News from Mars: Opportunity Still at Work

opportunityAfter ten years in service (when it wasn’t supposed to last longer than nine months), one would think that left for the Opportunity rover to do. And yet, Opportunity is still hard at work, thanks in no small part to its solar panels being their cleanest in years. In its latest research stint, NASA’s decade-old Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is inspecting a section of crater-rim ridgeline chosen as a priority target due to evidence of a water-related mineral.

Orbital observations of the site by another NASA spacecraft – the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – found a spectrum with the signature of aluminum bound to oxygen and hydrogen. Researchers regard that signature as a marker for a mineral called montmorillonite, which is in a class of clay minerals (called smectites) that forms when basalt is altered under wet and slightly acidic conditions. The exposure of it extends about 240 meters (800 feet) north to south on the western rim of Endeavour Crater.

Mars_Reconnaissance_OrbiterThe detection was made possible using the MRO’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) combined with rover observations some 3 kms (2 miles) north on the crater’s western rim. Rocks exposed there contain evidence for an iron-bearing smectite – called nontronite – as well as for montmorillonite. That site yielded evidence for an ancient environment with water that would have been well-suited for use by microbes, evidence that could boost our understanding of what Mars looked like billions of years ago.

Opportunity reached the northern end of the montmorillonite-bearing exposure last month – a high point known as “Pillinger Point.” Opportunity’s international science team chose that informal name in honor of Colin Pillinger (1943-2014), the British principal investigator for the Beagle 2 project, which attempted to set a research lander on Mars a few weeks before Opportunity landed there in January of 2004.

Beagle 2Opportunity Principal Investigator Steve Squyres, of Cornell University, had this to say about Pillinger:

Colin and his team were trying to get to Mars at the same time that we were, and in some ways they faced even greater challenges than we did. Our team has always had enormous respect for the energy and enthusiasm with which Colin Pillinger undertook the Beagle 2 mission. He will be missed.

Though selected as a science destination, Pillinger Point also offers a scenic vista from atop the western rim of Endeavour Crater, which is about 22 kms (14 miles) in diameter. The picture below shows a section of a color shot taken by Opportunity’s panoramic camera (Pancam) upon arrival. A full-size view of this picture can be seen by going to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Mars Exploration Rovers webpage.

Pillinger_pointInitial measurements at this site with the element-identifying alpha particle X-ray spectrometer at the end of Opportunity’s arm indicate that bright-toned veins in the rock contain calcium sulfate. Scientists deduce this mineral was deposited as water moved through fractures on Endeavour’s rim. The rover found similar veins of calcium sulfate farther north along the rim while investigating there earlier last month.

As Opportunity investigated this site and other sites farther south along the rim, the rover had more energy than usual. This was due to the solar cells being in rare form, says Opportunity Project Manager John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

The solar panels have not been this clean since the first year of the mission. It’s amazing, when you consider that accumulation of dust on the solar panels was originally expected to cause the end of the mission in less than a year. Now it’s as if we’d been a ship out at sea for 10 years and just picked up new provisions at a port of call, topping off our supplies.

Both Opportunity and its rover twin, Spirit, benefited from sporadic dust-cleaning events in past years. However, on the ridge that Opportunity has been navigating since late 2013, winds have removed dust more steadily, day by day, than either rover has experienced elsewhere. The rover’s signs of aging – including a stiff shoulder joint and occasional losses of data – have not grown more troublesome in the past year, and no new symptoms have appeared.

mountsharp_galecraterJPL’s Jennifer Herman, power-subsystem engineer added:

It’s easy to forget that Opportunity is in the middle of a Martian winter right now. Because of the clean solar arrays, clear skies and favorable tilt, there is more energy for operations now than there was any time during the previous three Martian summers. Opportunity is now able to pull scientific all-nighters for three nights in a row — something she hasn’t had the energy to do in years.

During Opportunity’s first decade on Mars and the 2004-2010 career of Spirit, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Project yielded a range of findings about wet environmental conditions on ancient Mars – some very acidic, others milder and more conducive to supporting life. These findings have since been supplemented and confirmed by findings by the Curiosity Rover, which hopes to find plenty of clues as to the nature of possible life on Mars when it reaches Mount Sharp later this summer.

Source: sciencedaily.com, marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov

Opportunity Finds Evidence of Life!

opportunityThe Opportunity Rover is at it again! A little over a week ago, it set the record for longest distance traveled by a vehicle on another planet. Well it seems that NASA’s longest-running rover wasn’t finished hogging the limelight just yet. Yes, after ten years of service on what was originally planned to be a three-month journey, Opportunity struck gold by discovering the strongest evidence to date for an environment favorable to ancient Martian biology.

It began just two weeks ago, when Opportunity conducted an analysis of a new rock target named “Esperance”. According to a statement released by NASA, the rover confirmed that the rock target was composed of a “clay that had been intensely altered by relatively neutral pH water – representing the most favorable conditions for biology that Opportunity has yet seen in the rock histories it has encountered.”

Opportunity-Sol-3309_Aa_Ken-Kremer-580x288The process involved Opportunity using it still-functioning Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) to expose the interior of Esperance and then examine it with its microscopic camera and X-Ray spectrometer, both of which that are mounted at the end of her nearly 1 meter (3 foot) long robotic arm. Inside, it found a rock surface loaded with clay minerals that was clearly formed with the help of flowing liquid water.

The robot made the discovery at the conclusion of a 20 month long science expedition circling around a low ridge called “Cape York”, a region of great important to Mars scientists. Scott McLennan of Stony Brook University, a long-term planner for Opportunity’s science team, explained why:

What’s so special about Esperance is that there was enough water not only for reactions that produced clay minerals, but also enough to flush out ions set loose by those reactions, so that Opportunity can clearly see the alteration.

opportunity_esperanceEsperance is unlike any rock previously investigated by Opportunity, containing far more aluminum and silica which is indicative of clay minerals and lower levels of calcium and iron. Most, but not all of the rocks inspected to date by Opportunity were formed in an environment of highly acidic water that is extremely harsh to most life forms. Clay minerals typically form in potentially drinkable, neutral water that is not extremely acidic or basic.

These findings amount to the discovery of an environment in which life could have thrived, which amounts to a scientific home run for the senior rover. As Prof. Steve Squyres of Cornell University, the mission’s principal scientific investigator, put it:

Water that moved through fractures during this rock’s history would have provided more favorable conditions for biology than any other wet environment recorded in rocks Opportunity has seen.

What’s next for Opportunity? Well, now that she’s finished at Cape York, Opportunity has set sail for her next crater destination at “Solander Point”, an area about 2.2 km (1.4 miles) south of the Cape. Eventually, she will continue further south to a rim segment named “Cape Tribulation” which holds huge caches of clay minerals. Along the way, there’s likely to be plenty more evidence of what Mars looked like many millions of years ago.

You know, with all this Opportunity-related news coming in, I’m beginning to wonder what Curiosity is up to. While it’s nice to see her partner-in-crime breaking records and turning up such important finds, I do wonder if Curiosity is likely to feel a little left out. At this rate, one might think a game of one-upmanship could break out between the rovers teams!

Source: universetoday.com