NASA’s Opportunity rover peers outwards across to the vast expense of Endeavour Crater from current location descending along steep walled Marathon Valley in early November 2015. Marathon Valley holds significant deposits of water altered clay minerals holding clues to the planets watery past. Shadow of Pancam Mast assembly and robots deck visible at right. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 4181 (Oct. 29, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Just shy of an unfathomable 4200 Sols traversing ravishing alien terrain on the Red Planet, the longest living ‘Martian’ – NASA’s robot ‘Opportunity’ – is driving between “lily pads” down steep walled Marathon Valley in search of life giving sun that enables spectacular science yielding clues to Mars watery past.
“Opportunity is driving east and southeast down Marathon Valley, bisecting the region in which we detect smectites [clay minerals] using CRISM [spectrometer] data,” Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis, told Universe Today.
The ancient, weathered slopes around Marathon Valley became a top priority science destination after they were found to hold a motherlode of ‘smectite’ clay minerals, based on data obtained from specially targeted and extensive Mars orbital measurements gathered by the CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars) spectrometer on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – accomplished earlier at the direction of Arvidson.
The water altered smectites form under wetter, milder conditions than most rocks at the Opportunity site and under environmental conditions more conducive to support Martian microbial life forms, if they ever existed past or present. Opportunity is investigating relationships among clay-bearing and neighboring deposits for clues about the history of flowing liquid water and environmental changes.
“Opportunity is about halfway down the [smectite] detection zone and biased toward north facing “lily pads” on the southern side of the valley for end of drive locations – for power reasons,” Arvidson explained.
Along the ‘lily pad’ route, the six wheeled rover is collecting a wealth of science data where no rover has gone before – in the form of Pancam and navcam camera imaging and spectroscopy – to place the regions outcrops of rocks in geologic context.
Opportunity is also snapping mosaics with the microscopic imager (MI) and gathering analysis of elemental abundances of rocks and soils with the Alpha Particle X-ray spectrometer (APXS).
However, the rovers engineering handlers back on Earth have to exercise added caution regarding exactly where they send Opportunity on science forays since she is descending into a step walled narrow valley that can occasionally hamper daily communications with NASA’s orbiters flying overhead which relay data back and forth.
Another issue that the team occasionally has to deal with is bouts of “amnesia” wherein Opportunity undergoes “unplanned computer resets when using the type of onboard memory that retains information when power is off: flash memory.”
To avoid “amnesia” engineers successfully implemented a strategy whereby they routinely avoided use of the rovers flash memory by working in RAM-only mode (no Flash for storage). This requires all data collected to be transmitted back to Earth on a daily basis, otherwise it would be lost.
As of today, Sol 4192, Nov. 9, 2015 Opportunity has taken over 206,560 images and traversed over 26.48 miles (42.62 kilometers).