A fitting memorial

Greeley Haven

Opportunity has settled into its winter haven.

NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity will spend the next few months during the coldest part of Martian winter at Greeley Haven, an outcrop of rock on Mars recently named informally to honor Ronald Greeley, Arizona State University Regents’ professor of planetary geology, who died October 27, 2011.

I met and interviewed Greeley a number of times in writing articles for magazines like Sky & Telescope and Astronomy. For years he was a central figure in the field of planetary geology, and his life effort is one of the prime reasons the United States has dominated this field for most of the past half century, with a fleet of planetary missions presently at Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Pluto, with many more to come.

The article notes that the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has the job of naming objects in space, and could take years to honor Greeley. I say that if these scientists, the true explorers of Mars, want to name something for him, then they should go ahead, and future generations should honor that choice, regardless of what the IAU says.

On the way to its winter haven, Opportunity found more evidence of water on Mars

On the way to its winter haven, Opportunity found more evidence of liquid water that once flowed on Mars, specifically a geological vein that they think might be gypsum.

The vein examined most closely by Opportunity is about the width of a human thumb (0.4 to 0.8 inch, or 1 to 2 centimeters), 16 to 20 inches (40 to 50 centimeters) long, and protrudes slightly higher than the bedrock on either side of it. Observations by the durable rover reveal this vein and others like it within an apron surrounding a segment of the rim of Endeavour Crater. None like it were seen in the 20 miles (33 kilometers) of crater-pocked plains that Opportunity explored for 90 months before it reached Endeavour, nor in the higher ground of the rim.

According to what project scientist Steve Squyres said at a press conference today at the AGU meeting, “This is the single most significant piece of evidence that liquid water once flowed on Mars.”

The rover Opportunity as seen from Mars orbit

Opportunity on Endeavour Crater rim

The image to the right was taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, with the white arrow showing the Mars rover Opportunity perched on the rim of Endeavour Crater.

The rover’s scientists hope that the rocks found on the crater rim, dredged up from deep below when the crater impact occurred, will be the oldest rocks so far touched on the Martian surface, and thus give them a peek at ancient Martian geology.

New images from Opportunity

Opportunity begins exploring the rim of Endeavour Crater, taking a bunch of new images . I especially like this one, of which I’ve posted a cropped scaled-down version below. The image looks across the 13-mile-wide Endeavour Crater to its far rim on the horizon. Note the haze. Mars very clearly has an atmosphere, even though it is far thinner than Earth’s. In the foreground are scattered rocks, ejecta produced from the impact that formed a smaller nearby crater now named Opportunity Crater.

Endeavour Crater as seen by Opportunity

Endeavour Crater at last!

The science team for the rover Opportunity have released their first image taken from the rim of Endeavour Crater.

Since this picture looks south from Spirit Point less than a football field’s distance from the rim, it appears to look into the crater, the mountains on the right being the crater’s rim. What looks like a debris field running across the center of the image looks to me to be a combination of exposed patches of bedrock and boulders on the plateau above the rim. For the scientists, those boulders will be the prime research targets, as they are possibly ejecta produced at crater impact and could therefore be material thrown out from deep within the Martian crust.

a view of Endeavour Crater

Opportunity’s journey on Mars tops 20 miles

On July 17 the Mars rover Opportunity passed the twenty mile mark on its now seven year journey on Mars. The image below was taken on that day. In the distance, now only about 4,000 feet away, can be seen the rim of Endeavour Crater, fourteen miles wide. Opportunity has been traveling toward that crater now since 2008.

With the rover able to travel about 300 to 500 feet each sol, it should be reaching the crater’s rim sometime in the next few weeks.

Opportunity looks at Endeavour Crater from .8 miles away

Opportunity at Santa Maria Crater, as seen from space

The image below was taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on New Year’s Eve. It shows the rover Opportunity on the rim of stadium-sized Santa Maria Crater, where scientists plan to spend the next two months exploring the crater.

Opportunity has truly been an astonishing success for NASA’s planetary science program. The rover has operated on the Martian surface since 2004, almost seven years beyond its original mission length. It is presently about halfway on its long journey to the much larger Endeavour Crater (14 miles in diameter), still several miles away.

Opportunity at Santa Maria

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