Mars Rover Opportunity To Study New Blueberries
September 30, 2012

Mars Rover Opportunity To Study Composition of Mineral-Rich Spheres

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

While it seems like Curiosity is the one getting all the headlines these days, NASA's "other" Mars rover, Opportunity, is still alive and well -- and en route to a new site to study the composition and internal structures of small spherical objects similar to the iron-rich ones previously discovered at its landing site.

The new spherical objects are "reminiscent of, but different from, the iron-rich spheres nicknamed 'blueberries' at the rover's landing site nearly 22 driving miles ago (35 kilometers)," officials at NASA's California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) explained in a Friday statement.

The new spheres, located at a site which scientists have dubbed "Matijevic Hill," are up to one-eighth of an inch in diameter and have "different composition and internal structure" than the "blueberries." The Opportunity science team is pondering how these objects might have formed, and are currently considering "a range of possibilities."

The previously-discovered "blueberries" are believed to have been formed by the actions of mineral-laden water contained inside rocks, but as NASA officials point out, there are many other ways in which tiny, rounded particles can form naturally. The current spheres could have been formed the same way, but with different compositions, or they could have been the result of volcanic eruptions, impact events, or crystallization of previously melted material.

"Right now we have multiple working hypotheses, and each hypothesis makes certain predictions about things like what the spherules are made of and how they are distributed," Cornell University's Steve Squyres, principal investigator for the Opportunity mission, said in a statement.

"Our job as we explore Matijevic Hill in the months ahead will be to make the observations that will let us test all the hypotheses carefully, and find the one that best fits the observations," he added.

Matijevic Hill, which overlooks the 14-mile wide Endeavor crater, was named in honor of the late Jacob Matijevic, the former leader of the engineering team for the twin Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity prior to his death in August. He had worked at JPL since 1981, serving as head of the engineering team for the original Mars rover, Sojourner, in the 1990s, and was most recently the chief engineer for surface operations systems for Curiosity.

"We wouldn't have gotten to Matijevic Hill, eight-and-a-half years after Opportunity's landing, without Jake Matijevic," Squyres said. Opportunity project manager John Callas added, "If there is one person who represents the heart and soul of all three generations of Mars rovers -- Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity -- it was Jake."