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NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity captured this view of "Burns Cliff" after driving right to the base of this southeastern portion of the inner wall of "Endurance Crater." The view combines frames taken by Opportunity's panoramic camera between the rover's 287th and 294th martian days (Nov. 13 to 20, 2004).

Mars rover Opportunity took this panoramic view of Burns Cliff over a period of seven days.

PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA/JPL/CORNELL

Andrew Fazekas

for National Geographic

Published January 23, 2014

Ten years after it landed on Mars—a milestone in the annals of endurance—NASA's Mars Opportunity rover is still turning up evidence that the red planet was habitable 3.7 billion years ago. (See: "Exploration: Mars Rovers.") Its latest discoveries have been detailed in a news briefing and a Science magazine study released on Thursday.

Opportunity landed on January 25, 2004, inside an airbag that bounced across the Martian plain. Its robotic twin, Spirit, which landed on January 4 of that same year, ended its mission in 2011. But Opportunity is still trundling across the deserts and craters of Mars.

Both rovers far surpassed their projected three-month lifetimes, uncovering evidence of ancient water in rock layers and making unprecedented scientific observations of the planet. The six-wheeled Opportunity has gone on to make hundreds of pit stops on its dusty journey, breaking the record for distance traveled on another world—24 miles (38.7 kilometers).

Now investigating the Endeavor crater, in the Meridiani Planum region, Opportunity has discovered deep rock layers indicating that watery conditions favorable to early life once existed there.

In the just released study, led by Ray Arvidson of Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri, the rover science team shows that these layers were deposited by less acidic, life-friendly waters, and then covered by rock layers deposited by more acidic, less hospitable waters—in the drama that built the Martian plain over several billion years.

In a related series of reports, NASA's Curiosity rover, now at Mars's Gale crater, offers evidence of similar habitable watery conditions there, in lake deposits that formed more recently than the ones at Meridiani Planum. Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012. (See: "Mars Curiosity Milestone: Top Five Discoveries.")

"These results demonstrate that early Mars was habitable, but this does not mean that Mars was inhabited," writes Caltech's John Grotzinger, head scientist on the Curiosity rover team, in a commentary accompanying the reports. And since the surface rocks now being explored by the rovers were first exposed by weathering some 80 million years ago, he suggests that future Mars missions looking for evidence of ancient microbial life face a daunting challenge.

Until that mission is undertaken, we can celebrate Opportunity's explorations. It has snapped tens of thousands of high-resolution images. This one, taken in November 2004, shows a stunning panoramic view of a massive outcropping along the wall of Endurance crater.

Forty-six individual images were stitched together to create this true-color composite (pictured above) showing the impressive formation called Burns Cliff.

Opportunity Visits Its Heat Shield

A photo the heat shield impact site of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA/JPL.CORNELL

In December 2004 Opportunity visited the heat shield it had jettisoned during its descent to Mars. This panoramic view shows shiny, twisted metal and insulation from the shield (visible on the left and at center), along with the crater (on the right) that was dug when the shield hit the ground.

Mission team members asked Opportunity to make the trek to the site to learn more about how their landing hardware had performed and to investigate the light-colored sand the impact had splashed around the crater.

Victoria Crater

A photo of
PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA/JPL/CORNELL

Less than a week before this detailed image of Victoria Crater was captured by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Opportunity drove up to the crater's rim.

The rover can be seen as a tiny, pixelated dot at about the ten o'clock position on the edge of the crater.

The crater stretches more than a half mile (800 meters) across. Heavy erosion along its rim has exposed sedimentary layers of the inner wall; undulating sand dunes cover its floor.

Cape St. Mary

A photo of the Victoria crater on Mars.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA/JPL/CORNELL

While exploring Victoria Crater in June 2007, Opportunity took detailed images of prominent outcrops along the western rim of the crater.

Known as Cape St. Mary, the peninsula-like, cross-layered rock formation rises some 45 feet (15 meters) above the crater floor. It's thought to have formed from sand dunes that once migrated across this region.

