A robotic American explorer roving the surface of Mars this week reached the rim of a gaping crater that might once have been hospitable to primitive life.
Still exploring more than seven years after its arrival on the red planet, NASA's Mars Opportunity rover is now perched atop Spirit Point, overlooking a 14-mile-wide crater where clay minerals might have formed during a warmer, wetter period.
"Clay minerals form in wet conditions so we may learn about a potentially habitable environment," NASA Mars Exploration Rover science team member Matthew Golombek said in a news release.
The minerals appear to be very different than the younger, drier rocks comprising plains that Opportunity has crossed since the rover began surface operations in January 2004.
About the size of a golf cart, the Opportunity rover arrived at Mars a few weeks after its twin, Spirit. Opportunity's current location was named Spirit Point in honor of the Spirit rover, which last communicated with flight controllers in March 2010. Spirit's mission was officially concluded in May.
The Opportunity rover set out on a 13-mile trip to Endeavour crater after data from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter detected clay minerals that might have formed their when water flowed on the planet's surface.
NASA launched the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station during the summer of 2003. The rovers both operated well beyond their three-month prime missions.
ABOUT THE IMAGE: Click to enlarge the NASA image of Endeavour crater. You can also click the enlarged image for an even bigger, more detailed view. Photo Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.