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..?

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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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Oppy rolling on…

Opportunity continues to explore the slopes of Solander Point, en-route to Cape Tribulation. She has been taking a look at a small impact crater, surrounded by a beautiful network of rippled dust dunes. Here’s the latest view…

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When the wind blows…

Opportunity is looking VERY clean at the moment! As regular readers will know, in the past Oppy has almost blended into the martian landscape she’s been so dusty, but recently she has been enjoying some gusty winds blowing up the slopes of Solander and they’ve left her looking sparkly clean…

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And of course, a clean Oppy is a healthy Oppy, and a healthy Oppy is a busy Oppy, so she’s been doing a lot of driving and imaging. She has just been taking a look at this cute little crater…

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Check back soon for more Oppy news…

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Opportunity Climbs On…

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Apologies for the lack of updates recently – if you’re a regular reader who’s bothered by their absence, that is. It’s always nice to be missed, but some people take a real huff if I don’t add posts for a while, so I hope they haven’t been too inconvenienced, but occasionally real life takes over and I have to do real life stuff, you know, holidays, writing for publishers, WORK, etc… – but back now with an update on what our favourite plucky martian rover has been up to.

Over the past few days Oppy has actually reached a major milestone in her mission, which is now over a decade long don’t forget. When we last looked in on her, Oppy was making steady progress up the slope of Solander Point, just rolling slowly but surely on her way, up and away from the crater floor scrunching across the rocky ground towards a high point in the local landscape. She has just reached that high point, and the view is… well, I’ll come to that shortly. Time for a quick recap, I think…

Let’s go back a in time, almost exactly three years ago to mid April 2011, to when Oppy was just approaching Endeavour Crater, having successfully crossed the great Meridiani Desert after her exhaustive survey of Victoria Crater, a journey many (including me, sometimes) thought she would never complete. On the horizon, up ahead, she could see these hills…

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Those hills marked the rim of Endeavour Crater, and at that time they still seemed impossibly far away. How wonderful, we all thought, it would be to see them up closer! But never mind…

Well, as history shows, not only did Oppy reach those hills just four months later, but she drove past them before beginning her exploration of Endeavour Crater on the small rocky “island” of Cape York, and looking south as she rolled up onto Spirit Point, Oppy sent back views of those hills – now to her south instead of up ahead! – which were just spectacular…

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Oppy then spent a good – a very good! – year trundling around Cape York, studying its rocks, craters and ledges, and trashing gypsum veins, then rolled off it again and headed south, for those beckoning hills. It was a big ask of a little rover which had already achieved so much, surviving dust storms, computer glitches and technical gremlins, but the potential discoveries to be made up in those hills – large deposits of clay-bearing minerals had been detected there by orbiting spacecraft – meant it was the obvious thing to do. So, off Oppy set, heading south, and after rounding “Knobby’s Head” she rolled triumphantly up onto the gentle ramp marking the base of the hills – “Solander Point”. Since then she has climbed up that slope, slowly, steadily, surely, and with each week the view around, behind and ahead of her has grown more and more beautiful. A couple of weeks ago, this is what she was seeing…

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Look at that… in the distance, on the horizon, that’s the OTHER SIDE of Endeavour Crater, more than 20km away, and in the foreground a wealth of weathered slabs, plates, chunks and outcrops of ancient martian rock glows in the martian sunlight… And looking over her shoulder, back to where she had come from, Oppy saw this…

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… her own wheel tracks leading down Solander, back to The World Below…

Since then as Oppy’s height has increased her view has improved accordingly, and at the beginning of last week she was approaching that aforementioned high point in the local terrain. This was the scene which now lay ahead of her…

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…and many rover watchers looking at those photos spotted that there was something very dramatic and important coming into view. Not much to look at yet, admittedly, just a “something else” poking its head up from behind the summit of the hill up ahead, but that something else was… incredible…

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That, circled, is the closest part of Cape Tribulation, the rover’s Promised Land, where we think those clay-bearing minerals are waiting for her. After all the months of slogging, all the years of driving wearily across the desert, she’s almost there, almost there, and that’s an amazing achievement.

Take a look at where Oppy is now (roughly, this is just my best guess)…

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But it’s only when you look at the bigger picture it becomes clear just what an achievement this is…

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So what Oppy was seeing, poking over the horizon at the top of the hill, was the northern slope of Cape Tribulation, beckoning to her…

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Over the next couple of days the view opened up even more. Unfortunately I couldn’t enjoy the grand unveiling properly because I was only able to access the rover’s images on my phone whilst on holiday, away from WiFi, but they looked tantalising enough even on my Samsung’s screen. Now I’m home I can enjoy them properly, and make them into panoramas like this one (which is a BIG pic, so click on it to enlarge and explore it properly) showing what Oppy herself was seeing…

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And then, suddenly, a couple of days ago, the ground ahead of Oppy dropped away and there it was, inviting Oppy to explore a whole new geological wonderland of ledges, outcrops and more – Cape Tribulation…

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A closer look…

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Would you like to see that in colour? Of course you would… here, let me show you…

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Isn’t that something? Isn’t that incredible! Opportunity was famously sent to Mars in the hope of lasting 90 days on the surface, and driving for a kilometre, before dying. Ten years – ten YEARS!!!! – and more than 30km later, she’s still going strong, still roving Mars, still exploring, still sending us back stunning sights like these to enjoy.

Opportunity is now up on the tops of the hills she saw on the horizon three years ago. Just think about that for a moment. This little rover is climbing a mountain on Mars, something she was never designed to do.

