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  NASA's Opportunity roves Mars (2010-Present)

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Author Topic:   NASA's Opportunity roves Mars (2010-Present)
Robert Pearlman
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Mars Exploration Rover Mission Status Report
Rover Gives NASA an "Opportunity" to View Interior of Mars

NASA's Mars exploration rover Opportunity is allowing scientists to get a glimpse deep inside Mars.

Perched on a rippled Martian plain, a dark rock not much bigger than a basketball was the target of interest for Opportunity during the past two months. Dubbed "Marquette Island," the rock is providing a better understanding of the mineral and chemical makeup of the Martian interior.

"Marquette Island is different in composition and character from any known rock on Mars or meteorite from Mars," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Squyres is principal investigator for Opportunity and its twin, Spirit. "It is one of the coolest things Opportunity has found in a very long time."

During six years of roving, Opportunity has found only one other rock of comparable size that scientists conclude was ejected from a distant crater. The rover studied the first such rock during its initial three-month mission. Called "Bounce Rock," that rock closely matched the composition of a meteorite from Mars found on Earth.

Marquette Island is a coarse-grained rock with a basalt composition. The coarseness indicates it cooled slowly from molten rock, allowing crystals time to grow. This composition suggests to geologists that it originated deep in the crust, not at the surface where it would cool quicker and have finer-grained texture.

"It is from deep in the crust and someplace far away on Mars, though exactly how deep and how far we can't yet estimate," said Squyres.

The composition of Marquette Island, as well as its texture, distinguishes it from other Martian basalt rocks that rovers and landers have examined. Scientists first thought the rock could be another in a series of meteorites that Opportunity has found. However, a much lower nickel content in Marquette Island indicates a Martian origin. The rock's interior contains more magnesium than in typical Martian basalt rocks Spirit has studied. Researchers are determining whether it might represent the precursor rock altered long ago by sulfuric acid to become the sulfate-rich sandstone bedrock that blankets the region of Mars that Opportunity is exploring.

"It's like having a fragment from another landing site," said Ralf Gellert of the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada. Gellert is lead scientist for the alpha particle X-ray spectrometer on Opportunity's robotic arm. "With analysis at an early stage, we're still working on some riddles about this rock."

The rover team used Opportunity's rock abrasion tool to grind away some of Marquette Island's weathered surface and expose the interior. This was the 38th rock target Opportunity has ground into, and one of the hardest. The tool was designed to grind into one Martian rock, and this rock may not be its last.

"We took a conservative approach on our target depth for this grind to ensure we will have enough of the bit left to grind the next hard rock that Opportunity comes across," said Joanna Cohen of Honeybee Robotics Spacecraft Mechanisms Corp., in New York, which built and operates the tool.


Credit: NASA TV

Opportunity currently is about 30 percent of the way on a 19-kilometer (12-mile) begun in mid-2008 from a crater it studied for two years. It is en route toward a much larger crater, Endeavour. The rover traveled 5.3 kilometers (3.3 miles) in 2009, farther than in any other year on Mars. Opportunity drove away from Marquette Island on Jan. 12.

"We're on the road again," said Mike Seibert, a rover mission manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "The year ahead will include lots more driving, if all goes well. We'll keep pushing for Endeavour crater but watch for interesting targets along the way where we can stop and smell the roses."

Since landing on Mars in 2004, Opportunity has made numerous scientific discoveries, including the first mineralogical evidence that Mars had liquid water. After working 24 times longer than originally planned, Opportunity has driven more than 19 kilometers (11.8 miles) and returned more than 133,000 images. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the rovers for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

For earlier Mars Exploration Rovers updates, see: Opportunity and Spirit rove Mars

Robert Pearlman
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NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory release
NASA Mars Rover Getting Smarter as it Gets Older

NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, now in its seventh year on Mars, has a new capability to make its own choices about whether to make additional observations of rocks that it spots on arrival at a new location.

