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 Leaving ‘Tribulation’ Behind

You’d have to be an intrepid explorer to investigate something named ‘Cape Tribulation’. Opportunity, NASA’s long-lived rover on Mars’ surface, has been just that. But Opportunity is now leaving Cape Tribulation behind, after being in that area since late 2014, or for about 30 months. Cape Tribulation is the name given to a segment of […]

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Outstanding Opportunity Rover Making ‘Amazing New Discoveries’ 13 Years After Mars Touchdown

NASA’s truly outstanding Opportunity rover continues “making new discoveries about ancient Mars” as she commemorates 13 Years since bouncing to a touchdown on Mars, in a feat that is “truly amazing” – the deputy chief scientist Ray Arvidson told Universe Today exclusively. Resilient Opportunity celebrated her 13th birthday on Sol 4623 on January 24, 2017 […]

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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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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

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 “warrentied” 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.

Spirit even became the first Martian mountaineer! – ascending up and descending down ‘Husband Hill’.

And to top that off, Spirit was only one half of a marvelous sister act of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) that continues to this day.

Her younger twin sister Opportunity endures today, trundling forth on the opposite side of the Red Planet continuing to expand on their jointly established heritage of endless groundbreaking discoveries.

Together they each conducted the first overland expeditions on another planet. In essence they are truly the first long roving “Martians.”

Jan. 3 marks the 12th anniversary since Spirit’s safe landing on the plains of Mars inside 100-mile-wide Gusev crater on Jan. 3, 2004, after smashing into the thin Martian atmosphere and surviving the harrowing descent and scorching temperatures dubbed the “Six Minutes of Terror!”

Twin sister Opportunity likewise plummeted through the Martian atmosphere and landed on the plains of Meridiani on the opposite hemisphere three weeks later – on Jan. 24, 2004.

After carefully choreographed retro rocket, parachute and airbag assisted landings both sisters bounced some two dozen times while carefully cushioned inside their cocoon like carriers, before rolling to a stop, unfolding and driving down from the three petaled lander pedestal days later onto the alien terrain to begin their research expeditions.

The goal was to “follow the water” as a potential enabler for past Martian microbes if they ever existed.

Together, the long-lived, golf cart sized robots proved that early Mars was warm and wet, billions of years ago – a key finding in the search for habitats conducive to life beyond Earth.

During her more than six year lifetime spanning until March 2010, Spirit discovered compelling evidence that ancient Mars exhibited hydrothermal activity, hot springs and volcanic explosions flowing with water.

“Spirit’s big scientific accomplishments are the silica deposits at Home Plate, the carbonates at Comanche, and all the evidence for hydrothermal systems and explosive volcanism, Rover Principal Investigator Steve Squyres of Cornell University, told Universe Today in a prior interview.

“What we’ve learned is that early Mars at Spirit’s site was a hot, violent place, with hot springs, steam vents, and volcanic explosions. It was extraordinarily different from the Mars of today.”

Altogether the golf cart sized Spirit snapped over 128,000 raw images, drove 4.8 miles (7.73 kilometers) – about 12 times more than the original goal set for the mission and ground into 15 rock targets.

See herein a collection of some of Spirit’s greatest hits on the Red Planet for all to enjoy and remember her fabulous exploits.

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

Either dust accumulation on the life giving solar panels, an engineering or computer malfunction, or the extremely harsh Martian environment with daily temperatures plunging to Antarctic-like lows was expected to terminate them mercilessly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus Spirit was dramatically born and lived through milestone events that will be forever remembered in the annuls of history because of the groundbreaking scientific discoveries that ensued, due to the unexpected and unbelievable longevity of the NASA’s twin Mars Exploration Rovers.

No one on the team expected them to last much past none months or so.

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

Ken Kremer

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Helicopter Drones on Mars

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently announced that it is developing a small drone helicopter to scout the way for future Mars rovers. Why would Mars rovers need such a robotic guide? The answer is that driving on Mars is really hard. (…)Read the rest of Helicopter Drones on Mars (865 words) © Paul Patton for […]