LOS ANGELES - The Mars rover Opportunity is snapping pictures like a tourist since arriving at its latest crater on the Red Planet, much to the delight of scientists many millions of miles away.
The solar-powered workhorse beamed back images of the horizon, soil and nearby rocks that are unlike any it has seen during its seven years roaming the Martian plains.
Opportunity is doing more than just sightseeing. It recently spent a chunk of time using its robotic arm to investigate a flat-topped boulder to find out what it's made of. After a three-year drive, the six-wheel rover finally rolled up to the western rim of Endeavour Crater earlier this month to begin a new chapter of exploration.
Project managers chose the locale because it's older and different than previous spots Opportunity has visited. The view from orbit reveals tantalizing evidence of clay deposits believed to have formed in a warm and wet environment early in Mars' history.
The next task will be to search for more ancient rocks and hunt for the elusive clay minerals, said the mission's deputy principal investigator, Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis. Opportunity's latest feat comes months after NASA bid farewell to its identical twin Spirit. Both rovers parachuted to opposite ends of the red planet in 2004 and lasted years beyond their original three-month task.
Spirit fell silent last year not long after it got mired in a sand trap. NASA diligently listened for a signal from the rover and gave up in late May. To commemorate Spirit, the rover team named a spot on Endeavour Crater "Spirit Point."
Opportunity will soon have company on the surface. NASA is set to launch a mobile laboratory named Curiosity in November after a two-year delay. Once it arrives on Mars in summer 2012, Curiosity will study a mountain inside a 96-mile (154-kilometer) wide crater to determine whether conditions were favorable to support microbial life.