Opportunity rover rolling again after fifth Mars winter

May 9, 2012
NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity drove about 12 feet (3.67 meters) on May 8, 2012, after spending 19 weeks working in one place while solar power was too low for driving during the Martian winter.

(Phys.org) -- With its daily supply of solar energy increasing, NASA's durable Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has driven off the sunward-tilted outcrop, called Greeley Haven, where it worked during its fifth Martian winter.

Opportunity's first drive since Dec. 26, 2011, took the about 12 feet (3.67 meters) northwest and downhill on Tuesday, May 8. The rover operations team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., received confirmation of the completed drive late Tuesday, relayed from NASA's orbiter.

"We're off the Greeley Haven outcrop onto the sand just below it," said rover driver Ashley Stroupe of JPL. "It feels good to be on the move again."

While at Greeley Haven for the past 19 weeks, Opportunity used the spectrometers and microscopic imager on its to inspect more than a dozen targets within reach on the outcrop. Radio Doppler signals from the stationary rover during the winter months served an investigation of the interior of Mars by providing precise information about the planet's rotation.

Opportunity will look back with its to acquire multi-filter imaging of the surface targets it studied on Greeley Haven.

The rover team will also check that the power supply still looks sufficient with the rover at a reduced tilt. Opportunity kept a northward tilt of about 15 degrees in recent months at its winter haven. In Mars' , that tilt kept its solar panels favorably angled toward the winter sun low in the northern sky. The for southern Mars was at the end of March. The northward tilt after Tuesday's drive is about 8 degrees.

Opportunity has been exploring the Meridiani region of Mars since landing in January 2004. It arrived at the Cape York section of the rim of Endeavour Crater in August 2011, and has been studying rock and soil targets on Cape York since then.

"Our next goal is a few meters farther north on Cape York, at a bright-looking patch of what may be dust," said Opportunity science-team member Matt Golombek of JPL. "We haven't been able to see much dust in Meridiani. This could be a chance to learn more about it." Beyond the dust patch, the team intends to use Opportunity to study veins in bedrock around the northern edge of Cape York. A vein inspected before winter contained gypsum deposited long ago by mineral-laden water flowing through a crack in the rock.

Endeavour Crater offers Opportunity a setting for plenty of productive work. The crater is 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter -- more than 20 times wider than Victoria Crater, which Opportunity examined for two years. One type of deposit detected from orbit at some locations on Endeavour's rim contains ancient clay minerals, interpreted as evidence of ancient, wet conditions with less acidity than the ancient, wet environments recorded at sites Opportunity visited during its first seven years on Mars.

Unless wind removes some dust from Opportunity's solar array, allowing more sunlight to reach the solar cells, the rover will need to work during the next few weeks at locations with no southward slope. "We'll head south as soon as power levels are adequate to handle the slopes where we'll go," said Deputy Project Scientist Diana Blaney of JPL. "There are some deposits on Cape York where, based on their geologic setting, we think there's a good chance of finding ancient clays."

A later destination for Opportunity lies farther south, on a rim segment named Cape Tribulation, where ancient clays have been detected from orbit.

Opportunity and its rover twin, Spirit, completed their three-month prime missions on Mars in April 2004. Both rovers continued for years of bonus, extended missions. Both have made important discoveries about wet environments on ancient Mars that may have been favorable for supporting microbial life. Spirit stopped communicating in 2010.

NASA launched its next-generation Mars rover, Curiosity, on Nov. 26 for arrival at Mars' Gale Crater in August 2012.

Landing successfully is quite a challenge, and Curiosity's mission is pioneering a new landing method to enable use of a heavier rover. Curiosity is about twice as long and more than five times as heavy as any previous rover. Its size and mass accommodate a science payload designed to study whether the landing region has had environmental conditions favorable for supporting microbial life, including chemical ingredients for life.

Explore further: Mars rover inspects next rock at Endeavour

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5 / 5 (6) May 09, 2012
Not bad for a 90-day mission.
5 / 5 (6) May 09, 2012
too bad no one thought of putting a wiper on the solar panels
4.8 / 5 (4) May 09, 2012
They were designed for ninety day lifespans. If more equipment was used then more power would have been needed and more weight and program and program error. Nope, they have done just fine. If it was easy then everyone would do it.
5 / 5 (1) May 10, 2012
A well rounded report should probably also mention that this stay was used to radioposition Mars' wobble, in order to get to how large and active a core it has. It has been suggested by the responsible researcher that if the rover lasts another Mars year (two Earth years) and makes a repeat series of measurements, it may have enough accurate data to resolve that.
5 / 5 (2) May 10, 2012
too bad no one thought of putting a wiper on the solar panels

Wipres would enevtually fail, too. But since we're dealing with a dry environment (i.e. no 'sticky dirt') a few ultrasonic transducers could do the trick. Tilt the panel and shake off the dirt.
It would have the advantage of being a very robust, small, lightweight system with minimal power requirements.

But as noted by others: For a 90 day mission any extra expeniture on keeping the panels clean would be a waste of resources. But since we now know that rovers can keep active far longer than that on Mrs we shuld start thinking on 'maintenance capabilities' for future missions.

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