Scientists leading the renowned expedition of NASA’s more-than-decade-old rover Opportunity are thrilled that the vehicle has arrived at “Spirit of St. Louis Crater”—the gateway to “alien scenes” of Marathon Valley and water-altered minerals that formed under environmental conditions conducive to support Martian microbial life forms, if they ever existed.
“We go to the crater first and then enter the valley,” Prof. Ray Arvidson, the rover Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University told AmericaSpace. That’s the plan of action.
You can imagine yourself standing on Mars and enjoying the view by checking out today’s (April 3, 2015) birds-eye view from Opportunity, showing “Spirit of St. Louis Crater” and Marathon Valley in new photo mosaics above and below.
“We are now at the entrance to Marathon Valley near an odd feature named ‘Spirit of Saint Louis crater’,” says rover science team member Larry Crumpler, of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science (NMMNHS), in an update.
“This is one of the most alien scenes yet!”
“At this location we have also acquired a couple of panoramas that should be spectacular,” noted Crumpler.
Those Opportunity panoramas taken so far are shown herein and were stitched for AmericaSpace by the image processing team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.
Then, after becoming “the first human enterprise to exceed marathon distance of travel on another world” on March 24, 2015, or Sol 3968 of her operations on the surface of the alien Red Planet, Opportunity is now focusing like a laser beam on exploring her breathtaking surroundings atop a mountain ridge.
“Spectacular exposures of weathered and altered minerals should be exposed there [at Marathon Valley],” says Crumpler.
“That is always a clue that it is geologically very interesting in more than just minerals and chemistry. It probably means that all sorts of interesting things are going on that will give us a few more clues about the past climate on Mars.”
“It’s named Marathon Valley because the rover will have traveled one marathon’s distance to reach it,” Prof. Ray Arvidson, the rover Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University, told AmericaSpace.
“’Spirit of St. Louis’ is an impact crater formed long ago by a meteorite smashing into the Martian surface. It features an odd mound of dark rocks,” says Crumpler.
Now, for the first time in history, a human emissary has arrived to conduct an up-close inspection of the remains and elucidate clues into the region’s potential regarding Martian habitability.
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.
Marathon Valley and Spirit of St. Louis Crater are located along a marvelous mountain top ridgeline along the western rim of Endeavour crater. It’s just a few hundred meters south of the mountain summit at another majestic spot called Cape Tribulation—see mosaic below and herein.
After clawing her way upward during an arduous drive over the past year and a half, the golf-cart-sized robot reached the Martian mountain peak in January 2015.
On Jan. 6, 2015, Opportunity accomplished the incredible feat of climbing atop the mountain summit at Cape Tribulation along the eroded rim of Endeavour crater.
The peak stands about 440 feet (135 meters) above the local plains around the crater.
Vast Endeavour crater spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter.
After completing her investigations at the mountain peak, Opportunity headed south to Marathon Valley—a notch in the crater rim.
“It’s all downhill (about 70 m down in elevation) from Cape Tribulation,” noted Crumpler.
Marathon Valley was selected for intensive investigation because it holds a motherlode of Martian mineral treasures altered by ancient flowing water, based on orbital observations collected by NASA’s robotic invasion fleet.
Multiple types of phyllosilicate clay minerals were detected at “Marathon Valley” from orbital observations gathered by the CRISM spectrometer on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) circling overhead.
These clay minerals are exciting to scientists because they formed in ancient, wet environmental conditions that are less acidic, and thus more favorable for the formation of microbial life forms than the more harshly acidic environments found in rocks investigated earlier in the 11-year-long mission.
Where exactly are the clay minerals? This writer asked Arvidson.
“The clay minerals are on the valley floor.”
How will Opportunity reach them?
“We go to Spirit of Saint Louis crater first. Then enter Marathon Valley from west to east.”
So Opportunity has to drive down?
“Yes, we have to drive down towards the crater floor for the clay minerals.”
Is that where Opportunity will work for some time?
“Yes, the rover will work there and stay for some time.”
In that case it would be a long drive back up the mountain?
“Yes, it would be,” replied Arvidson.
Even the astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are following Opportunity’s magnificent adventures across Mars.
NASA Astronaut Terry Virts and his ISS crewmates recently gathered around a couple of laptops to view the Opportunity Navcam panoramas from Marathon Valley and Spirit of St. Louis Crater.
“In Earth orbit, the International Space Station crew participated in our uplink process by looking at the same Navcam scene [from Marathon Valley] and picking Pancam [camera] targets,” explains Crumpler.
As of today, Sol 3979 (April 3, 2015), Opportunity’s total odometry is over 26.241 miles (42.230 kilometers) since touchdown on Jan. 24, 2004 at Meridiani Planum—exceeding a marathon runner’s distance!
Opportunity has snapped over 202,150 amazing images on the first overland expedition across the Red Planet.
Despite all these accomplishments, the White House seeks to “Kill Opportunity.” Under the newly rolled out NASA budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2016, Opportunity would “cease operations” with funding being “zeroed out” as detailed in this recent AmericaSpace story.
The cost to operate Opportunity was just $14 million during 2014.
Stay tuned here for continuing developments from Earth’s invasion fleet at Mars.
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