Mars Rover Uncovers Evidence Of Ancient Wet Environments On The Red Planet
June 25, 2014

Opportunity Rover Working At Site Containing Evidence Of Water-Related Minerals

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

NASA has opted to send the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity to a crater-rim ridgeline after orbital observations uncovered evidence of a water-related mineral at the site, officials from the US space agency announced on Tuesday.

During a survey of the planet’s surface, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter detected a spectrum with the signature of aluminum bound to oxygen and hydrogen. That discovery led to the deployment of the decade-old Opportunity at the location dubbed Pillager’s Point, which is located on the western edge of Endeavor Crater.

The rover is searching for a substance known as montmorillonite, a member of a class of clay minerals called smectites. Montmorillonite forms when basalt undergoes a change due to wet and somewhat acidic conditions, and this particular exposure of the substance extends roughly 800 feet along the western rim of the crater, according to information provided by the Orbiter’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM).

Opportunity Principal Investigator Steve Squyres, who is also a professor of physical sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, said that discovering this aluminum-bearing site was “like a mineral beacon visible from orbit saying, ‘Come check this out.’”

The new site is located approximately two miles north of the area where Opportunity used the CRISM instrument to make some of the mission’s most important discoveries. Rocks on the northern end of Endeavor Crater’s western rim revealed evidence of not just montmorillonite, but also of an iron-bearing smectite called nontronite.

“That site yielded evidence for an ancient environment with water that would have been well-suited for use by microbes, if Mars had any billions of years ago,” officials from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California explained in a statement.

“Evidence that Opportunity may add about the geological context for different smectites could boost understanding about diversity and changes in ancient wet environments on Mars,” they added. JPL is the agency in charge of managing the Mars Exploration Rover Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Opportunity reached Pillinger Point, a high spot at the northern end of the montmorillonite-bearing exposure, back in May. The rover’s science team named the region in honor of the late Colin Pillinger, the UK scientist behind the Beagle 2 project which attempted to send a research lander to Mars in late 2003. Pillinger died last month at the age of 70.

“Colin and his team were trying to get to Mars at the same time that we were, and in some ways they faced even greater challenges than we did,” Squyres said. “Our team has always had enormous respect for the energy and enthusiasm with which Colin Pillinger undertook the Beagle 2 mission. He will be missed.”

While it was chosen primarily as a research-related destination, NASA officials noted that Pillinger Point also provides a picturesque view from the top of Endeavor Crater’s western rim. In fact, Opportunity’s panoramic camera (Pancam) was used to snap an image of the view.

Based on early measurements collected at the site using the element-identifying alpha particle X-ray spectrometer located at the end of the rover’s arm, the researchers report the rock possesses veins that contain calcium sulfate. They believe the mineral was deposited there as water moved through fractures on the rim.

Previously, Opportunity located veins of calcium sulfate farther north along the rim, and NASA reports it has more energy than normal as it continues to investigate this site and prepares to continue its work further south along the rim. That’s because the rover's solar panels are cleaner than they have been in years, according to the space agency.

“The solar panels have not been this clean since the first year of the mission,” explained Opportunity Project Manager John Callas. “It's amazing, when you consider that accumulation of dust on the solar panels was originally expected to cause the end of the mission in less than a year. Now it's as if we'd been a ship out at sea for 10 years and just picked up new provisions at a port of call.”

“It's easy to forget that Opportunity is in the middle of a Martian winter right now,” added JPL's Jennifer Herman, power-subsystem engineer. “Because of the clean solar arrays, clear skies and favorable tilt, there is more energy for operations now than there was any time during the previous three Martian summers. Opportunity is now able to pull scientific all-nighters for three nights in a row -- something she hasn't had the energy to do in years.”

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