NASA’s Mars Opportunity rover—not to be confused with Curiosity—has concluded a 20 month-long study of an area that researchers believe has been “intensely altered by water.” In the nine years since Opportunity has been on Mars, the data is unlike anything researchers have seen. The rock, known as Esperance, was inspected by the rover’s alpha particle X-Ray spectrometer, and indicates an environment that may have one day supported life.
“Esperance was so important, we committed several weeks to getting this one measurement of it, even though we knew the clock was ticking,” said Steve Squyres, the mission’s principal investigator. Another researcher for the project, Scott McLennan, said Esperance was important because it allowed scientists to see how water altered the rock.
Opportunity’s next mission is to journey toward “Solander Point,” which is an area that will allow the rover to continue observations during its sixth Martian winter. Located at a northerly tilt, Solander gives researchers the chance to operate the rover even when there is minimal sunshine. The drive to Solander Point is about 1.4 miles from where Opportunity currently rests. The rover traveled about 81.7 feet away from Esperance on May 14.
“Water that moved through fractures during [Esperance’s] history would have provided more favorable conditions for biology than any other wet environment recorded in rock Opportunity has seen,” said Squyres.
The potential for life corroborates findings by NASA’s other, younger rover, Curiosity, which analyzed a rock sample in March. “Conditions once were favorable for life,” one researcher said about Curiosity’s findings.