Steve Squyres looks forward to reaching Santa Maria…

If you’re a follower – even a casual follower – of the Mars rovers’ mission (and if you’re not, why are you here?! 🙂 ) you’ll know who Dr. Steve Squyres is. If you don’t know who he is, he’s the PI, or  “Principal Investigator” for the MER mission. Officially, that means… oh, I’m not going to explain it, just click on this link to Wikipedia and it’ll tell you all you need to know. But essentially he is Mr MER, the guy who got Spirit and Oppy to Mars, against all the odds, and who has lived and breathed their great journeys of exploration and discovery ever since Landing Day.

Anyway… a couple of years ago I was lucky, and priviliged, to meet Steve Squyres when I visited JPL, and to my amazement and delight he recognised me as “the guy who writes the rover poetry”, which was quite a moment! (Imagine a young kid meeting their pop idol or football idol and that was me, in that corridor at JPL, lost for words and reduced to a bumbling idiot…!)

Dr Squyres was very generous with his time – like everyone involved in the MER mission that I’ve ever met or corresponded with – and has been since, answering quite a few emailed questions.

With Oppy now closing in on Santa Maria I thought I’d put some of the most burning Santa Maria-related questions to Steve, just to get a bit more of an idea of what Oppy is going to Santa Maria for, and what she might find once she gets there.

As Santa Maria looks so much like Endurance, is it going to be a case of “We’ll take a quick look around but nothing new to see here, keep driving!” or is it so close to Endeavour that it’s worth some more serious study, because there’s a chance we might find some of those Holy Grail phylosillicates?

We have no expectation of finding phyllosilicates at Santa Maria. The Endeavour rim is older than the sulfate sediments that we’ve been driving on over the entire mission… the rim sticks up through them like ancient islands in a sea of sulfate sediments. The stack of sediments is hundreds of meters thick. Santa Maria is formed in these sulfate deposits, and only excavated to a depth of perhaps a couple of tens of meters. So there’s no way it could have dug into the older stuff underneath. If we didn’t find phyllosilicates at at Victoria, I don’t think there’s any way we’ll find them at Santa Maria.  

That said, Santa Maria may have much to offer. It’s Endurance-like, but a bit fresher, so it could tell us interesting things about the cratering process on Mars that we can’t learn any other way. And of course, there’s always the possibility that something unknown and unexpected will pop up. 

I’m guessing there’s absolutely no chance of driving into the crater, not with a) so much dust piled up inside it, and b) Endeavour so close now..?

I would never say “absolutely no chance” of anything on this mission… Mars has surprised us too many times. But with Endeavour ahead of us, it clearly would take something quite extraordinary to tempt us into entering Santa Maria. I think it’s much more likely that we’ll do all our work there from the rim. We’ll decide once we get there. 

And finally, those big blocks around the outside of Santa Maria. That suggests this is a recently-formed crater in martian terms. Are there any plans to study those rocks up close?

Possibly. That’s another decision we’ll make once we get a closer look. 

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