Opportunity Blazes Through 4500 Sunsets on Mars and Gullies are Yet to Come!

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

The longest living Martian rover ever – Opportunity – has just surpassed another unfathomable milestone – 4500 Sols (or days) exploring the Red Planet !! That’s 50 times beyond her “warrantied” life expectancy of merely 90 Sols.

And as we are fond of reporting – the best is yet to come. After experiencing 4500 Martian sunsets, Opportunity has been granted another mission extension and she is being targeted to drive to an ancient gully where life giving liquid water almost certainly once flowed on our solar systems most Earth-like planet.

See Opportunity’s current location around ‘Spirit Mound” – illustrated in our new photo mosaic panoramas above and below.

NASA’s Opportunity rover scans ahead to Spirit Mound and vast Endeavour crater as she celebrates 4500 sols on the Red Planet after descending down Marathon Valley. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4500 (20 Sept 2016) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Opportunity rover scans ahead to Spirit Mound and vast Endeavour crater as she celebrates 4500 sols on the Red Planet after descending down Marathon Valley. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4500 (20 Sept 2016) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

After a scorching ‘6 minutes of Terror’ plummet through the thin Martian atmosphere, Opportunity bounced to an airbag cushioned landing on the plains of Meridiani Planum on January 24, 2004 – nearly 13 years ago!

Opportunity was launched on a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on July 7, 2003.

“We have now exceeded the prime-mission duration by a factor of 50,” noted Opportunity Project Manager John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

“Milestones like this are reminders of the historic achievements made possible by the dedicated people entrusted to build and operate this national asset for exploring Mars.”

The newest 2 year extended mission phase just began on Oct. 1 as the rover was stationed at the western rim of Endeavour crater at the bottom of Marathon Valley at a spot called “Bitterroot Valley.”

And at this moment, as Opportunity reached and surpassed the 4500 Sol milestone, she is investing an majestic spot dubbed “Spirit Mound” – and named after her twin sister “Spirit” – who landed 3 weeks earlier!

This scene from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows "Spirit Mound" overlooking the floor of Endeavour Crater. The mound stands near the eastern end of "Bitterroot Valley" on the western rim of the crater, and this view faces eastward. The component images for this mosaic were taken on Sept. 21, 2016, during the 4,501st Martian day, or sol, of Opportunity's work on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.
This scene from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows “Spirit Mound” overlooking the floor of Endeavour Crater. The mound stands near the eastern end of “Bitterroot Valley” on the western rim of the crater, and this view faces eastward. The component images for this mosaic were taken on Sept. 21, 2016, during the 4,501st Martian day, or sol, of Opportunity’s work on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.

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

Endeavour crater was formed when it was carved out of the Red Planet by a huge meteor impact billions of years ago.

But now for the first time she will explore the craters interior, after spending 5 years investigating the exterior and climbing to a summit on the rim and spending several year exploring the top before finally descending down the Marathon Valley feature to investigate clay minerals formed in water.

“The longest-active rover on Mars also will, for the first time, visit the interior of the crater it has worked beside for the last five years,” said NASA officials.

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

Opportunity is now being targeted to explore a gully carved out by water.

“We are confident this is a fluid-carved gully, and that water was involved,” said Opportunity Principal Investigator Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

“Fluid-carved gullies on Mars have been seen from orbit since the 1970s, but none had been examined up close on the surface before. One of the three main objectives of our new mission extension is to investigate this gully. We hope to learn whether the fluid was a debris flow, with lots of rubble lubricated by water, or a flow with mostly water and less other material.”

Furthermore, in what’s a very exciting announcement the team “intends to drive Opportunity down the full length of the gully, onto the crater floor” – if the rover continues to function well during the two year extended mission which will have to include enduring her 8th frigid Martian winter in 2017.

And as is always the case, scientists will compare these interior crater rocks to those on the exterior for clues into the evolution, environmental and climatic history of Mars over billions of years.

“We may find that the sulfate-rich rocks we’ve seen outside the crater are not the same inside,” Squyres said. “We believe these sulfate-rich rocks formed from a water-related process, and water flows downhill. The watery environment deep inside the crater may have been different from outside on the plain — maybe different timing, maybe different chemistry.”

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

As of today, Sol 4522, Oct 12, 2016, Opportunity has taken over 214,400 images and traversed over 26.99 miles (43.44 kilometers) – more than a marathon.