Software uploaded this winter is the latest example of NASA taking advantage of the twin Mars rovers' unanticipated longevity for real Martian test drives of advances made in robotic autonomy for future missions.

Now, Opportunity's computer can examine images that the rover takes with its wide-angle navigation camera after a drive, and recognize rocks that meet specified criteria, such as rounded shape or light color. It can then center its narrower-angle panoramic camera on the chosen target and take multiple images through color filters.

"It's a way to get some bonus science," said Tara Estlin of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. She is a rover driver, a senior member of JPL's Artificial Intelligence Group and leader of development for this new software system.

The new system is called Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science, or AEGIS. Without it, follow-up observations depend on first transmitting the post-drive navigation camera images to Earth for ground operators to check for targets of interest to examine on a later day. Because of time and data-volume constraints, the rover team may opt to drive the rover again before potential targets are identified or before examining targets that aren't highest priority.

The first images taken by a Mars rover choosing its own target show a rock about the size of a football, tan in color and layered in texture. It appears to be one of the rocks tossed outward onto the surface when an impact dug a nearby crater. Opportunity pointed its panoramic camera at this unnamed rock after analyzing a wider-angle photo taken by the rover's navigation camera at the end of a drive on March 4. Opportunity decided that this particular rock, out of more than 50 in the navigation camera photo, best met the criteria that researchers had set for a target of interest: large and dark.

"It found exactly the target we would want it to find," Estlin said. "This checkout went just as we had planned, thanks to many people's work, but it's still amazing to see Opportunity performing a new autonomous activity after more than six years on Mars."

Opportunity can use the new software at stopping points along a single day's drive or at the end of the day's drive. This enables it to identify and examine targets of interest that might otherwise be missed.

"We spent years developing this capability on research rovers in the Mars Yard here at JPL," said Estlin. "Six years ago, we never expected that we would get a chance to use it on Opportunity."

The developers anticipate that the software will be useful for narrower field-of-view instruments on future rovers.

Other upgrades to software on Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, since the rovers' first year on Mars have improved other capabilities. These include choosing a route around obstacles and calculating how far to reach out a rover's arm to touch a rock. In 2007, both rovers gained the know-how to examine sets of sky images to determine which ones show clouds or dust devils, and then to transmit only the selected images. The newest software upload takes that a step further, enabling Opportunity to make decisions about acquiring new observations.

The AEGIS software lets scientists change the criteria it used for choosing potential targets. In some environments, rocks that are dark and angular could be higher-priority targets than rocks that are light and rounded, for example.

This new software system has been developed with assistance from NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Project and with funding from the New Millennium Program, the Mars Technology Program, the JPL Interplanetary Network Development Program, and the Intelligent Systems Program. The New Millennium Program tests advanced technology in space flight. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Rover Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

Robert Pearlman
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NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory release
Opportunity Surpasses 20 Kilometers of Total Driving

NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity today surpassed 20 kilometers (12.43 miles) of total driving since it landed on Mars 74 months ago.

The drive taking the rover past that total covered 67 meters (220 feet) southward as part of the rover's long-term trek toward Endeavour Crater to the southeast. It was on the 2,191st Martian day, or sol, of the mission and brought Opportunity's total odometry to 20.0433 kilometers. To reach Endeavour, the healthy but aging rover will need to drive about 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) farther.

Opportunity's mission on Mars was originally planned to last for three months with a driving-distance goal of 600 meters (less than half a mile).

Since landing, Opportunity has examined a series of craters on the plain of Meridiani, and the journey so far has covered a portion of the plain with negligible tilt. Now, the rover is approaching a portion tilting slightly southward. Recent images toward the southwest show the rim of a crater named Bopolu, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) away.

Robert Pearlman
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NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory release
Mars Rover Examines Odd Material at Small, Young Crater

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 "Concepción" before resuming its long journey this month. The crater is about 10 meters (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 shows Opportunity beside Concepción. CREDIT: NASA/JPL/UA

The rocks ejected outward from the impact that dug Concepción are chunks of the same type of bedrock Opportunity has seen at hundreds of locations since landing in January 2004: soft, sulfate-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 Concepción 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, grayish 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, Calif.


