A rock suddenly materialized, apparently out of nothing, in front of the Mars Opportunity rover, and that comes straight from lead mission scientist, Steve Squires. The announcement came Thursday night at a press conference celebrating the Twin Mars Rovers' 10th anniversary on the Red Planet.
Speaking on the event, Squires said that “we were absolutely startled” at the appearance of the rock, which, somehow, just popped up in front of the rover sometime between sol (Martian equal to 'day') 3528 and 3540.
The surprise rock was promptly named “Pinnacle Island.” So, where did it come from, anyway?
According to Squires, there are two possibilities. First, a nearby meteor impact, which could have sent the rock flying, only to land just in front of the rover. The other option: the rover itself could have moved the rock as it maneuvered. According to Squires, the team is leaning toward the latter option, blaming a 'chattering' wheel, which could have propelled the the rock into the rover's field of view.
The rover team was quick to make a opportunity (no pun intended) of this unexpected visitor, announcing plans to drill into the rock, whose underside is facing upward for, perhaps, the first time in billions of years.
Squires later added that the team will investigate where the rock possibly came from for a few more days before moving on to more pressing scientific issues.
For Opportunity and the team controlling it, this is just the latest stroke of luck in the mission.
Launched for the Red Planet in 2003, a time which coincided with the closest Earth-Mars approach in thousands of years, Opportunity, along with its twin rover, Spirit, started their journey through space in the hopes of fulfilling a planetary scientist's dream of a large, long-lived, roving vehicle that was to serve as a mobile science platform. In the mission statement, Opportunity and Spirit were given a 90 day life estimate.
That was at the rovers' arrival in January, 2004.
Their initial mission to look for signs of water on Mars completed within the 90 day time frame, both rovers were still going strong. So, officially living on borrowed time, NASA scientists decided to try and get as much out of the rovers as possible before they too went the way of Pathfinder/Sojourner, Viking, and all the other Mars missions.
Needless to say, the rovers did not disappoint, with their findings completely reshaping our knowledge of the Red Planet.
Unfortunately for Spirit, things started to turn rocky on March 13, 2006 when one of the rover's front wheels became immobilized. Being a front wheel, mission control simply turned Spirit around and drove it backwards for 3 years, during which it continued its mission. However, while the stuck wheel was a minor inconvenience, things turned serious on May 1, 2009, when Spirit got stuck in Martian sand. After months of trying to extricate the rover, NASA declared that Spirit would serve as a stationary science lab in January, 2010. Unfortunately, the rover's solar panels were not orientated toward the Sun in the best possible angle, which meant that power would be a problem. Then, on March 22, 2010, all transmissions from the rover ceased as Martian winter arrived. The rover was finally declared dead the following year.
As for Opportunity, things could not be more different. Thanks to its location in a region closer to the Martian equator, Opportunity has been able to avoid the more severe polar winters that, in all probability, doomed its twin. To date, Opportunity has driven nearly 23 miles across Mars, and, according to NASA, is still going strong, climbing a hill known as Solander Point, in the hopes of finding the oldest as-yet discovered Martian rocks, which will provide all the more opportunity (no pun, again) to, hopefully, study the oldest rocks yet observed on Mars.
For the record, Opportunity will celebrate its 10th year on Mars on January 25.
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