NASA Mars rover halfway to the promised crater

NASA Mars rover Opportunity is trundling toward rendezvous with Endeavor crater

nasa rover opportunity shot at halfway mark
NASA's Mars rover Opportunity has reached the halfway point of what seems like a forever journey between two large craters on the red planet.

NASA said since Opportunity left the area known as Victoria Crater two years ago this month, the rover has traveled about six miles of an almost 12 mile journey to the Endeavour Crater.  At about 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter, Endeavour is about 28 times wider than Victoria. 

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Endeavor is of interest to scientists because NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter satellite has shown the crater to have clay minerals, the space agency stated.  Clay minerals, which form exclusively under wet conditions, have been found extensively on Mars from orbit, but have not been examined on the surface.

The rover traveled 3.3 miles in 2009, farther than in any other year on Mars, NASA has noted.  Overall Opportunity has driven more than 11 miles and returned more than 133,000 images. The rover has made numerous discoveries, including the first mineralogical evidence that Mars had liquid water, according to the space agency.  Last Spring Opportunity finished driving around the "Concepción" crater. The Concepción crater is of interest to NASA scientists because it seems to be what they call "geologically very young" with visible rays of ejected material radiating from the center of the crater.

Earlier this year upgraded the software controlling Opportunity to let it make its own decisions about what items like rocks and interesting red planet formations to focus its cameras on.  The new system, known as Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science or AEGIS lets Opportunity's computer examine images that the rover takes with its wide-angle navigation camera after a drive, and recognize rocks that meet specified criteria, such as rounded shape or light color. It can then center its narrower-angle panoramic camera on the chosen target and take multiple images through color filters, NASA stated.

AEGIS lets Opportunity look at rocks at stopping points along a single day's drive or at the end of the day's drive. This lets it identify and examine targets of interest that might otherwise be missed, NASA said.

Since landing on the red planet in January 2004 Opportunity and its sister ship Spirit and have explored Mars for five years, far surpassing their original 90-day mission, NASA said.

Spirit of course hasn't been so lucky.  Sitting in the middle of a Mars Winter NASA's Mars Rover Spirit has disconnected itself with the outside world and is no longer communicating and the space agency says it's not sure when the rover will wake up. No communication has been received from the rover since March 22. As expected, it is likely that Spirit has experienced a low-power fault that will use the available solar array energy to recharge her batteries, NASA said.

In July,  NASA mission managers began using a paging technique called "sweep and beep" in an effort to communicate with Spirit.  "Instead of just listening, we send commands to the rover to respond back to us with a communications beep," said John Callas, project manager for Spirit and its twin, Opportunity, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "If the rover is awake and hears us, she will send us that beep."

Based on models of Mars' weather and its effect on available power, mission managers believe that if Spirit responds, it most likely will be in the next few months. However, there is a very distinct possibility Spirit may never respond, NASA said.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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