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Exquisite details shows in the rocks currently being examined by Opportunity. Credit: NASA/JPL. Colour by Stuart Atkinson Exquisite details shows in the rocks currently being examined by Opportunity. Credit: NASA/JPL. Colour by Stuart Atkinson

Opportunity rocks as Mars team is honoured

Sen— While NASA's latest visitor to Mars, Curiosity, is currently making all the headlines, another rover is quietly continuing to explore another part of the Red Planet eight and a half years after it landed.

Opportunity is returning remarkably detailed images of an outcrop of layered rock on the rim of Endeavour crater, a sample of which is shown in our main picture.

Opportunity's survey work, checking possible clay minerals that could tell planetary scientists about the crater's formerly wet environment billions of years ago, is no less important than that of Curiosity, of Mars Science Laboratory. It offers further parts of the jigsaw of clues to help understand whether Mars could ever have supported life.

Now the mission team behind Opportunity and its fellow Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, which finally bit the dust in 2010, have been honoured for the incredible success of the project.

They have been chosen to receive the Haley Space Flight Award which will be presented to them on Wednesday, September 12, at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space 2012 Conference and Exposition in Pasadena, California.

John Callas, Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, will accept the award on the team's behalf.

Opportunity is currently sitting about 8,400 km (5,200 miles) from where Curiosity landed inside Gale Crater on August 6. Endeavour Crater is 22 km (14 miles) wide and Opportunity in at the edge of a section of its western rim named Cape York.

Callas said: "On behalf of the many hundreds of scientists and engineers who designed, built and operate these rovers, it is a great honour to accept this most prestigious award.

"It is especially gratifying that this comes right as Opportunity is conducting one of the most significant campaigns in the eight-and-a-half years since landing. We still are going strong, with perhaps the most exciting exploration still ahead."

Opportunity has now spent well over 3,000 sols, or martian days, since it bounced to a landing on Mars in airbags way back in January 2004. The robot and its sister probe Spirit were designed for original missions lasting 90 Earth days.

Spirit became trapped in sand in November 2009 after two of its six wheels stopped working. Power ran out and all contact was lost in March 2010.

Curiosity self-portrait

Curiosity's photo of its own "head" or mastcam instruments. Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

Meanwhile, Curiosity has sent back an entertaining self-portrait, as one camera, the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on its robotic arm, was turned to look at the Mastcam and ChemCam imagers on its Remote Sensing Mast.

The image, reminiscent of Disney movie robot WALL-E, had a serious purpose of course and was taken to inspect instruments on the mast. It is slightly fuzzy because MAHLI had its dust cap on so that NASA could check that too.

Note: Many thanks to Stuart Atkinson, author of the excellent blog The Road To Endeavour that follows the daily exploits of Opportunity, for colouring the image in our main photo above.

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