This is a post I never dared dream I would get to write, to be honest, but as I write it I can’t stop smiling.
When I set up this blog, all those years ago, I was well aware that Oppy could fail literally any day. I woke up every morning wondering today was the day I’d read that Opportunity’s computer had failed, or one of her wheels had jammed, or a dust storm had smothered her to death. She was definitely on borrowed time.
After all, after landing on Meridiani Planum, making that incredible “cosmic hole in one” in Eagle Crater, our favourite “plucky little rover” was never expected to survive for years, was she? Oh yes, many of us hoped she would; many of us hoped that after driving out of that crater, with its exposed bedrock shelf jutting out of one wall, Oppy would survive at least a few martian years and in that time travel a few kilometres across the plains, but it was hard to get out of our heads the thought that this was a rover with an expected lifetime of 90 days, a rover that might possibly drive a kilometre – a whole kilometre! – before succumbing to the harsh martian environment.
But Opportunity had other ideas, and as we all know now her departure from Eagle Crater was just the start of a truly incredible journey.
More than a decade later, having survived software glitches, mechanical faults and dust storms, having driven to and into ancient craters, having discovered and studied meteorites, having weaved her way around and through boulder fields, having slogged through desert dunes of deep dust, Opportunity is still roving, her heart beating as strongly as ever. As you read this she is high up above Meridiani, driving along the rim of a huge impact crater, Endeavour, sending back glorious views like this…
…as she heads towards a valley etched into the rim’s side (see previous posts) where the mission scientists are confident she will be able to study rich deposits of ancient martian clays, which may herald in the most exciting stage of her whole mission. That alone would be cause for celebration.
But yesterday news broke that Opportunity has achieved something truly remarkable. She has set a new record for the distance driven by a wheeled vehicle on another solar system body. Just read that again. Opportunity has now driven farther on Mars than any wheeled vehicle has driven anywhere off Earth* in the whole solar system, ever. Farther than any other Mars rover. Farther than any of the lunar rovers driven on the Moon by Apollo astronauts. Farther than any of them.
90 days? A kilometre?
The previous record was held by one of the great unsung heroes of the space age – a Russian Moon rover called Lunokhod 2. Outside of the space community, few people are even aware Russia sent rovers to the Moon, but they were remarkable machines, many years ahead of their time, and Lunokhod 2 was a true marvel and a triumph of engineering, and in many ways the Lonokhods paved the way for the martian rovers.
Above: as I was preparing this post I went on an image hunt for pictures of the Russian rover, and although there were a few grainy photos that was the best I found – a painting (obviously, duh!) of Lunokhod 2 which was posted on the deviantART site by an artist called “tolyanmy”. It shows clearly how the rovers had wire mesh wheels, instrument payload arms and huge “lids” covered on solar panels. As I said, well ahead of their time.
Lunokhod 2 landed on the Moon in January 1973, and survived there for five months. In that time she drove a distance of 39km across the lunar surface, an absolutely incredible achievement when you consider the technology of the time. Her cameras sent back many photos, and her suite of scientific instruments sent back a wealth of data about the Moon. And in all the years since then no wheeled vehicle sent to another world has come anywhere near breaking her record, a record recognised and celebrated by the MER team when they recently named this crater “Lunokhod” in the rovers’ honour…
Well, Opportunity broke that record, high up there on the rim of Endeavour, a couple of days ago.
The MER team has had this record in their minds – and in their sights – for quite a while now, but have had to be extremely careful about making any claims about breaking it until they were absolutely, absolutely sure. It didn’t help that, until recently, no-one could be sure exactly how far the Russian rover had driven because no-one knew where it had stopped driving on the Moon. But then it was spotted on images taken by the Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter’s cameras and it finally became possible to work out how far it had driven before juddering to a halt – 39km. So the MER team knew they had to break 39km before claiming a new record. And that line was crossed a couple of days ago, it seems, because yesterday a flurry of press releases from NASA shouted it out to the world! They even put out a nifty graphic, showing the relative distances travelled by wheeled vehicles “out there”…
I know many people might think it’s ridiculous to feel proud of a machine – a lifeless, non-thinking collection of wires, nuts, bolts and computer chips – but I feel proud of Opportunity today, probably prouder than I’ve felt at any other stage of the mission. And of course, when I say I am proud of Oppy I really mean I am proud of the incredible team behind her, all of them, past and present; the people who designed her, built her, launched her to and landed her on Mars and, probably most of all, the people who have driven her safely across the soft cinnamon sands of Barsoom since that historic day all those years ago. As I’ve said before, I am lucky enough to have met many of those people, and trust me, if we had a Starfleet for real they’d be out there, flying, repairing, designing and programming starships.
I think it’s very important to highlight here one of the greatest successes of the whole MER mission. I don’t mean the triumphant trek across the great dune sea of Meridiani, or the “Phew! made it!” roll up onto the rocky shore of Cape York, or the nail-biting descent into Victoria Crater. I mean the generosity and vision of the people behind the MER mission who made a commitment, right at the very start, to allow all of us, out here, to be a part of their mission, by being so generous with their images. For the past ten years, Opportunity – and for much of that time Spirit, too – had company as she trundled across Ares: countless hundreds of thousands of space enthusiasts, wannabe martians, armchair explorers and sofa scientists were able to walk alongside her, virtually, seeing what she saw, just by going online and looking at the images she sent back. Sometimes images have appeared online just a handful of hours after they were taken on Mars, and it’s this generosity, this sense of responsibility and community which has gained the MER team so much gratitude and respect. Because, right at the start, the MER team made the decision to allow people to see their images almost right away, instead of hording them, we have genuinely felt like a part of the adventure, as if our interest was welcome and appreciated. Day after day, we’ve gone online and seen new images of the martian landscape, and it has been marvelous.
