Magnificent science treasures lie dead ahead for NASA’s world-famous Opportunity Mars Exploration Rover, as she celebrates an astonishing 11th year alive on the Red Planet atop a Martian mountain named Cape Tribulation on Jan. 24, 2015.
Just how unfathomable is that astounding accomplishment?
“It’s about 10.5 more years on Mars than I ever thought we’d get!” Prof. Steve Squyres, the rover’s Science Principal Investigator of Cornell University, said exclusively to AmericaSpace.
And a huge cache of long-sought-after water-altered minerals providing clues to habitability for potential Martian microbes, if they ever existed, now lies just about 200 meters away!
It’s the realization of an impossible dream no one ever dared to imagine during the nail-biting touchdown 11 years ago.
Recall that Opportunity and her twin sister Spirit were given an expected lifetime of merely three months—a “warranty” of 90 Martian days (Sols) as Squyres and Co. like to say. Spirit endured over six years before succumbing to Antarctic-like winter temperatures.
“The symbolic value of reaching a major summit on Mars eleven years into a 90-day mission can’t be underestimated,” noted Squyres, who has led the rover mission during more than a decade and a half of conception, development, launch, landing, and breathtaking science operations across the stunningly beautiful but inhospitable surface floor of the alien Red Planet.
The six-wheeled Opportunity rover reached the summit of Cape Tribulation just days prior to the 11th anniversary (Sol 3911) of her daunting air-bag assisted touchdown on Jan. 24, 2004, on Mars.
After bouncing about a dozen times, she rolled to a stop after falling down inside Eagle crater—for a 250-million-mile hole-in-one-shot from Earth to Mars!
You can see the entire 11-year overland traverse of Opportunity, and her current location, in our exclusive route map below.
Opportunity has been on a crater-hopping expedition ever since and making remarkable discoveries unmasking the history of flowing liquid water on Mars billions of years ago when it was far warmer, wetter, and more hospitable to life than today.
“It is amazing to me that we are moving into yet another year with Opportunity,” Prof. Ray Arvidson, the rover Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University, told AmericaSpace.
Today is Sol 3914, and that’s an unbelievable 44 times beyond her expected warranty.
Think of it like this: It’s as though we launched 44 rovers to explore the Red Planet for the price of one rover launch, way back in the summer of 2003 on a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral. That’s more than an Earth decade ago.
Opportunity reached the peak of Cape Tribulation on Jan. 6, 2015, overlooking humongous Endeavour crater for a once-in-a-lifetime vista across its vast expanse.
See Mars as it looks today from Opportunity’s mountaintop vantage point in our exclusive new mosaic above.
“The drive that put us on the summit was executed on Sol 3894,” said Squyres.
Endeavour crater spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter.
Cape Tribulation sits along a ridge of the eroded western rim of Endeavour crater. She arrived at the giant crater in the summer of 2011 after an arduous and nearly three-year-long trek from Victoria crater, which was a bold gamble since no one know whether it would succeed.
After exploring some rim segments for about two years, it took about a year and a half for the rover to climb about 440 feet (about 135 meters) in elevation to the summit from a lower section of the Endeavour rim that it crossed in mid-2013, “Botany Bay.”
The mountain peak is called “Summit Lithology,” says Arvidson.
Overall the summit has an elevation of 1380 meters, and the view from “Summit Lithology” offers a commanding 360 degree panoramic view of the alien surroundings from the highest peak she will ever climb.
“Summit Lithology” also counts as the highest elevation Opportunity has reached in seven years since departing Victoria Crater in 2008 on a down-slope journey to Endeavour Crater.
The team commanded the robot to gather a pair of incomparable panoramas from the pancam and navcam cameras on Sol 3894, as well as summit science during a stay of some two weeks.
The pancam panorama shown herein is newly released from the rover team. It includes an image of the U.S. flag printed on the rover’s rock abrasion tool held high that is intended as a memorial to victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.
The navcam summit panorama and approach imagery shown herein were created by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.
And our intrepid robot did all her recent months of mountaineering and science investigations despite being somewhat “crippled” due to suffering some significant problems recently with the flash memory.
