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Rover’s eye view of Mars

WHILE NASA’S MARS EXPLORATION ROVER Opportunity was travelling from Victoria crater to Endeavour crater, between September 2008 and August 2011, the rover team took an end-of-drive image on each Martian day that included a drive.

A new video compiles these 309 images, providing an historic record of the three-year trek that totalled about 21 kilometres across a Martian plain pocked with small craters.

The video shows the rim of Endeavour becoming visible on the horizon partway through the journey and growing larger as Opportunity neared that goal. The drive included detours, as Opportunity went around large expanses of treacherous terrain along the way.

The rover team also produced a sound track for the video, using each drive day’s data from Opportunity’s accelerometers. The low-frequency data has been sped up 1,000 times to yield audible frequencies.

“The sound represents the vibrations of the rover while moving on the surface of Mars,” said Paolo Bellutta, a rover planner at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who has plotted many of Opportunity’s drives and coordinated production of the video.

“When the sound is louder, the rover was moving on bedrock. When the sound is softer, the rover was moving on sand.”

Opportunity and its rover twin, Spirit, completed their three-month prime missions on Mars in April 2004. Both rovers continued for years of bonus, extended missions. Both have made important discoveries about wet environments on ancient Mars that may have been favourable for supporting microbial life.

Spirit stopped communicating in 2010. Opportunity continues its work at Endeavour. NASA will launch the next-generation Mars rover, car-size Curiosity, next month for arrival at Mars’ Gale crater in August 2012.

Here’s a video that explains the huge trek Opportunity made to reach Endeavour crater.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL / Caltech.

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A rovin’ on Mars

WHEN NASA’S MARS ROVER Opportunity touched down on the Red Planet on January 25, 2004—three weeks after its twin, Spirit, landed—the official requirement was that it would need to last 90 days to give scientists enough time to do their most important investigations.

Well, it’s now more than seven years later and the plucky rover shows no signs of giving up.

Having travelled more than 27 kilometres at an average speed of around 36 metres per hour, Opportunity has explored many and varied places near its landing site on Meridiani Planum.

For the past couple of years, it has been slowly making its way toward its new destination, Endeavour Crater—a 22-kilometre-wide impact crater that scientists want to investigate. Most recently, Opportunity has been near Santa Maria crater—see our earlier story—and has another six kilometres to go before it reaches Endeavour.

The video above (which doesn’t have any audio) is courtesy of NASA, and shows just how far the intrepid little rover travelled between January 2004 and January 2011.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL.

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Red rover’s Santa Maria visions

MRO image of Opportunity rover at Santa Maria crater

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter acquired this colour image on March 9, 2011, of the 90-metre-wide "Santa Maria" crater, showing the rover Opportunity (arrowed) perched on the southeast rim.

NASA’S MARS ROVER Opportunity has nearly completed its three-month examination of a crater informally named “Santa Maria”.

But before the rover resumes its overland trek, an orbiting camera has provided a colour image of the intrepid rover beside Santa Maria.

The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter acquired the image on March 1, while Opportunity was extending its robotic arm to take close-up photos of a rock called “Ruiz Garcia.”

From orbit, the tracks Opportunity made as it approached the crater from the west are clearly visible. Santa Maria crater is about 90 metres in diameter.

March 1 corresponded to the 2,524th Martian day, or sol, of Opportunity’s work on Mars. A raw image (below) from Opportunity’s front hazard-avoidance camera from the same day shows the arm extended out to investigate a rock. And to complete the scale of imaging, another raw image (below)—taken by Opportunity’s microscopic imager on the same day—shows a close-up image of the rock’s surface.

View from Opportunity's front hazard-avoidance camera

The view from Opportunity's front hazard-avoidance camera, showing its robot arm extended to a nearby rock.

Opportunity close-up image of a rock

An imager on the end of Opportunity's robot arm took this close-up image of the rock seen in the other image.

Opportunity has been studying the relatively fresh Santa Maria crater to better understand how crater excavation occurred during the impact and how it has been modified by weathering and erosion since.

Visible in the overhead view are bright blocks and rays of ejecta surrounding the crater. (Ejecta is the debris thrown outwards by the force of the impact that formed the crater.)

Opportunity will soon resume a long-term trek toward a much larger crater, Endeavour, about six kilometres away.

