Image: Vein
NASA / JPL / S. Atkinson
A close-up from NASA's Opportunity rover shows the light-colored feature known as "Homestake" or "The Vein." Scientists report that the mineral vein consists of gypsum, a hydrated calcium sulfate that is formed on Earth in the presence of water and is used to make drywall and plaster of Paris. One of the joints in Opportunity's robotic arm can be seen in the picture's foreground.
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updated 12/7/2011 11:09:24 PM ET 2011-12-08T04:09:24

A well-traveled NASA Mars rover has found some of the best evidence yet that water flowed on the Red Planet's surface long ago, researchers announced Wednesday.

The Opportunity rover, which landed on Mars nearly eight years ago, has discovered a thin, bright mineral vein along the rim of a huge crater called Endeavour. This mineral is almost certainly gypsum that was deposited by liquid water billions of years ago, researchers said.

"This is the single most powerful piece of evidence for liquid water at Mars that has been discovered by the Opportunity rover," Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Opportunity's principal investigator, told reporters here during the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

Exploring Endeavour Crater
The golf-cart-size Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, landed on Mars in January 2004 to search for signs of past water activity on the Red Planet. [Mars Photos by Spirit and Opportunity]

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The two rovers' prime missions were slated to last just three months, but both far outlived their warranties. NASA declared Spirit dead just this year; Opportunity is still going strong.

After a three-year trek, Opportunity reached the 14-mile-wide (22-kilometer) Endeavour Crater this past August. While poking around Endeavour's rim recently, it found the mineral vein, which is 20 inches (51 centimeters) long and about the width of a human thumb.

After analyzing the vein with Opportunity's cameras and X-ray spectrometer last month, researchers concluded that it is gypsum, a hydrated calcium sulfate that on Earth is used to make drywall and plaster of Paris. The vein likely formed right where Opportunity found it, researchers said.

"There was a fracture in the rock, water flowed through it, gypsum was precipitated from the water. End of story," Squyres said. "There's no ambiguity about this, and this is what makes it so cool."

Cosmic Log: See the gypsum vein in 3-D and extreme close-up

Strong evidence
Both Spirit and Opportunity have found other good evidence of water activity on ancient Mars, including signs of hydrothermal systems. But the new discovery at Endeavour Crater is particularly convincing and compelling, researchers said.

"Here, both the chemistry, mineralogy, and the morphology just scream water," Squyres said. "This is more solid than anything else that we've seen in the whole mission."

The gypsum vein is also intriguing for scientists interested in whether or not Mars was ever capable of supporting life. Some of the ancient wet environments Spirit and Opportunity have found were likely very acidic. But gypsum formation is consistent with (though not dependent on) a more neutral and therefore benign pH, researchers said.

There's no water at Endeavour today, however. It's bone-dry, like the rest of Mars appears to be.

Opportunity keeps rolling
Opportunity is showing a few signs of its advanced age, such as an arthritic shoulder joint in its robotic arm. But the robot just keeps chugging along, and should continue to do so into the future.

"She's in excellent health," said Bruce Banerdt, rover project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "This is far from being a rickety old rover."

Opportunity should keep roving until next month, when it will position itself in a favorable spot to wait out the frigid Martian winter. The robot won't shut down during this time, researchers said; it will remain awake, studying the rocks around it and perhaps even moving a few feet now and then.

If all goes well, the rover should put its traveling shoes back on next summer sometime, Banerdt told Space.com. The team isn't sure how far Opportunity can go or how long it will last on Mars, but they're happy they can still go along for the ride.

"Every day is like a gift," Squyres told Space.com.

You can follow Space.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter: @michaeldwall. Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom  and on Facebook.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: The greatest hits from Mars

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  1. The face of Mars

    The Hubble Space Telescope focuses on the full disk of Mars, with a head-on view of a dark feature known as Syrtis Major. Hubble astronomers could make out features as small as 12 miles wide. (AURA / STSCI / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Red, white and blue planet

    Two decades before Pathfinder, the Viking 1 lander sent back America's first pictures from the Martian surface. This 1976 picture shows off the lander's U.S. flag and a Bicentennial logo as well as the planet's landscape. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Grand canyon

    This is a composite of Viking orbiter images that shows the Valles Marineris canyon system. The entire system measures more than 1,875 miles long and has an average depth of 5 miles. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Red rover

    A mosaic of eight pictures shows the Pathfinder probe's Sojourner rover just after it rolled off its ramp. At lower right you can see one of the airbags that cushioned Pathfinder's landing on July 4, 1997. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Twin Peaks at their peak

