NASA's Opportunity Rover Turns Into A Martian Mountaineer
October 24, 2013

NASA’s Opportunity Rover Turns Into A Martian Mountaineer

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

NASA’s Opportunity rover has turned into a mountaineer, climbing the tallest hill it has encountered in the mission’s 10 year history.

The Mars Exploration Rover is exploring the outcrops on the northwestern slopes of “Solander Point,” trekking up the hill as much as a field geologist would do. NASA said the outcrops are exposed from several feet to about 20 feet above the surrounding plains.

"This is our first real Martian mountaineering with Opportunity," the principal investigator for the rover, Steve Squyres, of Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, said in a statement. "We expect we will reach some of the oldest rocks we have seen with this rover -- a glimpse back into the ancient past of Mars."

The hill is a ridge from Solander Point that forms an elevated portion of the western rim of Endeavour Crater, which spans 14 miles in diameter. The ridge materials were once uplifted due to the impact that created the crater billions of years ago.

NASA says that key targets on the ridge include clay-bearing rocks that were first identified by observations by the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars. The observations were specially designed to yield mineral maps with enhanced spatial resolution.

The hill is a much farther climb than the rims at “Cape York,” which is a segment to the north that Opportunity investigated for 20 months beginning in mid-2011.

"At Cape York, we found fantastic things," Squyres said. "Gypsum veins, clay-rich terrain, the spherules we call newberries. We know there are even larger exposures of clay-rich materials where we're headed. They might look like what we found at Cape York or they might be completely different."

Researchers used Opportunity to investigate a transition zone around the base of the ridge at Solander Point. This area includes a sulfate-rich geological formation and some sulfate-rich rocks. These rocks help show record of an ancient environment that was once wet. Contact with older rocks could tell researchers about a time when environmental conditions changed.

"We took the time to find the best place to start the ascent," Opportunity's project manager, John Callas, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif, said in a statement. "Now we've begun that climb."

Martian winter is coming, and it was previously suggested that Opportunity would be sitting still for several months without driving to preserve energy. However, the new area offers a much larger north-facing area with plenty of chances to grab a little sunshine.