Opportunity rover discovers conditions favorable to ancient Martian biology

first_imgNASA’s Opportunity rover has been on the red planet since 2004, traversing the rocky terrain and searching out interesting geology and Martian features. It was only designed for a 90 day mission, but it’s now coming up on the tenth anniversary of its launch. At a press conference today NASA announced what Opportunity has recently discovered, and what’s next.Opportunity has been wandering around near the rim of Endeavor Crater in an area called Cape York. The rover has been in search of just the right ancient rocks to solve some key mysteries. After months of painstaking analysis, the team managed to get a clean sample of one rock called Esperence 6. Opportunity’s principal investigator, Steve Squyres explained that Esperence 6 shows some of the best evidence for life-sustaining water in Mars’ past. Opportunity analyzed the mineral content of the rock, and found its profile to be almost identical to a clay mineral found on Earth called montmorillonite. The formation of this substance is believed to be tied to long-term exposure to neutral pH water. This is important because past evidence for water on Mars has pointed to low pH, highly acidic water. The environment around Cape York would have, in the words of Squyres, been compatible with life as we know it. That’s still stopping short of saying there is evidence for life.Opportunity is now making its way across a plane called Botany Bay enroute to a nearby rise in the Martian landscape dubbed Solander Point 1,300 meters away. When it arrives, the rover will position itself on the north-facing slope for the long winter to keep its solar panels in a good position. The exposed strata on Solander Point will also be of interest to the team once winter has ended. The team hopes to find more evidence of neutral pH water among the layers of rock.The now deceased Spirit rover was Opportunity’s sister robot, but it began having issues with its motors after only two years. Opportunity is still going strong, having only developed a slight case of flash memory amnesia where some of its storage has become slow from overuse. It has traveled 36.6km so far, which is 70 times the expected motor life. The team hopes the rover still has some life in it, but it could break down at any time. Unlike the newer Curiosity rover, Opportunity has virtually no redundant systems.Opportunity is expected to reach Solander Point shortly before August 1. Hopefully it soaks up some rays and comes back online as expected.last_img read more