Opportunity Explores Endeavor

West rim of Endeavor crater on Mars. Source: NASA.gov

West rim of Endeavor crater on Mars. Source: NASA.gov
NASA has invested time, money, and manpower for three years into its Opportunity rover, and today all of that might have paid off—well a tiny bit, anyway.

Opportunity recently reached the crater called Endeavor, a 20-kilometer wide basin on Mars that scientists believe once held water and may today hold secrets as to whether or not there was ever life on the planet. Scientists estimate that elements of the rim of the bowl are over 3.5 billion years old. This age is important because they also believe that that specific time period was the earliest and wettest part of the planet’s past, and is also the same time that rivers and other flowing tributaries whittled Mars’ landscape.

“This is potentially the most exciting scientific opportunity for the rover mission yet,” says John Callas, mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The finding is exciting because mineralogical studies from orbit suggest these ancient rocks formed in an environment that was incredibly condusive to the formation of life. Indeed, Endeavor is very different from the other rock formations Opportunity and other rovers have found and examined in the past. For instance, other rocks found on Mars show evidence that they were once covered with acidic, salty water; the materials in Endeavor, however, show evidence of less volatile water, as there is present clay compounds that require water with a more neutral pH balance to form. Further observations show that the early Mars water was not salty, but that such water might be flowing on the planet now.

Opportunity has been other places on Mars, experts plan to keep it on the rim of Endeavor for the foreseeable future. Scientists are not that interested in the interior of the basin right now because residues from a later, drier time in Mars’ history has settled over the rocks there. However, if the rover stays on the rim, much more can be learned. It is hoped that the rover can reveal what form the water of Endeavor took; that is, if there are rocks present that show the imprints of ripples or threaded with veins of clay minerals—wave fossils, if you will—then scientists will be able to tell if water pooled on the surface of the basin or whether it bubbled up from underground.

While Opportunity has been on Mars for nearly seven years now and traveled a total of more than 20 miles—quite a feat in Mars distance—experts hope that the rover will live out the rest of its days canvassing the rim of Endeavor and gathering information that will help scientists learn more about the potential of life on the Red Planet.

TFOT has covered other-worldly rovers such as the Scarab Lunar Rover designed by researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University, evidence of an ancient lake on Mars, and using radio waves to find alien worlds. To read more about Mars, check out “Toxic Chemical Doesn’t Preclude Life on Mars,” “MAVEN – New NASA Mission to Mars,” and “Asteroid to Hit Mars?” Learn more about Opportunity, Endeavor, and other NASA rovers and missions here.

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