The power output from solar array energy production is currently 472 watt-hours, before heading into another southern hemisphere Martian winter in 2017.

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

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

Ken Kremer

12 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2016. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven on the Red Planet during more than 12 years and more than a marathon runners distance for over 4514 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 - to current location at the western rim of Endeavour Crater after descending down Marathon Valley. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 and marked 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone - and searched for more at Marathon Valley and is now at Spirit Mound on the way to a Martian gully.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
12 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2016. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven on the Red Planet during more than 12 years and more than a marathon runners distance for over 4515 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 – to current location at the western rim of Endeavour Crater after descending down Marathon Valley. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 and marked 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone – and searched for more at Marathon Valley and is now at Spirit Mound on the way to a Martian gully. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Spirit Rover Touchdown 12 Years Ago Started Spectacular Martian Science Adventure

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

Exactly 12 Years ago this week, NASA’s now famous Spirit rover touched down on the Red Planet, starting a spectacular years long campaign of then unimaginable science adventures that ended up revolutionizing our understanding of Mars due to her totally unexpected longevity.

For although she was only “warrantied” to function a mere 90 Martian days, or sols, the six wheeled emissary from Earth survived more than six years – and was thus transformed into the world renowned robot still endearing to humanity today. Continue reading “Spirit Rover Touchdown 12 Years Ago Started Spectacular Martian Science Adventure”

The Rock that Appeared Out of Nowhere on Mars

During last night’s celebration at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of ten years of the Mars Exploration Rovers, mission principal investigator Steve Squyres shared several stories about the exploration and discoveries made by the rovers Spirit and Opportunity since they landed on Mars in 2004. An intriguing recent mystery is a strange rock that suddenly appeared in photos from the Opportunity rover in a spot where photos taken just 12 sols earlier showed no rock.

“One of the things I like to say is that Mars keeps throwing new things at us,” Squyres deadpanned.

A colorized version of the rock called Pinnacle Island. Credit: NASA/JPL, color by Stuart Atkinson.
A colorized version of the rock called Pinnacle Island. Credit: NASA/JPL, color by Stuart Atkinson.

Squyres described the rock as “white around the outside, in the middle there’s low spot that is dark red. It looks like a jelly donut,” he said. “And it appeared. It just plain appeared and we haven’t driven over that spot.”

They’ve named it “Pinnacle Island,” and the team is contemplating a few ideas of why the rock mysteriously showed up.

“One theory is that we somehow flicked it with a wheel,” Squyres said. “We had driven a meter or two away from here and somehow maybe one of the wheels managed spit it out of the ground. That’s the more likely theory.”

The other?

“The other theory is that there might be a smoking hole in the ground nearby and this may be crater ejecta. But that one is less likely,” Squyres said.

Another idea suggested by others is that it may have tumbled down from a nearby rock outcrop.

Image from Sol 3528 of the area showing no rock. Click to see original on the rover's raw image website. Credit: NASA/JPL.
Image from Sol 3528 of the area showing no rock. Click to see original on the rover’s raw image website. Credit: NASA/JPL.
Image of same area on Sol 3540 where the 'jelly donut' rock appears. Click to see original. Credit: NASA/JPL.
Image of same area on Sol 3540 where the ‘jelly donut’ rock appears. Click to see original. Credit: NASA/JPL.

But as intriguing as the sudden appearance of the rock is what the team is finding out about it.

“We are as we speak situated with the rover, with its instruments, making measurements on this rock. We’ve taken pictures of both the donut part and the jelly part,” Squyres said. “The jelly part is like nothing we’ve seen before on Mars. It’s very high in sulfur and magnesium and it has twice as much manganese as anything we’ve seen before. I don’t know what any of this means. We’re completely confused, everybody on the team is arguing and fighting. We’re having a wonderful time!”

But that’s the beauty of this mission, Squyres said.

“I used to have this comforting notion that at some point, we could sit back and say ‘we did it, we’re finished, we’ve learned everything we could about this location.’ But Mars is not like that. It keeps throwing new things at us.”

“And what I’ve come to realize,” Squyres concluded, ” – and it was true when we lost Spirit and it will be true when we lose Opportunity — there will always be something tantalizing just beyond our reach that we just won’t get to. That’s just the nature of exploration, and I feel so very fortunate to have been part of this mission.”

You can watch the entire replay of the celebration below, and read a great look back at the past 10 years from Stuart Atkinson’s Road to Endeavour blog.



