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Mars Rover Opportunity Assigned its First New Destination in Almost Two Years

May 19, 2013 07:24 PM EDT
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As NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity neared the ninth anniversary of its landing on Mars, the rover was working in the "Matijevic Hill" area seen in this view from Opportunity's panoramic camera (Pancam).
(Photo : NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ)

Mars rover Opportunity is finally headed to a new location after 20 months spent on “Cape York” where it completed its time there with the exciting discovery of a rock “intensely” affected by water, according to NASA.

The rock, which scientists are calling “Esperance,” is proof of an ancient environment that may have hosted life, explained Scott McLennan, a long-time planner for Opportunity’s science team.

“What’s so special about Esperance is that there was enough water not only for reactions that produced clay minerals, but also enough to flush out ions set loose by those reactions, so that Opportunity can clearly see the alteration,” he said.

The rock’s composition of high amounts of aluminum and silica and lower amounts of calcium and iron are unlike any other the scientists have seen in the nine years Opportunity has been at work on the Martian surface.

In fact, as Steven Squyres, the mission’s principal investigator said, “Esperance was so important, we committed several weeks to getting this one measurement of it, even though we knew the clock was ticking.”

The reason the clock was ticking is due to the fact that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory had set this week as a deadline for starting the drive toward “Solander Point,” a 1.4 mile trek, in order to make sure the rover is prepared for the upcoming Martian winter.

According to Scott Lever, mission manager, the goal is to have Opportunity on an area of 15 degrees northerly tilt in hopes of allowing scientists movement for winter science observations – a tilt Solander Point provides.

Moreover, since beginning the journey to its new worksite, Opportunity has given scientists yet another reason to celebrate: the rover broke the 40-year record for the longest distance driven by a U.S. vehicle in another world when its odometer hit 35.76 kilometers on Thursday.

The previous record was held by the Lunar Rover Vehicle used by Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt in 1972.

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