Image catch-up…

Been a couple of days since I updated the blog I know, just been busy with *real life*, so here is a selection of new images I’ve made from the “raw” black and white photos sent back by our favourite martian rover…

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That’s a mosaic showing some of the rocks scattered around Oppy as she skirts Wdowiak Ridge (click on it to enlarge it)

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Close up of some of those rocks…

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The top of Wdowiak Ridge…

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Now OBVIOUSLY that’s not mine, it’s far too good! No, that’s an image created by MER image magician Damia deBouic, and she’s an absolute **genius**… that’s what you’d see if you were standing beside Oppy looking back downhill. Damia has given me permission to use her images here on my blog, so thanks Damia! That’s beautiful…

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Approaching Wdowiak Ridge…

Oppy is now edging towards an intriguing outrcrop…ridge…thing, which looks like it might offer some very interesting science if she can get close enough. Here’s one of the recent raw b&w images of “Wdowiak Ridge” …

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…and here is my colourised version, made by combining three coloured filter views into one image…

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Now, those pics were taken a couple of days ago, but the most recent images show Wdowiak from a different angle, suggesting Oppy is moving uphill towards it with a view to taking a closer look…

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…so I can’t wait to see what the next batch of images shows; it looks like a lot of loose rocks and boulders are scattered around the base of that outcrop, don’t you think?

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Opportunity – Interplanetary Record Breaker!

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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…

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…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?

Right. :-)

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.

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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…

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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”…

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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…

londonLondon…

lamarathonmap_262milesLos Angeles…

nyc-marathon-route-coloredNew York…

BRF_Maps_Combined_A4_2011_CS3Sydney…

Well, Opportunity has almost driven the distance of a marathon course on Mars, and here it is, seen from above via Google Earth…

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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…

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…and some parts of the route will be more challenging and interesting than others…

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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.

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PS: Thanks to 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”. :-)

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Thirty eight years ago today, NASA’s Viking 1 lander set down on the plains of Mars, and forever changed our view of the Red Planet. For the first time we knew what its surface looked like – dust dunes scattered across a seemingly-endless desert, with rocks, boulders and stones everywhere, all beneath a huge, cathedral dome of a sky, all painted countless shades of red, pink and brown, with hints of yellow, black and gold here and there. Since then our knowledge of Mars has grown at an incredible rate, and the landscapes of Mars are as familiar to us as the landscapes of Earth.

By now there should have been people on Mars, there really should. Today we should have been watching a live broadcast from the surface of Mars, from a team of astronauts who had travelled cross country from their base to the landing site of Viking 1 where, in secret, they had cleaned Viking 1 of all the dust that had accumulated on it since 1976, leaving it as bright and white and beautiful as it was on Landing Day. Then, standing beside it, they would have paid a glowing tribute to the lander, the mission, and the incredible team of men and women who had made it happen. Take a moment to imagine that…

Today there are no astronauts on Mars, no wheel tracks leading from a Mars Base 1 to Viking 1’s landing site in Chryse Planitia. There will be no tribute paid to Viking 1 from the surface of Mars -

Actually, there will, kind of, because I have taken the latest batch of black and white raw images sent back by Oppy from high up on the rim of Endeavour and turned them into a colourised panorama, as my own personal tribute to the Viking mission and its teams. Click on it to enlarge it. I hope you like it.

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P.S. here are some more of my latest images…

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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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