(View archived mission updates)
January 23, 2007
I haven't done one of these updates in ages, so here you go...
Spirit's about to start moving again. For the last little while we've been
parked at the outcrop named Troll, working it over thoroughly with the
IDD. The stuff here looks very much like what we found back at Graham
Land: Lots of little round spherules in the rock, and lots of hematite.
Now it's time to move on. After a good deal of of thought, we've decided we
need to take a closer look at Tyrone. If you recall, Tyrone was a
morass of ferric sulfate salt that we nearly got stuck in right
before we scooted off to Low Ridge for the winter. We were in
such a hurry to get to our winter haven that we never really
checked Tyrone out scientifically... so now it's time.
Don't worry... we're not going to drive all the way back to Tyrone
and get stuck again! But there's a lot we can do with Pancam and
Mini-TES from a safe standoff distance, so that's the plan. Then,
once we've wrapped up our work at Tyrone, it'll be time to head
back to Home Plate.
Over at Meridiani, Opportunity continues the spectactular trek
around Victoria. A significant recent stop was at a rock we named
Santa Catarina. This was one of a field of cobbles that we
encountered between Bottomless Bay and the Bay of Toil. We hadn't
seen a cobble field quite this dense before, so we stopped and
worked it over carefully. We're still going through the data, but
the most likely interpretation seems to be that Santa Catarina is a meteorite.
If so, it's the fifth one we've found.
We're now working our way around the Bay of Toil to our next
imaging spot at the tip of Cape Desire. Driving here has been
difficult. Because we're near the rim of the crater we have to
be very careful, so we make extensive use of something we call
"Visual Odometery", or visodom. When using visodom, the rover
takes images of the terrain as it drives, and uses the features
in the images to figure out exactly how far and in what
direction it has moved. Problem is, there are very few features
in the terrain here... the soil is so bland that there's
almost nothing for the visodom software to "lock on" to. This
has created problems for us, and we've had a couple of busted
drives as a result.
Our rover drivers, however, are nothing if not creative. If
Mars doesn't give us features to look at, they figured, we'll
make our own features. So recently, we've done a drive where the rover
did a strange little dance as it moved along, scuffing the soil
and weaving from side to side, making some of the
strangest-looking rover tracks you've ever seen. (One of the
maneuvers they came up with they called the "drunken sailor
walk".) It looks weird, but it works. We did 40 visodom tests
on that drive, and 39 of them worked. So next time you see some
strange-looking wheel tracks, it's just the rover scuffing up
the terrain so it can figure out where it is.
December 7, 2006
A very quick update: We just learned this morning that the Mars Odyssey
spacecraft has gone into "safe mode". This is something that can happen
when there's a glitch of some sort on board the spacecraft... it puts
itself into a very safe state and waits for commands from Earth. Mars
Odyssey appears to be in great shape and should be back in business in
a few days. A likely cause of the event was a big blast of high-energy
particles from the Sun that got to Mars right before it happened. So
there doesn't appear to be anything to worry about, and both rovers
came through the particle event unscathed. But because we relay most
of our data through Mars Odyssey, we won't see very much data from
the rovers until Odyssey is back online.
December 3, 2006
We're under way at Gusev. After a couple of weeks of checking out some
of the craziest-looking rocks we've ever seen on that side of the planet,
we're off to something new.
The rock we've been looking at for the past couple of weeks
is one called King George Island,
and it's got some of the best-rounded grains we've ever seen in a martian
rock. It's tempting to get very excited about grains that are that big and
that round, until you remember that we know that the martian
wind can transport
and round off even bigger grains. Those of you with good
memories will recall that we saw some really well rounded coarse
granules in wind ripples out on the Gusev plains early in the mission.
(One of them was named Serpent; there were several others.)
So while we're not ready to jump to any big conclusions, King George
Island sure is a cool-looking rock.
Anyway, with that behind us, we're not headed for something new:
Esperanza. This is a "vesicular" rock... a lava block
that's full of bubbles, like a piece of Swiss cheese. We've been
seeing these for quite awhile, and we've even taken quick looks at
a couple of them. But we've never had the time to look one over
carefully. So that's a shortcoming we intend to rectify.
Getting to Esperanza may be a bit of an adventure. With the right
front wheel on Spirit no longer working, maneuvering the vehicle to
get to within arm's reach of a carefully-chosen target isn't
going to be easy. It's a skill I'm sure we'll develop with
experience, and Esperanza is going to give us some of that experience.
So off we go.