“I feel really good about that. We managed to reach the summit of Cape Tribulation and take a spectacular panorama of Endeavour Crater there, all without using our flash memory,” Squyres told AmericaSpace.
“It’s the mode of operation that has always been called ‘crippled mode,’ but I think we’ve shown that in that mode the rover is not crippled at all … it’s just a bit forgetful.”
Furthermore, all this recent climbing in “crippled mode” was accomplished during the most difficult part of the ascent, and moving regularly multiple times per week.
“I think this milestone is particularly significant because we accomplished the steepest and hardest parts of it in what we call ‘crippled mode.’ We’re having difficulties with our aging flash memory, and until we can correct the problem we’re operating the vehicle in a mode that bypasses flash completely,” Squyres elaborated.
So the team was resourceful in the face of a big challenge and developed workarounds to save the rover and the science.
“What that means is that after each sol’s activities, any data not downlinked immediately is lost forever. This requires a very different way of operating the vehicle, and the team has mastered it,” Squyres stated.
No one wants priceless data to be lost.
Any update on flash memory workarounds and a timetable for implementation?
“We think we’ve found a way to ‘mask’ the part of the flash that’s causing the trouble, giving us access to the rest of it and returning most of the flash to regular use,” replied Squyres.
“We’re testing this on the ground, and we’ll implement it on Mars when it’s safe to do so.”
Besides imagery, what science has been accomplished in the summit area?
“Work on Cape Tribulation has been documenting the outcrops of Shoemaker formation breccias as we go and gaining an understanding of the extent to which the rim has been fractured and relationships to aqueously altered zones. Higher water flux through fractures as compared to surroundings,” replied Arvdison.
“The area looks very much like a sediment shaped by wind. Thin soil cover, with cobbles, over bedrock.”
At this very moment, Opportunity has begun the descent from the summit of Cape Tribulation to her next targets in Marathon Valley and Spirit of Saint Louis crater.
How far away is Marathon Valley? What is the origin of the name?
“We are about 220 meters from Spirit of Saint Louis crater,” Arvidson said.
“Spirit of Saint Louis’ crater is at the entrance to Marathon Valley. Its named that because the rover will have traveled one marathon’s distance to reach it!”
What is the near-term roving/science plan? Plans for mobility during the upcoming Martian winter?
“Looking forward to getting to Spirit of Saint Louis crater and to Marathon Valley,” stated Arvidson.
“Working out a plan for exploration with the team this week. Hope to have some mobility during the winter.”
“It’s all downhill (about 70 m down in elevation) from here,” according to rover science team member Larry Crumpler, of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science (NMMNHS), in an update.
The ancient, weathered slopes around Marathon Valley hold a motherlode of “phyllosilicate” clay minerals, based on data obtained from the extensive orbital measurements made by the Mars orbiting CRISM spectrometer accomplished earlier at the direction of Arvidson.
Phyllosilicate clay minerals form in neutral water more conducive to the origin of life.
The clay minerals were detected from orbit by the CRISM spectrometer aboard NASA’s powerful Martian “Spysat”—the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO)—while gathering context data at rock outcrops along the long and winding way over the past few years.
The robot’s science team specifically directed Opportunity toward Cape Tribulation several years ago, based on the detection of abundant exposures of aluminum-rich clay minerals at a spot a bit beyond the summit called “Marathon Valley,” using the spectral measurements from CRISM and MRO.
As of today Opportunity’s total odometry is over 25.9 miles (41.7 kilometers) since touchdown on Jan. 24, 2004, at Meridiani Planum.
The rover has driven an additional 1.7 miles and 2.7 kilometers over the past year.
On July 27, 2014, the long-lived rover set the “off-Earth roving distance record after accruing 25 miles (40 kilometers) of driving. The previous record was held by the Soviet Union’s Lunokhod 2 rover,” according to NASA”s Jet Propulsion Laboratory which manages the rover mission.
So far she has snapped over 200,240 amazing images on the first overland expedition across the Red Planet.
NASA’s long-term goal is to send Humans to Mars in the 2030s, and Opportunity and sister rover Curiosity are paving the path to the Red Planet.
Stay tuned here for continuing developments from Earth’s invasion fleet at Mars.
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