Opportunity Rover Eyes Cliff Face on Mars
Things are looking up on Mars, including NASA's Opportunity rover as it scans a cliff wall that's part of the huge Victoria Crater.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

GOLDEN, Colorado — NASA's Opportunity Mars rover is getting an eyeful, wheeling itself ever closer to a cliff wall that's part of the huge Victoria Crater. A camera campaign is underway, with early imagery producing anticipation within the rover science team back on Earth.

"When this stuff is all done and put together it's going to be amazing," said Steve Squyres, lead Mars Exploration Rover scientist from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Opportunity is about 20 to 23 feet (6 or 7 meters) back from the cliff face that's part of "Cape Verde." From there, the rover will collect high-resolution, panoramic images of rock layers in the promontory, taking a spectacular panorama of the scene using the robot's PanCam camera system.

Looking up at Mars

"Doing this presents some interesting new challenges," Squyres explained. "It's the first time we've ever looked ?up' at Mars like this."

And what is exciting the rover science team?

"We've identified some particularly interesting-looking targets in the cliff wall ? things that show sedimentary structures and textures that might be particularly revealing geologically. We're taking some ?super resolution' images of those today," Squyres told SPACE.com in a June 27 e-mail.

Once all that is done, the robot will be commanded to try and get even closer to the cliff — both to improve the resolution of images taken and to get the instruments on the rover's robotic arm onto bedrock.

Steep terrain

"Whether we'll be able to accomplish this or not, though, we don't know," Squyres added. "The terrain here is very steep, and we obviously don't want to venture so close to the cliff that we're in its shadow. So we'll see."

Both Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, have been on Mars since January 2004. "This is one of the most challenging things we've ever tried with either rover," Squyres said.

Opportunity reached the rim of Victoria Crater in Mars' Meridiani Planum region back in September 2007. It was a lengthy drive to the impact crater from the rover's landing locale in January 2004, roughly 3 miles (5 kilometers) away.

The rim of the crater is composed of alternating promontories, rocky points towering approximately 230 feet (70 meters) above the crater floor, and recessed alcoves.

The crater itself is big, some 2,428 feet (740 meters) in diameter — about three-quarters the size of Meteor Crater in Arizona.

History written in stone

"We continue to get tremendous results from Opportunity," noted William Farrand, a research scientist at the Space Science Institute in neighboring Boulder, Colorado and a member of the Mars Exploration Rover science team.

"We have seen some very interesting sedimentary structures. Hopefully, from this closer position, we will be able to get some added detail on those structures," Farrand told SPACE.com.

Farrand said Opportunity's can read the writing on the cliff wall. That is, "a rich geological record written in stone."

Meanwhile, at another area on Mars within Gusev Crater, sister ship Spirit is parked and hunkered down to conserve energy. The Martian winter solstice was on June 25, a time when the Sun is as low in the sky as it ever gets.

"For the time being, Spirit is basically just hanging out, charging the batteries," noted a recent update on the rover's health from Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

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