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.

Mystery rock ‘materializes’ in front of Opportunity Rover, scientists scratch heads

A comparison of two raw Pancam photographs from Sols 3528 and 3540 shows a new rock about 3-inches across suddenly appearing out of nowhere a few feet in front of the rover. A Sol is a Martian day which is equal to 24 hours 37 minutes.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Whoa – wait a minute. The first picture taken by the Opportunity Rover shows no rock. The second, taken of the exact same spot 12 Mars days later, shows a very real rock. How’d that get there?

The shadow of the Opportunity Rover stretches across the barren Martian landscape. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech

The discovery was revealed by Mars Exploration Rover (MER) lead scientist Steve Squyres in a 10 years of Roving Mars keynote address at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory last night. MER scientists immediately named the new rock “Pinnacle Island”.

Scientists are still scratching their heads as to how that rock could move, but there are two intriguing possibilities, one of them unlikely and another so ordinary, it almost has to be true.

Squyres thinks it’s either a stone blown out from a meteorite impact that happened to land in front of the rover or, more likely, a rock flicked like a tiddlywink when the rover performed a turn in place not far from where the rock now lies. Or the rock got stuck earlier in a rover wheel and dropped out during the maneuver.

A higher resolution view of the mystery rock photographed by the Opportunity Rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Not ones to miss a scientific opportunity, Opportunity scientists hope to study the bright rock. “It obligingly turned upside down, so we’re seeing a side that hasn’t seen the Martian atmosphere in billions of years, and there it is for us to investigate. It’s just a stroke of luck,” Squyres said.

Opportunity’s front right steering actuator or motor has stopped working, so Squyres identified that as the possible culprit behind the whole mystery. Each wheel has its own actuator; the jam in the one wheel prevents it from turning left or right.

As the rover did a turn in place on the bedrock, the faulty wheel may have shot out the rock something like your car’s wheels blasting ice chunks out when you gun the engine to get out of a snow drift.

View of “Greeley Haven” on the rim of Endeavour Crater taken by Opportunity. It was assembled from 817 component images taken between Dec. 21, 2011, and May 8, 2012. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech

Still, no one knows for sure how it got there. A pal of mine suggested a blast of Martian wind. We’re lucky Opportunity found the intruder. The rover’s been parked at the same spot for weeks as it waits for better weather and a higher sun to help power it along its way. Sticking around the same spot allowed for nearly identical images to be taken on widely-separated Sols. Maybe a closer study of the rock in the coming days will tell us more about how it got there.

Despite being designed for a 90-day mission, the robot-that-could is still kicking 10 years later with more than 23 miles on its odometer. To check out the high resolution, raw images yourself, here are the links: Sol 3528 and Sol 3540.

A snooze recalls the heyday of Martian volcanoes

A wonderful Mars-scape of collapsed lava tubes along the flank of the volcano Ascraeus Mons photographed by the THEMIS camera on the Mars Odyssey satellite in orbit about Mars. Click to photos to enlarge. What appears to be craters are sinkholes in the roofs of other tubes. Credit: NASA/JPL/ASU

I collapsed in the chair yesterday night after a long day. My wife and daughter watched and chuckled from the couch as I nodded off. My submission to sleep was a quiet event marked only by the occasional snore, but the catastrophic rumble-tumble of rock when the roofs of lava tubes on the flanks of Mars’ second highest volcano collapsed must have shaken the ground like an earth, er, marsquake. In my personal situation, the body gave in; on Mars, the roof over former lava conduits within the volcano collapsed under their own weight after the lava drained away from beneath. This happened long ago, during the heyday of Martian volcanism, when lava welled up from multiple locations within the crust to create a whole field of volcanoes, including what would become the picturesque lava tubes of Ascraeus (as-KREE-es) Mons.

Ascraeus Mons is enormous, measuring 300 miles across with a summit caldera 11 miles high. Collapsed lava tubes are visible at upper left and lower right. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Like many of Mars’ volcanoes, this one is very similar to the Hawaiian shield volcanoes, where very fluid lavas erupt nearly continuously from one or more vents. The lava flows spread out layer after layer in large sheets across great distances, making shield volcanoes the largest both on Earth and Mars.

The Hawaiian volcanoes are produced by magmas erupting from a “hot spot” in the Earth’s crust. Given the enormous size of the Martian volcanoes and the fact that Mars doesn’t have moving crustal plates, they probably formed the very same way – stewing over hot spots in the Martian crust.

The Opportunity rover was photographed at the rim of Santa Maria crater on New Year's Eve. The crater is 295 feet across and surrounded by blocks of material ejected during impact. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

The lava tube photo is a recent release from NASA as is the latest image of the Mars Opportunity Rover parked next to Santa Maria crater on New Year’s Eve, which was taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Opportunity will spend about two months investigating the layering of rocks within the crater before moving on to the larger Endeavour crater four miles away. Studies by orbiting spacecraft indicate that Endeavour’s rim contains clay-bearing minerals indicating it was once wet there. The exploration of Mars has always been about ‘finding the water’ with the hopes of finding life, making the crater an ideal location for study.

On January 25, the feisty rover celebrates its 7th year on the planet – amazing for a machine that was designed to last just three months.

The UK (top) and France from Earth orbit. Paris is the bright spot near center with London to the left. Fog covers part of western England and the aurora borealis fringes the planet's edge at top. Credit: NASA / Douglas Wheelock

I can’t resist one last image, taken by space station astronaut Douglas Wheelock last November 8. To see more of Wheelock’s wonderful pix, click HERE.