Curiosity soars… Oppy keeps working…

Huge smiles – of happiness and relief – yesterday when NASA’s “next Mars rover”, Curiosity, finally blasted off from the Kennedy Space Centre and headed for Mars. Delayed by two years, the launch of the Atlas rocket was flawless, and she fairly shot off the launch pad carrying her precious cargo into space. Soon after a booster rocket stage fired exactly as planned and Curiosity, encased in her protective shell and heatshield, left Earth, forever, and headed towards the Red Planet…

All being well she’ll touchdown in Gale Crater next August, and begin a multi-year mission to explore and study the fascinating geology of the crater, which will keep all of us frustrated martians in images, charts and .pdf scientific papers for many years to come.

The launch was actually pushed back a day, which completely ruined my plans. If she’d launched the day before, on the Friday, as originally scheduled, I would have been able to watch the whole thing live on the internet, via NASA TV, on my day off from work. I was really looking forward to that! All the build-up, with interviews, video clips, chats to science team members – and, of course, endless replays of That Animation which shows the “Oh My God! Are they REALLY going to do that?!?!?!?” moment when the rover plummets from the backshell and, after a heart-stopping fall, is kept in the air by the firing of the descent stage’s rockets and then, brilliantly, unbelievably, crazily, foolishly, magnificently lowered to the martian surface on what looks like a long bit of string – etc, with a cup of coffee here, a pack of biscuits there, and everything, the launch, the spacecraft separation, the post-launch press conference, etc, right in front of me, on my computer…

…so when the launch was put back a day, to a work day, I was, selfishly I know, gutted. There was a chance I would miss the whole thing, and have to watch recorded highlights later on the TV or online. Not happy. :-(

In the end, I managed to watch the NASA TV build-up at home until around 45 minutes before launch, and then when I got to work I, um, somehow happened to find myself by a television in an empty room just as the rocket carrying MSL leapt into the sky… and by sneakily checking-in on Twitter through the afternoon I was able to follow each mission milestone as it approached, came and went, so I knew long before I finally made it home that all had gone well. :-)

Of course, today, in the aftermath of the launch the media are going a bit Mars-nuts, declaring the mission a success already (um, no…) and looking forward to Curiosity’s arrival at Mars, when it will then begin to “Look for life on the Red Planet”. Er, no, it won’t actually. It’ll be looking for signs that Mars might once have had life, and looking for signs that it might be habitable now, but it’s absolutely not a life detection mission. I suspect I’m going to have to explain that a LOT between now and August…

And, of course, everyone on the TV and radio is assuming that the Entry, Descent and Landing will go just fine, and that Curiosity will drop to the surface light as a feather, exactly as planned, then open up, snickety-snick, like a Transformer and race off to track down martians. Clearly it won’t be as straightforward as that. Exploring space is hard. Getting to Mars is very hard, and if you’re in any doubt about that maybe you should ask the poor Russian scientists who designed, built and launched the ill-fated Phobos-Grunt mission, who had to sit and watch another probe heading for Mars seemingly without a care in the world yesterday, while their machine was stranded in Earth orbit, staying sullenly silent and refusing to answer the increasingly desperate calls made to it from below…

And once/if it reaches Mars safely, Curiosity’s landing is going to be sphincter-tighteningly scary! I’m trying not to think about that too much, if I’m honest… :-)

But yesterday was pretty magical, not just because I find watching anything “spacey” cool, not just because it was another Mars mission beginning, and not just because the pictures sent back from the rocket were so crystal clear. No, it was special for me personally because three years ago (what?!? Three years?!?!?!!) I was lucky enough to be invited over to JPL, and for an incredible half hour Stella and I were “with” Curiosity herself. Well, I say ‘with'; I mean we were able to look down from the observation room of the assembly building and see the rover down there on the floor, surrounded by bunny-suited techs, mechs and engineers…

You’ll see from that picture that we weren’t actually able to see the rover itself; Curiosity was sealed up safe and snug and tight inside her backshell, the cone on the far right. So while it’s true that I can’t actually say I saw Curiosity herself before she left Earth – and oh, how I wanted to! – Stella and I were able to look down from the gallery and know that inside that black and white cone Curiosity was folded up like a butterfly sleeping inside its cocoon…

So yes, inside I do feel like I’ve ‘seen’ the rover, so it makes her mission that much more personal for me. And when she is preparing to land, in August, if I can’t be there at JPL to join in the worry, fear and celebrations in person I’ll be here, at this computer, watching everything happen live on NASA TV, with my heart in my mouth and butterflies the size of the recently-departed great Anne McCaffrey’s dragons playing tag in my stomach…

When Curiosity lands, the world will go Mars crazy, I can just feel it. So many people are convinced that MSL is going to Mars to actually look for life, even though it isn’t. But Landing day is going to be unbelievably tense and then, hopefully, unbelievably exciting too, as we all wait for the confirmation that she has landed safely, and then wait impatiently for the first pictures to be sent back to Earth from the interior of Gale Crater. What a moment that will be…!

