The Science of Sustainability

Opportunity's Endeavour

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Opportunity's Three Year Trek-Victoria to Endeavour Crater

Endeavour Crater; Credit: NASA, Google Earth

Who’d’ve thought back in 2004, when NASA’s twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity set wheels on Martia-firma, that one would still be roving nearly eight years later?

Who would have imagined three years ago, when the already veteran Opportunity set forth from its two-year prospecting site at Victoria Crater on a long march to the much larger Endeavour Crater, that the Fates would actually NOT stop this Energizer-Bunny dead in its tracks?

Okay, enough jaw-dropping incredulity. Some things CAN be built to last….

About three weeks ago, Opportunity reached the rim of the 14-mile wide Endeavour Crater, after clocking nearly 21 miles since its landing seven and a half years ago. By Earth-rover standards, that’s about one round trip to work and home again for me, and about 25 minutes of my time—but Opportunity’s commute is a far greater feat, alone on another world, long minutes away even by radio waves, no service garages for maintenance, no fuel stations other than the daily dose of energy doled out by the Sun.

One of the first things Opportunity did upon reaching the rim of the giant crater, after taking some pictures to give us the lay of the land, was to examine some rocks. After all, more than anything else, the Mars Exploration Rovers are geologists, or rock hounds, sent to tell us about the Martian environment, today and in the past, through the chemical makeup and stratigraphy of the rocks and soil.

Data from orbital spacecraft have shown that the materials at the rim of Endeavour may date back to early in Martian history, making for fertile ground in Opportunity’s quest to uncover clues to the planet’s past. Evidence for the presence of clay minerals, possibly formed under wet conditions favorable to life, has been brought to light—which really adds some excitement to the rover’s rock hounding exploits to come.

On Opportunity’s approach to the crater rim, it spotted in the distance unusual outcroppings, and a “shelf” of what looks like sedimentary rock with inclusions of material that may have been deposited by water action.

Water water water, the watch-words of Martian exploration for many years. Where there is, or was, water, perhaps there is, or was, some form of life. And while the Mars Exploration Rovers weren’t designed to look for signs of life directly, their larger, better equipped descendant, Curiosity, to be launched in November, is. Curiosity, do tell….

As a child I liked to imagine what it would be like to land on and walk about the surface of Mars. Mind you, back then we had no images from Mars’ surface—not until 1976 when Viking landed. We had low-res images taken from space, and plenty of science fiction sound stage backdrops and sets from various TV shows and films (and a Mars stand-in, Death Valley, in Robinson Crusoe on Mars).

Opportunity still appears to be in good shape, so the odyssey of its exploration seems to have a good chance of delivering yet another episode of the Life (?) and Times of Mars….

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Category: Astronomy

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Ben Burress

About the Author ()

Benjamin Burress has been a staff astronomer at Chabot Space & Science Center since July 1999. He graduated from Sonoma State University in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in physics (and minor in astronomy), after which he signed on for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, where he taught physics and mathematics in the African nation of Cameroon. From 1989-96 he served on the crew of NASA’s Kuiper Airborne Observatory at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA. From 1996-99, he was Head Observer at the Naval Prototype Optical Interferometer program at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.