Opportunity Arrives at Alien Gateway to Clay Minerals at Spirit of St. Louis Crater

Opportunity arrives at Spirit of Saint Louis crater and peers into Marathon Valley and Endeavour crater from current location on Mars as of April 3, 2015 in this photo mosaic.  The crater is the gateway to Marathon Valley and exposures of water altered clay minerals.  This pancam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3973 (March 29, 2015) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

The View from Opportunity on Mars Today
Opportunity arrives at Spirit of Saint Louis crater and peers into Marathon Valley and Endeavour crater from current location on Mars as of April 3, 2015, in this photo mosaic. The crater is the gateway to Marathon Valley and exposures of water altered clay minerals. This pancam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3973 (March 29, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

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.

Opportunity arrives at Spirit of Saint Louis crater and peers into Marathon Valley and Endeavour crater from current location on Mars as of April 3, 2015 in this photo mosaic.  The crater is the gateway to Marathon Valley and exposures of water altered clay minerals.  This pancam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3973 (March 29, 2015) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Opportunity arrives at Spirit of Saint Louis crater and peers into Marathon Valley and Endeavour crater from current location on Mars as of April 3, 2015 in this photo mosaic. The crater, featuring an odd mound of rocks, is the gateway to Marathon Valley and exposures of water altered clay minerals. This pancam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3973 (March 29, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

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.

On Jan 24, 2015, Opportunity accomplished the unfathomable achievement of celebrating her 11th anniversary of exploration, discovery, and survival on Mars.

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.

Opportunity’s view on the day the NASA rover exceeded the distance of a marathon on the surface of Mars on March 24, 2015, Sol 3968. Rover stands at Spirit of Saint Louis crater near mountaintop at Marathon Valley overlook and Martian cliffs at Endeavour crater holding deposits of water altered clay minerals.  This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3968 (March 24, 2015) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Opportunity’s view on the day the NASA rover exceeded the distance of a marathon on the surface of Mars on March 24, 2015, Sol 3968. Rover stands at Spirit of Saint Louis crater near mountaintop at Marathon Valley overlook and Martian cliffs at Endeavour crater holding deposits of water altered clay minerals. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3968 (March 24, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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.

Zoom in to current location of Opportunity rover at Spirit of Saint Louis crater and Marathon Valley on Mars as of April 2015. Credit: Larry Crumpler

Zoom in to current location of Opportunity rover at Spirit of Saint Louis crater and Marathon Valley on Mars as of April 2015. Credit: Larry Crumpler

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.

The ISS crew gathers around a couple of lap tops to view Opportunity Navcam panorama at Marathon Valley. Credit: NASA

The ISS crew gathers around a couple of lap tops to view Opportunity Navcam panorama at Marathon Valley. Credit: NASA

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.

NASA’s Opportunity Rover scans along a spectacular overlook towards Marathon Valley on March 3, 2015 showing flat-faced rocks exhibiting a completely new composition from others examined earlier.  Marathon Valley and Martian cliffs on Endeavour crater hold deposits of water altered clay minerals.  This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3948 (March 3, 2015) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA’s Opportunity Rover scans along a spectacular overlook toward Marathon Valley on March 3, 2015 showing flat-faced rocks exhibiting a completely new composition from others examined earlier. Marathon Valley and Martian cliffs on Endeavour crater hold deposits of water altered clay minerals. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3948 (March 3, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Meanwhile, younger sister rover Curiosity is taking “bites” from the base of another Martian mountain on the opposite side of the Red Planet. Read all about her latest drilling campaign here.

Stay tuned here for continuing developments from Earth’s invasion fleet at Mars.

Ken Kremer

 

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11 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2015. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during 11 years on Mars and over 3960 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location just past the Cape Tribulation summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater near Marathon Valley. Rover marked 11 anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone - and is searching for more on the road ahead at Marathon Valley.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

11 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2015. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during 11 years on Mars and over 3960 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location just past the Cape Tribulation summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater near Marathon Valley. Rover marked 11 anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone – and is searching for more on the road ahead at Marathon Valley. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

NASA Opportunity Rover looks ahead to Marathon Valley and Martian cliffs on Endeavour crater holding deposits of water altered clay minerals science treasure on Feb. 11, 2015.  Rover operates well after 11 Years trekking Mars.   This pancam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3929 (Feb. 11, 2015) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA Opportunity Rover looks ahead to Marathon Valley and Martian cliffs on Endeavour crater holding deposits of water altered clay minerals science treasure on Feb. 11, 2015. Rover operates well after 11 Years trekking Mars. This pancam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3929 (Feb. 11, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

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