And this is why, after all these years, after all the kilometres, I still love Opportunity and her mission the way I do. The “other rover” on Mars, the nuclear-powered Curiosity rover, gets way more press attention and praise and support than little Opportunity, which strikes me as grossly unfair. I’m not saying MSL’s isn’t an amazing mission, because it is: Gale Crater is a magnificent place, and the images Curiosity is sending back every day are stunning. But Opportunity has done literally incredible things on Mars, and continues to do so, and WILL continue to do so as long as she survives. ( Unbelievably, her survival isn’t just a matter of how long she lasts physically, but how long she is *allowed to last* by the politicians and bean counters who control her funding. There’s actually a possibility that Oppy could be switched off, while still working perfectly, just to save money… doesn’t the thought of her being turned off while still capable of roving and doing great science, and making more amazing discoveries, just make you feel sick and mad and more? I know it does me…)

For me, these pictures capture the sheer romance and adventure of Oppy’s epic, wheel-torturing trek across Barsoom. I am so proud of that rover, and the teams of men and women behind it, some of whom I have been lucky enough to correspond with and even meet, that I could burst.

Having followed Oppy from construction through to her launch, and having walked virtually alongside her every step of the way every day for the past ten years, I feel a very strong personal connection to her and the teams behind her, much more than I do, and probably ever will, for Curiosity to be honest. I don’t feel the same connection with her. It’s not the rover’s fault – it’s a technological marvel, and has already made some outstanding discoveries, and every day sends back images more stunning than the day before – and it’s nothing to do with her landing site either, which is simply stunning. To be honest, my passion for Curiosity’s mission was snuffed out very early in the mission, and some people know how. I stopped writing my blog about Curiosity, haven’t touched it since, and now, while I still follow Curiosity daily, and marvel at her pictures, the mission itself just leaves me feeling cold and unmoved. Which is wrong, I know, and probably stupid too, some people reading this will think, and it’s not a big deal to or for anyone else, but it’s the way I feel. The MSL mission was essentially ruined for me soon after landing, and for me when I hear the words “the Mars rover” I think of Opportunity, not Curiosity.

But that’s not a bad thing! To me Oppy will never be second best, will never be in Curiosity’s bizarrely-shaped shadow. Nobody puts Oppy in a corner! She’s more of a robot heroine than Curiosity will ever be, and I’ll continue to walk alongside her every sol, with one hand resting on her back as she trundles on uphill and down valley, seeking out new discoveries and new science, as long as she possibly can.

If it’s clear tonight where you are, go outside after dark and look for Mars, shining in the sky like an orange-red star. And think, just for a moment, about Oppy, standing there on her lonely, windswept, frozen hilltop, high up on the edge of a huge impact crater, still roving, still taking and sending back beautiful photos ten years after she should have died.

And if you feel moved to do so, whisper a gentle “Thank you…” to her across all those millions of miles of space. It’s the least you can do.

 

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A ridge with a view…

Opportunity is now seeing some beautiful martian geology from her wind-swept* perch high up above Endeavour Crater, with rocks like these all around her…

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Let’s just recap quickly where she is…

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That shows the huge Endeavour Crater, with Oppy’s tour route to and past first Cape York and then Knobby’s Head, and her present position, all marked. Taking a closer look at where she is on that long range of hills now

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…and an even closer look…

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Let’s look a little closer still…

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That’s where she is! And it’s a great spot to stop and catch her breath. Far below her, the crater is a great stone bowl, ringed by mountains and hills. Behind her, her own tracks lead back down to the flat, dusty plains. Ahead, many more metres of rock- and boulder-strewn ground to cover on the way up to the top of Solander Point…

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…and after driving around a pretty flat, featureless area for quite a while, Oppy has now reached a much more interesting region, with fascinating-looking ridges on the horizon up ahead and a rocky outcrop close by, shown here in a black and white navcam image mosaic.

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Ever the explorer, Oppy drove right up to that ridge, and took some stunning pictures of it…

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Impressive! Ah, but when when you look at that same scene in colour, it really is beautiful… click to enlarge…

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Well, I think that’s beautiful, don’t you? At the moment the “other” Mars rover, Curiosity, is sending back some frankly jaw droppingly beautiful images from Gale Crater, but that image above – actually a mosaic of three different pancam views I’ve stitched together and colourised – is proof that Oppy can still take images to take your breath away, too…

Actually, it seems like Oppy has now driven away from that feature, and has taken up a position a short distance away from it…

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I love that picture… the low angle lighting casting long shadows behind everything, the tracks leading to and then back away from the rocky outcrop, Oppy’s own distinctive shadow cast on the ground by the low Sun… just beautiful… :-)

…and speaking of low Sun’s, Oppy sent back this view a few sols ago, but I’m just getting around to posting it now, sorry…

low sun

What next? Well, personally I’m eager to see Oppy continuing on up the slope, cos I think that when she gets a bit further up she’s going to have an absolutely epic view of the Cape Tribulation heights looming up ahead, and the vast bowl of Endeavour opened up in all its glory beneath and beside her…

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Check back soon to see what happens…

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Another “Rock Garden”…

Oppy continues to head uphill, exploring the upper level of Solander Point, and she’s reached some very rocky, rugged terrain. In fact, there are so many rocks, boulders and stones scattered around her that it feels like being back at the “Rock Garden” of ejecta surrounding Odyssey Crater back on Cape York…

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But where has Oppy got to on her travels? Here…

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I wonder what lies up ahead? Another couple of good drives should carry Oppy to and then over that ridge, and I think well then have a great view down into Endeavour Crater and also right along the range of hills and mountains which forms the western rim of the great crater. In the meantime, it looks like Oppy has been joining in with the “selfie” craze…

selfieCheck back soon for more images and news…

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