Opportunity Starts Historic Descent of Tantalizing Martian Gully to Find Out How Was It Carved

From the precipice of “Perseverance Valley” NASA’s teenaged Red Planet robot Opportunity has begun the historic first ever descent of an ancient Martian gully – that’s simultaneously visually and scientifically “tantalizing” – on an expedition to discern ‘How was it carved?’; by water or other means, Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Sciences Chief tells Universe Today.

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Opportunity Reaches ‘Perseverance Valley’ Precipice – Ancient Fluid Carved Gully on Mars

Now well into her 13th year roving the Red Planet, NASA’s astoundingly resilient Opportunity rover has arrived at the precipice of “Perseverance Valley” – overlooking the upper end of an ancient fluid-carved valley on Mars “possibly water-cut” that flows down into the unimaginably vast eeriness of alien Endeavour crater.

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Opportunity Celebrates Christmas/New Year on Mars Marching to Ancient Water Carved Gully

On the brink of 4600 Sols of a profoundly impactful life, NASA’s long lived Opportunity rover celebrates the Christmas/New Year’s holiday season on Mars marching relentlessly towards an ancient water carved gully along the eroded rim of the vast Endeavour crater – the next science target on her incredible journey traversing across never before seen Red Planet terrains.

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

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.

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Opportunity Discovers Dust Devil, Explores Steepest Slopes on Mars

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

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

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

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

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

“Oppy’s best friend is on its way!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why are the dust devils a big deal?

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

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

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

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

As of today, Sol 4332, Apr. 1, 2016, Opportunity has taken over 207,600 images and traversed over 26.53 miles (42.69 kilometers) – more than a marathon.

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

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

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

Ken Kremer

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Opportunity Robustly in Action on 12th Anniversary of Red Planet Touchdown

Opportunity Sol 4234_3a_Ken Kremer

NASA’s world famous Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity continues blazing a daily trail of unprecedented science first’s, still swinging her robotic arm robustly into action at a Martian “Mining Zone” on the 12th anniversary of her hair-raising Red Planet touchdown this week, a top rover scientist told Universe Today.

“Looks like a mining zone!” Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis, explained to Universe Today. On Jan. 24 the rover marked 4267 Sols and a dozen years and counting exploring Mars.

Significantly, Opportunity also just passed through winter solstice on Sol 4246 (Jan. 3, 2016), corresponding to the lowest-solar-energy days of the mission’s seventh Martian winter.

At this very moment and despite the “low energy” season Opportunity is actively at work, having just completed grinding into a high value rock surface target called “Private John Potts” at her current location inside steep walled Marathon Valley – where she is conducting breakthrough science on smectite clay mineral bearing rocks yielding clues to Mars watery past.

“Just finished multiple grinds on Private John Potts to establish baseline compositions for rocks,” Arvidon told me. “Marathon Valley is unlike anything we have ever seen.”

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

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

See our exclusive mosaic views (above and below) of the Martian worksite at Marathon Valley showing the robotic arm in motion and rock grinding results – created by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

Jan. 24 marks the 12th anniversary since Opportunity’s safe landing on the plains of Meridiani Planum on Jan. 24, 2004, after plummeting through the Martian atmosphere,
and surviving the harrowing descent and scorching temperatures dubbed the “Six Minutes of Terror!”

Spirit landed inside 100 mile wide Gusev crater three weeks earlier on Jan. 3, 2004.

Just like her twin sister Spirit, the robotic dynamic duo have experienced an unending series of unimaginable science adventures that ended up revolutionizing our understanding of Mars due to their totally unexpected longevity.

This six wheeled emissary from Earth has survived more than 12 years and 7 frigidly harsh winters on the Red Planet – nearly twice the lifetime of Spirit.

Opportunity has now functioned an unfathomable 47 times beyond her “warrantied” lifetime of merely 90 Martian days, or Sols.

Indeed, after a dozen years sleuthing on Mars, Opportunity ranks as the longest living “Martian.”

Both rovers were equipped with a rock grinder named the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) built by Honeybee Robotics, located on the tool turret at the terminus of the robotic arm. Opportunity’s RAT still functions very well today.

Over the past few weeks, engineers commanded the rovers RAT to first brush and then grind away surface crust from the “Private John Potts” target located on “Knudsen Ridge” inside Marathon Valley.