In stark contrast to this, the scientists in control of the main camera onboard the ESA “Rosetta” probe, which is currently closing in on a comet, have refused to release more images than they absolutely have to under the rules of their contracts with ESA. Well, that’s their right, I suppose. But I personally think it is both selfish and foolish. It has been slap across the face obvious for years now that the public only truly engage with – and support the enormous cost of – space missions they feel personally involved with and connected to, which has been the case with the MERs and, more recently, the MSL mission too. The people behind those missions have essentially allowed us to look over their shoulders while they work at their computers, to see the images they’ve seen.
Sadly, the ROSETTA PIs seem to have no interest in that relationship, or in the people who are so excited by the mission. Space enthusiasts and members of the public wanting to see what the comet looks like through the probe’s incredible “OSIRIS” camera have been allowed nowhere near the desks, not even allowed in the same room. Instead they have been pushed out into the corridor, to wait until a photo is slid, grudgingly, under the door, once a week. It’s a great shame, and I think it will come to be seen as a big mistake in the future. But at least it serves to illustrate that there’s very definitely a right way to engage the public with a space mission and a wrong way.
Anyway, I digress. Let’s get back to Oppy’s success! That figure of 40km is important, not just because, well, it’s FORTY KILOMETRES!!! but because it’s *just* short of the length of a marathon. If Oppy survives long enough to drive another couple of kilometres – basically, if she reaches “Smectite Valley” (see previous posts) she will have *run a marathon on Mars*! Ok, ok, driven a marathon, stop being picky…!
I’ve never run a Marathon – don’t be silly – but I have watched a lot of them on TV, as seeing people running around a city dressed as rhinos or phone boxes or daleks never gets old, so I have a feel for how long and gruelling a marathon is. A marathon course is 42.195km (or 26.2) miles long, and if you look at the courses of some of the marathons run around the world you’ll see just how long that is…
Well, Opportunity has almost driven the distance of a marathon course on Mars, and here it is, seen from above via Google Earth…
Whenever people eventually reach Mars – and it looks like Elon Musk is planning on making that happen sooner rather than later – they will take sports and recreation with them. Running will be a popular pastime because of the low gravity and Big Country wide open spaces. So, not too much of a stretch then to imagine that in a century or so, native martians and interplanetary tourists alike will gather at Eagle Crater and compete in “The Opportunity Marathon”, following the rover’s crater hop-scotching route from Eagle to Endeavour. They’ll visit some famous landmarks along the way…
…and some parts of the route will be more challenging and interesting than others…
Will that actually happen? Yes, I think so. I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever that once there are a good number of people on Mars – enough to have some free time – some will want to follow “The Opportunity Trail” and trace out her historic route from Eagle to Endeavour, walking slowly on foot, camping at different Sites of Historic Martian Interest (i.e. craters!) along the way, while others will prefer to do the journey in a comfortable, pressurised rover, complete with soft beds and hot food. Still others, the more adventurous thrill seeker types will turn their noses up at such laziness and luxury and race away from Eagle Crater strapped into a juddering, bouncy buggy, tearing across the desert spraying orange dust from beneath their wire wheels, so it’s only natural there will be other people who want to make a race out of it, the good old fashioned way.
But running in such a race would be both exhausting and potentially dangerous. Here on Earth Marathons are typically run through cities, with beautifully-flat roads and pavements, and crowds of onlookers raising runners’ spirits and cheering them on, and smiling volunteers thrusting bottles of cold water into their hands as they pass… but on Mars there’d be none of that. You’d pretty much be on your own, running, hopping and bouncing across mile after mile of open desert, dwarfed beneath an enormous pale pink sky, with everything around you – each and every windblown dust dune, boulder and stone – painted shades and hues of brown, butterscotch and gold. Every few miles you would see a dark meteorite sitting on the sands, like bizarre martian roadkill, as if dropped there by some invisible hand, and if you’re doing the race for fun you might pause there to examine it and to glug down a welcome sip of water from your surface suit which, with its water reclamation filters, makes you look like one of the Fremen from Dunes. Then, on to another crater, running around it, peering down into it before turning your back on it and moving on. Then, up ahead, with no way around it, the seemingly-endless Dune Sea, the same one which almost trapped Opportunity in a century earlier. You’d set off across it, exhausted within minutes by the dust sucking at your legs as you slogged on through it, muscles screaming for mercy…
…until finally, there it would be, the brightly-coloured green and blue finishing line flag fluttering high above a cheering crowd gathered on the hills of Endeavour’s rim! What a sight that will be to behold after crossing 40km of unforgiving martian outback..!
That’s all for the future. In the meantime, I’m hoping that Opportunity will have her picture taken again soon by the HiRISE camera onboard the MRO probe, in honour of her great achievement. It would be great to see her again, high up there on the rim of Endeavour, I always love it when one of those images comes down. Until then, here’s a blast from the past – a picture of Opportunity perched on the edge of 90m wide Santa Maria crater in March 2011, when she was still 6km and many months away from rolling up to the edge of Cape York. This image was made by stitching together nine zoomed-in views of Santa Maria, taken using the HiVIEW viewer, and then colourising and enhancing them to make a more martian view. That’s Oppy up there top left. It’s my own personal tribute to the incredible rover and the team behind her.Click on it to enlarge it. I hope you like it.
PS: Thanks to Tobias Thierer on Twitter for pointing out I really should clarify that Oppy has driven farther than any wheeled vehicle *off Earth*, and not, as I originally said “anywhere in the solar system”. :-)