Opportunity Knocks -- on a Martian Crater

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Opportunity Knocks -- on a Martian Crater
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Narrator: Opportunity knocks – on a Martian crater.

I'm Jane Platt with a podcast from JPL -- NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

After surviving a whopping dust storm this summer, the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is getting ready for what could be its biggest adventure yet -- climbing down into Victoria Crater.

With us today is the rovers' project manager, John Callas of JPL. John, what is the big deal about Victoria Crater—why do you want to go there so badly?

Callas: Victoria Crater is by far the largest feature that Opportunity has the opportunity to visit or examine. It’s a half mile diameter crater, about 800 meters, and because it’s so large, it also means it's deeper than anything we’ve examined before. And so going down into the crater is kind of like going back in time. It allows us to examine geology that normally would be buried, but it would be very old geology. So it’s like reading a Martian history book and getting a few more chapters in by going into the crater.

Narrator: You said it’s about half a mile wide. How deep is it?

Callas: It’s about, right now it's about 70 meters deep, and I say now because its an eroded crater. It originally was much deeper when it first formed millions of years ago. But it has since been filled in. So we won’t go all the way down into the crater, but we will be able to go a good way into the crater.

Narrator: Going into Victoria Crater, though, is not without its risks.

Callas: That's right, you know anytime we attempt something like this there are going to be risks and dangers but we've looked at it very carefully. It turns out where we have chosen to go into Victoria Crater is actually going to be safer and easier than the place where we went into Endurance Crater some years ago with Opportunity. So we picked a spot where there are gentle slopes, there’s a good footing for the rovers’ mobility system. And so we think it’s safe not only to go in, but to come back out again.

Narrator: So the rover is not just jumping into the crater, it’s going very slowly, you guys are driving it very cautiously.

Callas: That’s right, it’s a very easy, a person could walk down this slope quite easily.

Narrator: And what do you have to do to prepare to actually get the rover to dip its toe into the crater?

Callas: Well, first we want to make sure everything is working okay on the rover. These rovers have been on Mars more than 3-1/2 years, much longer than they were originally designed. So it is an older rover. So we want to make sure everything is working or at least we understand how well each of the rover systems are working, because we do know there are a few things that have degraded a little bit with age. And that the capability of the rovers is up to the task that we've picked out for it, that it can drive down these particular slopes and be able to do the kind of exploration, make the kind of scientific measurements that we hope to make inside the crater.

Narrator: Now you were planning to do this drive into Victoria crater earlier in the summer, but then those massive dust storms kicked up and affected not only Opportunity but its twin, Spirit, on the other side of Mars. You had to have been nervous for a while there.

Callas: This is a historic storm in terms of the severity of it to these rovers. Neither rover has ever seen anything like this before. We think this is probably the worst storm that’s ever been observed from the surface of Mars. And it was potentially a rover-killing storm. The skies darkened so much that the rovers were at risk of survivability. And the main issue is power, the rovers need sunlight not only to operate but to keep themselves warm. We don’t want the electronics on the rovers to freeze, and to guard against that, you need energy to operate the heaters on the rovers. So we were concerned we wouldn’t even have enough energy to keep the rovers warm. But we were fortunate, we got through the worst part of the storm by essentially hibernating the rovers, but now that the storm has passed, the rovers are back up to doing science again, and continuing on to the level of activity that they had before the storm.

Narrator: What is it that you would hope you learn by Opportunity going into Victoria?

Callas: Well, I’m not sure we’ll know ahead of time, that’s the whole idea of going in, but it’s exploring something new, exploring something different and expanding our knowledge of Mars. Ya' know, a way to think of it is both rovers have been driving and so have been covering different areas on Mars. By going now down into this crater, we can sort of add a third dimension to our exploration of the planet. And so we hope that we’ll have some exciting results, I’m sure we’ll have some exciting results, from within the crater.

Narrator: And you’ll be watching like a proud papa!

Callas: Yes indeed.

Narrator: Alright, thanks John. More information on the rovers is online at www.nasa.gov/rovers. Thanks for joining us for this podcast from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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