The pale rock in the upper center of this image, about the size of a human forearm, includes a target called "Esperance," which was inspected by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. Data from the rover's alpha particle X-ray spectrometer (APXS) indicate that Esperance's composition is higher in aluminum and silica, and lower in calcium and iron, than other rocks Opportunity has examined in more than nine years on Mars. Preliminary interpretation points to clay mineral content due to intensive alteration by water. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.) Enlarge

May 18, 2013 — NASA's senior Mars rover, Opportunity, is driving to a new study area after a dramatic finish to 20 months on "Cape York" with examination of a rock intensely altered by water.

The fractured rock, called "Esperance," provides evidence about a wet ancient environment possibly favorable for life. The mission's principal investigator, Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., said, "Esperance was so important, we committed several weeks to getting this one measurement of it, even though we knew the clock was ticking."

The mission's engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., had set this week as a deadline for starting a drive toward "Solander Point," where the team plans to keep Opportunity working during its next Martian winter.

"What's so special about Esperance is that there was enough water not only for reactions that produced clay minerals, but also enough to flush out ions set loose by those reactions, so that Opportunity can clearly see the alteration," said Scott McLennan of the State University of New York, Stony Brook, a long-term planner for Opportunity's science team.

This rock's composition is unlike any other Opportunity has investigated during nine years on Mars — higher in aluminum and silica, lower in calcium and iron.

The next destination, Solander Point, and the area Opportunity is leaving, Cape York, both are segments of the rim of Endeavour Crater, which spans 14 miles (22 kilometers) across. The planned driving route to Solander Point is about 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers). Cape York has been Opportunity's home since the rover arrived at the western edge of Endeavour in mid-2011 after a two-year trek from a smaller crater.

More of the story, click image