Coating on rock beside a young martian crater. CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA

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 Concepción 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 Concepción on March 9, Opportunity has driven 614 meters (2,014 feet) farther along the route to its long-term destination at Endeavour Crater, about 19 kilometers (12 miles) in diameter and still at a drive distance of more than 12 kilometers (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 Concepción was a compelling target." JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Rover Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

Robert Pearlman
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NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory release
NASA Mars Rover Arrives at New Site on Martian Surface

After a journey of almost three years, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has reached the Red Planet's Endeavour crater to study rocks never seen before.

On Aug. 9, the golf cart-sized rover relayed its arrival at a location named Spirit Point on the crater's rim. Opportunity drove approx. 13 miles (21 kilometers) since climbing out of the Victoria crater.


Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/ASU

Above: A portion of the west rim of Endeavour crater sweeps southward in this color view from NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. This crater -- with a diameter of about 14 miles (22 kilometers) — is more than 25 times wider than any that Opportunity has previously approached during the rover's 90 months on Mars.

"NASA is continuing to write remarkable chapters in our nation's story of exploration with discoveries on Mars and trips to an array of challenging new destinations," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. "Opportunity's findings and data from the upcoming Mars Science Laboratory will play a key role in making possible future human missions to Mars and other places where humans have not yet been."

Endeavour crater, which is more than 25 times wider than Victoria crater, is 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter. At Endeavour, scientists expect to see much older rocks and terrains than those examined by Opportunity during its first seven years on Mars. Endeavour became a tantalizing destination after NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter detected clay minerals that may have formed in an early warmer and wetter period.

"We're soon going to get the opportunity to sample a rock type the rovers haven't seen yet," said Matthew Golombek, Mars Exploration Rover science team member, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "Clay minerals form in wet conditions so we may learn about a potentially habitable environment that appears to have been very different from those responsible for the rocks comprising the plains."

The name Spirit Point informally commemorates Opportunity's twin rover, which stopped communicating in March 2010. Spirit's mission officially concluded in May.

"Our arrival at this destination is a reminder that these rovers have continued far beyond the original three-month mission," said John Callas, Mars Exploration Rover project manager at JPL.

See here for discussion of Opportunity's continued exploration of the planet Mars.

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NASA release
NASA's Mars Rover Opportunity Begins Study of Martian Crater

The initial work of NASA's Mars rover Opportunity at its new location on Mars shows surface compositional differences from anything the robot has studied in its first 7.5 years of exploration.

Opportunity arrived three weeks ago at the rim of a 14-mile-wide (22-kilometer-wide) crater named Endeavour. The first rock it examined is flat-topped and about the size of a footstool. It was apparently excavated by an impact that dug a crater the size of a tennis court into the crater's rim. The rock was informally named "Tisdale 2."


Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Above: NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity used its front hazard-avoidance camera to take this picture showing the rover's arm extended toward a light-toned rock, "Tisdale 2," during the 2,695th Martian day, or sol, of the rover's work on Mars (Aug. 23, 2011). Tisdale 2 is about 12 inches (30 centimeters) tall.

"This is different from any rock ever seen on Mars," said Steve Squyres, principal investigator for Opportunity at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "It has a composition similar to some volcanic rocks, but there's much more zinc and bromine than we've typically seen. We are getting confirmation that reaching Endeavour really has given us the equivalent of a second landing site for Opportunity."

The diversity of fragments in Tisdale 2 could be a prelude to other minerals Opportunity might find at Endeavour. In the past two weeks, researchers have used an instrument on the rover's robotic arm to identify elements at several spots on Tisdale 2. Scientists have also examined the rock using the rover's microscopic imager and multiple filters of its panoramic camera.

