NASA Spacecraft Advance Moon/Mars Surface Exploration


Opportunity extends her arm at Endeavour Crater to examine an interesting rock formation. In many ways Endeavour Crater is like a new landing site for Opportunity with geology unlike anything investigated on Mars to date. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL

The Mars rover Opportunity is beginning to work at Endeavour crater on Mars, a clay-rich area that scientists say is like “a second landing site” requiring a whole new exploration strategy. It has been the prime target of the mission for the three years of travel it took to cover the 19 km between Endeavour and Victoria crater where it spent 2 years. 

Meanwhile on the Moon, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has just completed an extremely low altitude science phase, orbiting only 12 mi. above the surface to see lunar geology in extreme new detail.  This imaging provided extra fine detail of the Apollo 12, 14 and 17 landing sites. It was not possible to visit the Apollo 11, 15 and 16 sites on the extremely low, but temporary trajectory.

The imaging resolution of only 21 cm.( 8 in.) per pixel allows LRO to see geologic detail – including banding in larger rocks—that will better help tie broader terrain features in with specific lunar samples. This will in turn allow assessment of similar looking areas all over the Moon for their composition and mineral content.

Richard Vondrak , NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter project scientist, at the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. notes that detailed examination of the Apollo 12, 14 and 17 descent stages show no dust accumulations indicating scant dust transport on the airless Moon. This should allow the human hardware of Apollo left on the moon to remain in tact for a period of 10 million to 100 million years.

The Apollo 17 Landing Site as seen by the orbiting Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL

No trace of the American flags was visible. Vondrak and other researchers like Mark Robinson, principal investigator of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera which is run by Arizona State University, Tempe believe that no American flags remain at any of the six crewed landing sites, because they were made of Earthly cloth materials not treated to withstand the vacuum, ultraviolet radiation and solar particles showered on them over the last 40 years.

This is the third time that LRO has returned images of the Apollo landing sites. These current batch of images come from the just- finished month-long low altitude operations. New details that have emerged from these operations include:

– Much crisper views of astronaut and lunar rover tracks and tracks from the man powered transporters.

– Emergence of key landing site moments. Like the physical heaving out of the Portable Life Support System backpacks to trade their weight for lunar samples. These are now visible at the foot of each of the Lunar Module’s photographed, but some sailed further than others.

– Better characterization of how the wires between experiments and their “home plate” power sources have fared.

The Apollo 12 landing site, on the Moon's Ocean of Storms, can plainly be seen in this LRO image. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL

Discoveries on Mars will take precedence over those on the Moon, due to the fact that the remaining rover, Opportunity, has well-exceeded her estimated 30-day life span (Opportunity landed in Eagle Crater in 2004).

According to Dave Lavery, the Washington based NASA program executive, for the Mars Exploration Rovers the new Endeavour site is within the most ancient terrain yet seen on Mars. He said it has the potential for yielding some of the most major discoveries of the entire MER mission.

“Opportunity may be able to examine clay minerals and rock types that formed in a low acid – more neutral ph, wet conditions – which may tell us more about habitable environments that are very different than the plains the rover has been driving across.” Lavery said.

Squyres said the biggest surprise so far was the discovery of high concentrations of zink. On Earth zinc-laden rocks tend to have histories associated with flowing water.

“If Endeavour continues to find zinc it could have major implications for habitability in this ancient region of Mars,” said Squyres. “But the Endeavour crater story is just beginning to unfold and rover operators have to operate this aging rover with kid gloves to lessen the chances of a breakdown that could end the mission.”

Opportunity's pathway into Endeavour Crater, including the location of key landmarks such as Tisdale 2, can be seen in this image. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL



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