Climbing The Cape…

Sometime today Oppy will pass a major milestone on her epic trek to Endeavour crater. Sometime today she will roll over a small, unmarked and unremarkable dust dune on the surface of Mars that will mark the 29km point in her journey. Think about that for a moment. 29km. Twenty nine kilometres. I hope the MER team, as busy as they are, will allow themselves a moment to celebrate and congratulate each other on this incredible achievement. As we all know, when the MERs landed on Mars hopes were high that they might survive for 90 days, and maybe travel as far as a kilometre… they’ve done rather better than that. 🙂

As Oppy rolls on across Meridiani, homing in on Cape York, optimism is growing that she will achieve what was was once thought impossible – reach the crater’s rim and carry out serious science there. Of course, no-one’s taking this for granted; she could fail any day… any moment… she could have fallen apart into a thousand pieces like a clown car as you started to read this… but on the quiet, without wanting to jinx her or count any unhatched chickens, I think most of us who follow the MER mission are now quietly confident that sometime in the summer Oppy will reach the rim of Endeavour Crater.

Then what?

Well, in his interview above, Ray Arvidson gave us a sneaky peek at what is in store for Oppy once she reaches Cape York…

“Opportunity will cross Botany Bay and make measurements of the exposed plains rocks because newly acquired oversampled CRISM observations indicate the presence of poly-hydrated sulfate mineral exposures that we wish to check out. We will then access the Fe/Mg smectites on the Endeavour side of Cape York (ancient Endeavour rim materials) to make detailed measurements.”

Soooooo….. I took that to mean that Oppy will drive right down the western side of Cape York, curve around the southern end and then climb up the eastern, Endeavour-facing side, to reach the precious phyllosilicates on the eastern side… maybe something like this..?

3D rendering courtesy of Bernhard Braun

That’s one possible route, but of course there are lots of others. They’ll decide how to get up there when they’re a lot closer. But I think they’ll head for that general area because that’s where the goodies are, that’s where the “Holy Grail” phyllosilicates are, shown in red here on a CRISM image…

Now, obviously it will be *fantastic* to find some phyllosilicates and study them properly, but personally I’m just as excited about what Oppy will see from up there. Looking to the west she won’t see much, because she’ll be at the bottom of something of a dip in the local topography. But turning around to look to the east… she’ll have the eastern hills of Endeavour spread out before her. Now, we probably won’t see an awful lot more detail on those hills than we can see now – even when Oppy reaxches Cape York those hills will still be some 20km further away across the other side of the huge crater – but we will be able to see the full extent of them, right down to their base, across the crater’s floor. They should be a wonderful sight. I honestly think we’ll see some beautiful views.

So, Oppy is making good progress, and by the time you read this she’ll probably have passed the “29km driven” mark. Ahead, the rim of Endeavour, and the promise of some incredible science if and when she rolls up to Cape York and goes hunting for those precious phyllosilicates. But what exactly are those? Why are they so important? Why is the prospect of finding them at Endeavour making the scientists drool?

We’ll take a really close look at that in another post soon… 🙂

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1 Response to Climbing The Cape…

  1. vanDivX says:

    I have been reading your December 04 2008 article here

    You were puzzled by what that ‘rile’ surrounding the hill or mountain feature on the rim of the crater is about (“Looks like there’s some kind of valley or rille running around the outside, doesn’t it?”). It looks like melt run off but still, I’d be curious to hear from experts things like how all these features came to be. I mean when something came crashing down to make the Endeavour crater, these hills weren’t there or were they? Or have they been pushed up by the impact that formed the Endeavour crater (or ‘heaped up’ from crater ‘excavation’ during impact’. And further, is that surrounding moat due to heat (generated by the impact) melting run off?

    Soon we should be crossing that region but I imagine experts should know already or go out on the line and tell us now what they think. Or is that the case where nobody quite knows and would say ‘we’ll know when we get there and see up close’ and then when we do, they still won’t know? As is usually the case?

    I would certainly find such general explanation of geologic history of this place interesting, perhaps more so than that about those phylosilicates (or what are they called) that we go to look at on the shoulder of that hill (looks like we won’t go to look at that small crater that we will circle around in the process of getting to that phylosilicate place north of it).

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