments on tool turret collecting imaging and X-ray spectroscopic data. Base of Mount Sharp visible at right. The mosaic is colorized with patches of sky added to fill in gaps. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

As a prelude on Sol 150 (Jan 6.), the rover successfully brushed off one of the flat rocks around Snake River for the first time by using the motorized, wire-bristle brush on the Dust Removal Tool (DRT), built by Honeybee Robotics of NYC.

The brushing was completed on a rock target called ‘Ekwir_1’ – see our mosaic showing a before and after comparison of rock surface images snapped by the Mastcam-100 high resolution color camera.

Brushing is a key step prior to rock drilling and allows the team to much more easily gain insight into the rocks composition with the science instruments compared to the obscured view of a dust blanketed rock. Spirit & Opportunity also have Honeybee Robotics built brushes that have still endured throughout their years’ long miraculous lifetimes.

The team then commanded the rover to bump a bit closer to “slightly younger rocks in front of the rover,” says MSL team member Ken Herkenhoff.

“The contact science activities in the current location went well, including the first brushing of the surface. In order to characterize the geology and chemistry of the rocks at the edge of Yellowknife Bay, we intend to repeat the set of brushing, APXS, MAHLI, ChemCam and Mastcam activities at the new location starting on Sol 152.”

“We are studying chemical and textural differences in the rocks near Snake River,” says Herkenhoff.

On Sol 152 (Jan. 8), Curiosity drove 2.5 meters closer to the area surrounding ‘Snake River’ and began snapping high resolution color imagery.

“It’s one piece of the puzzle,” says John Grotzinger, the mission’s chief scientist of the California Institute of Technology. “It has a crosscutting relationship to the surrounding rock and appears to have formed after the deposition of the layer that it transects.”

Grotzinger and the team are excited because Curiosity is a sort of time machine providing a glimpse into the Red Planets ancient history when the environment was warmer and wetter billions of years ago and much more conducive to the origin of life.

Ken Kremer

PIA16145

Image caption: Diagram shows all instruments on Tool turret on robotic arm. Credit: NASA

A Penny for your Curiosity on Mars

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity carries a Lincoln Penny on the calibration target to be used by a camera at the end of the robotic arm. The calibration target for the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera is attached to a shoulder joint of the arm. Inset shows the location of the calibration target. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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NASA’s huge Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover is carrying a vintage Lincoln penny along for the long interplanetary journey to Mars – and it’s not to open the first Martian savings account.

Scientists will use the century old Lincoln penny – minted back in 1909 – as a modern age calibration target for one of Curiosity’s five powerful science cameras attached to the end of the hefty, 7 foot (2.1 meter) long robotic arm.

The car sized rover is on course to touchdown at the foothills of a towering and layered mountain inside Gale Crater in just 161 days on Aug. 6, 2012.

So far Curiosity has traveled 244 million kilometers since blasting off on Nov. 26, 2011 from Florida and has another 322 million kilometers to go to the Red Planet.

The copper penny is bundled to a shoulder joint on the rovers arm along with the other elements of the calibration target, including color chips, a metric standardized bar graphic, and a stair-step pattern for depth calibration.

The whole target is about the size of a smart phone and looks a lot like an eye vision chart in an ophthalmologist’s office. And it serves a similar purpose, which will be to check the performance of Curiosity eyes – specifically the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera located at the terminus of the robotic arm.

Curiosity’s Calibration Target
Two instruments at the end of the robotic arm on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity will use calibration targets attached to a shoulder joint of the arm. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

MAHLI will conduct close-up inspections of Martian rocks and soil. It can show tiny details, finer than a human hair.

The term “hand lens” in MAHLI’s name refers to the standard practice by field geologists’ of carrying a hand lens during expeditions for close up, magnified inspection of rocks they find along the way. So it’s also critical to pack various means of calibration so that researchers can interpret their results and put them into proper perspective.

MAHLI can also focus on targets over a wide range of distances near and far, from about a finger’s-width away out to the Red Planets horizon, which in this case means the mountains and rim of the breathtaking Gale Crater landing site.

