Cape York sighted!!! (Probably…!)

Great excitement yesterday amongst Mars Rover fans, as the latest batch of images returned by Oppy appeared to show something new, and interesting… something in just the right place to be the very highest points of Cape York peeping above the horizon!

Here’s where Oppy was at the end of her most recent drive (note, “Approach Crater” is now known as “Mariner 9″, as it has been named after one of the early spaceprobes which studied Mars):

You can see she’s now crossed the line which marks the point beyond which¬†experts have calculated she should be able to see the “peak” of Cape York. That “peak” isn’t rugged or jagged, more of a flat plateau than a pointy feature, so we’ve all been scanning the horizon for any sign of a dark line, or bumby dark line, appearing. When yesterday’s images came back, here’s what we saw looking towards where that “peak” should be…

The black areas are data drop-outs, gaps in the signal transmission. Hmm. Not an awful lot to see there. But if you stretch that horizon vertically, look what appears… (You might need to click on the image to animate it)

Oooh!!!! That’s the most promising candidate yet! It doesn’t look much – just a dark line above the even darker line of the horizon, but it’s definitely there. And what’s more, it WASN’T there the day before, as you can see from this animation, which shows Oppy’s horizon dropping, and more of Endeavour’s far eastern walls, coming into view…

As promising as this sighting is, it’s by no means certain that what we’re seeing really IS Cape York. We need a much clearer view yet! But everything lines up nicely: that dark whateveritis is in exactly the right position to be the top of Cape York, according to Google Mars, and there’s nothing along that line of sight – either between Oppy andthe horizon, or the horizon and the eastern hills¬†- which could be it, either. So, for the moment, we can enjoy quiet celebrations, but we’re not going to shout down from the crow’s nest “Land Ho!!!!” until we’re absolutely sure. Watch this space!

Whatever that mysterious dark slabby feature is, Oppy’s view of Endeavour has certainly improved dramatically in the past couple of days. We can now see a lot more detail on those faraway hills, including several of the craters blasted out of their slopes. Stretching the image vertically really helps…

But where are all these features? Here’s my best guess (click on image to enlarge)…

So, back to Cape York, and what we may or may not, be seeing. Let’s look at where this “summit ridge” is (ringed in orange) in relation to CY as a whole…

And a closer look…

And how big is that ridge in relation to Oppy herself? Here’s a simulated view…

Of course, we’re probably not going to get anywhere near that ridge; Oppy is due to make landfall on the southern end of Cape York. But I’m sure we’ll see it from whichever part of the summit Oppy eventually climbs to. :-)

So… we might be seeing Cape York now, and if we are, then this is a very historic moment. And great timing, too. It’s very appropriate that our first sighting of Cape York should come on the very day when the US space shuttle fleet retired, as it is a sign that exploration is safe in the hands of space probes, even if manned space exploration – and I mean true exploration, going somewhere, seeing new things, pushing back the frontier – has been abandoned.

It’s hard to believe that Oppy is now so close to Endeavour, and within a handful of drives of rolling up to its rim. When Oppy left Victoria Crater, all those months ago, I actually thought we didn’t have a hope in hell of reaching Endeavour. Not because I didn’t have faith in Oppy, far from it. I knew that she would do everything asked of her, and more. No. I just thought that Mars itself would redouble its efforts to kill the rover. Mars really doesn’t like being explored. The planet has killed more spaceprobes than it has allowed to live. So Endeavour Crater seemed just too far to go; every sol was going to be another poke in Fate’s eye with a sharp stick, another 24 and a bit hours to get through without a computer fault, software glitch or mechanical problem. I was hoping for maybe halfway. And I’d have been happy with that.

But then, and I can’t remember which day it was, I suddenly started to think “Of course we’re going to do it. It was just meant to be. We’re going to look down into Endeavour.”

It all makes sense. After 30 years of largely being taken for granted, and criticised, the shuttle program is dead, executed with a political bullet to the back of its head. They even landed Atlantis at night – at frakking night – as if ashamed of what they’d done, and wanted to hide her last touchdown from the world out of shame. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is probably going to be cancelled, because of a combination of appalling mismanagement and political shortsightedness and opportunism. Science is under attack across the world from superstition, Creationism and ignorance. Spirit’s furnace heart has finally gone out. It’s easy to feel a bit disheartened with it all… :-(

Like that plucky little droid left tending the last garden at the end of Silent Running, it looks like it’s down to Oppy now.

So Oppy rolls on, carrying the torch of science and exploration ahead of her like a beacon. Within a few days we’ll see Cape York properly, and soon after that we’ll start to roll down into Endeavour itself. The crater will open up before us, like Yosemite did for those first pioneers, and we’ll see its dust-dune rippled floor, its towering far walls, and the mountains curving around it like embracing arms.

Soon we’ll all be seeing Mars in a whole new way. Again.

What an adventure, what a magical, magical adventure.

And you can follow it as it unfolds right here.

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One Response to Cape York sighted!!! (Probably…!)

  1. Buck says:

    I could not agree more!

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