Opportunity’s Big Smoking Hole

Opportunity’s Big Smoking Hole

Heat shield debris field on the rover’s 347th martian day, or sol (Jan. 14, 2005). The view is a southward-looking, 60-degree panorama assembled from four images taken by Opportunity’s navigation camera. It is the right-eye member of a stereo pair presented as a cylindrical-perspective projection with geometric seam correction. The main piece of the heat shield is in the middle of the image, with the smaller flank piece behind it and the divot caused by the impact on the right.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL

This stunning image features the heat shield impact site of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. This is an approximately true-color mosaic of panoramic camera images taken through the camera’s 750-, 530-, and 430-nanometer filters.

The mosaic was acquired on Opportunity’s sol 330 (Dec. 28, 2004), shortly after Opportunity arrived to investigate the site where its heat shield hit the ground south of "Endurance Crater" on Jan. 24, 2004. On the left, the main heat shield piece is inverted and reveals its metallic insulation layer, glinting in the sunlight. The main piece stands about 1 meter tall (about 3.3 feet) and about 13 meters (about 43 feet) from the rover.

The other large, flat piece of debris near the center of the image is about 14 meters (about 46 feet) away. The circular feature on the right side of the image is the crater made by the heat shield’s impact. It is about 2.8 meters (9.2 feet) in diameter but only about 5 to 10 centimeters (about 2 to 4 inches) deep. The crater is about 6 meters (about 20 feet) from Opportunity in this view. Smaller fragments and debris can be seen all around the impact site.

The impact excavated a large amount of reddish subsurface material. Darker materials cover part of the crater’s flat floor and have formed a streak or jet of material pointing toward the two largest heat shield fragments.

This shield protected the rover during its descent through the martian atmosphere, and then detached before the rover’s airbags inflated. When the heat shield hit the ground, it split in two and turned inside out.

Mars Spirit
Spirit explored Gusev crater’s geochemistry. Click image for larger view.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL

By looking at the heat shield with a microscopic imager, engineers hope to determine how deeply the atmospheric friction charred the shield’s protective layers.

"For the scientists, this has been really fun, because we get to sit back and let all the engineers do all the really hard thinking," says the rover’s principal science investigator, Steve Squyres. "We just take pictures to make the engineers happy."

In the coming decade, scientists hope to bring a Mars sample back to Earth. The current exploration strategy is to have orbiters above Mars, looking for places that may have once had liquid water. The rovers are then sent in for a closer look. For instance, the Mars Global Surveyor detected hematite, a mineral that often forms in the presence of water. So the MER rovers were sent to places where hematite was plentiful and where landing wouldn’t be too difficult.

Mars Odyssey recently detected water ice near the surface in the high latitudes, and in 2007 the Phoenix Mars Lander will investigate those regions. This August, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will be launched. What it discovers will determine the fate of the Mars Science Laboratory, which is scheduled for launch in 2009.

Related Web Pages

Giving Mars Back its Heartbeat
Looking for Martian Life
Should We Terraform?
Walking Naked on the Red Planet
United Nations of Mars
Living on Mars
The Martian Future