by Dr. Ken Kremer
NASA’s resilient Opportunity robot has begun her ninth year roving around beautiful Earth-like Martian terrain where potentially life sustaining liquid water once flowed billions of years ago. Opportunity celebrated her eighth anniversary on the red planet gazing at the foothills of the vast crater named Endeavour that promises a “mother lode” of water related science – an unimaginable circumstance since the nail biting landing on the hematite rich plains of Meridiani Planum on 24 January 2004. She is now 99 months into the three month mission, that’s 33 times beyond the designers’ expectation.
Opportunity has phoned home dusty new self portraits of her beautiful body basking in the utterly frigid sunshine during her fifth winter on the Red Planet whilst overlooking Endeavour, some 14 miles in diameter.
NASA’s endearing robot is simultaneously carrying out an ambitious array of ground breaking science experiments this winter providing insight into the mysterious nature of the Martian core while sitting stationary until the energy augmenting rays of the springtime sun shower down on her from the heavens above.
“Milestones like eight years on Mars always make me look forward rather than looking back,” Rover Principal Investigator Prof. Steve Squyres of Cornell University told me for this article commemorating Opportunity’s landing. “We’ve still got a lot of exploring to do, but we’re doing it with a vehicle that was designed for a 90-sol mission. That means that every sol is a gift at this point.”
Opportunity has driven more than 21 miles across the red planet’s surface during what is truly human-kind’s first overland expedition on another planet. NASA’s twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity blasted off for Mars atop a pair of Delta II rockets in the summer of 2003 with a mission “warranty” of just 90 Martian days, or Sols.
The robot will remain parked at Endeavour for the winter on a slope at the north end of the crater rim segment called Cape York with an approximate 15-degree northerly tilt towards the life-giving sun to maximize solar energy production. The park-site is at an outcrop dubbed “Greeley Haven”, named in honor of Ronald Greeley, a beloved and recently deceased science team member.
This is the first winter that Opportunity did not have sufficient power to continue roving across the surface, because of the thick layer of dust on the solar arrays. Since Opportunity is just south of the Martian equator, the daylight hours for solar power generation are growing shorter until the southern Mars winter solstice occurs on March 30, 2012.
The rover science team is ingeniously using the lack of movement to their advantage, and Opportunity is still vigorously hard at work doing breakthrough research every day. From her stationary position, Op-portunity is conducting her first radio-science, Doppler tracking measurements to support geo-dynamic investigations and to elucidate the unknown structure of the Martian interior and core. The team was eager for the long awaited chance to carry out the radio tracking experiment with the High Gain Antenna (HGA) and determine if Mars’ core is liquid or solid. Months of data collection are required while the rover stays stationary.
“This winter science campaign will feature two-way radio tracking with Earth to determine the Martian spin axis dynamics – thus the interior structure, a long-neglected aspect of Mars,” Ray Arvidson told me. Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis, is the Deputy Rover Principal Investigator.
A few months after the Martian southern winter solstice, the team will drive her off the outcrop and fur-ther explore Cape York in search of further evidence of the gypsum mineral veins like “Homestake” – indicative of ancient water flow – previously discovered at Cape York. Then Opportunity will rove further south to investigate deposits of phyllosilicates, the clay minerals which stem from an earlier epoch when liquid water flowed on Mars and which may have been more favorable to sustaining life.
Meanwhile, NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover is rocketing through space and on course for a pinpoint touchdown inside the layered terrain of Gale Crater on August 6, 2012. Curiosity is now America’s last planned Mars rover following the Obama administration’s cancellation of the joint NASA/ESA ExoMars rover mission.
Check Ken’s Mars features online at Universe Today and the February 2012 issue of Spaceflight magazine:
Opportunity Phones Home Dusty Self-Portraits and Ground Breaking Science
A Penny for your Curiosity on Mars
Experts React to Obama Slash to NASA’s Mars and Planetary Science Exploration
Spirit Lander – 1st Color Image from Mars Orbit
NASA’s Resilient Rover Opportunity Begins Year 9 On Mars with Audacious Science Ahead
Astronomy Outreach by Ken Kremer
Rockland Astronomy Club RAC, Rockland Community College, Suffern, NY, Mar 16, 8 PM, “NASA’s Year of the Solar System: Mars, Moon, Mercury, Vesta, Jupiter, Comets and Beyond (plus 3-D”). Website: http://www.rocklandastronomy.com/
New Jersey Astronomical Association NJAA- Vorhees State Park: High Bridge, NJ, March 24, Sat., 8 PM “Atlantis, the End of America’s Shuttle Program and What’s Beyond for NASA”. Website: http://www.njaa.org/
Ken Kremer: Spaceflight magazine & Universe Today
Ken has a selection of his Shuttle photos and Mars mosaics for sale as postcards and frameable prints.