First aerial colour photo of Mars rover’s “hole-in-one” landing site

The bright landing platform left behind by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity in 2004 is visible inside Eagle Crater, at upper right in this April 8, 2017, observation by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

NASA has released the first high-resolution aerial colour image of the Opportunity rover’s landing site on a sprawling Martian plain, where the airbag-cushioned robot fortuitously rolled into a Eagle Crater in January 2004, putting its scientific instruments face-to-face with a block of sedimentary rock that gave ground teams confirmation Mars was once a warmer, wetter, and habitable planet.

The image captured by the sharp-eyed HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on April 10 shows the landing platform that carried Opportunity to the Martian surface still sitting inside Eagle Crater, a 72-foot-diameter (22-metre) depression on Meridiani Planum, a flat region near the desert planet’s equator.

Opportunity was targeted to land at Meridiani Planum, using a combination of a heat shield, parachute, rocket thrusters and airbags to touch down on the red planet. But its bounce into Eagle Crater on Jan. 25, 2004, was a pure accident.

Once it stopped, the lander’s airbags deflated and its four petals unfolded to expose the rover.¬†NASA christened the landing site Challenger Memorial Station after the lost space shuttle.

This segment of a panoramic image taken by Opportunity in March 2004 shows the rover’s landing platform inside Eagle Crater before the craft departed the area. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

The rover drove off its lander to explore Eagle Crater, then climbed out of the pit in March 2004. Since then, Opportunity has logged 27 miles (44 kilometres) of driving and traversed Mars for more than 13 years.

The mission was originally supposed to last 90 days, and Opportunity’s warranty was for 1 kilometre (3,300 feet) of driving. The rover is still operating today, currently located on the rim of nearby Endeavour Crater, 1,000 times the size of Eagle Crater.

The HiRISE image from April 10 also shows Opportunity’s backshell and parachute to the southwest of Eagle Crater. Those components of the descent system were released just before touchdown.

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