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Spirit and Opportunity
Spirit and Opportunity, two space rover vehicles (prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver) were commissioned to detect the presence of water and hospitality toward life on the planet Mars. Unfortunately, there have been ongoing difficulties with the functioning of Spirit. Thankfully, this has not been the case with Opportunity. Endeavour is an impact crater within the purview of Opportunity that is much larger than any previously visited crater. Since Opportunity has functioned beyond its expected lifetime, it is quite possible the space vehicle will not reach this desirable object before it expires.
Artist's rendering of a Mars rover at work.
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Size and Characteristics of Endeavour
Endeavour is an impact crater located in the Meridiani Planum. Aerospace Guide defines an impact crater as any crater generated “when an asteroid, a comet, or a meteorite strikes [a] moon or [a] planet with great force.” Endeavour’s rim was first observed by Opportunity’s navigation panoramic camera in March of 2008. The crater’s diameter was determined to be 13.7 miles (22 kilometers).
Endeavour, lower right.
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Why of Special Interest?
In August of 2008, after leaving the crater Victoria, it was decided Endeavour would be the next stop—partly because of its enormous size—being 28 times that of Victoria crater. In addition, Endeavour is associated with younger rock, making it a source of new scientific material and thus affording scientists increased understanding of the red planet. Since it is so large, the crater would possess greater depth into the surface of the planet and thus provide a window into Mars’ past history.
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Difficulties and Concerns During Rendezvous
Unfortunately, along the path between Victoria crater and Endeavour, there are dune fields that hamper rapid movement and put Opportunity at risk. The halfway point of the trip was announced on September 8, 2010. The task of getting Opportunity to the Endeavour crater is the job of Scott Maxwell, who said, “We hunt for that balance between aggressive driving and keeping the rover safe and we strive for it every day.” A.J.S. Rayl informs us that during September 2010 there was concern for one of Endeavour’s most important instruments. “Opportunity’s iron-detecting Mössbauer spectrometer began exhibiting some “anomalous behavior,” he said. He also remarked that It is functioning well during the Martian day but not as well at other times. This is especially important, since it is that instrument which detects water in hydrated (water-containing) rocks.
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It is expected, in view of the less treacherous terrain now in view, that Opportunity will be able to move fairly rapidly in its race against distance and the clock. In its extended lifetime, it is hoped that much may be gained, even as was fortuitously the case with the extended mission of the Voyager 2 project.
Update: As of June 2011, Opportunity is now only 2 kilometers away from the crater (about 1.2 miles).
If you found this information helpful, perhaps you would enjoy the article by RC Davison, "Nothing But The Facts About Mars."
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References and Resources
NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Mars Exploration Rover Mission – Press Release Images – Opportunity: http://marsrovers.nasa.gov/gallery/
NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory – September 22, 2008 – NASA'S Mars Rover to Head Toward Bigger Crater: http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/newsroom/pressreleases/20080922a.html
NASA – Spirit and Opportunity, Mars Exploration Rovers: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages
The New York Times – “Mars Rover Heads to a New Crater,” by Kenneth Chang, September 22, 2008; Retrieved October 13, 2010.
Aerospace guide: http://www.aerospaceguide.net/glossary/index.html
AJS Rayl: http://www.planetary.org/news/2010/0930_Mars_Exploration_Rover_Update_Spirit.html