Observations by Mars orbiters suggest that rock exposures on Endeavour's rim date from early in Martian history and include clay minerals that form in less-acidic wet conditions, possibly more favorable for life. Discontinuous ridges are all that remains of the ancient crater's rim. The ridge at the section of the rim where Opportunity arrived is named "Cape York." A gap between Cape York and the next rim fragment to the south is called "Botany Bay."

"On the final traverses to Cape York, we saw ragged outcrops at Botany Bay unlike anything Opportunity has seen so far, and a bench around the edge of Cape York looks like sedimentary rock that's been cut and filled with veins of material possibly delivered by water," said Ray Arvidson, the rover's deputy principal investigator at Washington University in St. Louis. "We made an explicit decision to examine ancient rocks of Cape York first."

The science team selected Endeavour as Opportunity's long-term destination after the rover climbed out of Victoria crater three years ago this week. The mission spent two years studying Victoria, which is about one twenty-fifth as wide as Endeavour. Layers of bedrock exposed at Victoria and other locations Opportunity has visited share a sulfate-rich composition linked to an ancient era when acidic water was present. Opportunity drove about 13 miles (21 kilometers) from Victoria to reach Endeavour. It has driven 20.8 miles (33.5 kilometers) since landing on Mars.

"We have a very senior rover in good health for having already worked 30 times longer than planned," said John Callas, project manager for Opportunity at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "However, at any time, we could lose a critical component on an essential rover system, and the mission would be over. Or, we might still be using this rover's capabilities beneficially for years. There are miles of exciting geology to explore at Endeavour crater."

Opportunity and its rover twin, Spirit, completed three-month prime missions in April 2004 and continued working for years of extended missions. Both have made important discoveries about wet environments on ancient Mars that may have been favorable for supporting microbial life. Spirit ended communications in March 2010.

"This is like having a brand new landing site for our veteran rover," said Dave Lavery, program executive for NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "It is a remarkable bonus that comes from being able to rove on Mars with well-built hardware that lasts."

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NASA release
NASA Mars Rover Finds Mineral Vein Deposited by Water

NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has found bright veins of a mineral, apparently gypsum, deposited by water. Analysis of the vein will help improve scientists' understanding of the history of wet environments on Mars.

"This tells a slam-dunk story that water flowed through underground fractures in the rock," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, principal investigator for Opportunity. "This stuff is a fairly pure chemical deposit that formed in place right where we see it. That can't be said for other gypsum seen on Mars or for other water-related minerals Opportunity has found. It's not uncommon on Earth, but on Mars, it's the kind of thing that makes geologists jump out of their chairs."

The latest findings by Opportunity were presented Wednesday at the American Geophysical Union's conference in San Francisco.

The vein examined most closely by Opportunity is about the width of a human thumb (0.4 to 0.8 inch), 16 to 20 inches long, and protrudes slightly higher than the bedrock on either side of it. Observations by the durable rover reveal this vein and others like it within an apron surrounding a segment of the rim of Endeavour Crater. None like it were seen in the 20 miles (33 kilometers) of crater-pocked plains that Opportunity explored for 90 months before it reached Endeavour, nor in the higher ground of the rim.

Last month, researchers used the Microscopic Imager and Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer on the rover's arm and multiple filters of the Panoramic Camera on the rover's mast to examine the vein, which is informally named "Homestake." The spectrometer identified plentiful calcium and sulfur, in a ratio pointing to relatively pure calcium sulfate.

Calcium sulfate can exist in many forms, varying by how much water is bound into the minerals' crystalline structure. The multi-filter data from the camera suggest gypsum, a hydrated calcium sulfate. On Earth, gypsum is used for making drywall and plaster of Paris.

Observations from orbit have detected gypsum on Mars previously. A dune field of windblown gypsum on far northern Mars resembles the glistening gypsum dunes in White Sands National Monument in New Mexico.

"It is a mystery where the gypsum sand on northern Mars comes from," said Opportunity science-team member Benton Clark of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. "At Homestake, we see the mineral right where it formed. It will be important to see if there are deposits like this in other areas of Mars."

