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Mars rover Opportunity has new task on hand – exploration of fluid-carved gully

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NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity will, for the first time, drive down a gully is believed to have been carved by a fluid that might have been water.

In a statement released by NASA it was revealed that various missions have been spotting fluid-carved gullies on the surface of the planet since 1970s, but there haven’t been any examination from up close and Opportunity’s current location offers it a chance to drive through one such gully.

While driving down this gully, Opportunity will be investigating the gully as part of a two year extension it received starting October 1. Opportunity’s prime mission ended in April 2004 after a three month investigation on the Red Planet after it touched down on January 24, 2004.

“We have now exceeded the prime-mission duration by a factor of 50,” noted Opportunity Project Manager John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. Opportunity begins its latest extended mission in the “Bitterroot Valley” portion of the western rim of Endeavour Crater, a basin 22 km in diameter that was excavated by a meteor impact billions of years ago.

Ever since the end of the primary mission, Opportunity has been sending us vital information about Mars and continues to do so till date. As of now Opportunity is examining a crater on the planet, the edge which it reached in 2011 after more than seven years of investigating a series of smaller craters. The smaller craters had within them evidence of acidic ancient water that soaked underground layers and sometimes covered the surface. The gully chosen as the next major destination slices west-to-east through the rim about half a mile (less than a km) south of the rover’s current location. It is about as long as two football fields.

NASA mission scientists strongly believe that there was water involved in carving of this gully. Through Opportunity’s examination of the gully, the mission team intends to learn whether the fluid was a debris flow with lots of water and rubble or just water and less other material.

The team intends to drive Opportunity down the full length of the gully, onto the crater floor. The second goal of the extended mission is to compare rocks inside Endeavour Crater to the dominant type of rock Opportunity examined on the plains it explored before reaching Endeavour.