9 Years on Barsoom

9 years

Nine years ago, one of the most incredible adventures in the history of human exploration began. Not on Earth, but on Mars.

Nine years ago the Mars Exploration Rover “Opportunity” landed on Mars, and so began one of the most exciting, most significant missions in the history of space travel.

If you’d been stood on the Meridiani Plain on the Red Planet nine years ago today you would have seen a remarkable sight – a bizarre, plump, puffy ball falling from the salmon pink sky on the end of a parachute. Standing there you would probably have raised your hands to your mouth in shock, and called out in alarm as you watched the parachute detach, and the puff ball drop to the ground. Expecting it to shatter and smash as it slammed into the rock- and boulder-strewn desert you would have feared the worst – but instead of blowing itself into a million tinkling, shining pieces it bounced back up into the air… then came down again… and bounced up again… and came down again, each impact kicking up a cloud of dust the colour of cinnamon, or paprika, that hung in the thin air like breath on a frosty day…

And then, standing there, beneath that huge sky, with a shrunken, lemon-hued Sun bathing your face and the alien landscape around you in a cold, hard light, you would have seen something even more amazing: with countless miles of vast, open, empty desert all around it, after it stopped boinging and bouncing the strange puffy ball rolled across the ground, like tumbleweed, and fell into a small shallow crater, where it finally, finally came to rest: a cosmic “hole in one” you wouldn’t have believed possible if you hadn’t seen it with your own startled eyes.

That was the arrival of a robot on Mars. A robot from Earth. The third robot from Earth to arrive on Mars within a month. If there are any martians on Barsoom, they must have peered out from under their rocks, or looked out from their cracks and pits on that morning, and thought they were being invaded. As 2003 slid into 2004, and one machine from Earth after another fell out of their sky and landed on their homeworld, any lifeforms on Mars must have worried that they were seeing the start of a War of The Worlds.

The chances of anything coming from Earth were a million to one… but still they had come…

Any martians who witnessed Opportunity’s landing on Mars in January 2004 must have been puzzled, and not a little terrified, because the creature that emerged from its dust-stained coccoon, unfolding itself in painfully slow motion, was a strange contraption indeed: a vaguely insectoid-looking creature with a plethora of wheels, a head covered with cameras and a gleaming carapace of Sun-reflecting solar panels. As it climbed up on its wheels, reaching its full height, it silently surveyed its surroundings, head sweeping from side to side like a Terminator scanning a crowd for John Connor, or an Imperial Scout Droid searching the snowfields of an icy moon for signs of the Rebel Alliance. No doubt any martians around Eagle Crater were vastly relieved to see the new arrival appeared to be more interested in their planet’s rocks and stones than in them, and that it seemed positively hypnotised and entranced by a low shelf of old, crumbling, layered rock that stood just a few feet in front of it, jutting out of the crater’s side…

2004

Nine years ago. Good god, that was nine YEARS ago, and I remember it like it was yesterday. The day after my 39th birthday I sat in front of my computer – the same one I’m typing this blog post on now actually (no, really!) – and watched the landing live on NASA TV. Well, I say ‘watched'; I mean ‘peered at a small 2″x2″ Real Player box on my monitor screen, which kept freezing or breaking up because I was on Dialup, not broadband‘! It wasn’t fun, seeing the picture freeze again and again, or just shatter altogether  in a haze of pixels, and I was dreading, absolutely dreading the feed dropping out altogether at the exact moment Opportunity’s safe touchdown was confirmed, but the gods smiled on me and I didn’t miss that moment, and jumped off my chair in delight and relief when the MER team at JPL started whooping and cheering and hollering. That was when I knew she was down, and, like her sister rover, Spirit, which had landed earlier in the month, would soon be exploring Mars. And I was going to be able to walk alongside her, seeing what she saw, experiencing Mars in almost real time, on the company of countless hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people all around the world. It was going to be **fantastic**!

Well, for a short while anyway.

As I drifted off to bed that day, to catch up on some badly needed sleep, like many people I was looking forward to the future with great excitement, wondering what the rovers would find before they died in three months or so. Three months seemed an awfully long time back then, a luxurious length of time. Why, in three months the rovers might drive up to a kilometre away from their landing sites! How brilliant would that be! every day for a quarter of a year the rovers would send back pictures of somewhere new, somewhere different, with different rocks, and a different horizon. It would be like being there! I made special “Opportunity images” and “Spirit Images” on my computer’s C drive and looked forward to Saving images in them, to look at and drool over after Spirit and Opportunity stopped roving. Memory space on my PC was tight, but I wasn’t too worried; how many images could the rovers send back before Easter? A few each day? Even if it was dozens each day that would only mean three thousand pictures or so. My hard drive could take that, right?

Of course, things didn’t go quite according to plan.

