A beautiful place…

Every now and again some images come down to Earth from Oppy which leave me literally shaking my head in wonder. They might be of a sweeping martian vista, a blazing sunset, or a set of tracks leading back to a distant horizon. A couple of days ago a set of raw images came back that just sent my jaw plummeting to the floor. Oppy is currently driving up the western rim of Endeavour Crater, and I think it’s fair to say that the scenery she is driving through now is the most spectacular and dramatic she has seen for quite a while. She can see the crater floor open far beneath her, her tracks leading back downhill behind her and, up ahead, the highest hills beckoning to her. She’s surrounded by wind-sculpted dust dunes, Time-carved stones and beautiful rocky outcrops. Here’s the black and white view…

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I know, I know… just look at that… how beautiful is that? When I put the three raw images into Autostitch and that panorama came out I just had to sit back and let out an admiring sigh… Such naked, raw, geological beauty, stretching out in all directions. But inevitably I thought to myself “Ah, but wouldn’t that be even more beautiful in colour?”

So I colourised it, making it as “martian” as I possibly could. The result isn’t perfect, and other image manipulators will create their own versions in the days ahead, I’m sure. Some will be hideous, the colours disgracefully inaccurate and unrealistic. Others, created by digital artists far more skilful than I, will be nothing short of spectacular, but I don’t care. This is mine. This is my Mars, the Mars I have loved since I was a young boy hiding in the school library at break time, reading science books instead of going outside to “play”.

After you’ve clicked on the image to enlarge it, I hope you enjoy your visit. :-)

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Opportunity – Eleven Years a Heroine…

Eleven years ago, a Delta II rocket blasted off from a Cape Canaveral launch pad, thundering into the night sky, carrying in its nosecone a very precious cargo – a small robotic rover, destined for Mars. Like many people I watched that launch online – by dial-up connection, squinting to see detail in the tiny RealPlayer screen, as the picture broke up again and again into a Matrixesque haze of pixels – and my heart was in my mouth, cos, you know, rockets blow up, and there’s no guarantee *any* rocket is going to lift off safely. I remember holding my breath as the last few minutes and then moments counted down and the rocket finally rose from the pad, trailing smoke and flame…

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…and I didn’t let it out until the rocket was little more than a pinprick of light, fading in the dark sky. Opportunity was on her way to Mars!

Then the wait, the long, long wait, until Landing Day, again watched online on a stuttering RealPlayer screen, and another terrible, gut-wrenching wait to hear the rover had landed and unfurled itself from inside its protective airbags. Then, long before we had been expecting it, word went out, the first pictures were back already! What would they show..?

This…

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Against all the odds, in an incredible Cosmic “Hole In One”  Oppy had landed in a small crater, where a layer of ancient bedrock was jutting out of one of its walls. The thing she had been sent to Mars to look for was there, right in front of her, so close she could almost reach out with her robot arm and touch it…

More than ten years later, Oppy is still driving around on Mars, long, long after she was expected to have died or failed or just stopped. She has crossed great deserts, driven around and into many beautiful craters, studied countless ledges and outcrops, survived dust storms and memory glitches, and as you read this she is climbing a mountain… a mountain…

Slowly but surely Oppy is making her way up the western rim of Endeavour Crater, and from her vantage point high above the crater floor she has a quite stunning view. The latest pictures show she has driven really close to a ledge of rock which is covered in stones, boulders and smaller rocks…

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But as fascinating as that view is, it doesn’t really get across the real beauty of Mars. Mars isn’t a black and white world; Nature painted it in colour, with a palette bearing a thousand different shades of brown, red and orange. Here then, is my tribute to Opportunity – and the incredible team of men and women behind her – eleven years after she set off at the start of her historic adventure… my colourised (and by that I mean “beginner’s attempt to colour the rover’s black and white images in such a way that they give a roughly realistic view of what Mars would look like if you were standing here. I don’t mean “crudely and lazily coloured in a ghastly brown/yellow colour so that it looks more like Venus or Titan than Mars”)  view of the landscape and features she sees when she turns her head south and looks along, and up, the hills she will drive to shortly…

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And look, even Mars itself – which, as you well know, usually does everything it can to destroy the spacecraft sent there to study it – is showing its approval of our plucky little rover, by giving it a rocky “thumbs up”…

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Well done, Oppy. Well done. :-) x

