September 16, 2012—Initial work of NASA’s rover Opportunity at its new location on Mars shows surface compositional differences from anything the robot has studied in its first 7-1/2 years of exploration.
Opportunity arrived three weeks ago at the rim of a 14-mile-wide crater named Endeavour. The first rock it examined is flat-topped and about the size of a footstool. It was apparently excavated by an impact that dug a crater the size of a tennis court into the crater’s rim. The rock was informally named “Tisdale 2.”
“This is different from any rock ever seen on Mars,” said Steve Squyres, principal investigator for Opportunity at Cornell University. “It has a composition similar to some volcanic rocks, but there’s much more zinc and bromine than we’ve typically seen.”
The diversity of fragments in Tisdale 2 could be a prelude to other minerals Opportunity might find at Endeavour. In the past two weeks, researchers have used an instrument on the rover’s robotic arm to identify elements at several spots on Tisdale 2. Scientists have also examined the rock using the rover’s microscopic imager and multiple filters of its panoramic camera.
Observations by Mars orbiters suggest that rock exposures on Endeavour’s rim date from early in Martian history and include clay minerals that form in less-acidic wet conditions, possibly more favorable for life. Discontinuous ridges are all that remains of the ancient crater’s rim.
“The science team selected Endeavour as Opportunity’s long-term destination after the rover climbed out of Victoria crater three years ago this week. The mission spent two years studying Victoria, finding layers of bedrock with a sulfate-rich composition linked to an ancient era when acidic water was present.
Opportunity drove about 13 miles from Victoria to reach Endeavour. It has driven 20.8 miles since landing on Mars, even though it was designed to drive less than 1 mile.
The New York Times reported that Opportunity is no longer in pristine condition, however. It is now usually driven backward to even out the wear on the gears. One of the joints on the robotic arm is stuck. Care is taken to minimize the movement of the camera to avoid wearing out the motor.
“All in all, we have a very senior rover that’s showing her age,” said John Callas, the project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory told the Times. “She has some arthritis and other issues, but in general, she’s in good health.”
Callas said, however, the mission could end quickly if Opportunity loses a critical component. But it is possible they could be using this rover’s capabilities for years.
NASA will launch its next-generation Mars rover, Curiosity, between November 25 and December 18, 2011. It will land on Mars in August 2012.
NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity used its front hazard-avoidance camera to take this picture showing the rover’s arm extended toward a light-toned rock, “Tisdale 2,” during the 2,695th Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s work on Mars (Aug. 23, 2011).
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Opportunity used its navigation camera to take this picture showing a light-toned rock, “Tisdale 2,” during the 2,690th Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s work on Mars (Aug. 18, 2011).
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Opportunity has driven more than 20 miles since landing on Mars to explore the Red Planet’s composition.
Image credit: NASA