NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover has begun climbing “Solander Point,” the northern tip of the tallest hill it has encountered in the mission’s nearly 10 Earth years on Mars.
Guided by mineral mapping from orbit, the rover is exploring outcrops on the northwestern slopes of Solander Point, making its way up the hill much as a field geologist would do. The outcrops are exposed from several feet (about 2 meters) to about 20 feet (6 meters) above the surrounding plains, on slopes as steep as 15 to 20 degrees. The rover may later drive south and ascend farther up the hill, which peaks at about 130 feet (40 meters) above the plains.
“This is our first real Martian mountaineering with Opportunity,” said the principal investigator for the rover, Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. “We expect we will reach some of the oldest rocks we have seen with this rover — a glimpse back into the ancient past of Mars.”
The hill rises southward as a ridge from Solander Point, forming an elevated portion of the western rim of Endeavour Crater. The crater spans 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter. The ridge materials were uplifted by the great impact that excavated the crater billions of years ago, reversing the common geological pattern of older materials lying lower than younger ones.
Key targets on the ridge include clay-bearing rocks identified from observations by the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars, which is on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The observations were specially designed to yield mineral maps with enhanced spatial resolution.