I can’t tell you how many things I’ve owned that didn’t last nine years without malfunctioning in at least one way. Yet the Opportunity rover is still going as strong as it ever was, proving to be one of the most cost-effective tools ever built, lasting 36 times longer than the original three-month mission.
NASA reported Opportunity is finished with its latest duty, a complete circuit around the Matijevic Hill that sits on the Western rim of the spacious Endeavor crater, itself 14 miles in diameter. Opportunity took a counterclockwise route around Matijevic Hill, named for Jacob Matijevic, who for years was the engineering team leader behind the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Opportunity drove about 1,169 feet around the hill, bringing its total amount of martian drive time a mere 22 miles. Sounds like daily traffic down I-10.
“If you are a geologist studying a site like this, one of the first things you do is walk the outcrop, and that’s what we’ve done with Opportunity,” explains Steve Squyres, the mission’s principal investigator out of Cornell University. This specific site was chosen years earlier due to orbiting spacecraft detecting traces of clay minerals nearby. Clay forms under the wet, non-acidic conditions that are favorable for producing life, though it will probably be a while before anything of that nature is determined.
The Endeavor Crater was formed over three billion years ago, as a result of some catastrophic impact from an unknown celestial body. Rocks from deep within the Earth were pushed outward to form the surrounding rim, and may have been further altered by environmental changes. Finding the roundabout age of the outcrops will help form a basis of environmental history for the area.
The two main areas of interest are “Whitewater Lake” and “Kirkwood,” which both sound like marginally exciting sci-fi mystery dramas. Whitewater Lake is an area of light-toned material believed to possibly contain clay. Kirkwood is notable for containing the Squyres-coined “newberries,” small spheres with composition, distribution, and structure that differ from other iron-rich spherules, usually called blueberries. While rock-solid information about either of these two is far off, but NASA scientists can now begin to systemize how they’ll go about processing all the information.