Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) mission managers at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) say that Opportunity will spend its next winter on the Red Planet at a location called Greeley Haven. Following preliminary analyses, the area promises to provide interesting science for a long time.
The exploration robot is currently located at the rim of the massive Endeavour Crater. This landscape feature was its target for the past three years. Very few of its mission managers expected the machine to make it, but Opportunity did not disappoint, and reached its destination with only minimal damage.
It has only been conducting investigations at Endeavour for a few months, but it now needs to take a break for conducting energy-intensive operations. The 8-year-old robot will receive decreasing amounts of sunlight over the next few months, during the Martian winter.
Therefore, it needs to be set in a position that will ensure its dusty solar panels make the best of all available sunlight. JPL experts learned just how important this is the hard way, when Spirit became trapped in sand in an unfavorable position, at the beginning of the last Martian winter.
The rover team began looking for a good spot to park Opportunity a few weeks ago. They determined that Greeley Haven, a Sun-facing outcrop on the rim of Endeavour named after planetary geologist Ronald Greeley (1939-2011), is the best possible option right now.
It could be said that the rover has extensive experience with cold seasons on the Red Planet. This will be its fifth winter there, even though the MER mission was originally supposed to last just 90 days.
“Plans for research at Greeley Haven include a radio-science investigation of the interior of Mars, which began this week; inspections of mineral compositions and textures on the outcrop; and recording a full-circle, color panorama: the Greeley Panorama,” the JPL team says.
There are good chances that Opportunity will survive this winter as well. Though it has dusty solar panels, its current position will help it produce as much electricity as possible during the shortening Martian days. At the same time, it could get lucky, and have its panel cleaned by a gust of wind.
Dust is currently the rover's main enemy, since it diminishes the rate at which the machine can produce electricity. The only other thing that damages it is if someone at JPL decides to get behind the wheel drunk, and drives it over the cliffs.