But amidst all this excitement and expectation, let’s not forget something equally amazing. There’s a rover on Mars right now, as you read these words, and she’s been there for over seven years now, doing science and revolutionising our view of the Red Planet with her images and discoveries. Her name is Opportunity, and she’s a robot heroine, if ever there was one.

As the world watched Curiosity blasting off yesterday, Oppy was standing on the dusty, rock-strewn summit of Cape York, looking out across the floor of the enormous crater, Endeavour. Beneath an orange-pink sky, with the chill winds of Mars wafting slow motion waves of talcum fine cinnamon-hued powdery dust across the Cape’s summit, Oppy was staring down at a slab of incredibly ancient martian rock, patiently taking pictures of it through all her filters and beaming them back to Earth. To get there she had driven almost 30 miles from her landing site way to the north, in Eagle Crater. To get there she had driven to several other craters, including the beautiful and magnificent Victoria Crater, with its serrated stone edge, cliff faces, crumbling bays and dust-rippled floor. For a while she actually drove into that crater, rolling down the steep slope of Duck Bay to go and study the side of one of the cliffs, with its beautiful layers. Reaching Cape York meant crossing miles of almost empty martian desert, ploughing through dust dunes, enduring bitter cold, almost suffocating under a blanket of yet more dust…

…but in August she made it, and rolled triumphantly up onto Cape York to begin what many believe is a whole new mission on the surface of Mars. She’s already taken bewilderingly beautiful panoramas of the great crater, and the fields of rocky debris on top of the Cape itself, and she’s discovered, photographed and studied a fascinating ‘vein’ of pale, hard material which the MER scientists are very excited about but have yet to tell us why…

You’ll have gathered, if you didn’t know already, that I’m a huge MER fan. And yes, I love Oppy – and Spirit, no longer with us, sadly – to bits.

Of course, when I say I love them, I don’t mean I love the robots themselves. That would be a bit… weird… ;-) I mean I love what they have achieved, and what they stand for – our drive to explore and discover, to always seek and reach another, more distant horizon, our deep-rooted need to see what’s over the next hill, and the next one, and the one after that. And I love the amazing team behind them – the men and womeh who designed them, built them, sent them to Mars and now operate them on the Red Planet. Those magnificent machines were built by people, remember, with calm hands and pounding hearts, people who have a real passion for space exploration. Every image that comes back from Oppy is a tribute to each and every one of them.

I never got to see either of the MERs in person like I did Curiosity. While they were being built I had no ‘links’ to JPL, no way of getting there, it just wasn’t a thing that could happen. No, to me the two MERs were only ever machines seen in photographs or on video. I watched them being launched, and their landings, on a tiny Realplayer window on my ancient computer, and as that was in my pre-Broadband days the pictures kept freezing or, worse, shattering into a chaotic, dancing haze of pixels, and each time I’d worry that the feed wouldn’t come back. But it did, and I sat at my computer breathless with excitement as both Spirit and Oppy landed, cried when word was received that they were safe on the surface, and whooped with a mixture of joy and sleep deprivation when, hours later, the first clear images appeared on the NASA websites, and I knew that the MER mission was goihg to be My Apollo, the space mission that I would most identify with for the rest of my life.

I did kind of meet Oppy… As I said, three years ago Stella and I went out to JPL, and I was priviliged to be given a tour of the MER offices and nerve centre by friend of this blog and, I’m very proud to say, friend of mine, rover driver Scott Maxwell… and it was during this tour that I not only got to meet and talk to Steve Squyres himself, but ‘met’ Oppy too, in the shape of a fully-detailed, life-sized model of the MERs…

(Yes, I know I look miserable, and I was grinning like a lunatic inside, honest, I just detest having my picture taken!)

