Almost nine years old and still going strong – Opportunity – one of the twin rovers sent to Mars almost a decade ago is still turning its robotic wheels on the red planet. It is continuing its mission to learn about the history of wet environments on Mars.
Spirit and Opportunity were the twin rovers that exceeded all expectations by hanging on well past their planned life and going above and beyond the call of scientific duty. Both landed in January 2004. Each had a primary mission of 90 Martian sols (92 days in Earthspeak). So Opportunity at 3244 days of mission life is a long-lived explorer indeed.
Spirit got bogged in soft soil on 1st May 2009 and finally gave up the electronic ghost on 22nd March 2010 (2695 days) after long and valuable service.
Opportunity has been exploring a crater-rim where orbiting Mars spacecraft have detected traces of clay minerals that may indicate a wet, non-acidic geology with favourable conditions for life. The hill its investigating – Matijevic Hill – is on the western rim of Endeavour Crater, a 22km wide impact crater dating back more than 3 billion years. This impact site is of particular interest to scientists because deep rocks have been pushed to the surface within reach of the intrepid rover. One of the puzzles to solve is sorting out the age of local outcrops.
The rover drove 354 metres around the hill in a counterclockwise circuit for its initial reconnoitre. This initial survey will be used by mission scientists to determine the best place for further investigation. Two areas of particular interest were identified: Whitewood Lake shows a light-toned material that scientist believe may contain clay, while Kirkwood contains small spheres with composition, structure and distribution that are different from iron-rich sphericules (aka blueberries) Opportunity saw at its landing site.
The final target for further investigations has not been chosen. Meanwhile Opportunity is flexing its robotic arm, ready for action.
Curiosity, Opportunity’s newer, larger cousin, is also having fun. Here is an article about the organic non-signal that NASA was eager not to announce. To me, this is strangely reminiscent of the Viking ‘false positive’ – anyone remember that one?