Opportunity completed its three-month prime mission on Mars in April 2004 and has been working in extended mission status since then. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which arrived at Mars on March 10, 2006, has also completed its prime mission and is operating in an extended mission.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Arizona.

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Red Planet rover sets a record

A view of the Martian surface from NASA's Opportunity rover.

A view of the Martian surface from NASA's Opportunity rover. Opportunity now holds the record for the longest-surviving spacecraft on the surface of Mars.

  • Opportunity passes Viking 1’s survival record
  • Now more 6 years and 116 days on Mars’ surface
  • Slowly heading for a crater 13km away

NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Project passed a historic Martian longevity record on May 20, when the Opportunity rover surpassed the duration record set by NASA’s Viking 1 Lander of six years and 116 days operating on the surface of Mars.

Opportunity’s twin rover, Spirit, began working on Mars three weeks before Opportunity. However, Spirit has been out of communication since March 22. If it awakens from hibernation and resumes communication, that rover will attain the Martian surface longevity record.

Spirit’s hibernation was anticipated, based on energy forecasts, as the amount of sunshine hitting the robot’s solar panels declined during autumn in Mars’ southern hemisphere. Mobility problems prevented rover operators from positioning Spirit with a favourable sun-facing tilt toward the north.

The rovers’ fourth winter solstice, the day of the Martian year with the least sunshine at their locations, was Wednesday, May 12.

“Opportunity, and likely Spirit, surpassing the Viking Lander 1 longevity record is truly remarkable, considering these rovers were designed for only a 90-day mission on the surface of Mars,” said John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Passing the solstice means we’re over the hump for the cold, dark, winter season.”

Unless dust interferes, which is unlikely in the coming months, the solar panels on both rovers should gradually generate more electricity. Operators hope that Spirit will recharge its batteries enough to awaken from hibernation, start communicating and resume science tasks.

A view of Opportunity's arm reaching out to the Martian surface.

A view of Opportunity's arm reaching out to the Martian surface.

Opportunity’s long trek

Unlike recent operations, Opportunity will not have to rest to regain energy between driving days. The gradual increase in available sunshine will eventually improve the rate of Opportunity’s progress across a vast plain toward its long-term destination, the Endeavour Crater.

This month, some of Opportunity’s drives have been planned to end at an energy-favourable tilt on the northern face of small Martian plain surface ripples. The positioning sacrifices some distance but regains energy sooner for the next drive. Opportunity’s cameras can see a portion of the rim of Endeavour on the horizon, approximately 13km away, across the plain’s ripples of windblown sand.

“The ripples look like waves on the ocean, like we’re out in the middle of the ocean with land on the horizon, our destination,” said Steve Squyres of Cornell University. Squyres is the principal investigator for Opportunity and Spirit. “Even though we know we might never get there, Endeavour is the goal that drives our exploration.”

The team chose Endeavour as a destination in mid-2008, after Opportunity finished two years examining the smaller Victoria Crater. Since then, the goal became even more alluring when orbital observations detected clay minerals exposed at Endeavour. Clay minerals have been found extensively on Mars from orbit, but have not been examined on the surface.

“Those minerals form under wet conditions more neutral than the wet, acidic environment that formed the sulphates we’ve found with Opportunity,” said Squyres. “The clay minerals at Endeavour speak to a time when the chemistry was much friendlier to life than the environments that formed the minerals Opportunity has seen so far.”

“We want to get there to learn their context. Was there flowing water? Were there steam vents? Hot springs? We want to find out.”

This map shows the travels of Opportunity during its first 250 Martian days (up to August 21, 2004).

This map shows the travels of Opportunity during its first 250 Martian days (up to August 21, 2004).

The previous record holders

Launched in 1975, Project Viking consisted of two orbiters, each carrying a stationary lander. Viking Lander 1 was the first successful mission to the surface of Mars, touching down on July 20, 1976. It operated until November 13, 1982, more than two years longer than its twin lander or either of the Viking orbiters.

The record for longest working lifetime by a spacecraft at Mars belongs to a later orbiter: NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor operated for more than 9 years after arriving in 1997.

NASA’s Mars Odyssey, in orbit since in 2001, has been working at Mars longer than any other current mission and is on track to take the Mars longevity record late this year.

