Welcome…

… to the “The Road To Endeavour”, a blog dedicated to following the ongoing mission of the Mars Exploration Rover ‘Opportunity’ as she explores the rim of the giant martian crater ‘Endeavour’!

Opportunity – or “Oppy” as many rover enthusiasts call her – landed on Mars eight years ago, and it was hoped at the time that she’d last maybe 90 days and drive up to a kilometre across the surface of Mars. Eight years later, having survived dust storms, mechanical problems and everything Mars can throw at her, Oppy is still working, and after driving to and studying several smaller craters further north, near her original landing site, she’s now studying a huge crater called “Endeavour”, analysing the rocks and dust there, trying to figure out if that part of Mars was once wetter, and warmer, and maybe even a possible habitat for life. Every day she takes, and sends back to Earth, photographs of the martian landscape, and this is where you’ll find them – original images and many I create myself, by stitching together raw images, colourising them or turning pairs of them into 3D “anaglyphs” which can give you the impresion of being *on* Mars…

This is actually a blog I wasn’t planning to write. I was planning on starting up a blog dedicated to the Mars Science Laboratory – NASA’s next mission to Mars – but when it was announced back in December 2008 the launch of MSL (the “Mars Science Laboratory”, or “Curiosity” to give her her proper name) had been put back from 2009 to 2011, so this is Plan B: a blog that I hoped would turn into a kind of travelogue, first following Opportunity’s long, loooong drive south to Endeavour crate and then chronicling her adventures once she got there – IF she got there…

Well, she not only got there, but since getting there she’s done some amazing science – and the best may yet be to come…

So, here’s the place to come for images of Endeavour Crater, as seen by Mars Reconaissance Orbiter and other probes, and by Oppy herself. It’s not meant to be serious, or particularly scientific, just a place to come for some interesting pictures and news updates, really. I hope you like what you find here, and keep checking for new images. :-)

Stuart Atkinson

@mars-stu on Twitter

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A ridge with a view…

Opportunity is now seeing some beautiful martian geology from her wind-swept* perch high up above Endeavour Crater, with rocks like these all around her…

rock

Let’s just recap quickly where she is…

crater

That shows the huge Endeavour Crater, with Oppy’s tour route to and past first Cape York and then Knobby’s Head, and her present position, all marked. Taking a closer look at where she is on that long range of hills now

hills

…and an even closer look…

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Let’s look a little closer still…

1

That’s where she is! And it’s a great spot to stop and catch her breath. Far below her, the crater is a great stone bowl, ringed by mountains and hills. Behind her, her own tracks lead back down to the flat, dusty plains. Ahead, many more metres of rock- and boulder-strewn ground to cover on the way up to the top of Solander Point…

Untitled-1

…and after driving around a pretty flat, featureless area for quite a while, Oppy has now reached a much more interesting region, with fascinating-looking ridges on the horizon up ahead and a rocky outcrop close by, shown here in a black and white navcam image mosaic.

nav1

Ever the explorer, Oppy drove right up to that ridge, and took some stunning pictures of it…

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Impressive! Ah, but when when you look at that same scene in colour, it really is beautiful… click to enlarge…

ridge col

Well, I think that’s beautiful, don’t you? At the moment the “other” Mars rover, Curiosity, is sending back some frankly jaw droppingly beautiful images from Gale Crater, but that image above – actually a mosaic of three different pancam views I’ve stitched together and colourised – is proof that Oppy can still take images to take your breath away, too…

Actually, it seems like Oppy has now driven away from that feature, and has taken up a position a short distance away from it…

nav2

I love that picture… the low angle lighting casting long shadows behind everything, the tracks leading to and then back away from the rocky outcrop, Oppy’s own distinctive shadow cast on the ground by the low Sun… just beautiful… :-)

…and speaking of low Sun’s, Oppy sent back this view a few sols ago, but I’m just getting around to posting it now, sorry…

low sun

What next? Well, personally I’m eager to see Oppy continuing on up the slope, cos I think that when she gets a bit further up she’s going to have an absolutely epic view of the Cape Tribulation heights looming up ahead, and the vast bowl of Endeavour opened up in all its glory beneath and beside her…

4

Check back soon to see what happens…

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Another “Rock Garden”…

Oppy continues to head uphill, exploring the upper level of Solander Point, and she’s reached some very rocky, rugged terrain. In fact, there are so many rocks, boulders and stones scattered around her that it feels like being back at the “Rock Garden” of ejecta surrounding Odyssey Crater back on Cape York…

