The Opportunity Rover has the chance ocassion of exploring a Martian gully in a daring new mission that may provide the answer for a decades-old question.
The Opportunity, who first touched down on Mars more than 12 years ago, will be undertaking a new, daring mission as NASA is planning on having it descend into one of the Red Planet’s gullies. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has observed more than 100 gully sites, but their exact nature and cause of formation is as yet unknown.
Scientists have been debating the gully formation means for decades now, with no consensual opinion being reached. Some researchers argue that the formations could have been shaped by ancient water sources whilst other favor the idea of dry ice or other processes.
The Orbiter could not detect any evidence of liquid water or traces of its byproducts such as clay or other minerals near any of the observed gullies, so a closer, grounds-on investigation is needed.
The gully the Opportunity’s handlers have chosen to explore is on the rim of the Endeavour crater, an area 14 miles wide, and has an east to west stretch of 200 yards. The rover’s principal investigator, Steve Squyres, is confident that their chosen spot is a fluid-carved, water involved formation.
The fluid-carved gullies have constituted a study opportunity for scientists ever since the first ones were seen from the orbit, back in the 1970’s, but this is the first time one such gully will be explored up close. The closer look will be able to provide new data that could help the researchers not only end the formation means debate but also determine the type of water that could have formed them.
The close-up information would determine if the gully was formed by the free flowing of pure water, with not many other materials, which would also explain why the Orbiter was unable to find any such traces or if, instead, it was determined by a debris flow in the form of water-lubricated rubble.
Opportunity, who has been mapping the rim of the Endeavour since August 2011, should now be able to also explore the crater’s floor following its descent down the gully. Rock analysis between the two formations would also be undertaken, so as to search for differences or similarities between the two terrains.
The Opportunity Rover has been, for the past few months, documenting water-related minerals discovered by the Orbiter near Endeavour’s western rim. As the golf-cart-size device is starting to show its age, scientists have to be careful to collect the data it sends every day or loose it forever, and this intrepid journey could possibly mark one of its last great adventures.
Image Source: Wikimedia