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Opportunity Rover Glimpses Conditions Suitable for Life

Whitewater Lake is the large flat rock in the top half of the image. From left to right it is about 30 inches (0.8 meter) across. The dark blue nubby rock to the lower left is “Kirkwood,” which bears non-hematite spherules. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

Steve Squyres, Principal Investigator for the Mars Explorations Rovers, cracked open the equivalent of the Opportunity rover’s field geologist’s notebook to describe what he called “a delightful geological puzzle.”

“This is a work in progress,” Squyres said at the American Geophsical Union conference today, “But this is our first glimpse ever at conditions on ancient Mars that clearly show us a chemistry that would have been suitable for life.”

While both the MER rovers have found evidence of past water on Mars, all indications are that it would have been very acidic, with “battery-acid kind of numbers making it very challenging for life,” Squyres said.

Newly found clays that are sprinkled with two different kinds of previously unseen features point to a different type of water “that you could drink,” Sqyures added.

Orbital data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars) instrument originally led the MER team to Endeavour Crater, the huge crater where Opportunity is now traversing around the rim.

“It was discovered from CRISM that there were clay minerals there,” Squyres said, “and clays form in a watery environment, and only form under a neutral pH, water that is not acidic.”

The rover has found a region filled with light-toned rocks, such as the Whitewater Lake rock, above, around a small hill named “Matijevic Hill” in the “Cape York” segment of the rim of Endeavour Crater. Squyres described it as the “sweet spot” where clays are known to be present.

This map shows the route driven by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity during a reconnaissance circuit around an area of interest called “Matijevic Hill” on the rim of a large crater. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

They have since driven the rover around Matijevic Hill to survey the clays, “which is what you would do if you were a geologist at a site, you’d walk the outcrop,” Squyres said. “We’ve got a good map of where the good, interesting stuff is at Matijevic Hill.”

Interspersed on the light-toned rocks are fine veins of even lighter material, which has never been seen before. Additionally, there are “fins” of darker rock sticking up in the region, and within the fins are dense concentrations of spherical little features, about 3 mm in size that are very similar to the hematite Martian “blueberries” that Opportunity has seen before. But when they looked at the chemical composition of these spheres, the science team found they weren’t blueberries, because they contained no iron, which is what hematite is made from.

“It’s something totally different, and I’ve started calling them ‘newberries’,” said Squyres.

Small spherical objects fill the field in this mosaic combining four images from the Microscopic Imager on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./ USGS/Modesto Junior College

It is difficult for the rover to determine the chemical make-up of the newberries and the light-colored veins because they are such small features, the rover can’t focus merely on those features. But Squyres and team have come up with a to-do list to try and figure out the mystery of the clays and newberries:

Task one is to understand the Whitewater Lake rock better and look at the rock’s sediments, to understand the layers in the rock: were the layers laid down by water, impact or another process?

The second task is to figure out what the newberries made of. They will have to observe regions that have different concentrations of the spherules to eke out what minerals are and aren’t part of the newberries.

Task three is to find a “contact place” where the light-toned clay rocks like Whitewater are touching the breccias – the broken and fused rock born of the impact that created the crater – that is present all around the rim of Endeavour. They haven’t yet found a place where the two are together.

Task four is to figure out what the fine veins are in the clay rocks.

The tasks are intertwined, Squyres said. “Figuring out the newberries will be important for figuring out the how these clays were laid down. So the stories aren’t independent, they are woven together and we still have homework to do,” he said.

But the team will have to work fast.

Opportunity image of light, flat rocks containing clay and mysterious darker rocks jutting through them. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ

They have about 6 months before winter sets in again in Meridiani Planum on Mars.

“We’ll soon start doing some serious winter planning,” said Diana Blaney, Deputy Project Scientist. When asked about the potential for Oppy to make it through another winter, Blaney said it all depends on the amount of dust build-up on the solar panels and how much power can be generated. “We don’t have any reason not to expect to survive, but it is a dynamic situation, and are looking ahead to find potential wintering sites,” that have beneficial tilt for the rover to absorb as much sunlight as possible.

The last winter the Opportunity rover endured was the first time the rover had to remain stationary due to power concerns because of dust accumulation on the solar arrays.

“We’re nine years into a 90 day mission,” Squyres said, “and every day is a gift at this point and we’re just going to keep pushing ourselves and the rover.”

A 3-D mosaic of the Cape York region where Opportunity is now working. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ

For additional information, see this NASA press release.