As incredible as it is to believe, NASA’s Opportunity rover is still going strong on Mars, nearly fourteen years after landing in January 2004. And now once again, it has just passed the shortest daylight time of the Martian year, the worst part of the Martian winter, with pretty clean solar panels to boot. Unlike the newer Curiosity rover which uses nuclear power, Opportunity, and its now-dead twin Spirit, uses solar panels for energy. At the same time, the rover continues to study an ancient gully thought to have been carved by water in the distant past.
NASA’s Opportunity rover has been busy examining the entranceway to Perseverance Valley, a long, shallow gully-like channel on the rim on Endeavour Crater which was likely created by flowing water millions or billions of years ago. This feature has been a major target of interest for mission scientists since, if confirmed, this would be the first such gully seen up close by any rover. A new panoramic image just released shows the view on the crater rim just above the valley itself, which includes a possible “spillway” where water once flowed over the rim and into the crater down below.
For about the past 30 months, the Opportunity rover has been exploring Cape Tribulation on Mars, a towering ridge on the rim of Endeavour crater. Now, Opportunity has finally left that location, to continue its journey southward down the western side of the crater rim. The views have been scenic from the top of Cape Tribulation, but now it is time to move on, and head to the next major target, an ancient gully not too far to the south-east, also on the crater rim. This gully is thought to have been carved by running water millions or billions of years ago, so scientists are very interested in examining it up close, and the rover is now almost there.
Thirteen years. That is how long NASA’s Opportunity rover has now been exploring Meridiani Planum on Mars; not bad for a robot which was designed with a hoped-for nominal 90-day mission. Today marks the 13th anniversary of the landing of Opportunity, on Jan. 24, 2004 PST (Jan. 25, 2004 UTC). The mission since then has been nothing short of incredible, as Opportunity soon found evidence that Meridiani Planum used to be a much wetter place than it is now. It was a place where microbial life could have existed; whether it actually did or not is still unknown but Opportunity continues to provide more clues as it continues exploring vast sandy plains and mountainous crater rims.
Water on Mars is one of the most talked about and controversial subjects in planetary science. It is now well-known that Mars used to be a much wetter place than it is now, although just how much water there was, and how long it lasted, is still a matter of considerable debate. Direct evidence from rovers, landers, and orbiters, including observations of ancient riverbeds, gullies, and lakes, has shown how at one time Mars was much more Earth-like than it is today. Rovers like Curiosity, Opportunity, and Spirit have actually driven over long-dried-up lakebeds, salty playa lakes, and regions of ancient geothermal activity such as hot steam vents. Now, the Opportunity rover is going to visit another feature not yet explored by any other rover or lander: a gully thought to have been carved by water millions or billions of years ago.