Onwards to Smectite Valley…

Since the last update, Oppy has been making slow but sure progress up the ancient, weathered spine of the range of hills which forms the western rim of the mighty Endeavour crater. Oppy continues to enjoy having lovely amounts of power available to her, thanks to the martian winds cleaning most of that horrible dust off her back, and she is now approaching some truly fascinating-looking rocks, and is within just (“just”? Haha!!) 2km of one of her most eagerly anticipated scientific destinations to date – “Smectite Valley”, a deep notch cut out of the hills further to the south, which is where high levels of smectite clays have been detected from orbit. It will be a while until Oppy reaches that valley – but more of that later. For now, a quick reminder of where Oppy has been, and where she is now…

p1bYou can see from that graphic – produced using Google Earth – that Oppy arrived at the rim of Endeavour at a small rocky “island” sticking up out of the Meridiani Plain called “Cape York”. She explored the Cape extensively, then headed south, passing a smaller, lower ‘island’ called “Knobby’s Head” before setting out for the foothhills of the western crater rim. She made landfall there at “Solander Point” and then drove up onto the rocky ramp there, and has basically been climbing ever since, passing one ridge or outcrop after another, pausing at them – like any good hiker, or tourist would – to take a good look around her, drink in the view, and take pictures before moving on. Most recently she passed a feature which many suggested had been christened “Pillinger Point”, in honour of British planetary scientist Prof. Colin Pillinger who sadly died recently. In my last post I showed a beautiful colour panorama of that feature, produced by James Sorenson, and I urge you all to go back to that post to enjoy it again, it’s stunning…

Well, it seems that that feature has now been officially named “Pillinger Point” – actually, it’s more a case of “has been officially proposed to have its name accepted as Pillinger Point”, because all the names put forward by the MER team are informal and not binding any way… but none of their suggestions as, to my knowledge, ever been turned down, so it’s a pretty safe bet that anything ‘christened’ by the MER team will bear that name in the future – and you can read all about that, and Oppy’s science there, in this incredibly detailed MER Update by the Planetary Society’s AJS Rayl. I’m delighted and proud to say that I was asked to contribute to this latest update with some comments and observations about Prof. Pillinger, and I was thrilled to find they’d been woven into and around comments by Steve Squyres. Anyway, go take a look, I hope you like it.

Soo… what next for Oppy? What lies up ahead? Well, *directly* up ahead are some very interesting rocks, and as you can see from these two panoramas, taken just a day apart, she appears to be heading right for them…

pano24b

pano27bI think she’ll spend several days, at least, exploring those outcrops and shelves. And then? Ah, then she will be heading for “Smectite Valley”, which is around 2km further along the spine of the hills…

p2

That’s a “vertically exaggerated” view from Google Earth, which looks even more dramatic in close up…

p5

…like a great hand gouged a hole out of the western side of the hills, but from a different angle, with less exaggeration, you can see what the “Valley” really is…

p7

If anything it’s more like a giant hand came down from the sky and cut a trench right through the hills, like martian motorway or railway contractors cutting a path to allow glittering golden sand-ships to cut through the hills and drop straight down into the crater floor, rather than go all the way round…

And why is this “valley” so exciting for the MER team scientists? To quote from the aforementioned AJS Rayl update…

This valley is a mother lode of clay minerals — at least CRISM has detected the signatures for three different types of clay minerals. Though it’s being referred to by team members as the ‘smectitie valley,’ Squyres said the valley actually remains officially unnamed. “We donโ€™t have a name for that and I guess we ought to come up with one soon,” he said.

The valley with the strong smectite signature that remains unnamed extends all the way down into the crater. “But you can see it’s not a deep valley, it’s still kind of at the crest of Cape Tribulation,” said Arvidson. “And it certainly looks different in the color in the CRISM data.”

Oppy’s route to this geological “promised land” is yet to be decided. There are two options. Oppy can either just keep hiking along the top of the hills, or she can drop back down onto the flatter ground and head that way… (note: routes are my pie-in-the-sky guesses, not based on any NASA info)

p6

Whichever route she takes, when she gets to the valley – and yes, they really do need to choose a good name for it! – they will find a LOT to keep them busy for quite a while.

I’ve been taking a close look at the valley using the HiRISE image viewer, and it is an intriguing place. See for yourself…

SV1jpgJust look at the rich geology waiting for Oppy in there! Ledges, outcrops, ridges, crumbling walls, boulders as bug as or even bigger than Oppy herself strewn all over the floor… that’s a scientific Narnia right there! ๐Ÿ™‚

Let’s take a look at this fascinating place in colour… I warn you tho, it’s a bewilderingly-busy place…

smectite valley col wide angleI’m really looking forward to seeing the floor of the eastern entrance of the valley, as it appears to be absolutely strewn with big rocks…

SV bouldersIt’s very hard, I know, to get a sense of scale from images like this, so let’s circle a boulder which is APPROXIMATELY the same size as Oppy, that will help…

SV boulders plus Oppy scaleOh, we’re going to see some amazing sights in there, aren’t we?

Let’s take a look at the valley as a whole, with our “virtual Opportunity” added for scale… You’ll need to click on the next image to see it properly…

smectite valley colour oppy scaleI know what you’re all wondering – WHEN WILL OPPY GET THERE?!?! Simple answer – no idea. That depends what she finds along the way, which route she takes, lots of things. She’ll get there when she gets there. But whenever that is, I think we’re in for some beautiful pictures and some stunning science, don’t you?

In the meantime, thanks for stopping by my blog, and I hope you come back again. Finally, a very happy INDEPENDANCE DAY to all our US readers. Hope you have a fantastic, and safe, time this July 4th. ๐Ÿ™‚

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2 Responses to Onwards to Smectite Valley…

  1. hugoburnham says:

    Thanks for the Oppy update and congratulations on your well earned contribution to “A.J.S’s” Planetary Society post Stu. Your hard work and enthusiasm deserve a little acknowledgment now and then.

  2. Pingback: Allgemeines Live-Blog ab dem 5. Juli 2014 | Skyweek Zwei Punkt Null

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