The team is naming targets in Marathon Valley after members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s Corps of Discovery. They are also moving the rover from spot to spot to collected as much data as possible to place the region in geologic context and better elucidate Mars history.

Marathon Valley measures about 300 yards or meters long and cuts downhill through the west rim of Endeavour crater from west to east the same direction in which Opportunity is driving. Endeavour crater spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter.
Opportunity has been exploring Endeavour since arriving in 2011.

On Sol 4257 (Jan. 14, 2016), the golf cart sized robot successfully finished a series of successive RAT grinds on the target, totaling over 2 millimeters of grind depth to expose the rocks interior. Two days later on Sol 4259, the rover brushed away the grind tailings to enable an in-situ (contact) science campaign to examine the composition and texture of the target.

Opportunity then collected a Microscopic Imager (MI) mosaic and placed the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) inside the ground target to gather the measurements for determining the elemental composition of the rock.

The brush, MI and APXS are all housed on the tool turret with the RAT.

With the data gathering done on Sol 4262 (Jan. 19, 2016), the rover was commanded to bump barely 2 inches (5 centimeters) to examine the next target.

“Now finished MI and APXS on John Collin, a small sand splay and today we will button up the IDD [robotic arm] and head east along Knudsen Ridge in search of red outcrops,” Arvidson elaborated.

I asked Arvidson to comment about the condition of the RAT diamond encrusted bits after 12 years of rock grinds, Arvison said.

“RAT bits still ok because the rocks in Marathon Valley are relatively soft.”

The ancient, weathered slopes around Marathon Valley became a top priority science destination after they were found to hold a motherlode of ‘smectite’ clay minerals, based on data obtained from specially targeted and extensive Mars orbital measurements gathered by the CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars) spectrometer on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – accomplished earlier at the direction of Arvidson.

“Opportunity is driving east and southeast down Marathon Valley, bisecting the region in which we detect smectites using CRISM [spectrometer] data,” Arvidson told Universe Today.

Asked to describe what are the key science accomplishments of the past year, Arvidson mentioned the up close inspection of the Marathon Valley smectites, which amounts to a payoff for CRISM’s orbital measurements.

“Discovery of red rocks and complex structures in Marathon Valley,” Arvidson explained. “They are unlike anything we have ever seen. Corresponds to what from CRISM spectra we mapped as smectite bearing.”

“Likely the [smectite] signature is carried by these red rocks in that they have spectral evidence from Pancam for hematite and APXS shows low Fe, Mn and enrichments in Al and Si. Still working on it.

How did the smectites form?

“Leading hypothesis is hydrothermal alteration just after Endeavour formed. First ground examination of the altered rim of a Noachian crater and many, many Noachian crater rims show evidence of this alteration mineralogy.”

Overall Opportunity remains healthy with sufficient power to continue operations. Indeed the solar arrays output is increasing, producing 454 watt-hours of energy as of Jan. 19, 2016.

As of today, Sol 4269, Jan. 26, 2016, Opportunity has taken over 207,600 images and traversed over 26.50 miles (42.65 kilometers).

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

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

Just shy of an unfathomable 4200 Sols traversing ravishing alien terrain on the Red Planet, the longest living ‘Martian’ – NASA’s robot ‘Opportunity’ – is driving between “lily pads” down steep walled Marathon Valley in search of life giving sun that enables spectacular science yielding clues to Mars watery past. All this as she strives […]

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

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

Opportunity Rover Team Honors Pioneering Lindbergh Flight at Mars Mountaintop Crater

The science team leading NASA’s long-lived Opportunity rover mission is honoring the pioneering solo nonstop trans-Atlantic flight of aviator Charles Lindbergh by assigning key features of the Mars mountain top crater area the rover is now exploring with names related to the historic flight. Opportunity is now studying an elongated crater called “Spirit of St. […]

Opportunity’s Breathtaking View from Atop Cape Tribulation

Imagine if you were standing on Mars, beside the Opportunity rover, high on the summit of Cape Tribulation. You don’t have to leave too much to the imagination, thanks to imaging enthusiast Stu Atkinson. He’s put together a magnificent colorized version of Oppy’s recent panoramic view, atop the highest elevation that the rover will ever […]