Mars rover Opportunity is stopping to investigate some oddly shaped rocks that have a composition never seen on Mars before. The blocky outcrops were spotted when Opportunity climbed an overlook to survey “Marathon Valley”, the current location of the mission of exploration. Matt Golombeck of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) explained the detour: “We drove to the edge of a plateau to look down in the valley, and we found these big, dark-gray blocks along the ridgeline. We checked one and found its composition is different from any ever measured before on Mars. So, whoa! Let’s study these more before moving on.”
Spectrometer analysis indicates that the first of the two rocks has a relatively higher concentration of aluminum and silicon. According to Steve Squyres, Mars Exploration Rover (MER) principal investigator of Cornell University, it seems to be a new type of rock, unlike any other found so far on Mars.
The Marathon Valley is named for the distance the rover will have covered to reach it: a little over 26 miles. It was chosen because of the discovery of clay minerals, which indicate the ancient presence of water. Opportunity and her (yes, she’s a girl) twin rover, Spirit, were launched in 2003 and landed on the surface of Mars a year later. They are essentially robotic field geologists, and their mission is to study the Martian surface as part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. Specifically, they were intended to discover the history of water on Mars.
Spirit has been been silent since 2010. But Opportunity is still going strong ten years after her arrival on the Red Planet, though the original mission was intended to last only 90 days and cover one kilometer. In this time, “Oppy” has chalked up a number of scientific achievements: finding evidence that water flowed across the surface of ancient Mars, studying for the first time a meteorite found on another planet, photographing clouds, discovering clues to an ancient microbe-rich environment, setting the distance record for off-earth driving, among other things.
Naturally, Opportunity has her own blog and Twitter feed.