NASA's Mars rover Opportunity is now investigating the site where Burns Formation rocks
border older rocks uplifted by the impact that formed Endeavour Crater. From observations by
Mars orbiters and from Opportunity's work on Cape York, researchers suspect these older rocks
may contain minerals that formed under wet conditions that were not as acidic.
Opportunity has survived five Martian winters since it landed on Mars in January 2004. A
northern slope would tilt the rover's solar panels toward the winter sun, providing an important
boost in available power.
Three months ago, the mission began a trek of about 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) from an area
where Opportunity worked for nearly two years, on "Cape York," to reach Solander Point for the
"We made it," said Opportunity's project scientist, Matt Golombek of NASA's Jet Propulsion
Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "The drives went well, and Opportunity is right next to Solander
Point. We know we could be on that north-facing slope with a one-day drive, but we don't need
to go there yet. We have time to investigate the contact between the two geological units around
the base of Solander Point. Geologists love contacts."
Both Cape York and Solander Point are raised segments of the western rim of Endeavour Crater,
which is about 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter. Between these two raised segments, the
ground surface is part of a geological unit called the Burns Formation, which also includes
virtually all the rocks Opportunity studied from its landing site in Eagle Crater until its arrival at
Cape York two years ago. The Burns Formation includes sulfate-bearing minerals that are
evidence of an ancient environment containing sulfuric acid.
The rover is also observing some loose rocks that may have rolled off Solander Point, providing
a preview of what Opportunity may find after it climbs onto that rim segment.
Based on an analysis of the amount of dust accumulated on the rover's solar panels, the team
plans to get Opportunity onto the north-facing slope before mid-December. Daily sunshine for
the rover will reach a winter minimum in February 2014. The team expects to keep the rover
mobile through the winter. Solander Point offers rock outcrops for the rover to continue studying
through the winter months.
The twin rovers of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Project, Opportunity and Spirit, both
completed three-month prime missions in April 2004 and began years of bonus, extended
missions. Both found evidence of wet environments on ancient Mars. Spirit ceased operations
during its fourth Martian winter, in 2010. Opportunity shows symptoms of aging, such as loss of
motion in some joints, but continues to accomplish groundbreaking exploration and science.
The image at top of page shows the northwest rim of Endeavour Crater, which was the Opportunity rover's first driving goal on Mars. The subimage shows the whitish sulfate sedimentary rocks peeking beneath the dark sand that Opportunity has been driving on, layered material deposited around the crater rim, and the reddish material of the crater rim. CRISM spectral information indicates a number of different hydrated sulfates in the whitish material beneath the sand and phyllosilicates, or water bearing clay minerals, in the reddish rim. The phyllosilicates are believed to have formed prior to the sulfates, during a wet period that was near neutral acidity (and not like the very acid conditions that formed the sulfates).
The Daily Galaxy via NASA/JPL