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Onwards to Smectite Valley…

Since the last update, Oppy has been making slow but sure progress up the ancient, weathered spine of the range of hills which forms the western rim of the mighty Endeavour crater. Oppy continues to enjoy having lovely amounts of power available to her, thanks to the martian winds cleaning most of that horrible dust off her back, and she is now approaching some truly fascinating-looking rocks, and is within just (“just”? Haha!!) 2km of one of her most eagerly anticipated scientific destinations to date – “Smectite Valley”, a deep notch cut out of the hills further to the south, which is where high levels of smectite clays have been detected from orbit. It will be a while until Oppy reaches that valley – but more of that later. For now, a quick reminder of where Oppy has been, and where she is now…

p1bYou can see from that graphic – produced using Google Earth – that Oppy arrived at the rim of Endeavour at a small rocky “island” sticking up out of the Meridiani Plain called “Cape York”. She explored the Cape extensively, then headed south, passing a smaller, lower ‘island’ called “Knobby’s Head” before setting out for the foothhills of the western crater rim. She made landfall there at “Solander Point” and then drove up onto the rocky ramp there, and has basically been climbing ever since, passing one ridge or outcrop after another, pausing at them – like any good hiker, or tourist would – to take a good look around her, drink in the view, and take pictures before moving on. Most recently she passed a feature which many suggested had been christened “Pillinger Point”, in honour of British planetary scientist Prof. Colin Pillinger who sadly died recently. In my last post I showed a beautiful colour panorama of that feature, produced by James Sorenson, and I urge you all to go back to that post to enjoy it again, it’s stunning…

Well, it seems that that feature has now been officially named “Pillinger Point” – actually, it’s more a case of “has been officially proposed to have its name accepted as Pillinger Point”, because all the names put forward by the MER team are informal and not binding any way… but none of their suggestions as, to my knowledge, ever been turned down, so it’s a pretty safe bet that anything ‘christened’ by the MER team will bear that name in the future – and you can read all about that, and Oppy’s science there, in this incredibly detailed MER Update by the Planetary Society’s AJS Rayl. I’m delighted and proud to say that I was asked to contribute to this latest update with some comments and observations about Prof. Pillinger, and I was thrilled to find they’d been woven into and around comments by Steve Squyres. Anyway, go take a look, I hope you like it.

Soo… what next for Oppy? What lies up ahead? Well, *directly* up ahead are some very interesting rocks, and as you can see from these two panoramas, taken just a day apart, she appears to be heading right for them…

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pano27bI think she’ll spend several days, at least, exploring those outcrops and shelves. And then? Ah, then she will be heading for “Smectite Valley”, which is around 2km further along the spine of the hills…

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That’s a “vertically exaggerated” view from Google Earth, which looks even more dramatic in close up…

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…like a great hand gouged a hole out of the western side of the hills, but from a different angle, with less exaggeration, you can see what the “Valley” really is…

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If anything it’s more like a giant hand came down from the sky and cut a trench right through the hills, like martian motorway or railway contractors cutting a path to allow glittering golden sand-ships to cut through the hills and drop straight down into the crater floor, rather than go all the way round…

And why is this “valley” so exciting for the MER team scientists? To quote from the aforementioned AJS Rayl update…

This valley is a mother lode of clay minerals — at least CRISM has detected the signatures for three different types of clay minerals. Though it’s being referred to by team members as the ‘smectitie valley,’ Squyres said the valley actually remains officially unnamed. “We don’t have a name for that and I guess we ought to come up with one soon,” he said.

The valley with the strong smectite signature that remains unnamed extends all the way down into the crater. “But you can see it’s not a deep valley, it’s still kind of at the crest of Cape Tribulation,” said Arvidson. “And it certainly looks different in the color in the CRISM data.”

Oppy’s route to this geological “promised land” is yet to be decided. There are two options. Oppy can either just keep hiking along the top of the hills, or she can drop back down onto the flatter ground and head that way… (note: routes are my pie-in-the-sky guesses, not based on any NASA info)

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Whichever route she takes, when she gets to the valley – and yes, they really do need to choose a good name for it! – they will find a LOT to keep them busy for quite a while.

