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Mars drama takes new turns

More than three years into its mission on Mars, NASA's Opportunity rover is gearing up for what could be the journey's climax: a descent into 230-foot-deep Victoria Crater to read the pages of what the mission's top scientist calls "a geologic history book." The update from Cornell University astronomer Steven Squyres, principal investigator for NASA's Mars rover missions, was just one of several new turns in the saga of Red Planet exploration.


A photo from NASA's Opportunity rover looks back
at its tracks on the rim of Victoria Crater.

During Saturday's awards banquet at the International Space Development Conference in Dallas, the National Space Society recognized Squyres' work with one of its highest honors, the Von Braun Award. The award takes its name from Wernher von Braun, the German rocket scientist who helped lead NASA's effort to land humans on the moon in the 1960s. As he accepted the trophy, Squyres evoked the legacy of those earlier days, saying that the Mars rover project would rank along with Apollo as "one of NASA's finest hours."

"I take some comfort in the fact that the same agency that put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon almost 40 years ago put Spirit and Opportunity on Mars less than four years ago," he told the audience. "That gives me a lot of hope for the future."

Squyres has a lot of hope for Opportunity's future as well. Not that long ago, he was saying that Opportunity was likely to end its mission by surveying the quarter-mile-wide Victoria Crater, then rolling down into the crater for a closer look at its bedrock cliffs. But on Saturday, he hinted that there might yet be life after Victoria.

He noted that the probe, which has spent the last couple of months making a clockwise trip around the crater's rim, has now reversed course and is heading back to the place where it started its survey: a breach in the rim called Duck Bay.

"Our adventure continues," he said. "We hope to travel to Duck Bay. If a careful safety review indicates that it's safe to go in, we're going to go in. We're going to do a lot of good science, and then we're going to come out again and keep going forward."

In the crater-pocked plains where Opportunity has been operating, much of the science has focused on the layers in the rock exposed by ancient impacts. Back in January 2004, the rover happened to land in a small crater within sight of layered bedrock - the first ever seen from the ground on Mars. A close analysis of the layers in that crater provided evidence that the planet once had enough liquid water to sustain life. Later, layered rock in a larger crater, dubbed Endurance, told a more complex story about Mars' past.

Victoria Crater is an even bigger geological laboratory, measuring a half-mile (800 meters) wide.  The layered rocks lining the walls of the crater are likely to yield deep insights about Mars' geologic ages, just as layered rocks on Earth reveal the epochs of our own planet's development.

JPL / NASA / Cornell

NASA's Opportunity rover gets a good look at the
layered rock of Victoria Crater's Cape St. Mary.

During his talk, Squyres flashed a picture that was sent down just a day earlier, showing a promontory known as Cape St. Mary. Previous images have picked up fine layers in the cliff face, but the latest view shows the details in sharp relief.

"Absolutely spectacular geology," Squyres said. "If I told you this was the Navajo sandstone in Zion National Park, you'd probably believe me."

Fortunately, the Opportunity rover seems to be benefiting from solid spacecraft engineering - and a bit of luck as well. Just recently, a strong Martian wind swept the dust off the rover's solar panels, boosting its power-generating capability back to levels not seen for more than three years.

Opportunity isn't the only game in town, of course. On the other side of the planet, the Spirit rover is plugging away as well, more than 1,200 Martian days into a mission that was built with a 90-day duration in mind. Squyres touched upon last week's revelation that Spirit's dragging wheel turned up a patch of almost pure silica - one more line of evidence that Mars once had liquid water. Squyres joked that the area where Spirit found the paydirt has been nicknamed "Silica Valley."

He also pointed out that the rover readings are increasingly being supplemented by views from above, courtesy of NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. MRO provided the overhead view of Victoria Crater that the rover team is using to map Opportunity's progress, and it's also watching Spirit's home base in Gusev Crater for coordinated observations of Martian dust devils.

"We're using these vehicles in tandem now," Squyres said.

With that in mind, here are a few additional nuggets from the International Space Development Conference, mostly playing off the twists and turns of Martian exploration:

  • NASA / JPL / Univ. of Ariz.

    MRO's Martian black hole.

    This week MRO sent back a high-resolution look at one of the Martian black holes previously spotted by NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. The latest view, like the earlier ones, hints that such holes were created when ground collapsed into underground caverns. "This is quite exciting," said the University of Arizona's Peter Smith, the principal investigator for NASA's upcoming Mars Phoenix mission. He speculated that the holes might even be venting water vapor from subsurface reservoirs. A future orbiter could check out that hypothesis, using a "smart" spectroscopic imager that was programmed to recognize and observe such holes, he said.

  • Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, laid out his case for going to Mars directly rather than following NASA's vision of creating an outpost on the moon first. He said his updated Mars Direct concept could put people on the Red Planet by 2019 - assuming that the next president gave the go-ahead in 2009. Zubrin argued that using the moon as a staging ground for Mars missions would use up far more energy than the direct route - creating a "lunar tollbooth" to other destinations. But doesn't NASA need to prepare for Martian exploration by sending folks to live and work on the moon? "We can do that in the Arctic at one-thousandth of the cost," Zubrin said. Even now, the Mars Society is in the midst of a four-month-long Mars mission simulation in the Canadian Arctic.

  • Former senator-astronaut Harrison Schmitt received the National Space Society's first-ever Gerard K. O'Neill Space Settlement Award at a Sunday night banquet, and took the opportunity to detail his own vision for developing the moon and bringing back lunar helium-3 as a future fuel for fusion reactors. Helium-3 is a big issue for Schmitt, a trained geologist who became the first scientist to walk on the moon during 1972's Apollo 17 mission. For more on helium-3, check out these archived articles or Schmitt's book, "Return to the Moon." He speculated that one day we'll "have another free society develop on the moon," and perhaps Mars as well - and that they eventually might declare independence from Mother Earth, a la Jefferson or Heinlein.

  • Closer to home, a gaggle of space bloggers (including yours truly) assembled in Dallas for what was billed as a Saturday "summit." It was actually more of an informal sitdown with colleagues, topped off by a panel discussion. Some of our colleagues - including HobbySpace's Clark Lindsey and NASA Watch's Keith Cowing - were sorely missed. But to get a glimpse of the scene, check out Glenn Reynolds' report on Instapundit. Want to join the club? Check out SpaceBloggers.com

Earlier posts from the ISDC: Space diving and other coming attractions in space ... Space tourism gets down-to-earth ... Dude, where's my spaceship?

Update for 2:30 a.m. ET May 30: I neglected to mention the gratitude that Squyres heaped on the team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., for saving the rover missions at multiple do-or-die moments. Thanks to Roger Crowe for reminding me of JPL's contribution. It's worth noting that in the appendix of his book, "Roving Mars," Squyres lists the names of more than 4,000 people who contributed to the rover missions' success. Squyres is a class act, and the failure to recognize JPL in the original version of this item is my fault, not his.