Washington, 06 Oct 2006
NASAâ€™s robotic rover Opportunity is gathering views of Martian terrain that are likely to provide the greatest insights yet into the environmental history of the red planet, almost three years after the craft began its scouting mission.
Officials with NASAâ€™s Mars Exploration Program briefed reporters October 6 on the latest images sent back by Opportunity from the edge of a 2.4-kilometer wide crater named Victoria. The crater is five times larger than any other visited by the rover since it landed on Mars in early 2004.
â€œThe team has worked heroically for nearly 21 months driving the rover here,â€ said Jim Bell of Cornell University, the lead scientist for the roversâ€™ panoramic cameras, â€œand now weâ€™re all rewarded with views of a spectacular landscape of nearly 50-foot thick [15.2 meters] exposures of layered rock.â€
The geological layers of Victoriaâ€™s inner wall record a longer span of the planetâ€™s environmental history than previously recorded by the craftâ€™s cameras.
â€œThere are distinct variations in the sedimentary layering as you look farther down in the stack,â€ said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, the principal investigator for the rovers. â€œThat tells us environmental conditions were not constant.â€
Early in its mission, Opportunity found geologic evidence that Mars had been a wet planet at some point in its history. The new, more detailed evidence will provide scientists with more data to ascertain whether the wet environmental conditions were persistent, fleeting or cyclical.
At this point in the mission, the ground team plans to guide Opportunity from ridge to ridge at the craterâ€™s edge, in search of the best way to descend, just as any hiker might do upon discovering an unknown canyon.
Opportunityâ€™s movements on the ground also are informed by a view from the air. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is sending back detailed photos that integrate the air and the ground missions, allowing sustained exploration of the planet surface.
â€œThe combination of the ground-level and aerial view is much more powerful than either alone,â€ said Squyres who also oversees the second rover, Spirit. â€œIf you were a geologist driving up to the edge of a crater in your jeep, the first thing you would do would be to pick up the aerial photo you brought with you and use it to understand what youâ€™re seeing from ground level. Thatâ€™s exactly what weâ€™re doing here.â€
The images and the data gathered by Opportunity also will provide more information for scientists to interpret features elsewhere on the surface recorded from the air, the scientific team predicts.
Spirit, halfway around Mars and farther south from the planet's equator, has been staying at one northward-tilted position through the southern Mars winter to collect the maximum energy supply from its solar panels. That rover is conducting studies that benefit from its fixed location, such as monitoring the effects of wind on dust. It will begin driving again when the Martian spring increases the amount of solar power available.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California manages the rovers and orbiter for NASAâ€™s Science Mission Directorate.