After her landing in 2004 Opportunity drove for three months as planned, and then kept driving for three more… then three more… and three more, until suddenly it was 2009 and she had been on Mars for 5 years. And then, laughing at the martian dust and cold, facing and beating everything the Red Planet threw at her, she drove onwards, onwards… She drove to, around, into and back out of craters…

Oppy NY Eve bw

She found and studied meteorites…

Mackinac-col-Oct19db

She showed us wonder after wonder after wonder, sunset after sunset, sunrise after sunrise…

sm sunrise 2c

She took us to Mars.

Of course, Mars itself, never one to welcome visitors, has tried everything in its power to kill her. Cackling like a wicked witch, flipping through its “Big Book Of Ways To Kill Robots Sent From Earth”, Mars threw everything at the rover. Opportunity found her passage across the great Meridiani desert blocked by wheel-sucking dust dunes, which held her fast for weeks on end. Weary, and covered in dust, she hunkered down for, and survived, one potentially rover-killing martian winter after another.  The sky above Opportunity darkened as Morgane le Mars cast spells to summon Sun-smothering martian dust storms, to drain the rover of life, but, like a penguin being battered and buffeted by an Antarctic blizzard, Opportunity faced and faced them down, rolling away again in triumph once the Sun returned to the sky.

And Time ticked on, sol after sol after sol…

A glance at the wall calendar to my side shows me it is now January 2013. Nine years have passed since her epic, ridiculous, against all odds Hole in One arrival, and Opportunity is still driving, and I’m still Saving her pictures in folders, but on an external hard drive, there have been so many. I now must have tens of thousands of pictures taken by Opportunity, Pancam portraits of rugged rocks, Navcam images of crumbling crater walls, fairground mirror warped Hazcam views of the sky, clouds, even the stars as seen from Mars.

Every image is a gift, every picture is a triumph. I love them all. Many people look at something like this…

Image2b

…and you can see them thinking “Huh… a big ugly rock… big deal…” and, ok, yes, that is a particularly ugly rock, but that’s not the point!  I want to grab them by the throat and shake them and shout at them “Don’t you GET it? Don’t you SEE it? That big ugly rock is ON MARS! That rock is sitting on the ground on another ******* planet! And that picture was taken by a machine that’s as elegant as a pocket watch, and as smart as a fox, and as brave as a lion, that should have stopped working YEARS ago but it’s STILL DRIVING across the surface of an ALIEN WORLD!!!!”

Some people don’t “get it”, and they never will. I used to be frustrated by that, I used to try and show them how incredible Opportunity is, how unbelievable her achievement is, how magnificent the team behind her is… But to be honest, I can’t be bothered any more. If they don’t get it it, if they don’t *want* to get it, then it’s their loss. They’ve had their chance. They can watch the Kardashians pouting and preening, or whatever. Opportunity isn’t for them. Mars isn’t for them. Mars is for the martians, past, present and future.

And as I say in my latest MER astropoem, Opportunity is a martian now. She has been on Mars for longer than she was on Earth, which in my book definitely qualifies her for martian citizenship. And since her arrival she has shown us Mars as it really, truly is – a breathtaking world, with its own character and beauty. I’m proud to say that I’ve kept Oppy company for every leg of her epic Lewis and Clark trek across the red planet. I’ve walked beside her, with my hand on her back, as she’s slogged her way across deserts, into craters and through boulder fields. In return, she’s rewarded me with views like these…

Image1d s

Image3b

Tisdale col 1b

Untitled-1b

late aftn-1

She’s taken me to Mars, my favourite planet since I was knee high to R2D2, and I love her, and the incredible men and women behind her, for it.

Say the words “Mars rover” today and most people think you’re talking about Curiosity, Oppy’s bigger, smarter (some say), stronger, sexier, laser-toting, wheel-crunching, camera-drenched nuclear powered sister. Curiosity landed last August, in Gale Crater, and after conducting a scientific study of the crater floor she’s going to head for the foot of the mountain which stands in the crater’s centre and start to make her way up through its Monument Valley foothills to layered ground higher up. There she may, or may not, find evidence of past martian life. It’s a mind-blowing mission, with possibly paradigm-shifting discoveries in its future. But many people – and most of the media – are unaware that today, as Curiosity stands in the shadow of Mt Sharp, flashing her LEDs and her UV lights, nine years after landing on Mars, another rover is working on Mars. Soon after she landed on Mars, Curiosity’s fans and followers started talking in  a geeky language of their own, and started using phrases like “Doing a science!” to explain what Curiosity is up to, as if it’s something revolutionary and new…

OI!!! Opportunity has been “Doing a science!” almost every day for NINE YEARS!!! :-) She was “Doing a science” before Curiosity was even a sketch on a piece of paper!