“When a geologist takes pictures of rock outcrops she is studying, she wants an object of known scale in the photographs,” said MAHLI Principal Investigator Ken Edgett, of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, which supplied the camera to NASA.

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory Rover - inside the Cleanroom at KSC
Curiosity with robotic arm extended. Calibration target is located at a shoulder joint on the arm. Photo taken just before encapsulation for 8 month long interplanetary Martian Journey and touchdown inside Gale Crater. Credit: Ken Kremer

The target features a collection of marked black bars in a wide range of labeled sizes to correlate calibration images to each image taken by Curiosity.

“If it is a whole cliff face, she’ll ask a person to stand in the shot. If it is a view from a meter or so away, she might use a rock hammer. If it is a close-up, as the MAHLI can take, she might pull something small out of her pocket. Like a penny.”

Edgett donated the special Lincoln penny with funds from his own pocket. The 1909 “VDB” cent stems from the very first year that Lincoln pennies were minted and also marks the centennial of President Abraham Lincoln’s birth. The VDB initials of the coin’s designer – Victor David Brenner — are on the reverse side. In mint condition the 1909 Lincoln VDB copper penny has a value of about $20.

The Lincoln penny in this photograph is part of a camera calibration target attached to NASA's Mars rover Curiosity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The penny is on the MAHLI calibration target as a tip of the hat to geologists’ informal practice of placing a coin or other object of known scale in their photographs. A more formal practice is to use an object with scale marked in millimeters, centimeters or meters,” Edgett said. “Of course, this penny can’t be moved around and placed in MAHLI images; it stays affixed to the rover.”

“Everyone in the United States can recognize the penny and immediately know how big it is, and can compare that with the rover hardware and Mars materials in the same image,” Edgett said.

“The public can watch for changes in the penny over the long term on Mars. Will it change color? Will it corrode? Will it get pitted by windblown sand?”

MAHLI’s calibration target also features a display of six patches of pigmented silicone to assist in interpreting color and brightness in the images. Five of them are leftovers from Spirit and Opportunity. The sixth has a fluorescent pigment that glows red when exposed to ultraviolet light, allows checking of an ultraviolet light source on MAHLI. The fluorescent material was donated to the MAHLI team by Spectra Systems, Inc., Providence, R.I.

Three-dimensional calibration of the MSL images will be done using the penny and a stair-stepped area at the bottom of the target.

“The importance of calibration is to allow data acquired on Mars to be compared reliably to data acquired on Earth,” said Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.

Curiosity is a 1 ton (900 kg) behemoth. She measures 3 meters (10 ft) in length and is nearly twice the size and five times as heavy as Spirit and Opportunity, NASA’s prior set of twin Martian robots. The science payload is 15 times heavier than the twin robots.

Curiosity is packed to the gills with 10 state of the art science instruments that are seeking the signs of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based building blocks of life as we know it.

NASA could only afford to build one rover this time.

Curiosity MSL location on 27 Feb 2012. Credit: NASA

Curiosity will be NASA’s last Mars rover since the 4th generation ExoMars rover due to liftoff in 2018 was just cancelled by the Obama Administration as part of a deep slash to NASA’s Planetary Science budget.

Opportunity Phones Home Dusty Self-Portraits and Ground Breaking Science

Mosaic: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer

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Opportunity, the Princess of Martian Robots, phoned home dusty new self portraits – above and below – of her beautiful bod basking in the utterly frigid sunshine during her 5th winter on the Red Planet whilst overlooking a humongous crater offering bountiful science.

NASA’s endearing robot is simultaneously carrying out an ambitious array of ground breaking science experiments this winter – providing insight into the mysterious nature of the Martian core – while sitting stationary until the energy augmenting rays of the springtime Sun shower down on Mars from the heavens above.

Opportunity’s current winter worksite is located at the rim of the vast crater named Endeavour, some 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter. The robot will remain parked for the winter on a slope at the north end of the crater rim segment called Cape York with an approximate 15-degree northerly tilt towards the life-giving sun to maximize solar energy production. The park-site is at an outcrop dubbed “Greeley Haven”, named in honor of Ronald Greeley, a beloved and recently deceased science team member.

