A new photo from a satellite orbiting Mars shows NASA's long-lived Opportunity rover perched at the rim of a crater, busily working away.
The color image, snapped by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on March 1, shows Opportunity at the southeast edge of Santa Maria crater, which it has been investigating for the past three months. When the photo was taken, Opportunity was extending its robotic arm to take close-up pictures of a rock called "Ruiz Garcia," NASA officials said in a statement. [See the Mars rover photo]
The tracks Opportunity made as it approached the 295-foot (90-meter) wide crater from the west are clearly visible in the image.
That's not surprising, since the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter sports the most powerful camera (called HiRise) ever sent to study another world. The instrument can resolve objects as small as a coffee table from orbit. The Opportunity rover is about the size of a golf cart. [Mars Photos From Spirit and Opportunity]
Opportunity has nearly finished its work examining mineral deposits at Santa Maria and will soon resume its long trek toward the huge Endeavour crater, a quest the rover has been on for nearly three years, officials said.
The Endeavour crater on Mars is a vast depression about 14 miles (22 km) wide. Opportunity has been heading for it since August 2008 because it will give scientists their deepest look yet into the surface of Mars.
The goal is to study any clay deposits — a sign of Martian water activity in the ancient past — that may be present on Endeavour's rim, researchers have said.
Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, landed on the Red Planet in January 2004 for what was then only a three-month mission to look for signs of past water activity on Mars. Both rovers delivered in a big way, turning up a flood of evidence at their different landing sites indicating that the Red Planet was once a much wetter, warmer place.
And the rovers just kept rolling along, years past their warranty dates. While Opportunity is still going strong, Spirit went silent in March 2010 after getting stuck in soft sand and failing to maneuver into a position that would slant its solar panels toward the sun over the course of the Martian winter.
Researchers have held out hope that Spirit could warm up and wake up with the onset of Martian spring, which is in full swing now.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has also completed its prime mission and is operating in an extended mission. The spacecraft arrived at Mars on March 10, 2006, so tomorrow marks the five-Earth-year anniversary of the spacecraft's operations at the Red Planet.