Opportunity Rover Days Away From Mars Mountain Quest

Opportunity rover’s view from very near the foothills of Solander Point looking along the rim and vast expanse of Endeavour Crater. This area exhibits gypsum signatures and numerous blocks of intriguing rock. Solander Point is the 1st Martian Mountain NASA’s Opportunity will climb and the rovers next destination. Solander Point may harbor clay minerals indicative of a past Martian habitable environment. This navcam mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 3374 (July 21, 2013). 

Exactly a decade after blasting off for the Red Planet and discovering a wide swath of water altered rocks and minerals in the ensuing years by exploring countless craters large and small, NASA’s intrepid Opportunity rover is just days away from arriving at her next big quest – a Martian mountain named Solander Point that may possess the key chemical ingredients necessary to sustain Martian life forms.

“We are parked 200 meters away from the bench at Solander Point,” Ray Arvidson told Universe Today exclusively. Arvidson is the mission’s deputy principal scientific investigator from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. Furthermore, this area exhibits signatures related to water flow.

Solander Point also represents ‘something completely different’ – the first mountain the intrepid robot will ever climb.

“This will be Opportunity’s first mountain and the view from the ridge crest should be spectacular,” wrote Larry Crumpler, a science team member from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, in his latest field report about the 10 years ongoing Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission.

Indeed the rover is now just a few short drives southward from making landfall on the northern tip of the point in her current trek across the relatively flat plains around the rim of Endeavour crater.

“We are now only about 180 meters from the new mountain, Solander Point.”

But before moving onward, Arvidson explained that the rover will briefly pause here “at dark terrain” for some exciting science due to water related spectral observations from the CRISM instrument captured by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) circling overhead.

“CRISM data [from Mars orbit] shows a relatively deep 1.9 micrometer absorption feature due to H2O-bearing minerals,” said Arvidson.

This past spring, Opportunity made the historic discovery of clay minerals and a habitable environment on a low hill called Cape York at the rover’s prior stop along the rim of Endeavour crater.

Solander was selected as the robot’s next destination because it simultaneously offers a goldmine of science as well as north facing slopes – where Opportunity’s solar wings can more effectively soak up the sun’s rays to generate life giving electrical power during the next Martian winter.

But since Opportunity is currently generating plenty of power from her solar arrays and arriving with a bonus cushion of time before the looming onset of her 6th Martian winter, the team decided to take a small detour to the southeast and spend several sols (or Martian days) exploring an area of intriguing geology of outcrops, gypsum signatures and more on the bench surrounding the base of the mountain.

“We slowed down this week so that we could check out the rocks here where there is a strange hydration signature from orbital remote sensing,” says Crumpler.

“This is also an area that appears to have more large blocks in the HiRISE images [from Mars orbit], so we are checking out one of the blocks, “Black Shoulder”.

“We are hoping that the rocks on the ridge crest will be spectacular too,” notes Crumpler.

Read more: 

Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

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