The power killing dust buildup is readily apparent on the solar arrays and High Gain Antenna pictured in the new panoramic self-portraits of Opportunity’s wing-like deck. The red Martian dust also functions as a rather effective camouflage agent, sometimes blending the rover to near invisibility with the surface.

Dusty Mars Rover's Self-Portrait- Dec 2011
NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows dust accumulation on the rover's solar panels as the mission approached its fifth Martian winter at the rim of Endeavour Crater. Opportunity is located on the north-facing slope of a site called "Greeley Haven." This is a mosaic of images taken by Opportunity's panoramic camera (Pancam) during the 2,811th to 2,814th Martian days, or sols, of the rover's mission (Dec. 21 to Dec. 24, 2011). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.

Indeed because Opportunity is covered with a thicker film of dust compared to her prior four Martian winters, the rover team was forced to employ the same “tilting” strategy they successfully used to keep her twin sister Spirit alive during her trio of Antarctic-like winters. This is the first winter that Opportunity did not have sufficient power to continue roving across the surface.

Since Opportunity is located just south of the Martian equator, the daylight hours for solar power generation are growing shorter until the southern Mars winter solstice occurs on March 30, 2012. As of mid- February 2012, the latest measure of solar array energy production was 274 watt-hours, compared to about 900 watt-hours at the start of the mission. See Solar Power energy graph below.

Power generation from the solar arrays has fluctuated up and down throughout Opportunity’s lifetime depending on when the completely unpredictable and fortuitous Martian wind storms chance by and miraculously clean the arrays of the rusty red dust.

Opportunity Rover Self-Portrait From 2007
Opportunity used its panoramic camera (Pancam) during the mission's sols 1282 and 1284 (Sept. 2 and Sept. 4, 2007) to take the images combined into this mosaic view of the rover. The downward-looking view omits the mast on which the camera is mounted.The deck panorama is presented in approximate true color, the camera team's best estimate of what the scene would look like if humans were there and able to see it with their own eyes.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

The rover science team is ingeniously using the lack of movement to their advantage and Opportunity is still vigorously hard at work doing breakthrough research each and every day.

From her stationary position, Opportunity is conducting her first ever radio science Doppler tracking measurements to support geo-dynamic investigations and to elucidate the unknown structure of the Martian interior and core. The team was eager for the long awaited chance to carry out the radio tracking experiment with the High Gain Antenna (HGA) and determine if Mars core is liquid or solid. Months of data collection are required while the rover stays stationary.

“This winter science campaign will feature two way radio tracking with Earth to determine the Martian spin axis dynamics – thus the interior structure, a long-neglected aspect of Mars,” Ray Arvidson told Universe Today. Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis, is the deputy rover Principal Investigator.

Opportunity has nearly finished snapping the 13 filter, 360 degree stereo Greeley” panorama. The rover deployed the robotic arm onto the surface of the “Amboy” outcrop to collect multi-sol integrations with the Mössbauer Spectrometer and the largest ever mosaic campaign using the Microscopic Imager.

“We’ll do good science while we’re at Greeley Haven. But as soon as we catch a wind gust or the seasons change, we’ll be on our way again,” Steve Squyres told Universe Today. Squyres, of Cornell University is the rover Science Principal Investigator

“The Martian southern winter solstice occurs at the end of March. A few months after that date we will drive her off the outcrop and further explore Cape York,” Arvidson told me

The team will drive Opportunity in search of further evidence of the gypsum mineral veins like “Homestake” – indicative of ancient water flow – previously discovered at Cape York. Thereafter they’ll rove further south to investigate deposits of phyllosilicates, the clay minerals which stem from an earlier epoch when liquid water flowed on Mars eons ago and perhaps may have been more favorable to sustaining life.

