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Opportunity Completes Walkabout Searching For Water On Mars

December 4, 2012
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

Though it may be hard to remember from time to time, NASA currently has 2 rovers meandering on the surface of Mars. The newest of the 2 rovers, Curiosity, famously landed on the surface of Mars this summer, but Opportunity has been scooting alone on Mars for nearly 9 years now. Today, NASA announced that Opportunity has just completed a walkabout of an area where scientists believe water might have once existed.

“If you are a geologist studying a site like this, one of the first things you do is walk the outcrop, and that’s what we’ve done with Opportunity,” explained Steve Squyres, Opportunity´s principal investigator at Cornell University in the NASA statement.

With this walkabout complete, Opportunity is now set to begin its next round of work, which means examining this area even further.

The area in question is known as Matijevic Hill, named in honor of Jacob Matijevic, the man who led the engineering team for the rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Spirit became immobile in 2009 and ceased communications in 2010.

During this walkabout, Opportunity had to drive over 1,000 feet in a counterclockwise pattern around Matijevic Hill during the October and November months. With this journey complete, Opportunity has now traversed some 22 miles of Martian landscape in its nearly 9 years on the Red Planet.

As the researchers were driving Opportunity around Matijevic Hill, they were taking observations and determining which parts of the area to begin further investigations.

“We’ve got a list of questions posed by the observations so far,” said Squyres.

“We did this walkabout to determine the most efficient use of time to answer the questions. Now we have a good idea what we’re dealing with, and we’re ready to start the detailed work.”

Matijevic Hill is located on the western rim of the Endeavor Crater, a Martian landmass featuring a 14-mile diameter bowl.

Astronomers believe this bowl was created when another celestial object collided with Mars some 3 million years ago. When the 2 bodies connected, it left a pockmark and flung rocks from deep within Mars to the surface of the planet. These rocks can now be found on the rim of Endeavor Crater and NASA plans to send Opportunity to investigate these rocks. As they´ve been on the surface for 3 million years, Opportunity´s deputy project scientist Diana Blaney says they´ve been altered by many centuries of environmental conditions. These rocks also originated well below the Martian surface, far deeper than Opportunity has been able to dig during its time there.

Blaney is excited about what Opportunity is still capable of doing on the Martian surface.

“Almost nine years into a mission planned to last for three months, Opportunity is fit and ready for driving, robotic-arm operations and communication with Earth,” said Blaney at NASA´s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

NASA is looking at two outcrops of Matijevic Hill with particular interest: “Whitewater Lake” and “Kirkwood.”

According to NASA researchers, Whitewater Lake is composed of a material which could contain clay, a sign that water may have once existed on the surface. Kirkwood is made of small spheres with composition. Squyres calls these little spheres “newberries.”

“We don’t know yet whether Whitewood Lake and Kirkwood are from before or after the crater formed,” he said.

“One of the most important things to work out is the order and position of the rock layers to tell us the relative ages. We also need more work on the composition of Whitewater and debris shed by Whitewater to understand the clay signature seen from orbit, and on the composition of the newberries to understand how they formed.”


Source: Michael Harper for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online



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