By Ken Kremer
The Opportunity rover is sending back a multitude of awesome views of Santa Maria Crater since arriving at the western edge on Dec. 15 (Sol 2450). This intermediate stop on the rover’s 19 km long journey from Victoria Crater to giant 14 km wide Endeavor Crater certainly looks to be well worth the trip.
Santa Maria is just 6 km from the western rim of Endeavour which is surrounded by phyllosilicate clays – which formed in water and have never before been directly analyzed on the Martian surface.
Opportunity has been on a swift advance over smooth terrain since departing from Intrepid crater in mid-November which was named in honor of the Apollo 12 mission which landed two men on the moon 41 years ago in November 1969.
Santa Maria appears to be relatively unweathered and fresh. The crater is 90 meters in diameter. A multitude of inviting rocks and boulders from the impact ejecta are strewn about making this a Martian geologists dream.
After initially driving to a distance of about five meters from the rim on Dec. 16 (Sol 2451), Opportunity has now carefully crawled even nearer to the precipice of the craters steep cliffs. The rover snaps a series of panoramic images at each stop to document the site scientifically and esthetically.
The team back on Earth must tread with extreme caution as Opportunity creeps ever closer to the edge lest she fall off a cliff. Opportunity is now positioned close enough to point her cameras directly at the steep walled cliffs and towards the sand dunes at the crater floor unveiling another stunningly gorgeous Martian vista.
Compare the panoramic mosaics from Sols 2451 and 2454 above and below – created by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo for Universe Today – as Opportunity pulled up to the rim in stages and began exploring the crater environment from different vantage points.
The rover handlers are highly adept at precisely maneuvering the 175 kg vehicle back and forth inside the danger zone at crater rims. After all Opportunity has been on a crater tour for her entire 7 year extended mission to the red planet and controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have honed their driving techniques at countless locales both treacherous and dazzling.
High priority activity on the west side of Santa Maria includes collecting a series of high resolution stereo panoramas which will be used to create a digital elevation map in 3D. JPL engineers will move Opportunity in a counterclockwise direction around the rim before heading to Endeavour crater.
Opportunity will drive to an area on the southeast portion of Santa Maria that shows exposures of water bearing sulfate.
Opportunity will stay at Santa Maria through the upcoming Solar conjunction which starts in late January and ends in mid-February. The rover will remain stationary during that period and conduct a lengthy investigation of a specific spot using the instruments on the robotic arm – which include spectrometers, a microscope and the rock drill known as the RAT or Rock Abrasion Tool
Opportunity remains healthy, has abundant solar power for the final leg of the eastward march to Endeavor and celebrates 7 years on Mars on 24 Jan 2011.
More details in my articles online at Universe Today: http://www.universetoday.com/81838/opportunity-shoots-awesome-views-of-santa-maria-crater/