Skirting a Rock Pile

A photo of rover tracks on Mars.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA/JPL/CORNELL

Meandering tracks left by Opportunity, seen in this April 2007 photo, showcase its autonomous hazard-avoidance system at work, letting the rover plot and then follow a safe, curving path around the pile of rocks visible on the right.

In the distant background the rocky rim of Victoria Crater rises above the flat, dusty Martian plain.

Opportunity Makes Tracks

A photo of a view from the Mars rover Opportunity.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA/JPL/CORNELL

After making a precarious drive of 199 feet (60.8 meters) on July 19, 2009, Opportunity used its navigation cameras to look back at its own tracks.

Mission engineers asked the intrepid rover to detour around the deep sand dunes visible on the right, where it could have gotten stuck.

Martian Dunes Dance

A photo of dunes on Mars.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA/JPL/CORNELL

In May 2010 Opportunity stopped in its tracks and snapped this poignant shot of the distinctly reddish-brown dunes that lay ahead of it, just as the late afternoon sun set off to the right.

The iron-laced, wind-formed sand dunes, made up of grains of volcanic rock, blanket most of the red planet.

Panorama Opens Martian Vistas

A photo of the Santa Maria crater on Mars.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA/JPL/CORNELL

In honor of its seventh landing anniversary, back in January 2011, Opportunity captured a series of high-resolution images that were stitched together to produce this breathtaking panoramic vista of Santa Maria Crater.

The false-color view of the oval, football-field-size crater allowed scientists to pinpoint water-bearing mineral deposits exposed along the inner wall.

Opportunity Selfie Displays Days of Dust

A self-portrait of the Mars rover Opportunity.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA/JPL/CORNELL

Heading into its fifth Martian winter in December 2011, Opportunity took this downward-looking self-portrait.

Rust-colored dust coats the rover's solar panels, testimony to its many years of exploration in the barren desert.

The dust buildup hinders the rover's ability to power its instruments. Yet wind storms have blown them clean in the past, allowing Opportunity to keep on roving.

Nobbys Head

A photo of Nobby’s Head on Mars.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA/JPL/CORNELL

In June 2013 Opportunity's Pancam captured this spectacular view of the rise in the foreground, called Nobbys Head. It's on the western rim of Endurance crater, which the rover had spent the previous two years exploring.

The robotic geologist's next destination is visible in the distance on the right—Solander Point, where scientists investigated clay minerals that indicated the environment had been wet billions of years ago.

7 comments
rut brea
rut brea

I was wondering if the Rover dig in the ground of this planet, how deep does it would go. Maybe deeper digs could find more evidence of life? I think that there most have been some kind of life, if not human. It would be a great discovery.

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

What a wonderful achievement and success Opportunity has been. Full credit to all those involved in the design and operation of the rover. I hope it continues for some time to come.

george okoh
george okoh

Man's ingenuity at play. Next stop; human exploration

Didier Newman
Didier Newman

Was it habitable? Then, perhaps, is there fossils or life on Mars, life elsewhere? But, isn’t the emergence and maintenance of life a process of radical contingency? That is, is a unique and unrepeatable past totally necessary? Or does life emerge through space like mushrooms when some conditions are present? So, how many conditions are necessary: three, four, trillions, infinite? Only one, water or any sort of God? Is God the word that means infinite conditions, absolute necessity? Anyway, how did the life that emerge in a given conditions resist when switching to a different  moment? How does life resist time itself, the effects of entropy? But, is it possible for human beings to recognise a simpler life than their own brain only? On the other hand, beyond likeness, is it possible to recognise a complex life than their brain, is this the extra-terrestrial life that some people are searching unsuccessfully? However, is there an origin of life or would it be as finding a cut in the material history of the universe, an infinite void that human language patches now? Along these lines, there is a peculiar book, a short preview in http://goo.gl/rfVqw6 Just another suggestion, far away from dogmas or axioms.

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