The longest-exploring rover on the red planet has new plans of expanding its horizons. For the first time, the Mars Opportunity rover will go into a gully created a long time ago by a fluid that could have been water.
The 12-year-old mission has incorporated visiting the interior of the crater it stood beside for at least five years.
These new programs are part of a mission extension that began on Oct. 1. The rover has gone through plenty of extensions since its first mission was completed in 2004, taking 90 Martian days, the equivalent of 92.4 Earth ones. Opportunity left Earth on July 7, 2003, and landed on the red planet on Jan. 24, 2004.
"Milestones like this are reminders of the historic achievements made possible by the dedicated people entrusted to build and operate this national asset for exploring Mars," explained the Opportunity Project Manager John Callas of NASA.
The rover is in the "Bitterroot Valley" on the western side of the Endeavour crater, which is 14 miles in diameter. Its formation was caused by a meteor hitting its surface billions of years ago.
"We may find that the sulfate-rich rocks we've seen outside the crater are not the same inside," said Steve Squyres, Opportunity principal investigator.
The first time the rover approached this crater was back in 2011. The event occurred after a long investigation of smaller formations. As Opportunity visited smaller craters for seven years before getting to Bitterroot Valley, it spotted acidic ancient water that soaked underground layers and have even covered the planet's surface at one point.
The rover will not stop its exploration here. On the contrary, it seems to grow in ambition, as Opportunity will go to the bottom of the gully, to the crater floor. The goal of this mission, aside from the expedition itself, is to examine the rocks inside the Endeavour crater and compare them to the ones previously discovered in other locations.
While Opportunity appears to have exceeded the life expectancy of its components, its twin brother wasn't as lucky. Spirit lost two of its six wheels before it broke down during the Martian winter of 2010, after four years of exploration.
This state of facts makes the scientists responsible for Opportunity's journey worry about the two-year extension of its mission, even though most of its mechanisms are still completely functional and working at the programmed parameters.
2017 will mark the rover's eighth Martian winter. Because of the long time spent on the mission, Opportunity's flash memory doesn't allow storing information anymore, which means that the daily recorded data is either transmitted to the base or lost.
The rover has climbed the steepest slope ever later this year. Its 12-year mission has marked a large number of firsts, among which the gully exploration is the most ambitious.