Spirit & Opportunity:
Finding the Water and Conditions for Life!

The Mars Exploration Rovers tell us of an ancient time when Mars was awash in water, with good conditions for supporting microbial life. Here are some of the rovers' most significant discoveries about the red planet:

Soaked in Salty Waters Long Ago

Landing in a crater, Opportunity scored a "hole in one" by finding the mineral hematite, which typically forms in water. Water is key to life as we know it. Yet, acidic water soaked this area in Mars' ancient past, making conditions harder for life to thrive.

This high-resolution image captured by the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity's panoramic camera highlights the puzzling rock outcropping that scientists are eagerly planning to investigate.
Opportunity is on its lander facing northeast; the outcropping lies to the northwest. Full image and caption

Bathing in Neutral Water in a Warmer Climate

At a place called Comanche, Spirit found rocks ten times richer in key chemicals (magnesium and iron carbonates) than any other Martian rocks studied before. These rocks formed when Mars was warm and wet (had a thicker carbon-dioxide atmosphere and near-neutral-pH water). This warmer, watery environment could have supported life much better than the harshly acidic conditions the rover found elsewhere.

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Lengthy detective work with data NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit collected in late 2005 has confirmed that an outcrop called 'Comanche' contains a mineral indicating that a past environment was wet and non-acidic, possibly favorable to life.
Lengthy detective work with data NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit collected in late 2005 has confirmed that an outcrop called "Comanche" contains a mineral indicating that a past environment was wet and non-acidic, possibly favorable to life. Full image and caption

Steamy Times in Ancient Hot Springs

While dragging a wheel, Spirit churned up soil and found 90 percent pure silica at "Home Plate." On Earth, this kind of silica usually exists in hot springs or hot steam vents, where life as we know it often finds a hot, happy home. Perhaps ancient microbes on Mars did as well.

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Spirit acquired this mosaic while investigating the area east of the elevated plateau known as 'Home Plate' in the 'Columbia Hills.'  The trench exposed a patch of nearly pure silica, with the composition of opal. It could have come from either a hot-spring environment or an environment called a fumarole, in which acidic, volcanic steam rises through cracks. Either way, its formation involved water, and on Earth, both of these types of settings teem with microbial life.
Spirit acquired this mosaic while investigating the area east of the elevated plateau known as "Home Plate" in the "Columbia Hills." Full image and caption

Explosive Signs of a Once Heated Habitat

Spirit discovered that an ancient volcano erupted at "Home Plate," the rover's final resting place. Together, powerful steam eruptions from heated underground water produced some explosive volcanism. While violent, these extreme conditions can support microbial life on Earth. Once upon a time, maybe they did on Mars…

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The lower coarse-grained unit shows granular textures toward the bottom of the image and massive textures.
The lower coarse-grained unit shows granular textures toward the bottom of the image and massive textures. Full image and caption

Slam-Dunk Signs of Flowing Water

Score! Near the rim of Endeavor Crater, Opportunity found bright-colored veins of gypsum in the rocks. These rocks likely formed when water flowed through underground fractures in the rocks, leaving calcium behind. A slam-dunk sign that Mars was once more hospitable to life than it is today!

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This color view of a mineral vein called "Homestake" comes from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity.
This color view of a mineral vein called "Homestake" comes from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. Full image and caption

Compelling Clays: A Friendly Place for Life

Opportunity found the most compelling signs of a watery past on Mars: clay minerals formed in neutral-pH water. Of all the places studied by the twin rovers, this environment at Endeavor Crater once had the friendliest conditions for ancient microbial life.

This image from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows a pale rock called 'Esperence,' which was inspected by the rover in May 2013.
This image from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows a pale rock called 'Esperence,' which was inspected by the rover in May 2013. Full image and caption

Craters and the Story They Tell

Opportunity is a crater explorer. The rover has visited and studied the geology well over 100 impact craters of all sizes in its 14 years on Mars. It has learned about the lives of craters: how they form and erode through time.

NASA's Opportunity Mars rover, working on Mars since January 2004, passed marathon distance in total driving on March 24, 2015. This map shows the rover's entire traverse from landing to that point.
NASA's Opportunity Mars rover, working on Mars since January 2004, passed marathon distance in total driving on March 24, 2015. This map shows the rover's entire traverse from landing to that point. Full image and caption

Long-Term Study of the Martian Environment

Opportunity has been continually monitoring Mars for more than 14 years! It has collected a wealth of scientific riches on the Martian environment by studying Mars' clouds and dust, the opacity (tau) of its atmosphere, and how it affects the solar panels (solar energy). This type of information will help inform future Mars missions.

This self-portrait from overhead shows a side-by-side view of the rover solar panels. The solar panels on the left appear brown and dusty, while the solar panels on the right are light gray-green and appear wiped clean of dust.
This self-portrait from overhead shows a side-by-side view of the rover solar panels. The solar panels on the left appear brown and dusty, while the solar panels on the right are light gray-green and appear wiped clean of dust. Full image and caption

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