NASA spacecraft provides travel tips for Mars rover

December 16, 2010
NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity used its navigation camera to record this view of Santa Maria crater at the end of a drive during the 2,450th Martian day, or sol, of the rover's work on Mars (Dec. 15, 2010). The drive brought Opportunity to the western edge of this crater, and this view is eastward across the crater. Santa Maria crater is about 90 meters (295 feet) in diameter. The rover team plans to spend a few weeks investigating this crater before resuming Opportunity's long-term trek toward Endurance Crater. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/

( -- NASA's Mars Opportunity rover is getting important tips from an orbiting spacecraft as it explores areas that might hold clues about past Martian environments.

Researchers are using a mineral-mapping instrument aboard NASA's Reconnaissance Orbiter to help the rover investigate a large ancient crater called Endeavour. The orbiter's Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) is providing maps of minerals at Endeavour's rim that are helping the team choose which area to explore first and where to go from there. As Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter orbits more than 241 kilometers high (150 miles), the CRISM instrument provides mapping information for mineral exposures on the surface as small as a tennis court.

"This is the first time mineral detections from orbit are being used in tactical decisions about where to drive on Mars," said Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis. Arvidson is the deputy principal investigator for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers and a co-investigator for CRISM.

Opportunity's science team chose to begin driving the rover toward the 22.5-kilometer-wide (14-mile-wide) crater in 2008, after four years studying other sites in what initially was planned as a three-month mission. The rover has traveled approximately nine miles since setting out for Endeavour crater. It will take several months to reach it.

The team plans for Opportunity's exploration of Endeavour to begin at a rim fragment called Cape York. That feature is too low to be visible by the rover, but appears from orbit to be nearly surrounded by water-bearing minerals. The planned route then turns southward toward a higher rim fragment called Cape Tribulation, where CRISM has detected a class of clay minerals not investigated yet by a ground mission. orbiting Mars found these minerals to be widespread on the planet. The presence of clay minerals at Endeavour suggests an earlier and milder wet environment than the very acidic, wet one indicated by previous evidence found by Opportunity.

"We used to have a disconnect between the scale of identifying minerals from orbit and what missions on the surface could examine," said CRISM team member Janice Bishop of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and the SETI Institute of Mountain View, Calif. "Now, rovers are driving farther and orbital footprints are getting smaller."

Ten years ago, an imaging spectrometer on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor orbiter found an Oklahoma-sized area with a type of the mineral hematite exposed. This discovery motivated selection of the area as Opportunity's 2004 landing site. Each pixel footprint for that spectrometer was 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) across. CRISM resolves areas about 18 meters (60 feet) across. Last fall, the instrument began using a pixel-overlap technique that provided even better resolution.

Opportunity has just reached a 90-meter-diameter crater (300-foot) called Santa Maria, where CRISM detected a patch of ground with indications of water bound into the mineral. Opportunity will conduct a science campaign at the crater for the next several weeks to compare the ground results to the orbital indications.

"Opportunity has driven farther in the past Martian year than in any previous one," said John Callas, Mars Exploration Rover project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

A Martian year lasts approximately 23 months. During the past Martian year, Opportunity covered more than 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) of the mission's 26 total kilometers (16 miles) traveled since it landed in January 2004. The rover has returned more than 141,000 images.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter reached the Red Planet in 2006 to begin a two-year primary science mission. Its data show Mars had diverse wet environments at many locations for differing durations during the planet's history, and climate-change cycles persist into the present era. The mission has returned more planetary data than all other Mars missions combined.

Explore further: Opportunity Nears Martian Victoria Bowl Goal

Related Stories

Mars rover Opportunity sets out on its greatest journey yet

September 25, 2008

( -- The Mars rover Opportunity, which has just crawled out of the 800-meter-wide (875 yards) Victoria Crater is setting out on the longest journey of its life. It will take the rover roughly two years of driving ...

Mars Rover Seeing Destination in More Detail

June 29, 2010

( -- Mars rover team members have begun informally naming features around the rim of Endeavour Crater, as they develop plans to investigate that destination when NASA's Opportunity rover arrives there after many ...

Opportunity rover halfway point reached

September 9, 2010

( -- When NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity left Victoria Crater two years ago this month, the rover science team chose Endeavour Crater as the rover's next long-term destination. With a drive of 111 meters ...

Recommended for you

Hubble captures a galactic waltz

November 26, 2015

This curious galaxy—only known by the seemingly random jumble of letters and numbers 2MASX J16270254+4328340—has been captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope dancing the crazed dance of a galactic merger. The ...

Earth might have hairy dark matter

November 23, 2015

The solar system might be a lot hairier than we thought. A new study publishing this week in the Astrophysical Journal by Gary Prézeau of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, proposes the existence of ...

Scientists detect stellar streams around Magellanic Clouds

November 23, 2015

(—Astronomers from the University of Cambridge, U.K., have detected a number of narrow streams and diffuse debris clouds around two nearby irregular dwarf galaxies called the Magellanic Clouds. The research also ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.