Graph shows Opportunity’s Solar power energy generation over the past 1000 Sols, or Martian Days, from Sol 1900 up to February 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL/Marco Di Lorenzo

Mars from Earth on Feb 18, 2012 is nearly at opposition (occurs March 3) in this image taken using a Celestron 11 inch telescope in Leesburg, Florida. Astrophotographer Credit: Ernie Rossi

Opportunity is now well into her 9th year exploring hitherto unknown terrain on Mars, far exceeding anyone’s expectation. She landed inside a tiny crater on Jan. 24. 2004 for what was expected to be a mission of merely 90 Martian days, or Sols.

Today is Martian Sol 2873, that’s 32 times beyond the rover designers “warranty” for NASA’s Opportunity rover.

Altogether, Opportunity has journeyed more than 21 miles (34 kilometers) across the Red Planet’s surface, marking the first overland expedition on another Planet. See our route map below.

Opportunity Rover Traverse Map at Meridiani Planum on Mars - 2004 to 2012
Traverse map shows the 8 Year Journey of Opportunity from Eagle Crater landing site on Sol 1- Jan. 24, 2004 - to 5th Winter Haven worksite at Greeley Haven at Endeavour Crater rim in January 2012. Opportunity embarked on a crater tour and discovered bountiful evidence for the flow of liquid water on Mars billions of years ago. Endeavour Crater is 14 miles 22 kilometers) in diameter. Opportunity has driven more than 21 miles (34 km). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/UA/Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer

Meanwhile, NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover is rocketing through space and on course for a pinpoint touchdown inside the layered terrain of Gale Crater on August 6, 2012. Curiosity is now America’s last planned Mars rover following the cancellation of the joint NASA/ESA ExoMars rover mission in the Obama Administrations newly announced Fiscal 2013 NASA budget.

Spirit Lander – 1st Color Image from Mars Orbit

1st Color image of Spirit lander and Bonneville Crater from Mars orbit. Near the lower left corner of this view is the three-petal lander platform that NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit drove off in January 2004. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

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The Lander platform for NASA’s Spirit rover has been photographed in stunning high resolution color for the first time from Mars orbit – just over 8 years after the now legendary robot survived the scorching atmospheric heat of the 6 minute plunge through the Martian atmosphere and bounced to a stop inside Gusev Crater on January 3, 2004.

Spirit’s three petaled landing pad was finally imaged in color by NASA’s powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft just days ago on January 29, 2012 at 3:04 p.m. local Mars time.

The MRO spacecraft was soaring overhead and captured the image of Spirit’s lander with the high resolution HiRISE camera from a distance of some 262 kilometers, (162 miles).

“HiRISE has never before imaged the actual lander for the Spirit rover in color, [located] on the west side of Bonneville Crater,” writes Alfred McEwen, HiRISE Principal Investigator at the University of Arizona.

1st Color image of Spirit Lander and Bonneville Crater from Mars orbit
Spirit landing pad at lower left; Bonneville Crater rim at top right.
Credit: NASA/JPL/UA/HiRISE

While protectively cocooned inside the airbag cushioned lander, Spirit bounced about two dozen times before rolling to rest on the Martian plains about ¼ mile away from Bonneville Crater. Then her landing petals unfurled, the airbags were partially retracted and Spirit eventually drove off the landing pad.

“The lander is still bright, but with a reddish color, probably due to a [Martian] dust cover.”

Spirit rover images her Lander Platform after Egress
- Now imaged for the 1st time from Mars orbit by NASA’s MRO spacecraft. Lander had 3-petals and airbags. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

Spirit initially drove to Bonneville Crater and circumnavigated part way around the rim before speeding off towards the Columbia Hills, about 2 miles to the East. She eventually scaled the summit of Husband Hill and drove down the opposite side to the Home Plate” volcanic feature where she rests today – see travse map below.

“A bright spot from a remnant of the heat shield is still visible on the north rim of Bonneville Crater. The backshell and parachute are still bright, but were not captured in the narrow color swath.”

“The rover itself can still be seen near “Home Plate” in the Columbia Hills, but there is no obvious sign of rover tracks–erased by the wind,” McEwen notes.

Here is a photo taken by Spirit looking back to the lander – now imaged in color from orbit for the first time – for a comparative view, before she drove off forever.