I’ve been taking a close look at the valley using the HiRISE image viewer, and it is an intriguing place. See for yourself…

SV1jpgJust look at the rich geology waiting for Oppy in there! Ledges, outcrops, ridges, crumbling walls, boulders as bug as or even bigger than Oppy herself strewn all over the floor… that’s a scientific Narnia right there! :-)

Let’s take a look at this fascinating place in colour… I warn you tho, it’s a bewilderingly-busy place…

smectite valley col wide angleI’m really looking forward to seeing the floor of the eastern entrance of the valley, as it appears to be absolutely strewn with big rocks…

SV bouldersIt’s very hard, I know, to get a sense of scale from images like this, so let’s circle a boulder which is APPROXIMATELY the same size as Oppy, that will help…

SV boulders plus Oppy scaleOh, we’re going to see some amazing sights in there, aren’t we?

Let’s take a look at the valley as a whole, with our “virtual Opportunity” added for scale… You’ll need to click on the next image to see it properly…

smectite valley colour oppy scaleI know what you’re all wondering – WHEN WILL OPPY GET THERE?!?! Simple answer – no idea. That depends what she finds along the way, which route she takes, lots of things. She’ll get there when she gets there. But whenever that is, I think we’re in for some beautiful pictures and some stunning science, don’t you?

In the meantime, thanks for stopping by my blog, and I hope you come back again. Finally, a very happy INDEPENDANCE DAY to all our US readers. Hope you have a fantastic, and safe, time this July 4th. :-)

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Pillinger Point in all its glory…

If you’re a regular reader of this blog (and if you are, thank you!) you’ll be aware that for a while now Opportunity has been trundling happily around a rocky outcrop, christened “Pillinger Point” in honour of the British planetary scientist Colin Pillinger who died recently. High up on the windswept slopes of Solander Point, it offers Opportunity not only a wonderful view of the Endeavour Crater and its surroundings, but great science opportunities too. I’ve posted a few photos of it – panoramas made by combining several images into one – showing just how beautiful it is geologically. Look at this one small part of it and you will see why the MER science team are so interested in this feature – it’s studded with rocky fragments, cross-crossed with jagged cracks and cut across by “valleys” and miniature ridges…

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..and when you see the whole of Pillinger Point, with Endeavour opened up beneath it, you get a feel for just what a glorious place this is. This is my best shot at rendering that view, a mosaic of more than a dozen different Oppy images…

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…and it’s ok, I guess. It’s the best I can do with the time, software and skill available to me, so yeah, I’m quite pleased with that. But of course, when you see something like that you really want to see it in colour, don’t you? You want to know what it would be like to stand there, on that ridge, sweeping your gaze around the landscape, seeing the different shades, hues and colours of the planet around you, right?

Well, sadly, I can’t do that with one of my own pictures because I can’t assemble a colour mosaic that doesn’t look like a Frankenstein’s monster of an image. I’ve tried assembling such a mega image before, but the end result has always been a badly stitched-together mass of different-coloured squares, with ill-fitting borders and badly-aligned features, so I wasn’t even going to try to make a full size panorama of Pillinger Point!

However, luckily for you (and me!) I know someone who has the skill, and the patience, and the dedication, to do just that.

James Sorenson is one of the most accomplished “image gurus” on the popular and prolific unmanedspaceflight.com forum, and he has been working on a colour panorama mosaic image of Pillinger Point ever since Oppy arrived here, day by day adding new images to the panorama, effectively slotting new pieces of a jigsaw together one by one balancing and blending them all together perfectly, to create something wonderful. And James has been good enough to send me the end result so you can all enjoy it here!

But before I show you the image, I think it’s about time someone said something about some of the Mars images being used online. Many popular websites now regularly feature “colourised” images of Mars, taken by both Opportunity and Curiosity, which are, frankly, bloody awful. These black and white images are tinted a bilious brown-yellow, and seriously, they’re shockingly, sphincter-clenchingly bad, and are, in my opinion, an insult to the men and women behind the missions which took the original images in the first place.

I don’t get it, I just don’t. People know what Mars looks like now. They are familiar with its colours. After decades of enjoying images sent back the Vikings, Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity and now Curiosity, we know that Nature painted Mars in countless gloriously subtle and beautiful shades and hues of caramel, orange and red, biscuit and copper. So why do some websites insist on using hideous brown-green”colourisations” which make the spectacularly beautiful martian landscape look like it was covered in phlegm? It baffles me, it really does, especially when genuine colour images are freely available.

