Happy birthday to us… !

 

4th Birthday Badge Monster

In the greater scheme of things it’s nothing special, I know, but today is the 4th “birthday” of this blog! :-) Yes, 4 years ago today, frustrated by the postponement of Curiosity’s launch to Mars, I decided to (ha!) kill the time by starting a blog dedicated to following Opportunity’s trek south to Endeavour Crater.

At that time, she had just left the ragged, crumbling edge of Victoria Crater, having spent many exciting and memorable months exploring and studying its many bays, cliffs and ledges… Her position on Dec 4th 2008 is marked on the picture below, but you’ll need to click on it to enlarge it to see that properly…

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With the survey of Victoria completed, and with nowhere else of any interest or worth nearby to go, the MER team decided to head south – way, way south – towards a much larger, much more epic crater called “Endeavour”. By December 4th she had reached an area called “Santorini”, and stopped to take a whole bunch of pictures of the landscape, which were stitched together to make the famous “Santorini Panorama”, which you can see here

Many people, myself included if I’m honest, were very sceptical that Opportunity would survive long enough to reach the rim of Endeavour; it was so incredibly, ridiculously, stupidly far away that it seemed unrealistic to hope that an already ageing rover could cross all those kilometres of unforgiving dusty desert…

But, of course, she did. After battling her way around, over and sometimes through dust dunes, after passing one ancient, eroded, Time-gnarled meteorite after another, Oppy finally rolled up onto the southern edge of Cape York and began a whole new amazing chapter in her already beyond-amazing adventure.The next two images really bring home, I think, just what a remarkable achievement Opportunity’s long drive south was…

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And for the past 4 years it’s been my privilege to chronicle Opportunity’s epic journey across Barsoom’s deep desert and over Cape York.

During the past four years I’ve had a lot of support from people working on the Mars Exploration Rover mission. Scientists like Steve Squyres and Jim Bell have generously given their time to ‘talk’ to this blog by answering questions sent via email. But the blog’s greatest friend, and most enthusiastic supporter, has been rover driver Scott Maxwell, so what better way to mark our 4th birthday than by chatting to Scott again, to look back on the past four years and bring us up to date on what he’s busy with now…?

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So, Scott, to celebrate the 4th “birthday” of this blog, I thought we’d ask you to look back on the past 4 years on Mars. A lot has happened in that time, and we now have two working rovers on Mars again. You’re driving, or have driven, both. What are your personal highs and lows of being a Mars rover driver from the past 4 years?

I don’t think any low could be lower than having to say a painful farewell to Spirit.  Ah, damn it, and we were so close to getting her out.  So close.  Damn it, damn it.

The happy news is that that low, as low as it is, is balanced by many highs.  For Opportunity, a close second place is the series of meteorites we found, such as Block Island.  Just by existing, those meteorites tell us something about the Martian paleoatmosphere — namely, that it was thicker.  (If it weren’t, the meteorites would have been going so fast that they’d vaporize on impact: only a thicker atmosphere could slow them enough to survive landing.)

But an unquestioned Opportunity first is reaching Endeavour Crater — and early, too, so that we had time to explore Cape York a little and find the gypsum veins there before winter.

And just landing MSL will last me a long time.  “Dare mighty things,” indeed.

What are the main differences between driving Oppy and Curiosity? I mean physically, practically. Are you using much more advanced hardware and software? Does driving MSL feel more “high tech” than driving Oppy? Have you got a bigger office? ;-) And do you miss driving Opportunity?

More advanced hardware, yes — for example, MSL’s CPU is more than five times faster than MER’s, which is very welcome.  (It’s still far slower than the one you’re using to read this reply, even if you’re reading it on your phone, but progress is progress.)  The software is more complex because the rover is more complex, but from a 10,000-meter level, some capabilities MER has long taken for granted have yet to come online for MSL.  They just haven’t had time to test it all yet.  But that’s the nice thing about software — we can’t change the wheels or the arm, but we can (carefully) give the rover brain transplants, so that it can become smarter over time.  (We did that with MER, too; Opportunity is just farther along that curve.)

Both driving and using the arm got some welcome improvements to make them simpler, but then the rover became more complex.  So it’s not a simpler job, we’re just spending the complexity in different ways.

On a less tangible level, part of the fun for me has been learning what it feels like to (virtually) wear this new robot body.  We’re bigger and bulkier now, less Spiderman and more The Hulk.  Rocks that used to threaten us when we wore our MER bodies, we now stomp.

I have a bigger office, but there are more people in it, so that’s not a win.  :-)

And you’re damn right I miss Opportunity.  We’ll see if anything can be done about that.

4 years ago Oppy was, it seemed, a million miles away from Endeavour. 4 years later there she is, high up on the eastern flank of Cape York, still roving, still making discoveries, still doing science. As someone who’s been with her on Mars from the start, how does it feel to have her still there working on Mars? To see new images coming back from her every day? She’s doing science and she’s still alive!

In a small way, I suppose it’s what it must feel like to be a parent whose child has gone off to college.  She’s able to do what she’s doing now only because we (very many of us) gave her the right foundation, and in that way we’re an ineradicable part of her ongoing success.  Still, there’s a sense of loss that goes along with the knowledge that we’re not right there with her.