Science discoveries by the Mars Exploration Rover have included Opportunity finding the first mineralogical evidence that Mars had liquid water and Spirit finding evidence for hot springs or steam vents and a past environment of explosive volcanism.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

Martian “blueberries” intrigue rover scientists

Artist's impression of the Mars rover Opportunity

Artist's impression of the Mars rover Opportunity

Weird coatings on rocks beside a young Martian crater remain puzzling after a preliminary look at data from examination of the site by NASA’s Opportunity rover.

The rover spent six weeks investigating the crater called “Concepcion” before resuming its long journey this month. The crater is about 10 metres (33 feet) in diameter. Dark rays extending from it, as seen from orbit, flagged it in advance as a target of interest because the rays suggest the crater is young.

An image from orbit showing Opportunity beside Concepcion

An image from orbit showing Opportunity (black dot in the 1 o'clock position) beside crater Concepcion.

The rocks ejected outward from the impact that dug Concepcion are chunks of the same type of bedrock Opportunity has seen at hundreds of locations since landing in January 2004: soft, sulphate-rich sandstone holding harder peppercorn-size dark spheres like berries in a muffin. The little spheres, rich in iron, gained the nickname “blueberries.”

“It was clear from the images that Opportunity took on the approach to Concepcion that there was strange stuff on lots of the rocks near the crater,” said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., principal investigator for Opportunity and its twin rover, Spirit. “There’s dark, greyish material coating faces of the rocks and filling fractures in them. At least part of it is composed of blueberries jammed together as close as you could pack them. We’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Opportunity used tools on its robotic arm to examine this unusual material on a rock called “Chocolate Hills.” In some places, the layer of closely packed spheres lies between thinner, smoother layers. “It looks like a blueberry sandwich,” said Matt Golombek, a rover science-team member at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

An image of the strange Martian rock coating dubbed "blueberries".

An image of the strange Martian rock coating dubbed "blueberries".

Initial analysis of the coating’s composition does not show any obvious component from whatever space rock hit Mars to dig the crater, but that is not a surprise, Golombek said. “The impact is so fast, most of the impactor vaporizes,” he said. “Thin films of melt get thrown out, but typically the composition of the melt is the stuff that the impactor hit, rather than the impactor material.”

The composition Opportunity found for the dark coating material fits at least two hypotheses being evaluated, and possibly others. One is that the material resulted from partial melting of blueberry-containing sandstone from the energy of the impact. Another is that it formed from filling of fractures in this type of rock before the impact occurred.

“It’s possible that when you melt this rock, the sandstone melts before the blueberries do, leaving intact blueberries as part of a melt layer,” Squyres said. “As an alternative, we know that this type of rock has fractures and that the sandstone can dissolve. Long ago, water flowing through fractures could have dissolved the sandstone and liberated blueberries that fell down into the fracture and packed together. In this hypothesis, the impact that excavated the crater did not play a role in forming this material, but split rocks along fractures so the material is exposed on the exterior like a coating.”

Golombek said, “One consideration that jumps out is that we’ve been driving around this part of Mars for six years and never seen this stuff before, then we get to this young crater and it’s coating rocks all around the crater. Sure looks like there’s a connection, but it could just be a coincidence.”

The observation that the rocks thrown from the crater have not yet eroded away much is evidence that the crater is young, confirming the suggestion from the dark rays. Squyres said, “We’re not ready to attach a number to it, but this is really young. It is the youngest crater we’ve ever seen with Opportunity and probably the youngest either rover has seen.”

One question Opportunity’s visit did answer was about the dark rays: “We wondered before getting to Concepcion why the rays are dark,” Golombek said. “We found out that the rays are areas with blocks of light-toned sandstone ejected from the crater. They look dark from orbit because of the shadows that the blocks are casting when the orbital images are taken in mid-afternoon.”

Since departing Concepcion on March 9, Opportunity has driven 614 metres (2,014 feet) farther along the route to its long-term destination at Endeavour Crater, about 19 kilometres (12 miles) in diameter and still at a drive distance of more than 12 kilometres (7 miles).

Squyres said, “We’re on the road again. We have a healthy rover and we have enough power for substantial drives. We want to get to Endeavour with a healthy rover. It takes a compelling target for us to stop and study. And Concepcion was a compelling target.”