Saturday, 15 September 2012

Mars Rover Opportunity Reveals Geological Mystery

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./ USGS/Modesto Junior College 

NASA's long-lived rover Opportunity has returned an image of the Martian surface that is puzzling researchers.  Spherical objects concentrated at an outcrop Opportunity reached last week differ in several ways from iron-rich spherules nicknamed "blueberries" the rover found at its landing site in early 2004 and at many other locations to date.


Opportunity is investigating an outcrop called Kirkwood in the Cape York segment of the western rim of Endeavour Crater. The spheres measure as much as one-eighth of an inch (3 millimeters) in diameter. The analysis is still preliminary, but it indicates that these spheres do not have the high iron content of Martian blueberries.

Opportunity's principal investigator, Steve Squyres of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. said "This is one of the most extraordinary pictures from the whole mission, Kirkwood is chock full of a dense accumulation of these small spherical objects. Of course, we immediately thought of the blueberries, but this is something different. We never have seen such a dense accumulation of spherules in a rock outcrop on Mars."

Opportunity used the microscopic imager on its arm to look closely at Kirkwood. Researchers checked the spheres' composition by using an instrument called the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer on Opportunity's arm. Just past Kirkwood lies another science target area for Opportunity.

NASA launched the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity in the summer of 2003, and both completed their three-month prime missions in April 2004. They continued bonus, extended missions for years. Spirit finished communicating with Earth in March 2010. The rovers have made important discoveries about wet environments on ancient Mars that may have been favorable for supporting microbial life.

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