Over at Meridiani, we have arrived at Bottomless Bay. This happened
a sol earlier than I expected it to. We did a drive on Sol 1016 to
put us reasonably close to the rim, and then we were expecting to
have to do another short "bump" on 1019 to put us where we could see
the whole cliff on the far side of the alcove. Instead, the 1016
Navcams show the cliff in all its glory. It may not make sense to
spend a whole sol trying to creep just a tiny bit closer, so right
now I'm thinking we may just shoot it from where we are on
1019, and be on our way on 1020. We'll decide tomorrow morning.
And despite the fact that our meager early-spring power numbers
still mostly keep us from doing nighttime communications passes
with Mars Odyssey, we're slowly but surely clearing out the huge
backlog of images stored in Opportunity's onboard memory. This is
a tough situation for us, since what we're doing with Opportunity
right now is all about driving and taking lots of Pancam images,
both of which generate huge volumes of data.
Still, the images are worth it. The stuff at the base of Cape
St. Mary that we shot from Cape Verde is probably the best so far,
showing some spectacular "cross-bedding" in the layers that tells
us that these rocks preserve the passage of ancient martian sand
dunes. And the shot from Cape St. Mary back at Cape Verde is
pretty cool too, showing some of the most striking jumbled impact
ejecta we've ever seen. This jumble, of course, is why we haven't
been using the arm instruments lately. All the surface rocks along
this part of the crater rim are ejecta from who knows where inside
the crater, meaning that any measurements we made here would be impossible
to put into proper context. So for now we're going to focus on
driving hard and fast around the crater, taking lots of pictures,
and looking for good places where we'll be able to study bedrock
November 27, 2006
Another quick one tonight...
Spirit's on the move. We've done a nice little rotation to the right, and now
we've got a bunch of new stuff within reach of the arm. We'll do our business
here, and then it's going to be time to do some real driving. Everybody
is really itching to start covering some ground again.
And on the other side of the planet Opportunity is on the move too. The
pictures of the eastern of Cape Verde were specacular, and finished up
our business at Cape St. Mary. We just
did a 43-meter drive to the northeast, and there'll be more driving
in the coming week... though it may be slowed down a little by a checkout
of more of our new software. Once that software check is out of the way,
our next target will be the southwestern side of a really big alcove
that we've named Bottomless Bay, or Bahia sin Fondo. It's going to be
like this for awhile, driving from one lookout on the rim of Victoria
to the next, taking spectacular Pancam images of cliff faces.
One more thing: Keep your eyes peeled for some new images of both
rover landing sites from our friends on the MRO HiRISE team. That's one
heck of a camera they've got, and we're expecting some pretty spectacular
new images soon.
November 3, 2006
I don't have much time to write tonight, but I'll hit the highlights...
Both rovers have come through superior conjunction in excellent health.
It was good to hear from them again!
We've had to start up a little bit slowly with Opportunity, because the
rover's flash memory was very full post-conjunction... mostly with all
the images we took during conjunction. It'll take a little while to clear
those out. The good news is that the power situation is starting to
get good enough again that we can occasionally wake up in the middle of the
night to do a wee-hours-of-the-morning communications relay via Mars
Odyssey. We haven't been able to do those in quite awhile. So those
should help to increase the data return substantially.
Once we do start moving Opportunity again -- probably early next week --
our direction will be toward the east and north... clockwise around the
crater. We haven't decided how far we'll go in that direction, but it
seems clear that some of the most intriguing geology we can see from
the rim is to be found that way. So that's where we're headed for now.
The next big topographic feature in that direction is a tall
promontory that's one of the highest spots on the rim. We've named it
Cape St. Mary.
And speaking of increases in power, keep an eye on Spirit... we should
be moving again soon. It won't be anything really dramatic at first,
but the power has gotten high enough now that we're starting to feel
confident about moving the rover safely. It'll be good to get the
wheels turning again.
September 28, 2006
The last couple of days have been among the most exciting of the entire
mission. The only other events I can compare this to are the two landings
and the arrival of Opportunity at Endurance crater. And in terms of
sheer visual impact, this beats those.
Opportunity has arrived at Victoria Crater. As we expected, we came upon
the view quite abruptly... it went from just the very tops of distant cliffs
to a full-blown vista of the crater floor in just a handful of sols. And
now we are perched just back from the lip of the crater at Duck Bay,
with the whole thing laid out below us.
Our first order of business here, obviously, is going to be to take a
very big Pancam panorama. We'll be starting on that very shortly, though
of course it will take quite awhile to get it all back to Earth.
After that has been shot,
we're heading for our next location... Cape Verde. We were
considering both Cape Verde and Cabo Frio, and when we looked at all
the factors together, Cape Verde won out. Wherever we stop next is
where the rover will spend "superior conjunction" -- the upcoming period
when Mars will be out of sight behind the sun, making communications
impossible for a short while. Conjunction is coming soon, so we want
to get to our conjunction spot quickly, and Cape Verde looked like
an easier drive than Cabo Frio.
