Mission controllers at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, announce that the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Opportunity will spend the next few weeks, or even months, analyzing a rocky formation called Matijevic Hill.
Located on the rim of the 22-kilometers (14-mile) wide Endeavour Crater – which has been Opportunity's drive target for about three years – the rocky formation is called Matijevic Hill.
It is named after Jake Matijevic, the late operations systems chief engineer for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and the rover Curiosity, who passed away on August 20, shortly after the latter landed on the surface of the Red Planet.
Opportunity is currently in its ninth year on Mars, having landed there in January 2004. The most intriguing geological features it discovered throughout its mission are located at Matijevic Hill.
This site contains high concentrations of small spherical objects, which look a lot like the blueberries (iron-rich spheres that Opportunity found early on in its mission), but are different at the same time.
The rover is now 35 kilometers (22 miles) away from where it first landed. Its original science mission was supposed to last just three months, and to see the rover drive around 600 meters (1,970 feet), but those goals have long since been exceeded, several times over.
The spherules Opportunity is currently analyzing are about 3 millimeters (an eighth of an inch) wide. Scientists are unsure as to how these small structures formed, and the rover's extended stay at Matijevic Hill is meant to help them clear out this mystery.
“Right now we have multiple working hypotheses, and each hypothesis makes certain predictions about things like what the spherules are made of and how they are distributed,” says Steve Squyres.
“Our job as we explore Matijevic Hill in the months ahead will be to make the observations that will let us test all the hypotheses carefully, and find the one that best fits the observations,” he goes on to add.
Squyres holds an appointment as a professor at the Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, and is also the principal science investigator for the MER mission. Since Spirit shut down, in 2010, he only manages the activities Opportunity engages in.
Referring to why the JPL team decided to name the rover's current location as Matijevic Hill, he says: “We wouldn't have gotten to Matijevic Hill, eight-and-a-half years after Opportunity's landing, without Jake Matijevic.”