The Homestake deposit, whether gypsum or another form of calcium sulfate, likely formed from water dissolving calcium out of volcanic rocks. The minerals combined with sulfur either leached from the rocks or introduced as volcanic gas, and was deposited as calcium sulfate into an underground fracture that later became exposed at the surface.

Throughout Opportunity's long traverse across Mars' Meridiani plain, the rover has driven over bedrock composed of magnesium, iron and calcium sulfate minerals that also indicate a wet environment billions of years ago. The highly concentrated calcium sulfate at Homestake could have been produced in conditions more neutral than the harshly acidic conditions indicated by the other sulfate deposits observed by Opportunity.

"It could have formed in a different type of water environment, one more hospitable for a larger variety of living organisms," Clark said.

Homestake and similar-looking veins appear in a zone where the sulfate-rich sedimentary bedrock of the plains meets older, volcanic bedrock exposed at the rim of Endeavour. That location may offer a clue about their origin.

"We want to understand why these veins are in the apron but not out on the plains," said the mission's deputy principal investigator, Ray Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis. "The answer may be that rising groundwater coming from the ancient crust moved through material adjacent to Cape York and deposited gypsum, because this material would be relatively insoluble compared with either magnesium or iron sulfates."

Opportunity and its rover twin, Spirit, completed their three-month prime missions on Mars in April 2004. Both rovers continued for years of extended missions and made important discoveries about wet environments on ancient Mars that may have been favorable for supporting microbial life. Spirit stopped communicating in 2010. Opportunity continues exploring, currently heading to a sun-facing slope on the northern end of the Endeavour rim fragment called "Cape York" to keep its solar panels at a favorable angle during the mission's fifth Martian winter.

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Arizona State University release
Mars rover to spend winter at 'Greeley Haven,' named for late ASU geologist Ronald Greeley

NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity will spend the next few months during the coldest part of Martian winter at Greeley Haven, an outcrop of rock on Mars recently named informally to honor Ronald Greeley, Arizona State University Regents' professor of planetary geology, who died October 27, 2011.


Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State University

Above: Photographed in false color to emphasize differences in composition, the rocks of Greeley Haven stand out in blue-gray tints. In the background at right lies a tan patch of sand. While Opportunity is parked here for several months, scientists plan to investigate interesting targets on the outcrop using the instruments on the rover's arm.

Long passionate about exploring the solar system and Mars in particular, Greeley was involved with many missions to the Red Planet, including Mariners 6, 7, and 9, Viking, Mars Pathfinder, Mars Global Surveyor, and the two Mars Exploration Rovers. He was also a co-investigator for the camera system on the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter mission. Among his major research interests were wind erosion, dunes, and dust devil activity, all of which can be found in abundance on Mars.

"We miss Ron's wisdom and guidance on the rover team," says Jim Bell, lead scientist for the Panoramic Camera (Pancam) on the rover. Bell, who came to ASU in early 2011, is a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

"We hope that eventually the International Astronomical Union will name a crater or some other feature on Mars or some other solar system body for Ron," Bell says. "But that process typically takes years."

In the meantime, he adds, "This small commemoration helps preserve the memory of Ron's contributions to planetary science within the community and beyond."

Dusty rover

Opportunity, which landed on Mars eight years ago January 24, has driven a total of 21 miles (34 kilometers). In August, Opportunity arrived at the rim of Endeavour Crater, an ancient impact scar 14 miles (22 km) wide. Eroded sections of the crater's rim poke above the flat-lying sediments that Opportunity has driven on since it landed.

Located just south of Mars' equator, the rover has worked through four Martian southern hemisphere winters. Being closer to the equator than its twin rover, Spirit, Opportunity has not needed to stay on a Sun-facing slope during previous winters. Now, however, its solar panels carry a thicker coating of dust than before.

The dust makes it necessary for Opportunity to spend the winter at a Sun-facing site where the rover can tilt its power panels northward about 15° for maximum solar exposure. Greeley Haven provides just the right tilt.