Spirit endured for more than six years of bonus time exploration beyond her planned 90 day mission. And Opportunity is still roving Mars today !

Spirit Rover traverse map from Gusev Crater landing site near Bonneville Crater to Columbia Hills to Home Plate: 2004 to 2011. Credit: NASA/JPL/UA/HiRISE

Curiosity – NASA’s newest, biggest ever and maybe last Mars rover – is speeding through interplanetary space for an August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater.

Read my 8th Year Anniversary articles about Spirit and Opportunity on Mars – here and here

NASA’s Resilient Rover Opportunity Begins Year 9 On Mars with Audacious Science Ahead

Martian Vista from Opportunity at Endeavour Crater - 8 Years on Mars. NASA’s Opportunity rover celebrated 8 Years on Mars on January 24, 2012. This mosaic shows portions of the segmented rim of Endeavour crater (14 miles, 22 km wide) after the robot arriving at the craters foothills in August 2011. Large ejecta blocks from a smaller nearby crater are visible in the middle. At Endeavour, Opportunity will investigate the oldest minerals deposits she has ever visited from billions of years ago and which may hold clues to environments that were potentially habitable for microbial life. The rover will eventually drive to Cape Tribulation at right after surviving her 5th winter on Mars. Mosaic Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer

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Today, the resilient Opportunity robot begins her 9th year roving around beautifully Earth-like Martian terrain where potentially life sustaining liquid water once flowed billions of years ago.

Opportunity celebrates her 8th anniversary on the Red Planet gazing at the foothills of the vast crater named Endeavour, promising a “mother lode” of “watery” science – an unimaginable circumstance since the nail biting landing on the hematite rich plains of Meridiani Planum on 24 January 2004.

“Opportunity is 97 months into the 3 month mission,” team members are proud and universally surprised to say.

“Milestones like 8 years on Mars always make me look forward rather than looking back,” Rover Principal Investigator Prof. Steve Squyres of Cornell University told Universe Today for this article commemorating Opportunity’s landing.

“We’ve still got a lot of exploring to do, but we’re doing it with a vehicle that was designed for a 90-sol mission. That means that every sol is a gift at this point.”

Opportunity has driven more than 21 miles (34 kilometers) across the Red Planet’s surface during what is truly humankind’s first overland expedition on another Planet. See our route map below.

Opportunity Rover Traverse Map at Meridiani Planum on Mars - 2004 to 2012
Traverse map shows the 8 Year Journey of Opportunity from Eagle Crater landing site on Sol 1- Jan. 24, 2004 - to 5th Winter Haven worksite at Greeley Haven at Endeavour Crater rim in January 2012. Opportunity embarked on a crater tour and discovered bountiful evidence for the flow of liquid water on Mars billions of years ago. The robot has shown that ancient ephemeral shallow lakes existed on Mars when the cratered terrain was cut by fluvial channels. Endeavour Crater is 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter. Opportunity has so far driven more than 21 miles (34 km) over 8 Years but was only expected to live for 90 Martian days. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/UA/Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer

NASA’s twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity blasted off for Mars atop a pair of Delta II rockets in the summer of 2003 with a mission “warranty” of just 90 Martian days, or Sols.

Today is Sol 2846 of working operations for Opportunity, compared to an anticipated lifetime of only 90 Sols – that amounts to more than 31 times beyond the designer’s expectations.

Indeed, the long lived robot is now enduring her 5th Winter on Mars. And to glimpse the next Martian sunrise, the robo girls manmade components must survive the harsh extremes of frigid Antarctic-like temperatures each and every sol.

“I never thought that we would still be planning sequences for Opportunity today,” Ray Arvidson told Universe Today. Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis, is the deputy rover principal investigator.

“I seriously thought both Spirit and Opportunity would be finished by the summer of 2004.”

Opportunity's Eighth Anniversary View From 'Greeley Haven' (False Color). This mosaic of images taken in mid-January 2012 shows the windswept vista northward (left) to northeastward (right) from the location where Opportunity is spending its fifth Martian winter, an outcrop informally named "Greeley Haven. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.

