The operators of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity intend to drive the rover into a valley where it will examine clay materials through its seventh Martian winter on the Red Planet.
On 27 June, Opportunity resumed its study of Mars after around three weeks of reduced activity around solar conjunction. This is when the Sun’s position between Earth and Mars disrupts communication between us and the rover and, as a result Opportunity is unable to transmit any data that it collects on the same day.
At present, the long-lived rover is working hard examining rocks, using the alpha particle X-ray spectrometer on the end of its robotic arm, not too far from the western end of Marathon Valley – a notch in the raised rim of Endeavour Crater, which is around 22 kilometres (14 miles) in diameter. Landing on Mars in 2004, Opportunity has explored the rim of Endeavour Crater since 2011.
Now engineers and scientists will be sending the solar-powered Opportunity to Marathon Valley for several months to take advantage of a sun-facing slope thought to be brimming with potential science targets.
Marathon Valley, which stretches three football fields in length, has been previously observed by the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The orbiting spacecraft detected clay minerals believed to be holding evidence for wet environmental conditions during the Red Planet’s past. Opportunity will investigate the clay-bearing deposits further.
Currently, the rover is operating in a mode that avoids any type of use of its flash memory, which is capable of retaining data when Opportunity is powered-down for the night. “Opportunity can continue to accomplish science goals in this mode,” explains the rover’s Project Manager John Callas. “Each day we transmit data that we [can] collect that day.”
“Flash memory is a convenience but not a necessity for Opportunity,” Callas says. “It’s like a refrigerator that way. Without it, you couldn’t save any leftovers. Any food you prepare that day you would have to either eat or throw out. Without using flash memory, Opportunty needs to send home the high-priority data the same day it collects it, and lose any lower-priority data that can’t fit into the transmission.”