NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) scientists announce that the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Opportunity is currently producing increased amounts of energy from its solar panels, after the end of the fifth winter it spent on the Red Planet. The robot has recently taken its first drive in many months.
The exploration rover was perched on an outcrop on the rim of Endeavour Crater, called Greeley Haven. This location was selected because it was tilted towards the Sun, allowing the machine to collect the largest amount of sunlight possible during the winter.
Opportunity took its last drive on December 26, 2011. While it remained active throughout the ensuing months, mission controllers did not send any commands to move, since these maneuvers would have rapidly drained battery life. The first drive of the new season was taken on Tuesday, May 8, 2012.
Confirmation that the new drive commands were executed successfully were relayed back through the NASA Deep Space Network, via the Mars Odyssey orbiter, which flies high above the planet's surface.
During the 19 weeks it was stuck on Greeley Haven, Opportunity conducted a series of scientific investigations on a series of small rocks and mineral deposits surrounding it. Its spectrometers and microscopic imagers (all on its robotic arm) were used extensively.
Experts also took advantage of the fact that the rover was stationary, in order to conduct a series of studies on the Martian interior. Using radio Doppler signals from the rover, scientists were able to calculate the planet's rotation with more accuracy than ever before.
Now that the winter is over, the machine can finally resume studying Endeavour Crater, a massive impact feature on the surface of Mars that has been the target of its drives for the past 3 years.
“We're off the Greeley Haven outcrop onto the sand just below it. It feels good to be on the move again,” says JPL rover driver Ashley Stroupe. She has been with the MER program for many years.
Opportunity arrived on Mars roughly 8 years and 3 months ago, for a mission that was originally scheduled to last for just 90 days. However, both it and its twin, Spirit, proved extremely resilient, and conducted extensive missions on the surface of the Red Planet.
While Spirit is now dead, Opportunity continues to carry on, since its location closer to the Equator is making it easier for it to harvest sufficient sunlight to power up its systems.
“We'll head south as soon as power levels are adequate to handle the slopes where we'll go. There are some deposits on Cape York where, based on their geologic setting, we think there's a good chance of finding ancient clays,” says JPL deputy project scientist, Diana Blaney.