2004-2013

I don’t mean to disrespect MSL or her team by saying that, absolutely not. I just think it’s important today, on the ninth anniversary of her landing, to remember and celebrate the fact that Opportunity is now standing tall and proud on the eastern flank of Cape York, very likely standing on rocks containing ancient clays. That’s what she was hoping to find on the rim of Endeavour crater when she set off for it, and it looks like she might have succeeded. It’s an incredible, incredible thing – but it’s going largely unnoticed, and I think that’s wrong. NASA are noting the anniversary, some might say in a rather quiet way. And personally I’m amazed and disappointed that no new HiRISE was taken of Oppy to mark the anniversary, but maybe that’s in the pipeline. I hope so!

I mean, come on… look at how far she’s driven on Mars…

Animation oppy london

The first red line on that animation shows how far it was hoped Oppy would drive on Mars before she perished. The second line shows how far she’s actually driven..!

Two possible futures await Opportunity, and the future she enjoys will be dictated by the choices we make in our immediate future. If, instead of turning our backs on it, we truly set our sights on Mars, if we send more unmanned probes there – to actually look for life and not just scrape, brush, photograph and drill rocks – then the Mars of the 22nd Century will be a settled Mars, a second home for Mankind. On that Mars, Opportunity – like every other probe sent to Mars – will be treasured and cherished, housed in a museum after being plucked from the side of Endeavour. Kept spotlessly clean by volunteers, lit by soft floodlights, seen by thousands of people from dozens of worlds, moons, asteroids and outposts scattered throughout the solar system, she will be considered by martians as important and historic an artefact as the Wright Flyer and the Apollo 11 capsule are by people today. That’s the future I want for her. That’s the future she deserves.

But

If we turn our backs on Mars, if we don’t start going there to do something *useful*, something epic, soon, like going there and seriously looking for signs of life, past or present, then we may very well lose Mars altogether, because the public, who pay the bills remember, will stop buying the arguments about the need to understand Mars’ geology and past, will stop buying the scientists’ claims that learning about Mars’ weather and internal structure will help our lives here on Earth and will just lose interest in Mars, and will stop supporting our exploration of it. Should that happen it will be a century before human eyes even see Opportunity again, and when they do they’ll find her half-covered in dust, sticking out of the ground like the remains of the bloody Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of The Apes.

So, wherever you are tonight, spare a moment to think about Opportunity, standing there, on the eastern flank of Cape York, looking out across Endeavour Crater to the crater-pocked mountains on her farside. She’s been on Mars for nine long, lonely years, and is now starting her tenth year on the red planet. Just think about that. That’s an amazing thing, an incredible thing, andwe’re really not celebrating it enough today.

Thank you Oppy, for all you’ve done and all you’ve shown us.

should have taken

But you know what?

I think your greatest glories are still ahead of you.

Go get them! :-)

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10 Responses to 9 Years on Barsoom

  1. Gabriel says:

    This is an amazing blog!, and you do and excellent work. I want to know if you have a Flickr of your pictures?

    Thanks!

  2. Astro0 says:

    Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Opportunity (and still thinking of Spirit), happy birthday to you :)

  3. Great blog, please keep it up. Thank you!

  4. T.M. says:

    yupp :) Happy Birthday, Opportunity. And thank you for this wonderful blog, Stuart.

  5. mariano ochoa says:

    Another small step for oppy. Thank you Stuart for writting this amazing blog.
    Mariano from Argentina.

  6. Birgit says:

    Fantastic Articel, Stu !
    And for the next 10 Years, Oppy, you are a good Rover !!!!

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  9. Stu, you are the journalist laureate of the MER missions. I’ve been watching the twins since they bounced down on the Red Planet those many years ago. I was a Spirit man…I admit it freely. I was a sucker for that little mountain climber. Oh, Opportunity was interesting, if you liked flat deserts with endless, endless sands. But Spirit got such panoramas! That picture of the Sun setting in a far notch of the Gusev rim is still part of my computer monitor’s screen saver….classic! Up and down the mountains until…Spirit was stuck. Such a sad time THAT was. So I turned my attention to Opportunity, who had proved her mettle by refusing to get swallowed in dune sand on the way to Victoria. I later happened upon a blog entitled The Road to Endeavour…perhaps you’ve heard of it? ;O)

    It has been a heck of a ride ever since and, thanks to your help, Oppy has captured my eyes and my imagination. Your words and…um…”picture-smithing”, plus the insider’s advantage you’ve gained with the boys and girls at JPL have made the mission just that much more compelling. I know I will be joined by many, many others offering our grateful thanks. We salute you, sir!

    And as Birgit says above, may we all enjoy Oppy’s adventures for another 10 years!

    Skip Wallace, OFS
    Berryville, Virginia USA

  10. starbuck5250 says:

    9.
    Years.

    On Mars!

    Meteorites.

    On Mars!

    Those gorgeous red rocks and that lovely pale sky. On Mars.

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