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But where has Oppy got to on her travels? Here…

GE_Sol3610

I wonder what lies up ahead? Another couple of good drives should carry Oppy to and then over that ridge, and I think well then have a great view down into Endeavour Crater and also right along the range of hills and mountains which forms the western rim of the great crater. In the meantime, it looks like Oppy has been joining in with the “selfie” craze…

selfieCheck back soon for more images and news…

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Oppy under threat as she climbs higher…

… but not, as you might expect, from a savage martian dust storm, or a software failure, or a mechanical glitch. No. Having survived ten years of those, and worse, Opportunity is under threat from these

bean-counter

Bean-counters. Yes, Opportunity’s future seems to be hanging in the balance because, according to the latest NASA budget details, someone has decided that she isn’t worth keeping going after 2015. Those budget request details for that year show $0 available for Opportunity, meaning, basically, that they’re considering simply switching her off to save money.

oliv

Yes, you read that correctly. They are actually considering turning off a perfectly healthy, invaluable robot, exploring the surface of another world, because they don’t think they can afford it. I’ll give you a moment to pick your jaws up off the floor, and calm down, ok?

Now, it’s important to bear in mind that this is by no means final, it all has to be discussed and reviewed, etc. But the fact they’re even THINKING about doing it baffles and infuriates me. Seriously? I mean, SERIOUSLY? A Government that is spending god knows how many millions of dollars A DAY on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan can’t find the money to continue to fund what must surely rank as the most successful scientific mission to Mars ever? Are they having a laugh? The US Government, which is run – in theory – by a President who insists, at every opportunity, on telling us how much he loves and supports science, how important it is, how inspiring it is to him and his family, is thinking about pulling the plug on an almost perfectly-healthy robot explorer, which, after driving to and into craters, crossing vast seas of dust and rocks, survived dust storms and everything mars has thrown at it, is now climbing a mountain on Mars looking for traces of ancient clays?

Where the hell did this come from? What the hell is NASA thinking? Why aren’t they up in arms about this? They are seriously thinking of turning off one of the most successful robotic explorers ever built, which has inspired a whole generation of kids, engineers and armchair scientists, and changed our view of Mars, because they say they can’t afford it? Why don’t they stop messing about with all those Powerpoint-fuelled unrealistic fantasy daydreams of mega rockets, asteroid captures and manned Mars fly-bys and use their money sensibly? It’s lunacy.

I hope this will all end up just being shot down, and that the funds needed to keep Opportunity going are found – actually, they don’t have to be “found”, they’re already there, just being wasted on other things – and Opportunity can continue her grand adventure. If they do turn her off, just to save money, history will judge them and their short-sighted stupidity very, very harshly indeed.

On a brighter note, Oppy is now making good progress up Solander Point, and after the recent excitement over “Pinnacle Island” is getting back down to good, basic science and studying some of the more ordinary looking rocks at her feet. To recap quickly, let’s see where Oppy is now, compared to where she landed all those years ago…

Oppy march 14b

And where is she on Solander Point..? Here…

oppy march 14a

She has now driven up to this intriguing gathering of rocks…

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…and is studying it with the instruments on the end of her robot arm…

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Here’s a colour view of some of those rocks…

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See? Not particularly glamourous-looking, those rocks, just… rocks, good old martian rocks… but that’s how science works, anywhere, not just on Mars. The exciting and unusual comes and goes, but often it’s the study of the mundane and ordinary which tells us the most.

Oppy has been doing this for a decade now, with incredible success. I hope she can continue to do it for a long time yet. Of course, Opportunity could fail any day, any moment. Her software could go nuts. A motor could stall. A camera could break. The rover’s mission could be ended by any one of a dozen, a hundred, a thousand unfortunate things. To think of it being ended because NASA can’t find – or step up, grow a pair and fight for – the ridiculously small (by NASA and US Government standards) amount of money needed to keep her going is just heartbreaking and infuriating.

Let’s hope everyone involved sees sense.

