In the movie "Spinal Tap," rockers try to push their music over the cliff by dialing their amplifiers up to 11. This week, NASA is amping up interest in the Opportunity rover's 11-year mission on Mars by releasing a full-color clifftop panorama. On a 1-to-10 scale, it's an 11.
Opportunity hit the Martian surface on the night of Jan. 24-25, 2004, for what was expected to be a 90-day mission. The solar-powered, six-wheeled robot and its twin, the Spirit rover, exceeded those expectations with a vengeance. Spirit didn't give up the ghost until 2010 — and Opportunity is still in operation today with almost 26 miles (42 kilometers) on its odometer.
The pictures for the panorama released Thursday were acquired this month at Cape Tribulation, a raised section of the rim of Endeavour Crater in Mars' Meridiani Planum region. The depths of the crater yawn in front of Opportunity, and the rover's robotic arm was positioned so that an American flag is visible at the bottom of the scene.
Since these pictures were collected, Opportunity has left the summit and is heading toward its next destination, Marathon Valley. "It's all downhill (about 70 meters down in elevation) from here," wrote Larry Crumpler, a researcher from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science who's part of the rover science team.
Marathon Valley is a spot where water-related minerals have been detected from orbit. Opportunity's close-up observations could add to the insights that the mission has already provided about the warmer, wetter Mars that is thought to have existed billions of years ago.
The spot will mark another milestone for a machine that has racked up more mileage than any other off-world rover: By the time Opportunity reaches Marathon Valley, it will have driven the equivalent of a marathon (26.2 miles, or 42.2 kilometers).