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Mars Opportunity Rover makes a juicy discovery

Ten years ago this evening, NASA's Opportunity Rover parachuted to the surface of Mars and settled on the red, iron-stained soil of

Ten years ago this evening, NASA's Opportunity Rover parachuted to the surface of Mars and settled on the red, iron-stained soil of Meridiani Planum . That iron was likely deposited eons ago in hot springs and steaming pools of superheated water. If Yellowstone National Park comes to mind, this now-dusty, chill and wind-swept place may once have been its cousin.

After traveling 24 miles (38.7 km) spread over all those years, today Opportunity sits perched on the rim of 14-mile-wide Endeavour Crater near an area called Matijevic Hill. Beginning in 2010, the rover used its  Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer  there to find brand new evidence of a ancient wet environment that was milder and older than the acidic and oxidizing conditions seen in other places examined by the rover.

Opportunity detected an iron-rich clay mineral known as smectite. Researchers believe the wet conditions that produced the smectite preceded the formation of the Endeavor Crater about 4 billion years ago. Anyone who's gotten their foot stuck in slippery, juicy clay knows that it's intimately associated with water.

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"There's more good stuff ahead," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., the mission's principal investigator. "We are examining a rock right in front of the rover that is unlike anything we've seen before. Mars keeps surprising us, just like in the very first week of the mission."

That rock is the "mystery rock" that rather suddenly appeared in front of the rover several weeks ago. I've included a more recent closeup of it for your enjoyment.

You can keep track of what the mission team is photographing by stopping by the  Opportunity raw images site . Pick the camera and the Mars day or Sol number (today Jan. 24 is Sol 3556 for Opportunity) and have a look. One Sol = one Martian day or 24 hours 37 minutes. Anytime you want to know what Sol or what the local time is at either Opportunity or Curiosity lander locations, be sure to check out James Tauber's delightful Mars Clock .

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