Another factor is that we want to be parked on
rock over conjunction, so that we can do some work on rock with the
IDD. There seems to be good exposure of rock at Cape Verde, but little
or none of it at Cabo Frio. So Cape Verde it is.
This doesn't mean that we're going to traverse clockwise around the
crater... we won't make that decision for quite awhile yet. And it also
doesn't mean we'll never go to Cabo Frio. And, to be honest, we can't
even say for sure that we'll make it all the way to Cape Verde before
conjunction... you have to be very careful when driving near cliffs
this big! So we'll be driving slowly and cautiously.
But Cape Verde is the next thing we're going to head off toward
after we finish shooting the pan.
And how about that view?!? We're still feeling a little awestruck. The
analytical part of my brain looks at that and is already doing science
analysis and planning. The rest of me, though, just wants to sit back
for a little while and take in the scenery.
September 20, 2006
We seem to have cleared an important hurdle. Sol 944, which was yesterday
Earth time, was "Boot Day" for Opportunity... the day we rebooted the
rover computer with brand new flight software. The rover woke up that
afternoon with the new software running, and sent us data right on
schedule. We're still going through the data, but so far everything looks good.
We're also going through the same process for Spirit on more or less
the same timescale.
This new software is going to be a pretty big deal for us. It includes
lots of new capabilities... things that we've figured out over all these
sols of flight operations that we've now, with this new software
load, taught the vehicle
to do. One capability is something we call "go and touch"... the
ability to send the rover to a target and deploy the arm onto that
target all in one sol. That's something we've never done on Mars
before. Another is automated dust devil finding, which should be pretty
cool if Spirit is still hanging in there once summer rolls around. And
there are a bunch of other things too. The rovers are getting older,
but they're suddenly a whole lot smarter.
All of this software has been thoroughly tested on Earth, of course, but
today is the first time we've used it on Mars. It's good to see
everything working the way it's supposed to so far.
It's going to take a little while to shake out all of the new
software, and to convince ourselves that it's all functioning properly.
There'll be two sols of checkout at least... one to upload a bunch
of new software parameters and confirm they've gotten onboard safely,
and another to make sure all the key driving commands work properly.
That sol is going to be interesting... just a lot of little rover
moves that don't really go anywhere, but that give us confidence that
we're ready to start driving again.
And, of course it could take longer than that. You have to proceed
carefully when you're dealing with new flight software.
You may be wondering why we chose now to do the boot with the new
flight software. The reason is that in a few weeks we will go into
what's called "superior conjunction", when Mars goes out of sight
behind the sun. There will be a stretch of time when we can't send
commands to the rovers at all, and during that time we want to have
complete, unequivocal confidence in the software that's onboard. Getting
the software onboard now will give us the time to gain that
Anyway, once we've got this initial few sols of software checkout
behind us, we know where
we're going! As of right now, we are just about 50 meters away from
the rim of Victoria Crater. The latest images show the upper part
of the far wall in some detail for the first time. The topography
there is substantial, to say the least... the images show near-vertical
cliffs that are roughly 15 meters high, and that's just the upper lip.
There's a lot more crater below that that we can't see yet.
We are, frankly, feeling a little overwhelmed by what we see so far. It's
very reminiscent of our first glimpse into Endurance Crater, more than
two years ago. We figured out how to deal with that then, and in time
we'll figure out how to deal with Victoria too. But for the moment
we're feeling a bit awestruck.
And the best is yet to come. Once the software checkout has been completed,
we're going to drive to the closest point on the rim. This is the
alcove between Cape Verde and Cabo Frio, which we have named Duck Bay.
We'll have to tiptoe up to Duck Bay pretty carefully; if those images
of the far side are any indicator, it my drop off pretty steeply!
We'll shoot some Navcam and a bit of Pancam from there, pick either
Cape Verde or Cabo Frio for the big Pancam pan, and then start moving
So the next few weeks are going to be interesting. It's tempting
celebrate a little now, frankly... having come all this way, over
so many months, and finally having our goal in sight. But I'm not
really going to feel like we've "reached" Victora Crater until that
first big Pancam picture of it is on the ground. Stay tuned.
September 14, 2006
It has been a terribly long time since I have done one of these updates. Far
too long, and the only excuse I can offer is that we have simply been
overwhelmed with operating the rovers and writing papers about what
we've found. I'll try to do better in the future. But with Opportunity
about to arrive at Victoria Crater, I really felt I had to do one.
