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Sunday, 8 July 2012

Droid in the desert......

How's my blogging? Leave some feedback, I get better at this, you get a more interesting read...

I don't often post about Mars - in fact I think this will be the first time I've devoted a whole post to a Martian topic. There's a reason for this: When I decided to try my hand at blogging, my self imposed mission was to try and publicise missions and events that didn't get so much of a fanfare. And Mars exploration usually (deservedly) gets a lot of publicity.

But, sometimes, you just have to admit that something really does deserve the attention of everyone, and go with it.

The Opportunity Mars Exploration  Rover [1] certainly fits that category. As does the latest panoramic release [2] from the little robot....

Image above: The view from Greeley Haven, Mars.You're looking at the view from a place on the planet Mars. If that's not evidence that there is still awesomeness in our lives, then what is? Image courtesy of NASA/JPL.

This is a 360 degree wrap around, so the image ends on the left where it began on the right. Follow link [2] to the whole thing, which is massive and certainly worth taking a minute to use the zoom function and explore.

While you do that, you'll need some background music, so allow me to introduce Ebogs, playing 'Worthy of Survival', composed by Bear McCreary.....

Video above: Ebogs, via you-tube, playing a piece from the Battlestar Galactica songbook. I thought that a piano solo was appropriate, given that Opportunity is the only active visitor from Earth on the Martian surface, since it's sister Spirit was lost.... Video courtesy of Ebogs.

So what are we looking at?

In the foreground we have the deck of Opportunity itself: A robot that made the journey from Earth, had a ninety day warranty, and has survived for eight years in a place where the night-time temperatures drop to minus sixty degrees Celsius, and the sandstorms blow up to two hundred miles an hour. Right now it's winter, and there isn't enough sunlight for solar powered Opportunity to move around much, so the exiled machine is taking snaps of it's surroundings.

The rover is perched on the north facing slope of Greeley  Haven, part of an outcrop of rock known as Cape York, on the northern rim of the 22 kilometre wide Endeavour crater [3]. The centre of the image is due north, and on the left we can see the tracks left by the rover as it approached this spot.

Endeavour was long held as an unobtainable dream target by the rover team, being over twenty kilometres from Opportunities landing site. The crater shows signs of water related minerals around its rim, according to mapping from orbit.

This section of the crater rim appears to have been the site of a hydrothermal system, where water bubbled up to the surface - likely buried ice, melted by the residual heat from the impact that created Endeavour. This hydrothermal system left behind tell-tale deposits of gypsum - evidence of brief lived habitable oasis, amongst the rocks of the Martian desert. .

Image above: A vein of Gypsum, a mineral likely to have been formed by water, on the rim of Endeavour crater. Yes, it's a line of pink rocks lying on red rocks. Trust me*, this is some of the best evidence for ancient water on Mars ever found. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL

The whole scene is set on Meridiani Planum [4], a vast plain that was part of a lake [5] or even sea when Mars was young, but which has been the desert waste we see today for at least a billion years...

Image above: A map of Meridiani Planum, showing the various geological areas. See all the bits marked 'clay minerals'? Clay minerals are often associated with past water.... Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHU-APL/WUSTL

Oh, and Opportunity will soon be getting company on Mars...but that's another story....


Video above: The launch of the car sized Curiosity rover [6], to investigate the ancient habitability of Gale crater, on Mars... Video courtesy of JPL/NASA

* There's absolutely no reason for you to do this, I'm a materials scientist not a geologist or an astronomer. And this afternoon my two year old had to point out 'daddy, dat foot' when I tried putting my left boot on my right leg. But do some reading of your own, find out if I'm right or not....

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