Veteran Mars rover Opportunity is on the verge of completing a marathon on Mars, but before it crosses the imaginary finishing line at "Marathon Valley," the plucky six-wheeled robot has found some odd rocks that require further investigation.
PHOTOS: 10 Years On Mars: Opportunity's First Sols
"We drove to the edge of a plateau to look down in the valley, and we found these big, dark-gray blocks along the ridgeline," said Matt Golombek, Opportunity Project Scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We checked one and found its composition is different from any ever measured before on Mars. So, whoa! Let's study these more before moving on."
Marathon Valley is so-called as when the rover rolls into the area, it will have completed the distance of a marathon on Mars - 26 miles and 385 yards, or 42.195 kilometers. At its current location, Opportunity is a mere 128 meters from completing that distance.
Apart from being a momentous location for Opportunity's epic 11 year-long exploration of the red planet, the valley also contains clay minerals as discerned from satellite spectroscopic data; clays that contain invaluable insights to Mars' wet past. But it seems that the entrance to Marathon Valley is just as enticing as the valley itself promises.
ANALYSIS: Mystery Rock ‘Appears' in Front of Mars Rover
One of the strange-looking blocks has been nicknamed "Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau" and, using its robotic arm-mounted Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer instrument, the rover has determined that the rock contains "relatively high concentrations of aluminum and silicon," unlike any other rock sample analyzed by Opportunity or sister rover Spirit (that was sadly lost in 2010 after becoming stuck in a sand trap in Gusev Crater).
Opportunity's science team has now selected another rock in the area, named "Sergeant Charles Floyd," for additional analysis. The naming convention for these two rocks were inspired by the Lewis and Clark Expedition that ventured across Western portion of what is now the United States in the early 19th Century.
According to a NASA JPL news release, the rocks are gray, but the visible light spectrum of Charbonneau is more purple than most Mars rocks, whereas Floyd is more blue. The bluer rocks appear to lie higher on the ridge.
ANALYSIS: Mars Rover Opportunity Suffers Worrying Bouts of ‘Amnesia'
After analyzing Charbonneau, Opportunity's mission team uploaded new software to the rover's computer that is now instructing the rover to avoid writing data to a corrupt bank in the rover's flash memory. It is now only writing data to 6 of the 7 banks in the hope that Opportunity's "amnesia events" can be remedied.
Since late 2014, Opportunity has been in "no flash mode", instead only using its volatile memory that is wiped every day. Lack of flash memory and frustrating rover resets have slowed progress in recent months, but with this new upgrade, mission engineers hope that Opportunity can shrug off these age-related issues and soldier on.
Scientists will not recommence use of Opportunity's robotic arm until they have varified the software upgrade is working as it should after a pending flash memory reformat.
Opportunity landed on Mars' Meridiani Planum on Jan. 25, 2004 and had a primary mission of only 3 months. Although age-related computer issues have hindered progress and some instrumentation is wearing out, the rover is still doing historic work around the rim of Endeavour Crater, piecing together the fascinating geological evolution and habitable potential of Mars.