NASA Mars rover spots its ultimate destination

NASA Mars Rover Opportunity facing challenges, marching closer to Endeavour

Mars rover spots Endeavour crater
It has been years in the making but NASA said its Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has captured a new view of the rim of the planet's Endeavour crater, perhaps the rover's ultimate destination. 

The Mars rover set out for Endeavour in September 2008 after spending two years exploring the Victoria crater.  NASA says Endeavour if 13 miles across, some 25 times wider than Victoria crater and could offer scientists more insight into the red planet's make-up. 

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Opportunity is being challenged on her current trip by the need to balance her recharge efforts against the need to stay warm, NASA stated.  That is, if she doesn't expend a minimum amount of energy into the electronics during a given time period, she risks thermostatic heaters coming on that will consume even greater amounts of energy. At this point, this balancing act is primarily an impact on driving as Opportunity can at anytime park herself on a sunny northerly slope to satisfy survival requirements, NASA stated. 

NASA recently upgraded the software controlling its 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 is called Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science, or AEGIS and it 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. 

NASA said the first images taken by the Mars rover choosing its own target show a rock about the size of a football, tan in color and layered in texture. It appears to be one of the rocks tossed outward onto the surface when an impact dug a nearby crater. 

The rover traveled 3.3 miles in 2009, farther than in any other year on Mars, NASA stated.  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.

Opportunity most recently finished the driving around the "Concepción" crater. The Concepción crater is of interest to NASA scientist because it seems to be what they call "geologically very young" with visible rays of ejecta radiating from the center of the crater. 

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

Opportunity's sister rover, Spirit is mired in a sandtrap on the opposite side of the red planet and is currently hibernating for the winter. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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