Right now, Opportunity is parked next to a crater that we've named Emma
Dean. The thing that makes Emma Dean intersting is that it punches down
into the "annulus" of smooth material that surrounds Victoria. We're
not entirely certain what this stuff is, but logically it should be
largely material that was excavated from Victoria when Victoria formed.
Problem is, like so much of the rest of Meridiani, the place is
covered with sand and blueberries, so we can't get at the rock
underneath. Emma Dean, though, excavates into the annulus,
and so may expose some of the material that comprises it.
In fact, it could even expose stuff that originally came from deep
in Victoria. So we've stopped to give it a look.
Another reason we're interested in Emma Dean is that we recently dug
a shallow trench with the wheels, and what we found in the trench
was very weird. Unlike every other trench we've dug at Meridiani,
this one had a lot of sulfates in the bottom. We're not certain
what this means. It could be that there are sulfates in the soil
here, which would be interesting and different. It's also possible,
though, that the wheels simply dug through a few centimeters of sand
and then ran into sulfate-rich bedrock underneath, scraping and
churning it up. We expected the
trench to be significantly deeper than it turned out to be, which
may mean that we encountered hard, bedrock-like material close to
the surface. At any rate, we've had a few mysteries to deal with here
before we make the final move to the rim.
But now, the time for the final move to the rim is now almost upon us. As soon
as we have finished at Emma Dean -- and I still can't say for sure
when that will be -- we will do it. We're only 110 meters away, so
it should only take a couple of sols. We're initially going to drive
to the very closest point on the rim, along a large "alcove" in the
crater wall. This alcove is bordered on both sides by sharp
promontories that stick out into the crater. We've named the promontory
to the north of the alcove Cape Verde, and the one to the south
Cabo Frio. Both names are places that were visited by the ship
Victoria on Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe. Our current
plan is to take some Navcam images from the arrival point at the
alcove, pick either Cape Verde or Cabo Frio, and then move out onto
the chosen promontory and take what should be one heck of a
spectacular Pancam panorama.
So stay tuned... things are going to be very interesting at Meridiani for a
Over at Gusev Crater, things have been a little more quiet. Spirit
is parked safely on Low Ridge, tilted toward the sun and with enough
power to survive the winter. We have just passed through the darkest
and coldest part of winter, and the sun is starting to come back to us.
We're not seeing a big increase in power yet, though, because at the same time
the sun is getting higher, the atmosphere is getting a little dustier,
blocking out some of that sunlight. We're hoping to move the rover in
the not too distant future, rotating it to the right a little bit
to get some new and very interesting-looking targets within reach
of the arm. But with power still low, we're going to play it
safe and stay put for at least a few more weeks.
What we're all really looking forward to, of course, is real
springtime on Mars, with enough power for Spirit to start driving
again. That's still at least a couple of months down the road. But
when it does happen, we've got a lot to do. We haven't worked out
the full plan of attack yet, but one thing high on the agenda is
a return to Home Plate. That was one of the most interesting
places we've ever been with either rover, and we feel like we
have some unfinished business there. For now, though, patience is
the name of the game.
January 29, 2006
Well, I've fallen way behind again, so I'll try to cram two weeks of action
into one report.
At Meridiani, Opportunity is moving again. We've found a way to drive
short distances with
the IDD deployed, and we used it successfully to get to the lower part
of Overgaard. The MI imaging there has gone beautifully, and we're
about to make a move to the upper part of Overgaard, where the
Once we've hit all the festoons on Upper Overgaard, then there are a couple
of other nearby targets we've got our eyes on... one called Bellemont and
another called Roosevelt. We'll go after one or both of those, and then it will
be time to hit the road in a big way.
The drive south from here is going to be interesting. Victoria crater
beckons, and we really want to lay down some serious mileage. At the
same time, we have to keep the vehicle safe, and we have to
make sure we don't
blow by anything too interesting. A balance is necessary, but
our hoped-for drive strategy
is a pretty aggressive one. A lot of it, of course, will depend
on whether or not Mars cooperates.
At Gusev, Arad turned out to be worth the stop. It's extraordinarily
high in ferric sulfate salts, and it now holds the record for the
saltiest place ever discovered on Mars. Interestingly, though, it
doesn't seem to have the phosphates that Paso Robles did. We're
still pondering on this one.
Since Arad, we've been pretty much sprinting for Home Plate.
One thing that we've been noticing lately is that there seem to be
a lot of very porous basalt blocks in this neighborhood. We've been
resisting the temptation to stop at one, but we got lucky a couple
of days ago and had one pop up just by chance in front of us. We
whipped out the IDD and took what have to be some of the coolest
MI images of the whole mission, on Sol 736. The name of this thing
is GongGong, and it is what can happen when you have a very frothy,
gas-rich lava that solidifies with lots of voids in it and then
gets eroded by the wind for a very long time.