But, Opportunity is the gift to science that keeps on giving.

“I am feeling pretty good as the MER rover anniversaries approach,” Arvidson told me.

“Opportunity has shown that ancient ephemeral shallow lakes existed as Mars moved climatically from an early period when the cratered terrain was cut by fluvial channels to the current dry and cold conditions that dominate.”

“Both rovers have conclusively shown the need for lateral mobility to get to relevant outcrops and back out the secrets associated with past conditions,” Arvidson explained.

Barely a month ago the bountiful harvest from mobility was once again demonstrated when the science team lead by Squyres and Arvidson announced that Opportunity had discovered the most scientifically compelling evidence yet for the flow of liquid water on ancient Mars.

Squyres and Arvidson announced that Opportunity had found a bright vein – named “Homestake” – composed of the mineral gypsum located at the Cape York segment of Endeavour Crater where the intrepid robot is currently spending her 5th Martian Winter.

“This gypsum vein is the single most powerful piece of evidence for liquid water at Mars that has been discovered by the Opportunity rover,” Squyres explained.

Veins are a geologic indication of the past flow of liquid water.

See our mosaic below illustrating the exact location of the “Homestake” vein at Endeavour Crater – also published at Astronomy Picture of the Day; 12 Dec 2011.

Opportunity discovers Water related Mineral Vein at Endeavour Crater - November 2011
Opportunity rover discovered Gypsum at the Homestake mineral vein, while exploring around the base of Cape York ridge at the rim of Endeavour Crater. The vein is composed of calcium sulfate and 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.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Kenneth Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
Published on Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD): 12 Dec 2011

Opportunity just arrived at the rim of the 14 mile (22 kilometer) wide Endeavour Crater in mid-August 2011 following an epic three year trek across treacherous dune fields from her prior investigative target at the ½ mile wide Victoria Crater.

“It’s like a whole new mission since we arrived at Cape York,” says Squyres.

For the next few months of the bitterly cold Martian winter, Opportunity will conduct a vigorous science campaign while remaining mostly stationary at a spot dubbed “Greeley Haven” in honor of Prof. Ronald Greeley, a team member from Arizona State University who recently passed away.

Opportunity Mars Rover at 5th Winter Worksite at Endeavour Crater
This mosaic shows the view of NASA’s Opportunity rover parked at “Greeley Haven” worksite where the robot will spend her 5th Martian Winter. This mosaic of images shows the Winter Haven view from the Cape York Ridge at the western rim of Endeavour Crater looking south along the crater rim. Tire tracks at right. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer

At this moment Opportunity is snapping a 360 degree panorama, deploying her robotic arm onto nearby outcrops, collecting microscopic images, making measurements of mineral compositions with the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer and conducting radio science observations to elucidate the unknown structure of the Martian interior and core.

The rover is covered with a significant coating of dust which limits her ability to generate power from the life sustaining solar arrays. Since Opportunity is traversing just south of the equator, engineers have temporarily parked her on a northerly facing slope to maximize the electric power generation.

“Opportunity is currently sitting on an outcrop of impact breccias at Greeley Haven on Cape York,” said Arvidson.

Opportunity will remain at Greeley Haven until some time after the Winter Solstice of southern Martian winter occurs at the end of March.

'Greeley Haven' Site for Opportunity's Fifth Martian Winter. This mosaic of Greeley Haven was acquired by Opportunity on Sol 2793, Dec. 2, 2011. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.

Then she’ll head south to further explore the veins and eventually drive to deposits of the clay mineral located a few miles (km) away along the craters rim.

“We’ll do good science while we’re at Greeley Haven. But as soon as we catch a wind gust or the seasons change, we’ll be on our way again,” Squyres told me.

The legendary twins Spirit and Opportunity surely rank as one of the greatest triumphs in space exploration.