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Farewell Pinnacle Island…

A last couple of images of the area around Pinnacle Island before Oppy starts exploring a new region of the slopes…

Image5b

Really pleased with the colour I achieved in that colourisation…

PI solved

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Solved! The Mystery of Pinnacle Island…

solved

After all the debate and discussion, NASA has announced, in a press release, that their clever scientists have solved the mystery of Pinnacle Island. Turns out it didn’t fall from the sky after being blasted out of the ground miles away by an asteroid impact, and it wasn’t thrown at the rover by a gang of mischevious martian kids. No. Occam’s Razor prevailed… as usual… and the rather less dramatic explanation is the most obvious one: Pinnacle Island was tiddly-winked onto the ground next to Oppy after one of the rover’s wheels rolled over and then broke up a larger rock nearby (“Stuart Island”, see previous post for pics), sending pieces of it skittering away, as this NASA image explains…

PIA17942_fig3

So, Pinnacle Island is the classic “chip off the old block”. Here’s the full explanation from the NASA press release…

February 14, 2014

Researchers have determined the now-infamous Martian rock resembling a jelly doughnut, dubbed Pinnacle Island, is a piece of a larger rock broken and moved by the wheel of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity in early January.

Only about 1.5 inches wide (4 centimeters), the white-rimmed, red-centered rock caused a stir last month when it appeared in an image the rover took Jan. 8 at a location where it was not present four days earlier.

More recent images show the original piece of rock struck by the rover’s wheel, slightly uphill from where Pinnacle Island came to rest.

“Once we moved Opportunity a short distance, after inspecting Pinnacle Island, we could see directly uphill an overturned rock that has the same unusual appearance,” said Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis. “We drove over it. We can see the track. That’s where Pinnacle Island came from.”

Examination of Pinnacle Island revealed high levels of elements such as manganese and sulfur, suggesting these water-soluble ingredients were concentrated in the rock by the action of water. “This may have happened just beneath the surface relatively recently,” Arvidson said, “or it may have happened deeper below ground longer ago and then, by serendipity, erosion stripped away material above it and made it accessible to our wheels.”

Now that the rover is finished inspecting this rock, the team plans to drive Opportunity south and uphill to investigate exposed rock layers on the slope.

So, there you go. Those “tracks” I spotted on the ground slightly up the slope? Nothing to do with Pinnacle Island after all. The little rock just tap danced its way to Oppy from barely a few feet away. Oh well, I’m just pleased that the NASA team figured it out. It’s still a fascinating story, isn’t it?

…not fascinating enough for some though, it seems. When NASA posted its press release on Facebook, inevitably some of the growing legion of space conspiracy theory nutters and whackos weren’t going to take their word for it…

t2

Yeah, well, that’s not too fruit loopy I guess. Ever since that film CAPRICORN ONE came out there have been people insisting NASA’s whole space program has been faked since Apollo. But this level of stoopid is new…

t1

I hope that guy is being silly and having a joke, but the classic Trolling use of UPPER CASE suggests otherwise. Still, if NASA really is preventing the discovery of life on other plants that would be news, wouldn’t it..?

More soon, Oppy’s on the move again…!

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Another Island…

More images have come back from the rim of Endeavour crater, showing the mysterious “jumping rock” Pinnacle Island and its surroundings. Here’s my latest colourisation…

PI plus Stuart Island

Pinnacle Island is, of course, the strange-looking “shell” of rock to the lower left there. To its upper right, just to the right of centre, is a larger, squarer-looking block of rock. Here it is in close up on another of my colourisations…

Stuart Island

Guess what they’ve called it… Go on, guess…

STUART ISLAND”!

Now I’m not sure what it’s been named after, but I know – contrary to what some very generous/optimistic/drunk readers are suggesting – it’s not been named after me! I wish! ( Actually, no, I don’t wish, because I think you have to be dead to have a feature or place on Mars named after you, and although that would be lovely one day I’m no rush to be given that honour. .! )

You know, with all these rocks being named after famous islands, it really is time we had a rock named “Craggy Island”, after the home of this lot, don’t you think?

Father-Ted-007

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Pinnacle Island – the Smoking Gun..?

New images of the ground just behind where Oppy is parked now show a very disturbed, churned up area which might be where Pinnacle Island came from. Here’s my colourisation of the raw images which came down recently…

PI_Origin_3

What are we seeing there? Well, you can see that Oppy really messed up the surface with her wheels there, the way the tracks have dug into the ground, pushing some rocks down into the dirt and dislodging others. Not too much of a stretch to imagine that Pinnacle Island was originally there too, perhaps even part of one of those rocks, and Oppy’s manouverings flicked it to where it is now?

PI_Origin_3b

I guess we might never know for sure, but it will continue to be debated and discussed for a long time. I’m sure…

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