You may ask where a name like GongGong came from. We have several
Chinese members of our team, and in honor of Chinese New Year, we
have been assigning names from Chinese mythology and history to
the rocks at Gusev. GongGong, I'm told, was the king of water from
the north, who knocked down Mount BuZhou with his head. You can
learn all kinds of things by doing a mission to Mars.
As I write this, Spirit is near the north end of Mitcheltree
Ridge, the most significant topographic feature between us and
Home Plate. Mitcheltree Ridge is named after the late Bob
Mitcheltree, one of the real intellectual leaders of the
Entry, Descent and Landing team that got our rovers safely down
onto the surface of Mars. We should get our first close-up
look at Home Plate soon, and we're all anxious to see what
January 13, 2006
Good stuff is happening on both sides of the planet.
At Meridiani, the main source of excitement continues to be the festoons.
The low-light imaging we've been doing is great for bringing this stuff
out, and we've come to realize that it's present in a whole lot of the
rocks around us.
The real news, though, is that it looks like we're finally about ready to
move the rover again. I can't give you a definite date, but I'd say
that sometime next week is very likely. Our first move, of course,
is going to be to get into position to get some nice MI mosaics on
the festoons. The rock we're going after first is one called
At Gusev, a funny thing happened on the way to Home Plate. We swore
we were just going to sprint for Home Plate and not stop for anything
unless something extraordinary popped up. Then something
extraordinary popped up. On our most recent drive, we hit some
pretty soft soil and churned it up a bit. And when looked at the
disturbed soil, we realized it was bright... really, really bright.
Somehow our churning dug up something very different from everything
Something like this has happened to us once before, at a spot just below
Larry's Lookout that we named Paso Robles. Paso Robles was one of the
most extraordinary finds of Spirit's mission to date. It was very
light-toned soil dug up from just beneath the surface, and when we
measured its composition we found that it was more than fifty percent
salts. Most of it was ferric sulfate salts, and there were also some
phosphate salts as well.
So what is this new stuff (which we have named Arad)? The same
kind of salt? Something different? Similar concentration or even
saltier? It was too tempting a target to pass up, and we're going to
spend the weekend doing IDD work on it before moving on.
And then we'll be off to Home Plate again... really!
January 3, 2006
The last week and a half has been remarkably productive, especially
considering the fact that most of it was taken up by the holidays.
At Gusev, we have been to El Dorado, sampled the sands there thoroughly,
and moved on. We got a spectacular Pancam panorama of the whole area
that'll be ready to be
released very soon. We also got some stunning MI images that show that
grains are very well rounded and remarkably "well sorted" -- i.e.,
all nearly the same size. And we got solid Mini-TES, APXS and Moessbauer
data that tell us that the sands of El Dorado are composed
of a very clean, olivine-rich basalt.
So now it's time for the sprint to Home Plate. Power is still
reasonably good at Gusev, with about 500 watt-hours per sol, and
we're going to drive hard and fast while the sun shines.
Over at Meridiani we're still at the Olympia outcrop, but we have
come to realize that our extended stay here has yielded a very
important find. We've spent a lot of time recently taking high-resolution
Pancam images of the rocks around us at a range of lighting angles,
to bring out fine details in the layering. And if you look
at one of the Pancam images that came down on Sol 690, you'll see that
we have now found the best example of small scale "festoon cross-bedding" that
we've seen the whole mission.
When you're talking about layering in rock, "festoon" geometry
means little nested concave-upward shapes. They look like little
smiles a few centimeters across. This kind of layering
is seen in sedimentary rocks on Earth, and when it's found at small
scales like this it provides solid evidence
for deposition in flowing liquid water. It was small-scale
festoon cross bedding that led us to conclude that liquid water
had been present not just below the surface at Meridiani, but
occasionally at the surface as well.
If you're interested in
the gory scientific details, check out the paper by Grotzinger
et al. that we recently published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.
We've seen small-scale
festoon cross-bedding before, of course, at Eagle Crater and again at
Endurance Crater, but this is by far the best example that we've
seen yet. Once we've got Opportunity moving again, our first task
is going to be to drive over to this spot and take a big Microscopic
Imager mosaic on it, to document the cross-bedding in detail.
The thing I find really striking here is that
if it hadn't been for the busted wire in the motor on
Opportunity's arm, we would have blown right by this without seeing
Oh yes, and happy anniversary, or happy birthday, or whatever it is.
Spirit landed two years ago tonight.