    The Pathfinder probe focuses on Twin Peaks, two hills of modest height on the Martian horizon. Each peak rises about 100 feet above the surrounding rock-littered terrain. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Blue horizon

    A Martian sunset reverses the colors you'd expect on Earth: Most of the sky is colored by reddish dust hanging in the atmosphere, but the scattering of light creates a blue halo around the sun itself. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Two-faced Mars

    The image at left, captured by a Viking orbiter in the 1970s, sparked speculation that Martians had constructed a facelike monument peering into space. But the sharper image at right, sent back in 1998 by Mars Global Surveyor, spoiled the effect. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Put on a happy face

    The "Happy Face Crater" - officially named Galle Crater - puts a humorous spin on the "Face on Mars" controversy. This image was provided by the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A monster of a mountain

    Mars' highest mountain, an inactive volcano dubbed Olympus Mons, rises as high as three Everests and covers roughly the same area as the state of Arizona. Mars Global Surveyor took this wide-angle view. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Pockmarked moon

    Mars Global Surveyor snapped this picture of Phobos, the larger of Mars' two potato-shaped moons. Phobos' average width is just 14 miles. The image highlights Phobos' 6-mile-wide Stickney Crater. () Back to slideshow navigation
  11. From Mars with love

    This valentine from Mars, as seen by Mars Global Surveyor, is actually a pit formed by a collapse within a straight-walled trough known in geological terms as a graben. The pit spans 1.4 miles at its widest point. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Sandy swirls

    An image taken by Mars Global Surveyor shows a section of the northern sand dunes on Mars' surface. The dunes, composed of dark sand grains, encircle the north polar cap. (JPL / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Curls of clouds

    Global Surveyor focuses on a storm system over Mars' north polar region. The north polar ice cap is the white feature at the top center of the frame. Clouds that appear white consist mainly of water ice. Clouds that appear orange or brown contain dust. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Swiss cheese

    Global Surveyor captured images of a frost pattern at Mars' south polar ice cap that looks like Swiss cheese. The south polar cap is the only region on the Red Planet to contain such formations. (NASA / JPL / Malin Space Science) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Purple Planet

    A false-color image from the Opportunity rover, released Feb. 9, 2004, accentuates the differences between a green-looking slab of Martian bedrock and orange-looking spheres of rock. Scientists likened the "spherules" to blueberries embedded within and scattered around muffins of bedrock. The spherules are thought to have been created by the percolation of mineral-laden water through the bedrock layers. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Dunes of Mars

    A false-color view from NASA's Opportunity rover, released Aug. 6, 2004, shows the dune field at the bottom of Endurance Crater. The bluish tint indicates the presence of hematite-containing spherules ("blueberries") that accumulate on the flat surfaces of the crater floor. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Alien junkyard

    The Opportunity rover looks at its own heat shield, which was jettisoned during the spacecraft's descent back in January 2004, on Dec. 22, 2004. The main structure from the heat shield is at left, with additional debris and the scar left by the shield's impact to the right. The shadow of the rover's observation mast is visible in the foreground. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Devil on Mars

    This image shows a mini-whirlwind, also known as a dust devil, scooting across the plains inside Gusev Crater on Mars, as seen from the Spirit rover's hillside vantage point on April 18, 2005. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Rub al Khali

    The tracks of NASA's Opportunity rover are visible in a panoramic picture of a desolate, sandy stretch of Martian terrain in Meridiani Planum, photographed in May 2005 and released by NASA on July 28. "Rub al Khali" (Arabic for "Empty Quarter") was chosen as the title of this panorama because that is the name of a similarly barren, desolate part of the Saudi Arabian desert on Earth. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Double moons

    Taking advantage of extra solar energy collected during the day, NASA's Spirit rover spent a night stargazing, photographing the two moons of Mars as they crossed the night sky. The large bright moon is Phobos; the smaller one to its left is Deimos. (NASA / JPL / Cornell / Texas A&M) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Mars in the round

    A 360-degree panorama shows a stretched-out view of NASA's Spirit rover and its surroundings on the summit of Husband Hill, within Mars' Gusev Crater. The imagery for the panorama was acquired in August, and the picture was released on Dec. 5. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Fossil delta

    Scientifically, perhaps the most important result from use of the Mars Orbiter Camera on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor has been the discovery in November 2003 of a fossil delta located in a crater northeast of Holden Crater. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Underneath the ice

    This view taken in January 2005 shows sharp detail of a scarp at the head of Chasma Boreale, a large trough cut by erosion into the Martian north polar cap and the layered material beneath the ice cap. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Celestial celebration

    Controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., cheer on Friday after hearing that Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully made it into orbit around the Red Planet. (Phil McCarten / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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