And although that was only a model, it did, in some bizarre way, make me feel a lot closer to the MERs, and to the mission. And that’s why I can now imagine myself standing beside Oppy as she stands there on the top of Cape York, just carrying on with her work while the eyes of the world are turned away from her and are gazing at Curiosity in this giggly, fluttery, schoolgirl-crush way… :-)

I can’t wait for Curiosity to land, I really can’t. I’ll be as fascinated and excited by her mission as I have been by the MERs, I’m sure – but she’s not there yet. Landing Day is almost 9 months away, so let’s not forget Oppy. Many will try to dismiss her now as “yesterday’s rover”, dismiss her as being “yesterday’s technology.” I won’t have that, certainly not here! Yes, she’s a lot smaller more elegant (thanks, Scottt! ;-) )  than Curiosity, as the picture below shows…

…and ok, so she doesn’t have a laser beam to zap rocks with, but right now, as you read this, she’s standing in front of a rock studying it with her tools, instruments and cameras. And ok, no, she doesn’t have a robot arm as thick as King Kong’s, and she might be around a third of the size of Curiosity, but she has proven herself to be a true explorer, to be a fearless adventurer and a loyal servant to all the scientists who want to unciver the mysteries of Mars. And while she might not have jet black wheels the size of barrels, the wheels she does have were good enough to drive her almost 30 miles from where she landed, to drive her up slopes and down into craters, and to cross a vast sea of dust dune waves to eventually carry her up onto the very top of Cape York, where she can see this view today…

(pic courtesy of Ant103, UMSF)

…and here’s a mosaic of the latest images to be taken by Oppy’s Microscopic Imager…

Beautiful, isn’t it? :-)

I’ve had a couple of people ask me if I’m going to “do a Curiosity blog” too. And, as tempting as that thought is, the answer is no, I won’t, at least not while Oppy is alive and kicking. A lot can happen in 8 months, and there’s no guarantee that when Curiosity reaches Mars Oppy will still be working. But if she is, then I’ll keep up “Road to Endeavour” and just set up a page on it for Curiosity images rather than start a whole new blog, not just because it’s bloody hard work writing a blog like this and keeping it updated so regularly, so writing TWO at the same time would probably send me to Rehab, but because, yes, I’d feel like I was being disloyal to Oppy. Oppy’s old now, and creaky, and weary. She is slower than she used to be, and can’t see quite as well. Every sol she drives, she’s driving in her own personal twilight. But having gotten this far with Oppy, having walked beside her every step of the way on her epic trek across the great dust desert of Meridiani, having sat beside her under the ice-chip stars during those cold martian nights, and stood next to her as she gazed down into the dusty depths of Victoria Crater for the first time, I’m not just going to dump her and switch my attentions over to her younger, sexier sister! :-)

So, Godspeed Curiosity, I know you’ll do us proud when you reach Mars and set about exploring Gale Crater.

But Oppy… I’m still here, ok? And I’m going nowhere.

Now, what are you looking at? Show me… :-)

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12 Responses to Curiosity soars… Oppy keeps working…

  1. Ted Lamoureux says:

    fantastic latest entry pal. I love the pics of you and your wife at JPL…makes it all so personal. Please keep going. Your blog is one of the main sites I visit daily. All the best!

  2. Matthias says:

    With best wishes from Germany, a great blog and one of the first thing to check for updates every day. Thank you for all the effort it requires…

  3. Matt Lenda says:

    Hah! There is a similar loyalty split going on at work, too! :p

    But it’s not really about which mission is better, which one has better people, which one is more fun to blog about, or any of that; it’s about liking whatever you want and sticking with it.

    -m

    • phoenixpics says:

      Oh, no disagreement from me there! :-) You’re all amazing, whichever mission you’re working on. Now stop reading my blog Matt and get back to work driving Oppy! :-))

  4. Opportunity is “smaller”? I think you mean to say that Opportunity is *more elegant*.

  5. Hugo says:

    Great post Stu. Keep up the good work – like you say a lot can happen between now and next August. Having seen “that landing animation” I’d say that Curiosity’s greatest challenge is yet to come.
    Meanwhile, thanks for the great work you put in on this blog, it’s one of my “must visit” astro sites not just because of the news on Oppy but your entertaining style too.

  6. Harald Wolf says:

    Not much to add, really, but wanted to also voice how appreciative I am for your work! I check for updates daily – they are so much more personal than what comes out of the official sites.
    And, of course, the media just won’t embrace basic science, or the adrenaline-rush of front-line exploration and adventure, which is what this is.
    I, too, am extremely worried about the complexity of MSL’s landing sequence. If something fails, the setback would be immeasurable. Just think if they had sent up a half dozen incrementally upgraded versions of Spirit/Opportunity – with self-cleaning solar-panels, better RAT, wheels, etc. – they could have hit all the sites considered for Curiosity, and then some. Even offered schools the chance to operate a rover for a month.
    And, while I’m at it, I think the whole focus on finding “life” is verging on the ridiculous – but it is probably necessary to get funding and some attention from the media/public. Most discoveries come unexpectedly – you just have to start the journey and keep all your senses tuned – which is what these rovers have done for us.

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