It must now be only a matter of days until Oppy leaves Santa Maria crater and heads off on what might be the most important leg of her epic trek across Mars – the 6km drive to Cape York, a small raised ‘island’ of rock on the rim of Endeavour Crater. This drive will take several more months, and on any one of the days ahead Oppy could stutter and grind to halt through some technical fault that is, even now, as you read these words, ticking away inside her like a time bomb, just waiting to go off. But, all being well, sometime in the summer, Oppy should catch her first sight of Cape York, roll up to it, and begin her scientific assault on the fascinating rocks and minerals to be found at Endeavour.
Oppy seems to be reluctant to leave Santa Maria, doesn’t she? It’s like she’s a kid that is trying to delay going to bed. “Awww, just one more rock…!” “Can’t I take just one more picture..?” (“No! Get driving! You’ve been here long enough!!”) I think that by this time next week she’ll be on her way.
So, as Oppy tightens the straps of her rucksack, screws on the cap on her water bottle and checks her ticket one last time, preparing to depart from Santa Maria, what can we expect from the next few months? What lies ahead for Oppy when she finally turns her back on Santa Maria and heads for those myetsrious and magical faraway hills of Endeavour?
Here’s one POSSIBLE route Oppy might take between Santa Maria and Cape York, based purely on me looking at the terrain between the two craters using Google Mars and identifying features betweenthe craters that Oppy *might* find interesting enough to stop and look at.
Note: this is 100000% speculation; the MER team has already stated that they’re not planning many stops at all, unless they come across something exciting or unusual, like a dinosaur bone or an alien skull (JOKE!!!! There are no alien skulls here! They’re all at Spirit’s landing site… ) so this is, as usual, just me messing about. Having said that, Oppy will need to make some stops, if only to rest her weary wheels, be checked out, and allow the driving and science teams to take a breather, and these features do lie along what seems to me like a pretty practical and quick route between the two craters, so I reckon Oppy will stop for a look at at least a couple of them. We’ll see. Even if I’m totally wrong… which is more than possible! – these pics will still give you a rough guide to what lies ahead.
But whatever the route Oppy takes to Cape York, there are several important points to make about the journey ahead. Firstly, it’s quite an “up and down” rollercoaster track, as the terrain between the two craters climbs and dips at several points along the way. That’s clear from this next image – on the bottom is an “elevation profile” showing the way the ground rises and falls between the two craters.
(I must add here that I’m no expert in these matters, and this tool of Google Mars might not be 100% accurate, so just use it as a rough guide, ok? Put simply, Oppy will be driving uphill and downhill several times as she heads to Endeavour).
Looking at that a little more closely we can see two very distinct “dips” in the terrain once Oppy is past the halfway point:
The largest dip in the terrain begins 3.2km from Santa Maria, and is approx 1.5km wide. In its centre is a small patch of bedrock, like one of those “lilly pads” Oppy frequently hopped between as she travelled from Victoria Crater to Santa Maria.
There’s another depression in the terrain immediately after that large one, and then, if you look closely at the right hand side of that last picture you’ll see I’ve marked another location with a small yellow circle. This spot, just a couple of hundred metres before the edge of Cape York itself, is where I think we might actually get our first full view of Cape York. We might bits of it before Oppy reaches here, but the ground drops away at this spot so much I’ve nicknamed it “Cape View”, because I honestly think we won’t see Oppy’s designated landfall site in its entirety until we reach this area. You’ll see what I mean from this next image:
Before we get there the view of Cape York will be obscured pretty well by the rises and falls of the terrain.
But, just going back a couple of steps, where *is* Cape York in relation to the Santa Maria skyline? Well, again, using Google Mars, I’ve worked out its rough location on the horizon…
But as you can see from the images above, there’s no point in wasting time scanning the horizon for Cape York yet – it ain’t there! We probably won’t get to see Cape York properly until we’re just a few hundred metres away from it. All part of the fun!
Ok, back to the bigger picture, and the route ahead. I’ve added a few fun labels to some of the features Oppy MIGHT POSSIBLY PERHAPS encounter/study/totally ignore as she scoots on towatrds Endeavour…
“Mini crater” is, as its name suggests, a small crater, just 26m wide. Looks like it has enough internal structure to provide Oppy with a day or so’s photography while she takes a breather at around the 2km point in her journey. And “Ripple Hole” is a roughly-circular patch of raised dunes, 46m wide and just over 5.5km into Oppy’s journey. Obviously she won’t try to drive across it, through those dust ripples, that would be asking for trouble, but it might provide a nice change of scenery as Oppy closes in on Cape York.
And believe me, changes in scenery are going to be very welcome, but few and far apart, on this next loooong drive, because there’s not really much to see between Santa Maria and Endeavour, just km after km of flat dustiness, with the odd dark rock or exposed patch of lighter bedrock scattered here and there. Once Santa Maria vanishes behind Oppy the view will not change for quite a while, because the hills will still be a long, long way away, far enough away to mean that they won’t really appear to grow larger on the horizon anytime soon.
So, the second important point to remember as we approach Oppy’s departure is that the view we have now is essentially the view we’re going to have for a while. We’re going to see lots of The Same – the hills resembling just small humps and bumps on the distant horizon, and the ground around us very flat, very dusty, and generally pretty boring. I confidently predict that all the people who’ve moaned in the past about Oppy stopping to look at meteorites are going to be SCREAMING OUT to see one appear up ahead, after weeks and weeks of seeing **nothing** in front of Oppy! I won’t be smug… much…
In fact, I’m pretty sure Oppy will come across one or more meteorites before she gets to Endeavour; the terrain around Endeavour is perfect meteorite-hunting country, and I’m hoping Oppy spots quite a few star-stones, but I won’t mind too much if she just takes a quick look at them before scooting past, the rim of Endeavour is too huge a prize to risk losing for the sake of a lengthy meteorite diversion.
And once Oppy reaches Cape York? What will we see then? Well, the farside hills *will* look larger, and more impressive, but not outrageously so. We’ll be able to see the floor of Endeavour crater, which is essentially a huge raised plain. We’ll be able to see more detail on the hills on either side of Cape York, too.
But all that’s in the future. For now, let’s all just take a breather and wait for Oppy to turn around, bid Santa Maria a fond farewell, and get on her way again. Endeavour – and, I’m sure, incredible science awaits, ‘just’ 6 km ahead. Will she do it? We can’t possibly know. But we can know that the MER team will do absolutely everything they possibly can to make that possible.
Buckle up, everyone.
It’s almost time to go.