On to Curiosity… 4 months into the mission, and the pictures are beautiful, the geology fascinating, the data clearly intriguing. But Curiosity hasn’t actually moved very far from her landing site at Bradbury Point. Is the team impatient to be heading for the base of Mt Sharp, and all the incredible features we can see there on the photographs? Are you? You’re a rover driver. You must be eager to put the pedal to the metal…

I always am.  But that’s all part of being a chauffeur for science: we go where the science team says the best science is, and we don’t go from place to place faster than they can do their jobs.  So I’m used to more or less constantly champing at the bit.  It’s OK, just part of the job.

Also, I do have to say in all fairness that we’ve driven about 500 meters so far — not too out of family with what Spirit and Opportunity had done at similar points in their missions.  It doesn’t feel like much, but that’s partly because we’ve been spoiled by treks like Opportunity’s mad dash from Victoria to Endeavour.

What are your impressions of Gale Crater 4 months after landing, from a driver’s viewpoint and a Mars enthusiast’s viewpoint?

I’m almost disappointed by how easy the driving is.  (Almost!)  I expected more Spirit-like terrain.  It’s nice to have this time to get our feet under us, though; it’ll be plenty challenging when we reach Mt. Sharp.

From a Mars enthusiast’s viewpoint: all Mars is good Mars.  :-)

It’s now almost 9 years since Spirit and Oppy landed on Mars, and many people are still fascinated by their adventures. Of course, we sadly lost Spirit, but across the world many tens of thousands, if not millions, of people continue to follow Opportunity’s work and trek on Mars daily. Does that surprise you? Why do you think people are still so fascinated by robots roving across Mars?

A rover is the closest thing you’re gonna get to going to Mars yourself, at least for now.  They see the planet from about your height, in 3-D color stereo vision, just as you would.  That makes them *relatable* in a way that orbiters aren’t.  Most of us don’t have direct experience of being in orbit, but we’ve all been on a hike.  So our robot bodies, going for a hike on another world, bring us that world in a way we can instantly inhabit.

It seems to me that official updates about Opportunity have become a lot less frequent since Curiosity landed. Any frustrations there that the work of an amazing, resilient robot isn’t getting as much recognition as it maybe should do?

Opportunity will keep right on being awesome whether anyone is paying attention or not.  It’s her way.  :-)

Curiosity is taking some truly beautiful images now. Have you any personal favourites so far?

Oh, my, unquestionably the rover self-portrait.  That will take some work to beat.

Any images you’re hoping Curiosity will take on Mars, something you’d personally like to see?

I hear that some clever English guy who writes a rover blog had the  idea of imaging Earth.  I think that’d be a beautiful thing — an image to hang beside Spirit’s Earth picture.

And I haven’t given up on getting a picture of the Milky Way, though I haven’t asked the right people whether MSL’s cameras can do that.

I’m also looking forward to long-baseline stereo taken with the arm — hold MAHLI above you and to the left, stretching out your arm as far as it will go, and take a picture.  Then do the same on the right. Combine for amazing views.  For technical reasons, we probably can’t use this as an engineering product, but people like you will turn it into something astonishing all the same.

And finally, have you a Christmas message for the people virtually – but loyally – walking alongside Opportunity and Curiosity as they explore Mars?

Yes: I cannot thank you enough.  I really, really can’t.  You have no idea how your participation magnifies our delight in this voyage.

As Mark Twain wrote: “To get the full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with.”  Thank you for being that someone.  You make our joy complete.

Thanks for talking to “Road To Endeavour” again Scott, and have a fantastic Christmas!

My pleasure, as always, Stu.  My best to you and yours at this festive time.

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So, there you go… 4 years! It’s been a heck of a ride, hasn’t it? And I suppose now would be the obvious time to announce I’m going to stop writing this blog, because it’s too time-consuming, and I’m mega-busy with writing, and the more advanced Curiosity is doing incredible things, exploring Gale Crater, and I want to concentrate on that…

…but naaah, I’m not going to do that! I’ve walked beside Oppy since she landed, almost 9 years ago, and I’m going to walk alongside her until her wheels creak around for the final, weary time, and stop. Then I’ll sit down beside her, via this blog, and keep her company until the spark goes out in her brave robot heart. Then, and only then, will this blog close.

I don’t expect that to happen any time soon.

:-)

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10 Responses to Happy birthday to us… !

  1. Birgit says:

    Oh, Stu, what a wonderfull Article, and Thank you Scott !!!

  2. Scott Maxwell says:

    Happy birthday, Stu! For many reasons, I wish you many more happy anniversaries to come.

  3. Qadgop the Mercotan says:

    Thanks for your hard work in putting this all together. I always read every posting!

  4. Jon says:

    Great post (we read them all), thanks for the interview and happy anniversary!

  5. Nick Previsich says:

    Terrific as usual, Stu! (Hi, Scott!!! Well done!)

  6. Albert Pols (Holland) says:

    Thank you for posting all the news from Mars. Follow you every day, right from the start.
    From Holland wish you all the best, a good health, merry christmas and a happy new year too.

  7. Buck says:

    Happy birthday and thanks to you and Scott for the anniversary interview!

  8. ted says:

    Great aniversary blog. Great interview. Great people you and Scot Maxwell…Nice sentiments and passion as always!

  9. Mark says:

    Indeed, great blog! I check it every week. You make the adventures of Opportunity available for all of us to see. Thank you very much!

  10. stephen sarbiewski says:

    Happy Birthday Stu! I didn’t think Opportunity would make it to Endeavour crater either and couldn’t have been more delighted to be proven wrong. So thank you for covering the four year road trip, “The Road to “Endeavour” has been a great traveling companion and guidebook.

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