The rover Opportunity, which got its first look at the rim of the Martian crater Endeavour on March 7, 2009, is finally within striking distance of its objective. Since climbing out of the Victoria crater in August 2008, Endeavour has driven about 11 miles at the blistering pace of 60 centimeters an hour.
Maybe that partly explains why news of the rover, which used to be a hot topic, has faded from view. Maybe that will change now the vehicle has less than 31 feet to go before reaching the crater rim's "Spirit Point" (in honor of its fellow rover) perhaps as early as Wednesday. Along the way, the rover has been collecting quite an archive of image of the Martian topography as you'll see in the accompanying photographs on display here.
Rock formations like these have intrigued astronomers poring over the data sent back from the rover. So far the question of whether water ever existed remains without a final coda. But scientists say there is reason to believe that the crater's geology may offer important clues to help answer the question.
Another reason for NASA's excitement: when the rover Opportunity reaches Endeavour's crater, it will be within reach of the oldest rocks that it has come across during the seven years it has been trekking across Mars.
The Endeavour crater measures 14 miles in diameter and contains earlier sedimentary material than any so far examined by NASA's Mars rovers.
The Opportunity Rover arrived on the Red Planet in January 2004, just a couple of weeks after the landing of its fellow rover, called Spirit. Neither was expected to last much beyond three months but they remained operational for years. Opportunity has proved to be the sturdier robot, successfully weathering often brutal Martian weather conditions, replete with dust storms and harsh winters which last twice as long as those back on Earth. The Spirit, which went radio silent about a year ago, was officially declared out of commission this year.
The crater will be the fourth one explored by Opportunity. At this point, NASA says it does not intend to direct the rover to move into the crater, fearing it might get bogged down. Rather, the route will take the rover around the crater's southern rim.
Rover Opportunity pictured here working on a rock informally named "Gagarin" March 10 and 11, 2005.. This picture, taken by the vehicle's navigation camera, shows the circular mark left on the rock.