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Opportunity Rover Reaches Endurance Crater.

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Endurance Crater.
Endurance Crater: Image credit: NASA/JPL.

NASA released a 180-degree view of Endurance Crater this week, a target Rover Opportunity has been rolling towards for many days. After taking in the view, Opportunity Rover will try a few spots around the rim of the 130-metre crater to see if it can drive down without rolling over - hopefully it'll be able to get back out again. Portions of the crater's sides appear almost paved with smooth rocks, while in other areas it has steep walls with exposed rock, similar to the crater Opportunity landed in. It should be a treasure trove of scientific data.

This 180-degree view [false-color] from the navigation camera on the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is the first look inside "Endurance Crater." The view is a cylindrical projection constructed from four images. The crater is about 130 meters (about 430 feet) in diameter.

Plans are for the rover first to circumnavigate the 1,350-foot perimeter of the crater, then mission planners will be faced with the tough decision about whether to go into Endurance. One potential hazard that choice might entail stems from the steep walls and fine soil.

Even when exiting the much smaller Eagle Crater (about 1/7th the size of Endurance, the rover eventually ground to a halt. The rover's wheel traction is generally rated to between 15 and 20 degrees for climbing slopes, but particularly near a crater rim, the soil is through to resemble talcum or powdered cement, rather than sand.

Scientists expect to release a spectacular color, high-resolution panorama of Endurance for their next news conference scheduled Thursday.

One characteristic that struck onlookers even from a distance was the layering along the rim and similarity of light colored outcrops thought to represent ancient Martian bedrock. Such stratigraphy reveals a layered history, where the newest sediments deposit on top and the older material is exposed below. By reading this layering like tree rings, scientists hope to read more chapters of their ongoing mystery: what happened to surface water on Mars?

Compared to the most detailed layer at Eagle crater (about 16 inches high), the much older and deeper layers at Endurance appear to be up to 8 feet tall in places. The more layers, the farther back in martian times the bedrock may reveal.

A key scientific objective for this part of Opportunity's extended mission will be to seek geologic context for the outcrop in the "Eagle" crater by reaching other outcrops in the "Endurance" crater and perhaps elsewhere. Other science objectives are to continue atmospheric studies at both sites to encompass more of Mars' seasonal cycle and to calibrate and validate data from Mars orbiters for additional types of rocks and soils examined on the ground.

Meanwhile on the opposite side of the planet, the Spirit rover logged another record-breaking day of driving. The last odometer reading turned nearly 100 yards, a goal-to-goal trek traversing the length of a football field.

"We're going to continue exploring and try to understand the water story at Gusev," said JPL's Dr. Mark Adler, deputy mission manager for Spirit. Spirit is in pursuit of geological evidence for an ancient lake thought to have once filled Gusev Crater. Reaching "Columbia Hills," which could hold geological clues to that water story, is one of several objectives for the extended mission.

New engineering objectives are to traverse more than a kilometer (0.62 mile) to demonstrate mobility technologies; to characterize solar-array performance over long durations of dust deposition at both landing sites; and to demonstrate long-term operation of two mobile science robots on a distant planet. During the past month or so, rover teams at JPL have switched from Mars-clock schedules to Earth-clock schedules designed to be less stressful and more sustainable over a longer period towards what is hoped will be another September mission extension.

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