Opportunity To Investigate Mars' Ancient Past At Solander Point
August 15, 2013

Opportunity To Investigate Mars’ Ancient Past At Solander Point

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

NASA’s Opportunity rover has been plugging away on the Red Planet now for more than nine years and has survived several Martian winters. The rover is now studying a rocky layer on the edge of “Solander Point” that shows signs of an acidic wet past and a much older neutral wet environment.

Solander Point was picked as a target for Opportunity months ago as it was wrapping up work at “Cape York” and preparing for the coming winter season. NASA put Opportunity on a track toward Solander Point and began the long 1.5-mile trek to the new region in May. After nearly three months of travel, Opportunity has finally reached the target.

"We made it," said Opportunity's project scientist, Matt Golombek of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. "The drives went well, and Opportunity is right next to Solander Point. We know we could be on that north-facing slope with a one-day drive, but we don't need to go there yet.”

Now that the rover has arrived at its next target, it will be studying more about Mars’ past before moving into a more efficient position for coming southern hemisphere winter. This is a key move for Opportunity to give it a boost in power from the northern slope with its solar panels being tilted toward the winter sun.

“We have time to investigate the contact between the two geological units around the base of Solander Point. Geologists love contacts," added Golombek.

Solander Point contains a geological contact line that records a change in the environment billions of years ago. Both Cape York and the Solander Point are raised segments of the western rim of Endeavour Crater, which is nearly 14 miles in diameter. Between these raised segments the ground surface is part of a geological unit called the Burns Formation, which includes nearly all the rocks Opportunity has studied since its landing in Eagle Crater to its arrival at Cape York two years ago. The Burns Formation contains sulfate-bearing minerals that provide evidence of an ancient environment of sulfuric acid.

This area where Opportunity is now studying is the boundary between the Burns Formation rocks and a much older layer of rocks uplifted from the impact that created Endeavour Crater. Based on observations by Mars orbiters and from Opportunity’s investigations at Cape York, it is suspected that these older rocks contain evidence of minerals formed under wetter, less-acidic conditions.

The Opportunity team plans to continue investigations at this area for a few months before commanding the rover onto the north-facing slope by December, where it will bask in the winter sun. Sunshine will continually diminish until it reaches a winter minimum in February. While Opportunity remains on the northern slope through winter, it will stay mobile, studying rocky outcrops in the vicinity, according to the team.

While Opportunity has been going strong for nearly 10 years its companion rover, Spirit, ceased operations in 2010. Both rovers successfully completed their three-month prime directives in April 2004 and then began years of extended missions. Both rovers had found evidence of a watery past on Mars. Opportunity does show signs that it is aging, losing some motion in its mechanical joints, but it has continued to function properly and looks like it may continue to do so for the foreseeable future.