NASA’s Mars Rover Opportunity has begun its scientific work in yet another Mars area to be explored during a mission that has been going on for over 13 Earth’s years. This mission was extended for the tenth time in 2016 and now its goal is to study “Perseverance Valley”, an ancient valley on the inner slope of the Endeavor crater’s rim to figure out how it formed.
After spending about 30 months in a segment of Endeavor crater called “Cape Tribulation” on May 4, 2017, its mission’s Sol (Martian day) 4720, the Mars Rover Opportunity reached the access to Perseverance Valley then reached a location from where it started taking photos with its Panoramic Camera (Pancam). This is an area already studied from the orbit but Opportunity’s photos can show it at a higher resolution.
Studying the photos taken by the Mars Space Reconnaissance (MRO) space probe’s HiRISE instrument, the mission scientists concluded that Perseverance Valley is really ancient but could not identify the process that carved it in Endeavor Crater. Their hope is to find traces of rocks dating back to the Noachian, a Martian geological period between 3.7 and 4.2 billion years ago, and to understand its origin.
It’s possible that water was flowing in the area at that time since the conditions on Mars were much more similar to those on Earth, with a consequent erosion. The amount of water involved may have been limited but useful to allow debris such as boulders and mud to move around. The erosion process could have been caused by wind instead. Any traces left in Perseverance Valley will be crucial to understanding which hypothesis is the most likely.
The photos the Mars Rover Opportunity started shooting are the first of a long series that will be useful to map the area. The end result will be a three-dimensional map that will provide a great deal of detail on the ground, exactly to allow scientists to study it as precisely as possible with Opportunity’s instruments.
The three-dimensional map will also be used to better plan the next Mars Rover Opportunity’s movements. That’s because Perseverance Valley extends downwards with a slope of about 15 to 17 degrees so it’s important to find a route with the least amount of obstacles. During the crossing of the valley an abrupt direction change or, worse, a turnaround, could be complex for Opportunity.
The Mars Rover Opportunity mission’s extensions are a formal act, what really matters is how much this venerable rover will keep on working after having passed all of its duration’s most optimistic predictions. Every new task may be its last but in the meantime it will gather more information that will help us better understand the Mars’ history.