Opportunity rover moves to new target on steep slope, sees swirling dust devil

View from the Opportunity rover looking downhill from the steep hillside on sol 4323 (March 22, 2016). Part of the floor of Endeavour crater can be seen beneath the underside of one of the solar panels. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
View from the Opportunity rover looking downhill from the steep hillside on sol 4323 (March 22, 2016). Part of the floor of Endeavour crater can be seen beneath the underside of one of the solar panels. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Almost, but not quite… the Opportunity rover is now driving to another area on the hillside where it is currently located, after attempting to reach a difficult rock target. The rover wasn’t quite able to get close enough to the target to conduct further studies, after driving on the steepest slope ever encountered by any rover so far, on Knudsen Ridge.

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‘Cauliflower’ silica formations on Mars: evidence of ancient life?

Image of “cauliflower” silica formations found by the Spirit rover in 2008 near Home Plate in Gusev crater. Do they hold clues to ancient life on Mars? Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Image of “cauliflower” silica formations found by the Spirit rover in 2008 near Home Plate in Gusev crater. Do they hold clues to ancient life on Mars? Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Was there ever life on Mars? That is one of the longest-running and most debated questions in planetary science, and while there have been tantalizing clues, solid evidence has been elusive. Now there is a new piece to add to the puzzle, which may be one of the most interesting yet. As first reported on Smithsonian.com, odd formations composed of silica seen by the Spirit rover, nicknamed “cauliflower” for their shapes, may have been produced by microbes, new research suggests. They are very similar to some silica formations on Earth which are found in hydrothermal environments and are known to have formed with the help of microscopic organisms.

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Data from Spirit rover provides evidence for acid fog on ancient Mars

False-color mosaic of Cumberland Ridge, with pie charts representing iron-bearing mineralogy. Image Credit: S. Cole, PhD thesis; background image: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Arizona State University; Moessbauer values from Morris et al. 2008 (doi: 10.1029/2008JE003201)
False-colour mosaic of Cumberland Ridge, with pie charts representing iron-bearing mineralogy. Image Credit: S. Cole, PhD thesis; background image: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Arizona State University; Moessbauer values from Morris et al. 2008 (doi: 10.1029/2008JE003201)

The various rover and lander missions on Mars have provided unprecedented glimpses into the planet’s past, including geological history and environmental conditions. In many ways, ancient Mars was similar to Earth, with abundant water and volcanic activity. Now, new research has revealed that there was also another related Earth-like phenomenon: acid fog.

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Spirit rover: more evidence for ancient hot springs on Mars

View from the Spirit rover looking toward Husband Hill on the right, with the lighter-toned Home Plate rock outcrop below that. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
View from the Spirit rover looking toward Husband Hill on the right, with the lighter-toned Home Plate rock outcrop below that. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Spirit rover may have finished its journey a long time ago, but there is still plenty of data to go through and analyze, and continued study of that data has provided more evidence for one of the rover’s most significant findings: ancient hot springs in this area inside Gusev crater. Hot springs, as on Earth, would also have provided a potentially habitable environment for any Martian microorganisms, as well as being ideal for preserving fossils of such organisms if they existed.

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