031019_con_mars

NASA’s Opportunity rover drove 28 miles across Mars in 15 years, after landing at Eagle Crater in 2004. It traveled to large craters and visited smaller craters along the way, sending back images and geologic data.

Editor’s note: Astronomy Update is published on the third Saturday of the month, is provided by the Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society, and is compiled by Lauren Likkel of the UW-Eau Claire department of physics and astronomy.

Just recently, the team at NASA said their final goodbyes to one of the greatest advances in space exploration.

Exceeding her 90-day life expectancy by about fifteen years, and making it the longest working robot on Mars, the Opportunity Rover officially ended its exploration on Feb. 13.

After a summer dust storm blanketed the Martian terrain, causing the blockage of her solar panels, Opportunity went silent on June 10.

Oppy, as the team at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory called her, led them to discover many more wonders of the Red Planet than we could have possibly known, including evidence for a potential warmer and wetter past, with conditions that could have been the beginning of life on Mars at the same time life was first emerging on Earth.

When it first landed, Opportunity discovered and identified sedimentary rocks; rocks that had only been found on Earth at this point, which led to the discovery of small spheres of hematite.

These “blueberries” as they were nicknamed, could only have been formed from rising acidic groundwater.

Water is required for life, so this additional piece of evidence benefits the idea that there had once been water on the surface of Mars.

From there, Opportunity made her way to Endeavour Crater and came across another compelling discovery of the Red Planet’s watery past.

What Opportunity had found was a gypsum vein in the rocks, which was most likely formed when water flowed through the underground fractures in the rocks, leaving traces of calcium behind.

Also found around the crater were clay minerals that had formed in neutral-pH water.

Oppy’s exploration of this crater supports the indication of Endeavour Crater once having water similar to that of drinkable water on Earth.

Oppy also studied over 100 small impact craters as it drove across Mars, revealing how craters form and erode over time.

The success of the Opportunity rover has driven NASA to evolve their Mars program and the development of their new rovers.

Mobile robots on Mars are now able to reliably communicate with Earth and use 3D vision to explore and make “autonomous science observations.”

Its discovery and documentation of over 217,000 raw images of Mars’ terrain gives us a first-hand experience to what it’s like to be on Mars, which we may eventually get to see for ourselves, thanks to this little rover.

Libbey Kirchner is a UW-Eau Claire student majoring in English.

Contact: 715-833-9207, dan.holtz@ecpc.com