In addition, while Opportunity remains on the slope over winter, it still has some mobility and can investigate Greeley Haven's multiple targets of scientific interest using with the tools on the rover's robotic arm.

Windows into the past

Although they are much eroded, the uplifted segments of Endeavour's rim contain rocks that date back much farther into Martian history than any Opportunity has yet examined.

"Endeavour Crater has given us a whole new mission," remarked Steven Squyres, chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Rover project, describing the prospects for science after Opportunity reached the rim.

Plans for research over the winter at Greeley Haven include a radio-science investigation of the interior of Mars, inspections of mineral compositions and textures on the outcrop, and recording a full-circle, color panorama.

"Greeley Haven provides the proper tilt, as well as a rich variety of potential targets for imaging and compositional and mineralogic studies," says Bell. "We've already found hints of gypsum in the bedrock in this formation, and we know from orbital data that there are clays nearby, too."

Greeley Haven, he says, "looks to be a safe and special place that could yield exciting new discoveries about the watery past of Mars."

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Arizona State University release
NASA Opportunity Rover Finishes Walkabout On Mars Crater Rim

The latest work assignment for NASA's long-lived Mars rover Opportunity is a further examination of an area where the robot just completed a walkabout.

"If you are a geologist studying a site like this, one of the first things you do is walk the outcrop, and that's what we've done with Opportunity," said Steve Squyres, the mission's principal investigator at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Coming up on its ninth anniversary, Opportunity still is a capable robotic explorer. It has been investigating a crater-rim site where observations from orbiting Mars spacecraft detected traces of clay minerals, which form under wet, non-acidic conditions that can be favorable for life. The rover's current activities were presented at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

The rover team chose this site as a driving destination years earlier. The site is named Matijevic Hill in honor of the late Jacob Matijevic, who led the engineering team for the twin Mars exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity for several years.

Opportunity drove about 1,160 feet (354 meters) in a counterclockwise circuit around Matijevic Hill in October and November, bringing the total miles driven on the mission to 22 miles (35.4 kilometers). Researchers used the rover to survey the extent of Matijevic Hill outcrops and identify the best places to investigate further.

"We've got a list of questions posed by the observations so far," Squyres said. "We did this walkabout to determine the most efficient use of time to answer the questions. Now we have a good idea what we're dealing with, and we're ready to start the detailed work."

The hill is on the western rim of Endeavour Crater, a bowl 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter. An impact from a celestial object dug this crater more than 3 billion years ago, pushing rocks onto the rim from a greater depth than Opportunity reached during its first several years on Mars. Since the impact, those rocks may have been altered by environmental conditions. Sorting out the relative ages of local outcrops is a key to understanding the area's environmental history.

"Almost nine years into a mission planned to last for three months, Opportunity is fit and ready for driving, robotic-arm operations and communication with Earth," said the mission's deputy project scientist, Diana Blaney, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

Two outcrops of high interest on Matijevic Hill are "Whitewater Lake" and "Kirkwood." Whitewater Lake is light-toned material that science team members believe may contain clay. Kirkwood contains small spheres with composition, structure and distribution that differ from other iron-rich spherules, nicknamed blueberries, that Opportunity found at its landing site and throughout the Meridiani Planum area it has explored. Squyres calls the Kirkwood spheres "newberries."

"We don't know yet whether Whitewood Lake and Kirkland are from before or after the crater formed," he said. "One of the most important things to work out is the order and position of the rock layers to tell us the relative ages. We also need more work on the composition of Whitewater and debris shed by Whitewater to understand the clay signature seen from orbit, and on the composition of the newberries to understand how they formed."

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Mars rover Opportunity breaks US distance record set by Apollo 17 moon buggy

A robotic rover on Mars has rolled past a record set by the last men to walk on the moon more than 40 years ago.

