Mars Opportunity Rover Makes A Juicy Discovery

Like an insect adapted to its environment, the Opportunity Rover wears a near-perfect camouflage of red Mars dust in this mosaic self-portrait taken Jan. 3-6, 2014. The robot-that-could celebrates 10 years on Mars today. It was originally planned to operate for only 90 days. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ten years ago this evening, NASA’s Opportunity Rover parachuted to the surface of Mars and settled on the red, iron-stained soil of Meridiani Planum. That iron was likely deposited eons ago in hot springs and steaming pools of superheated water. If Yellowstone National Park comes to mind, this now-dusty, chill and wind-swept place may once have been its cousin.

Researchers used the rover to find water-related minerals on the ground that had been detected from orbit. After brushing the rocks free of dust, Opportunity found this dark rocky veneer (center)  in the Whitewater Lake outcrop on Matijevic Hill. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

After traveling 24 miles (38.7 km) spread over all those years, today Opportunity sits perched on the rim of 14-mile-wide Endeavour Crater near an area called Matijevic Hill. Beginning in 2010, the rover used its Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer there to find brand new evidence of a ancient wet environment that was milder and older than the acidic and oxidizing conditions seen in other places examined by the rover.

Opportunity detected an iron-rich clay mineral known as smectite. Researchers believe the wet conditions that produced the smectite preceded the formation of the Endeavor Crater about 4 billion years ago. Anyone who’s gotten their foot stuck in slippery, juicy clay knows that it’s intimately associated with water.

“There’s more good stuff ahead,” said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., the mission’s principal investigator. “We are examining a rock right in front of the rover that is unlike anything we’ve seen before. Mars keeps surprising us, just like in the very first week of the mission.”

Opportunity photographs the “mystery rock” on the rim of Endeavour Crater on Sol 3541. Click for more photos. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

That rock is the “mystery rock” that rather suddenly appeared in front of the rover several weeks ago. I’ve included a more recent closeup of it for your enjoyment.

You can keep track of what the mission team is photographing by stopping by the Opportunity raw images site. Pick the camera and the Mars day or Sol number (today Jan. 24 is Sol 3556 for Opportunity) and have a look. One Sol = one Martian day or 24 hours 37 minutes. Anytime you want to know what Sol or what the local time is at either Opportunity or Curiosity lander locations, be sure to check out James Tauber’s delightful Mars Clock.

7 Responses

  1. That rock is one of the more intriguing things I’ve seen. And thank goodness, it’s not fake like the UFO’s. (Unless a really busy Photoshopper is having a blast.) 😀

    Seriously, that is a classic case of serendipity!

  2. Edward M. Boll

    I missed Saturn and the Moon, but saw Venus easily. The twins of Gemini were lined up like 2 eyes. Jupiter sat in the middle below them like a nose. Comet Linear 209 got my attention. In late May, it comes very close to Earth. The assumed magnitude is 11 then. But judging from being magnitude 18 now, I wonder if it will not be much brighter than that. By June 1, it is too far south for us to be seen.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Edward,
      I agree. I was out looking this a.m. in the wicked cold. Saturn was so sharp with a large ring tilt. Venus I only saw from the window after I went inside to warm up.

      1. Sean

        wicked cold? Bob u sure u don’t have some Massachusettser in your blood? anyway, speaking of Venus thru the window, i finally got my 1st daytime Venus today during this particular AM apparition, and tracked it intermittently from 7:05 to 8AM. The last 2 or 3 times i found it, including at 8AM, it was thru my closed window. which was kinda nice considering the temps and winds. of course, five minutes past 8 i couldn’t find it even with the window open.

        1. astrobob

          The moon will be to the right of Venus tomorrow and in nearly the same phase. Hope you’re window’s not too frosted over.

  3. I think this shows evidence that there is a slim possibility that a Canadian associated with Opportunity might have fastened a Toonie ($2 coin) before the launch 11 years ago for good luck and it finally came off.
    With the Olympics just around the corner, someone already on site at the venue for the gold medal game in ice hockey has or is about to bury a Loonie or Toonie at center ice as the Canadians have traditionally done for the past 54 years (Squaw Valley, California, USA (1960)
    Picture of the scale and 2 toned appearance of the “Toonie” coin:

    If that turns out to be the case, perhaps “Oppy”‘s controllers could find a way to pick it back up with the alpha-proton-X-ray spectrometer (APXS) so that its extended mission continues to amaze us every time new pictures arrive.

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