spaceSpace and Physics

NASA Is Sending A Rover Into A Water-Carved Gully On Mars For The First Time


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

An artist's impression of Opportunity. NASA

For the first time ever, a rover is going to drive down a gully on Mars that's believed to have been formed by water. Yes, that is rather exciting.

The rover is NASA’s Opportunity, which landed on Mars on January 24, 2004. For the last five years, it has been exploring Endeavour Crater, a basin 22 kilometers (14 miles) wide that was created by a meteor impact billions of years ago.


This new task, which is part of a two-year extended mission that started on October 1, will be the first time the rover has ventured into the crater. Opportunity will travel down a gully that’s about the length of two football fields and cuts west to east through the crater’s rim.

It is thought that the gully was formed by water, with many such gullies having been seen from orbit over the years. We’ve never actually explored one of these gullies up close before, though, so this should give us a fascinating insight into the history of Mars.

Above, the gully Opportunity will explore, as imaged by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

It’s worth noting that Opportunity doesn’t really have any instruments that can detect past or present life, so don’t expect anything of that sort. But it will be able to study the geology of the area and compare rocks to others it has seen so far.


"We may find that the sulfate-rich rocks we've seen outside the crater are not the same inside," said Opportunity Principal Investigator Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, in a statement. "We believe these sulfate-rich rocks formed from a water-related process, and water flows downhill. The watery environment deep inside the crater may have been different from outside on the plain – maybe different timing, maybe different chemistry."

Opportunity will drive down the entirety of the gully on its way to the crater floor, possibly helping scientists learn how water flowed down it. Was it a flow of debris shifted by water, or was it mostly carved by water?

The rover is into its 12th year on Mars, having originally been scheduled to last just 90 days. Although it’s still working, it is starting to get a bit worse for wear, including the loss of one of its memory caching systems last year.

In 2017, Opportunity will face its eighth Martian winter. Who knows how much longer it will keep going, but as long as it does, we can enjoy these exciting new missions that tell us more about Mars and how it was once much more Earth-like.


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