Let's Talk About: Rover begins ninth year on Mars

March 8, 2012 12:00 am

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NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity recently began its ninth year on the surface of the Red Planet. The robotic geologist is currently exploring the rim of the 14-mile wide Endeavour crater.

Opportunity landed on Mars on Jan. 25, 2004, three weeks after its rover twin, Spirit. The robotic geologist almost immediately found evidence that water once flowed on the Martian surface in the backyard-size Eagle Crater. The rover met all its goals within the originally planned three-month mission. During the next four years, Opportunity successfully explored larger and deeper craters, adding evidence about the planet's ancient wet environment.

Spirit's last communication with Earth was on March 22, 2010, and attempts to re-contact the rover ended last May. Spirit discovered a dramatically different world than the cold, dry Mars of today. It showed that there were once hot springs or steam vents on Mars, which could have provided favorable conditions for microbial life.

In 2008, Opportunity's science team chose to send the rover toward an area of Endeavour crater's rim, which appeared to be nearly surrounded by water-bearing minerals. After a three-year journey across the treacherous Martian terrain, the rover reached the Cape York segment of Endeavour's rim last August. This location has provided the rover access to geological deposits from an earlier period of Martian history than anything it examined in the past.

The discovery of high zinc content in an outcrop of rocks and a bright mineral vein identified as hydrated calcium sulfate prompted the mission's principal investigator, Steve Squyres of Cornell University, to call these discoveries "the clearest evidence for liquid water on Mars that we have found in our eight years on the planet."

Mission managers are now preparing Opportunity for its fifth Martian winter by positioning the rover on a sun-facing slope so it will have enough energy to keep active through the winter.

First Published 2012-03-07 23:18:29

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