These images really should not be used in my opinion. But for some reason they are used, everywhere, again and again, and I just can’t get my head around it. I mean, you wouldn’t show a picture like this and suggest it’s a worthy “colourisation” of Yosemite Valley, would you?

Yosemite Valley View Panorama

So why would you want to show a magnificent martian landscape as a bland and monotone? It baffles me, seriously.

Which makes it even more important, I think, to highlight the work of people who take the time and trouble to create realistic views of Mars, by slogging away for hours at their computers, making sure all the different images combine perfectly, and doing their best to show the true colours of Mars. Now before anyone jumps down my throat and whines “You can’t say that… everyone would see Mars differently… there’s no right colour…” etc, I KNOW that. If all of you reading this stood on Mars together, no two of you would see it exactly the same. You’d all have a slightly different view, with some of you seeing the yellow hues stronger than the reds and vice versa. So no, there is no “right” colour view. But there sure as hell is a wrong colour view – the rocks, dust and stones of Mars are not all a uniform green-brown under a green-brown sky, they’re just not, and showing the planet in that way, through some kind of bizarre “Vintage filter”, is simply wrong.

Ok, rant over! Let’s see James Sorenson’s beautiful image…

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Oh my… look at that… if you click on it to enlarge it you’re there, on Mars, with the sky looming above you and the vast bowl of Endeavour Crater opened up beneath you.

Clicking on that pic will enlarge it, but if you want to see James’ image in all its glory, here’s a link to a Gigapan version of it, which you can zoom in on and pan around to your heart’s content.

Thank you, James. That‘s what Mars looks like.

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“Pillinger Point” in the spotlight

Opportunity is really taking a good long look at the rocks of, and around, “Pillinger Point”, the Stegosaur back-like rocky ridge she has driven up to way up on Solander Point. And no wonder. The features and structures here must have the MER team geologists slavering like hunger-crazed, brain-starved zombies! Over the past few days I’ve been making one panorama of the area after another, trying to make one definitive image to show to you here, but they all show something different and all have their own value, so I’m just going to put a whole load of them up in this post now and you can wander around them as you see fit, ok? :-)

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As I said, a fascinating place…! I know what you’re thinking – “Shame they’re just black and white!” – but hey, I’d rather show this incredible place in pure and uncorrupted black and white than turn it into a godawful wishy-washy sepia/yellow/green monstrosity by “colourising” it, like the images being produced for and used on some websites. And anyway, I happen to know that several of the image processing wizards on the Unmannedspaceflight.com forum are working on colour panoramas of this fantastic place, and they’ve already given me permission to use them when they’re finished, so keep checking back for those, ok?

In the meantime, I hope some of you will take a moment to go over to my astropoetry blog and read my latest poem, this one inspired by this very place, “Pillinger Point”…

“Pillinger Point”

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Opportunity pauses at Pillinger Point

Opportunity is sending back some stunning images at the moment, as she drinks in the view high up on the slopes of Solander Point above Endeavour Crater. Here’s the latest mosaic I’ve put together, showing roughly the view north, back downhill towards the Meridiani Plain below and beyond… Please, I beg you, click on it to enlarge it to enjoy it in all its glory…

pano9Isn’t that something? Such a beautiful, beautiful place. And that view… imagine you’re standing there, sweeping your gaze left to right, across the ridges and outcrops, over the rippled dust dunes on the flank of the slope down there, to the hills on the horizon… just gorgeous…

You’ll recall from earlier posts that Oppy has been taking a close look at a rocky ridge which shows some fascinating detail and structure. It looks like it’s made of VERY old martian rock, judging from the amount of weathering it’s undergone, and promises to be an intriguing science target. Photos of the ridge have been coming in thick and fast over the past few days, and here’s my latest mosaic view..

pano4Just take another moment to click on that image and enlarge it and rove your eyes over all the structures there. Imagine running your gloved hands over that rock, feeling, even through their thick, insulated fabric, the bumps and ridges, knobs and nubs, sharp edges and hollows… I bet there are a dozen geologists on the MER team and around the world wishing they could do just that…!

And we now have a name for that rocky ridge, and the MER team have done a wonderful thing here. They have apparently christened it “Pillinger Point”.

If you’re one of the blog’s more, um, mature readers you’ll now be smiling and nodding and thinking to yourself “Oh, yes, very fitting, what a lovely thing to do…” because that name will have struck a chord with you. If you’re just a youngling you’re probably wondering “Why did they call it that..?”

