Washington, September 23 : Plans are all set for NASA's Mars Rover Opportunity to head towards a crater more than 20 times larger than the current crater in which it was recently housed.
To reach the crater the rover team calls Endeavour, Opportunity would need to drive approximately 7 miles to the southeast, matching the total distance it has traveled since landing on Mars in early 2004.
"We may not get there, but it is scientifically the right direction to go anyway," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, principal investigator for the science instruments on Opportunity and its twin rover, Spirit. "This crater is staggeringly large compared to anything we've seen before," he added.
Getting there would yield a look inside a bowl 13.7 miles across. Scientists expect to see a much deeper stack of rock layers than those examined by Opportunity in Victoria Crater.
"I would love to see that view from the rim. But even if we never get there, as we move southward we expect to be getting to younger and younger layers of rock on the surface," said Squyres.
"Also, there are large craters to the south that we think are sources of cobbles that we want to examine out on the plain. Some of the cobbles are samples of layers deeper than Opportunity will ever see, and we expect to find more cobbles as we head toward the south," he added.
Opportunity will have to pick up the pace to get there.
The rover team estimates Opportunity may be able to travel about 110 yards each day it is driven toward the Endeavour crater. Even at that pace, the journey could take two years.
"This is a bolder, more aggressive objective than we have had before," said John Callas, the project manager for both Mars rovers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
"It's tremendously exciting. It's new science. It's the next great challenge for these robotic explorers," he added.