The team operating Opportunity, one of NASA's twin Mars Exploration Rovers, received confirmation from the Red Planet on Thursday (May 16) that the golf-cart size rover had driven past the 22.21 miles (35.74 kilometers) logged by the Apollo 17 astronauts riding their lunar roving vehicle (LRV) in December 1972.

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Mars Rover Opportunity Trekking Toward More Layers

Approaching its 10th anniversary of leaving Earth, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is on the move again, trekking to a new study area still many weeks away.

The destination, called "Solander Point," offers Opportunity access to a much taller stack of geological layering than the area where the rover has worked for the past 20 months, called "Cape York." Both areas are raised segments of the western rim of Endeavour Crater, which is about 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter.

"Getting to Solander Point will be like walking up to a road cut where you see a cross section of the rock layers," said Ray Arvidson of Washington University, St. Louis, deputy principal investigator for the mission.

Solander Point also offers plenty of ground that is tilted toward the north, which is favorable for the solar-powered rover to stay active and mobile through the coming Martian southern-hemisphere winter.

"We're heading to a 15-degree north-facing slope with a goal of getting there well before winter," said John Callas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., project manager for the Mars Exploration Rover Project. The minimum-sunshine days of this sixth Martian winter for Opportunity will come in February 2014.

NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Project launched twin rovers in 2003: Spirit on June 10 and Opportunity on July 7. Both rovers landed in January 2004, completed three-month prime missions and began years of bonus, extended missions. Both found evidence of wet environments on ancient Mars. Spirit ceased operations during its fourth Martian winter, in 2010. Opportunity shows symptoms of aging, such as loss of motion in some joints, but continues to accomplish groundbreaking exploration and science.

Shortly before leaving Cape York last month, Opportunity used the rock abrasion tool, the alpha particle X-ray spectrometer and the microscopic imager on its robotic arm to examine a rock called "Esperance" and found a combination of elements pointing to clay-mineral composition.

"The Esperance results are some of the most important findings of our entire mission," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., principal investigator for the mission. "The composition tells us about the environmental conditions that altered the minerals. A lot of water moved through this rock."

Cape York exposes just a few yards, or meters, of vertical cross-section through geological layering. Solander Point exposes roughly 10 times as much. Researchers hope to find evidence about different stages in the history of ancient Martian environments. The rim of Endeavour Crater displays older rocks than what Opportunity examined at Eagle, Endurance, Victoria and Santa Maria craters during the first eight years of the rover's work on Mars.

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NASA rover Opportunity's selfie shows clean machine

In its sixth winter, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity now has cleaner solar arrays than in any Martian winter since its first on the Red Planet, in 2005. Cleaning effects of wind events in March boosted the amount of electricity available for the rover's work.

A new self-portrait from Opportunity's panoramic camera (Pancam), showing the cleaned arrays:

Above: A self-portrait of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity taken in late March 2014 (bottom) shows that much of the dust on the rover's solar arrays has been removed since a similar portrait from January 2014 (above). Both were taken by Opportunity's panoramic camera (Pancam). (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/ASU)

The mission is using the rover's added energy to inspect "Murray Ridge," on the western rim of Endeavour Crater, to learn about wet environments on ancient Mars.

During Opportunity's first decade on Mars and the 2004-2010 career of its twin, Spirit, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Project yielded a range of findings proving wet environmental conditions on ancient Mars — some very acidic, others milder and more conducive to supporting life.

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Mars rover Opportunity rolls past off-Earth driving record set by Soviet Lunokhod

A NASA rover has set the new distance record for off-world driving, covering 25 miles during its 10 years on Mars.

Opportunity, one of a pair of U.S. Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) that landed on the Red Planet in 2004, rolled past the prior distance record set in 1973 by the former Soviet Union's Lunokhod 2 rover on the Earth's moon.

"Opportunity has driven farther than any other vehicle on another world," project manager John Callas with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement released on Monday (July 28). "This is so remarkable considering Opportunity was intended to drive about one kilometer and was never designed for distance."

See here for discussion of Opportunity's continued exploration of the planet Mars.

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