The ridge has been named after a British planetary scientist called Colin Pillinger, who died recently, around a week or so ago actually, and back on Christmas Day in 2003 Colin Pillinger was shown on TVs around the world. Often labelled an “eccentric”, Pillinger was a larger than life figure with great mutton chop sideburns and a broad accent which many – mistakenly – thought made him seem more like a farmer or a Morris Dancer than a hugely accomplished scientist. Today when we think of him we remember him waiting anxiously to hear if the martian lander he had designed and built, “Beagle 2″, had landed safely on Mars and was about to begin its epic quest to look for life there.

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I remember that thrilling, ghastly, awful time as if it was yesterday. Here in the UK, Beagle 2 had generated huge excitement. In contrast to the big, bulky Mars Exploration Rovers – due to arrive at and land on Mars at roughly the same time – Beagle 2 was an exquisitely-built pocket watch of a spacecraft…

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Designed to unfurl itself from a kind of flying saucer after a landing cushioned by airbags, Beagle’s mission was to use a robot mole to burrow down beneath the surface of Mars and use a suite of sophisticated instruments to test the soil down there for life. To get the probe funded and built, and then taken to Mars, Pillinger had had to fight and fight and fight, but in the end he managed to get it done, and when the Beagle 2 probe finally drifted away from the Mars Express probe on December 19th countless thousands of space fans and astronomers in the UK, and around the world, began to hold their breath, counting d0wn the hours remaining until the landing in the early hours of Christmas Day…

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On Christmas Day I – like many other space enthusiasts, I’m sure – watched every TV new bulletin and tuned into every radio news update, hoping to hear that Beagle 2 had phoned home.  I remember sitting on my mum’s stairs between news programmes, with my laptop on my knee, scouring websites for news, ANY news, before returning to the TV, only to be greeted with the sight of Colin Pillinger’s frowning face, telling me in a moment that there was still no word from Mars from “Britain’s plucky little space probe”…

We all went to bed on Christmas night deeply disappointed, but reassured by Pillinger’s optimism. After all, in the days ahead there would be many more opportunities for Beagle to contact Earth.

But as the days passed it became clear that Beagle 2 would not be phoning home. The team, supported by radio telescopes and groups around the world, tried everything they could to hear any whisper from the spaceprobe but the silence was deafening, and eventually the Beagle team had to admit that the probe had been lost. Desperately disappointing for us, but a cruel, crushing blow for Pillinger who had sweated blood and tears to make his dream a reality, and land a British probe on Mars, a probe that could have found life there, if it was there to be found.

Today we still don’t know for sure what happened to Beagle 2. Some think it came in too fast and at the wrong angle and burned up in a fireball way above the surface. Others think its parachutes or airbags failed and it crashed into the surface at high speed, shattering into a million pieces which are now scattered across a wide area, covered in martian dust. Others wonder if it landed perfectly, and unfolded itself from its protective shell, but its radio failed. That would be desperately cruel… to think Beagle 2 landed safely but couldn’t let us know, and couldn’t complete its mission, is heartbreaking, isn’t it..?

Image-of-Beagle-2

So, for the MER team to name this fascinating and beautiful little part of Mars in Pillinger’s honour is a wonderfully fitting and generous thing to do, I think. He’d have liked that.

 

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Alert! Gorgeous geology up ahead!

Since the last post Oppy has been quietly working her way towards the rocky ridge she spotted on the horizon a couple of weeks ago, and now she is *this* close to it. And it looks like the ancient, wind-carved rock there has a lot to excite the mission scientists. We’ll come back to that, but for a moment let’s pause, with our hands resting on Oppy’s now beautifully dust-free back, and take in this recent view from across the crater…

pano4How gorgeous is that? You can see all the way to the other side of the crater, to the hills and mountains which make up the opposite rim more than 20km away. In the middle distance the great mound of dust which covers the crater’s floor, blown and sculpted into rippled dunes by the same chill winds which have scoured the rover’s solar panels. Fantastic view.

Meanwhile, over the past few sols Oppy has crept up on the ridge. These images I’ve made chart Oppy’s progress toward it…

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pano12Oh wow, just look at that… that must have the mission scientists drooling over their keyboards! And when you look at a section of the ridge in more detail, and enhance the view by boosting the contrast etc, this is what you see…

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I think Oppy will be here a while. :-)

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