Opportunity arrives at Greeley Haven – 5th Winter Haven Worksite on Mars

Opportunity Mars Rover at Winter Haven Worksite at Endeavour Crater. NASA’s Opportunity rover has parked near this spot at the “Greeley Haven” worksite where the robot will spend her 5th Martian Winter Haven since landing 8 years ago in January 2004. This mosaic of images was snapped in December 2011 and shows the view from the Cape York Ridge at the western rim of Endeavour Crater looking south along the crater rim to a future area that Opportunity will drive to and explore next spring. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer

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NASA’s seemingly indestructible Opportunity rover has arrived at the breathtaking location where she’ll be working through her unfathomable 5th Martian Winter. The Opportunity Mars Exploration Rover has not only endured, but flourished for 8 years of unending “Exploration & Discovery” on the Red Planet despite having an expected lifetime at landing of just 3 months, way back in January 2004.

Opportunity is parked at a northward facing outcrop dubbed “Greeley Haven” where she can soak up the sun and juice her innards throughout the utterly harsh and Antarctic-like temperatures on tap for the next few months that threaten to kill her each and every Martian day. See our mosaic above around the Greeley Haven area.

Science team members told Universe Today that the rover is sitting at Greeley Haven because the site offers a roughly 15 degree tilt that will maximize the electric output from the life-giving solar arrays and also allow the robot to carry out a vigorous science campaign during the seasonal Martian winter season that officially begins in March.

Greeley Haven is a located at the northern tip of the “Cape York” segment of the western rim of the vast crater named Endeavour, some 14 miles (22 km) wide that’s loaded with a bountiful variety of rocks and soil that neither Opportunity nor her twin Spirit have ever touched and drilled into before and stem from an earlier epoch when liquid water flowed eons ago and perhaps may have been more favorable to sustaining life.

“Opportunity is currently sitting on Saddleback at Greeley Haven, an outcrop of impact breccias on Cape York, Endeavour crater’s rim,” Ray Arvidson told Universe Today. Arvisdon is the mission’s deputy principal investigator, of Washington University in St. Louis.

“Her northerly tilt is about ~15 degrees which is enough to have a vibrant winter campaign. The Martian southern winter solstice occurs at the end of March. A few months after that date we will drive her off the outcrop and further explore Cape York.”

Approaching 'Greeley Haven' on Endeavour Rim
Opportunity captured this view of a northward-facing outcrop, "Greeley Haven," where the rover will work during its fifth Martian winter. This southward-looking image was taken on Sol 2790 on Mars (Nov. 29, 2011). The rover team chose this designation as a tribute to the influential planetary geologist Ronald Greeley (1939-2011), who was a member of the science team for the Mars rovers and many other interplanetary missions. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Greeley Haven” is named in tribute to planetary Geologist Ronald Greeley (1939-2011) who was a beloved member of the rover science team and a host of other NASA planetary missions. He taught at Arizona State University and inspired several generations of students and planetary scientists until his recent death on Oct. 27, 2011.

“We’ll hunker down at Greeley Haven as long as we need to, and we’ll do good science while we’re there,” Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., told Universe Today. Squyres is the Principal Investigator for Opportunity.

Opportunity is collecting a high resolution 360 degree panorama to commemorate Greeley.

Throughout the past 4 Martian winters, Opportunity had continued to traverse without pause. But this winter time it’s different because the solar panels are significantly more coated with an obscuring layer of dust hindering their energy output.

So the rover is parked with a tilt for her 5th Martian winter, mimicking the successful strategy power boosting used by Spirit to survive 3 harsh Martian winters.

And there is a silver lining to sitting mostly still that enables a chance to determine what’s at the core of the Red Planet, a key fact we don’t know.

“This winter science campaign will feature two way radio tracking with Earth to determine the Martian spin axis dynamics – thus the interior structure, a long-neglected aspect of Mars,” Arvidson told me.

I asked Squyres for a progress update and how long would the data collection require ?

Squyres replied that the experiment has already begun and added – “Hard to say how long. It’s months, as opposed to weeks or years, but it depends very much on data quality and the amount of data we get per week. We’re very early in the experiment now… we’ll just see how it goes.”

Locator Map for 'Greeley Haven' on Endeavour Crater Rim
Opportunity will spend its fifth Martian winter working at Greeley Haven on the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA