Pinnacle Island Poses Again…

Well, still no official word on the story behind Pinnacle Island, and the media seems to have moved on to other things now, but Oppy is still taking new images of the “mysterious martian rock” and here are my latest colourisations…




Here I’ve used an astrophotography trick and ‘stacked’ together a few b&w raw images to make one more detailed image…


…and again…


So, any new ideas where our gnarled-looking little friend came from? Well,  one of this blog’s readers – Brad Christenson from Minnesota – spotted something interesting on the Before and After photos: look in the area circled on Brad’s image and you’ll see some pebbles have been displaced from an area between PI and the rover…


…which might be evidence that the rock did indeed skip across the surface of Mars, kicking other stones out of its way, after being tiddly-winked by one of Oppy’s wheels…? Thanks for sending that in Brad!

Not a lot else going on really. Oppy just passed the tenth anniversary of her landing, but no-one dropped off a cake, or even a card, which was a shame. Hope she had a nice anniversary anyway… :-)

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More on “Pinnacle Island”…

Well, “Pinnacle Island”- sorry, should give it its full title: “the mysterious rock ‘Pinnacle Island’, which has baffled NASA boffins scratching their heads” – is still basking in the warmth of the martian spotlight, and the debate about what it is and how it got there continues. Reading the most recent posts I think it’s fair to say that more people now believe it is simply a piece of local rock which Oppy flicked up out of the ground with one of its wheels, but there’s still some support for the idea that it’s a piece of ejecta from… somewhere…

Here’s my latest colourised view of it, which I’ve made out of raw filtered images taken just a couple of days ago…


Quite like that, but I’ve been having a play about with skilfully manipulating one of the images of PI taken by Oppy’s Microscopic Imager, to pull out some detail. The original is pretty hard to see anything on…


…so I turned it around and got down to work on it with my image processing software until I was able to salvage this improved view…


Much better, don’t you think? But that’s an ugly light/dark area in the middle, so with a little more tidying up I got this…


…which is a *little* better, but not much, I know. Still, it’s a new view of the rock which has everyone talking.

As to how it got there, well, on Sunday I thought I was on to something when, colourising some images of the surrounding area, I thought I spotted what looked like trails leading away from a couple of small rocks… hmmm… if they were real, and not either just imaging artefacts or my own over-active imagination seeing things that aren’t really there, could they be a sign that there has been a more general movement of rocks in this area recently, which might make the ejecta theory more plausible? See what you think… I’ve made an animation which highlights the “trails” with arrows. They’re very hard to see, I admit, and you will need to click on the image to enlarge it (and maybe to set the gif moving too, WordPress can be weird like that sometimes..!)


Well? What do you think? Am I on to something there? UMSF member Michael Howard told me in an email that he thinks the tracks – if they are tracks – are leading westwards, and perhaps only a little downhill, so I’m less confident than I was. But there’s something there, isn’t there? I’m not just seeing things..?


Hmmm. Not sure, still. Hopefully NASA will give us some more images – and an explanation of their own – sometime soon…

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“IMMORTAL” – Ten Years on Mars

As I said in a previous post, I have something special for you  to mark the tenth anniversary of the Mars Exploration Rovers landing on Mars. I’m posting it a few days early because people are already asking me about it and also because I might not be able to on the actual anniversary of Oppy’s landing itself.

For several years now, my great friend Glen Nagle and I have been marking milestones and major events in the MER mission by creating ” poemsters” – poetry posters, combining Glen’s stunning artwork and design skills with my poetic ramblings. We’ve collaborated again to create something to mark this historic tenth anniversary, and here it is…


Obviously to read that you’ll need to click on that to enlarge it, and if you want to see bigger versions, and some brilliant MER 10th anniversary logos and artwork Glen has created,  just go to Glen’s blog.

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The Most Famous Rock On Mars..?


Well, at the moment “Pinnacle Island” certainly is! Although Mars enthusiasts had spotted it earlier, “Pinnacle Island” hit the headlines after MER PI, Steve Squyres, showed images of it and talked about it during NASA’s “Ten Years On Mars” celebration event, and after that the world basically went nuts about it. I’d already blogged about it here, of course, and put forward several explanations for how it could just have possibly “appeared” next to Oppy as it did, and by yesterday my images and speculations were all being used widely on media websites around the world, which is always a bit weird to see! :-)

Here’s a new stacked image I’ve made of Pinnacle. I wonder how many sites will use *this* one without asking..?

registax Pinnacle Island b

Of course, inevitably the nutter brigade have jumped onto the Pinnacle Bandwagon, suggesting “alternative” (i.e. cuckoo) explanations for it. My fave so far is that it is a species of martian fungus which has sprouted next to Oppy. Um, ok… but why now? Ah, well, no, they don’t explain that, of course…

Are we actually any nearer figuring out what Pinnacle Island is, or where it came from? No, not really. Steve Squyres was very excited about it during the MER event, and is fascinated by its strange geology, and is particularly struck – and puzzled – by its levels of sulfur, magnesium and manganese.


Obviously there’s a lot more to come re. this headline-grabbing rock. More images and measurements will be taken over the next few days, and a clearer picture of its nature and background should begin to emerge. In the meantime, here’s something I’ve written about it. Well, it was too good a chance to pass up…


Where did you come from, little one?
That plate of rock was bare, I swear,
Then suddenly you were there,
Basking in the sunlight, right where
We would see you. Just sitting there,
Looking up at us,
Like Dug in “Up”,
Grinning, tail wagging and sweeping
The dust away as we gazed down at you
Wondering “What the..???”

So many theories whizzing around the Web
About your origin there’s almost no room left
For gifs of sleeping kittens’ twitching ears
Or Kim Kardashian’s rear.
Did you really fall from the sky?
A meteorite? Hmmm. Seems unlikely that
With all of Barsoom to choose from
You’d land barely a hand’s width away
From the most curious robot
On the planet, but who knows?

Others cry “Ejecta!”
Could they be right? Did you really fly
Here after being blasted from the ground
By some rock falling at the speed of sound
Out of the sky?
If so, a brand new crater lies nearby,
Surrounded by others just like you –
A second Christmas for geologists
Who would give anything to have the rover roll
Up to its jagged rim to see what hides within…

Perhaps you were simply tiddly-wink flicked here,
Kicked up by the rover itself
To fall a short distance away?
It’s possible. After all, unlike her brash big
Sister’s wounded wheels, increasingly ripped and torn
By a Banth’s raking claws,
MERB’s are still whole
And easily strong enough to scuff
A rogue rock up off the ground,
To be found nearby next Sol…

But I wonder… Had Opportunity looked up quickly
Would she have seen mischevious martian kids
Standing nearby, caught red (or green?) handed,
Frozen to the spot, ready to throw the stone?
Are they still there, hiding behind her,
Biding their time, daring each other to try again?

© Stuart Atkinson 2014

From my astropoetry blog.

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Ten Years…


I got up at 3am this morning, so I’m feeling a bit zzzzzzzy at the moment. What made me get up at stupid o’clock? Something exciting happening in the night sky? Another chance to see Comet Lovejoy shining weakly above the treetops before it fades completely from view? The launch of a fantastic new space mission? No. I got up to watch a live webcast on my laptop, something I could easily have caught up with hours later, in daylight, after a good night’s sleep.

I got up specially to watch a live broadcast of a NASA event celebrating the tenth anniversary of the landings of the Mars Exploration Rovers on the Red Planet (and before anyone says anything yes, I know it’s not quite ten years since Opportunity landed, but it’s near enough, and if NASA wants to celebrate a little early that’s fine by me! When the ACTUAL tenth anniversary comes around there’ll be a special post here with a new MER astropoem, so keep an eye open for that, ok?) Why? Because I wanted to join in the celebration as it happened, and watching it later just wouldn’t have been the same.

So, 3am came, my alarm burst into life, and ignoring the protesting chirrups of the cat up I got, grabbed my laptop, went to the streaming coverage, and settled back under a duvet on the sofa to watch, a little bleary-eyed and yawny but there was no way I wanted to miss it. Because, you see, I was there at the beginning, and have been every day since, and I have vowed to myself, and to the rovers too, I guess, that I’ll be there at The End, whenever that comes. SO there was no way I was going to miss the party.

It’s almost impossible to grasp the fact that it’s now a decade since Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars, and a good couple of years longer since they started their epic journeys to Barsoom by being designed, then built and eventually launched. But my own love of Mars didn’t begin with the rovers, oh no,. I’m a lifelong martian enthusiast. I remember as a kid drooling (not literally, that would be disgusting, but you know what I mean) and gasping over images taken by the Viking landers in books and magazines, and on TV too. I was so bewitched by the views of the rubble- and boulder-strewn Chryse and Utopia plains I saw spread across the pages of a 1977 National Geographic that I found in an art room at school that I “borrowed” it and took it home to drown in the glorious pictures. It’s still on one of my bookshelves over there, slightly faded and worse for wear now after more than 30 years of examination, study and love, sandwiched inbetween NASA reports and journals, big glossy coffee table books full of spectacular images, and dozens of sci fi novels about the exploration of Mars. (The school shut long ago, they won’t be wanting it back now… right?) As I grew older my love of Mars grew too, and so when the MER rovers were approved I followed their construction and became a huge fan of the mission.

When the rovers launched I watched the launches live on my computer. This was in the days before I had broadband, so I watched the launches on tiny little RealPlayer windows over my dial up connection, and the video kept freezing, and buffering, but I was able to see the rovers launch safely… and then had to settle down and wait for their landings on Mars.

Watching those landings was horrible and fantastic and frightening and thrilling all at the same time. I sat for hours, HOURS at my computer, following the events on that little buffering RealPlayer window over my dodgy dial-up connection, and my heart was in my mouth as the Big Moment arrived for the rovers, first Spirit and then Opportunity several weeks later. There was that awful period of uncertainty after landing, when no-one seemed to know what was going on, if the rover had survived, and then the cheers and the claps and the whoops… what a relief! Both rovers down on Mars safely. Let the adventures begin!

Ahead of us, if we were lucky, lay a month – a whole month!! – of driving around Mars, studying its fascinating rocks, seeing different landscapes and new horizons every few days… If we were lucky.

No-one I knew then, or know now, dared to imagine for even a fleeting moment that ten years and many, many miles later, one of those rovers would still be driving on Mars, still exploring, still making discoveries. But Opportunity is. Sadlly, Spirit’s mission came to an end about 4 years ago, when she became stuck in a sand trap and could not drive free. Like a fly trapped in amber, or a baby mammoth trapped in a tar pit, she could not escape and no-one could pull her out, so she died there, killed by the cold, starved of solar energy. “Rover Huggers” like myself miss her still, and find it impossible to wonder what she would be doing now if her wheel hadn’t dug into that talcum-fine dust, but still….

Spirit may be gone, but as you read this Opportunity is perched halfway up a hillside on Mars, on the edge of a huge ancient crater called “Endeavour”. After ten years of crossing dust dune rippled deserts, driving to, round and into craters, gazing at thousands of sunrises and sunsets, Opportunity is still roving Mars. She has survived everything Mars – a planet with a famous hatred of visitors from Earth – has thrown at her. She has survived planet-covering dust storms, endured circuit-shattering cold and triumphed over numerous technical failures and software glitches. And now, weary and dusty, her eyes full of grit ad her wheels desperate to rest, she is enjoying this breathtaking view, of the farside of Endeavour crater looming up on the distant horizon, and the crater floor far, far below her …


…and that has to be worth celebrating.

Which is why I got up at You’re Having A Laugh o’clock this morning to watch the NASA event. I’ve followed this mission, been caught up in its adventure and excitement, since Day 1. It feels like I’ve walked alongside the rovers on their epic treks across the face of Barsoom, walking over the rocks and boulders, edging my way down the slopes of the craters and back out again, hiking up the hills and mountains, muscles burning, breath gasping, with one hand on the rover for support. Through my monitor screen, NASA videos, and online space exploration forums I’ve lived through each and every triumph and failure. The MER mission has been my Apollo. I’ve not just lived and loved it personally but, through my Outreach work in schools and to other interested groups I’ve shared it with many, many thousands of other people too. So, you can appreciate, to not be there this morning – at least virtually – as NASA celebrated the MER mission was unthinkable.

So, this morning I lay there for two hours or so, under a duvet, in the dark, with the winter rain hissing against the window and a sleeping cat draped over me like a white furry bean bag, snoring almost loudly enough to wake up Spirit from her long martian slumber, and it was a great show, a worthy tribute to the incredible mission, team and machines themselves. It had wonderful images and videos, and presentations by key figures from the mission. Steve Squyres proved yet again what a brilliant communicator he is with a presentation which saw him leaping about the stage, grinning from ear to ear, still as much in love with Mars as he ever was and still as excited by the MER mission as a kid given the keys to a toy shop. Bill Nye gave a truly wonderful presentation, and had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand with a hilarious, educational and inspiring talk which was an absolute masterclass in Outreach. Seriously, why he isn’t as respected and in the public eye as much as Neil deGrasse Tyson is a baffling mystery to me. And as much as I loathe and despise that godawful ‘Gangnam Style’ song it was brilliant to see my friend Glen’s hilarious “Gangnam Style on Mars” pic used in the event! So, yes, it was worth getting up early for, but as the panelists reminisced, and celebrated, I remembered too…

I remembered Spirit’s seeing first view, out across the floor of Gusev Crater. Rocks scattered and strewn everywhere, rocks, boulders and stones by the tens of thousands, all shades of red, gold and orange, dwarfed beneath that enormous, cathedral roof yellow-pink sky…


I remembered Oppy’s first view, of that outcrop of rock jutting out of the inner wall of Eagle Crater after the rover’s “Celestial Hole In One” landing…


I remembered Spirit’s testing ascent and triumphant conquest of the Columbia Hills, winding her way up the slopes, up valleys and gorges, stopping to photograph Earth shining in the sunset sky before reaching the top of Husband Hill and looking down to see Mars stretched out below her like a red, brown, orange and umber quilt…

I remembered Opportunity’s beyond-impossible arrival at Victoria Crater, how, after many months of seeing the crater’s walls on the horizon as mere gentle bumps suddenly she was standing in the shadow of them and they were revealed to be mountains, and as she edged forwards the crater was opened up in front of her like a huge abyss, its crumbling cliffs stretching away on both sides…


I remembered the feelings of rage, frustration and helplessness that wrapped around me like a cloak when Spirit fell into the fiendish dust trap laid for her by Mars and could not get out again, despite the brave attempts to free her by the MER teams back on Earth. I remembered the rover falling silent when she eventually grew too weak to phone home again, and remembered waiting for the “I’m awake…” message which never came. And I remembered having to let her go when it became clear that her mission was finally over.


I remembered our wonderful trip to JPL, more than five years ago now, when Stella and I were shown around the MER offices and driving rooms by none other than MER driver Scott Maxwell himself, and met Steve Squyres too. During that visit we came face to face with a life-size model of a Mars Exploration Rover, and it was all this self-confessed “rover hugger” could do not to throw my arms around it and literally hug it…


And I remembered how it has felt to be a part of this mission, both as a space enthusiast and an Outreacher. As a space enthusiast I have spent the past ten years writing about the MER rovers in children’s books and astronomy magazines, on my own blogs and on other people’s, and in posts on Facebook, Twitter and space exploration forums. I’ve written dozens of poems about them, and short stories too. As an Outreacher I have talked about the MER mission to probably tens of thousands of people, young and old, in drafty church halls, Lottery Grant-modernised Community Centres and school classrooms. I’ve shown hundreds, probably thousands of MER images to people, in the past decade, trying, hoping to put across what an incredible achievement they are. Five years ago I started this blog, “The Road To Endeavour”, and have updated it almost every day since – apart from brief pauses due to illness or work commitments or, more recently, Comet ISON and, sadly, family bereavement – which has led to it becoming one of the most popular MER-related blogs on the web, which is very gratfiying and humbling! In short, I have lived the MER mission myself.

But why? Why has it had such an effect on me? Why have I felt so excited by it, been so possessed by it?

Because I have been fascinated by Mars since I was knee high to R2D2, and the MER rovers have taken me there. This is because, early on in the mission the historic and incredibly generous decision was taken by the top people on the MER team to release the raw pictures taken by the rovers almost in real time, without being held back, or embargoed, without being processed or tweaked in any way. This meant that anyone with an internet connection could go to a webpage and see images of Mars taken by the rovers just a matter of hours previously. No censorship, no delay, just absolute freedom to participate in the mission and, through those images, join in with the exploration of another WORLD. And that’s what I’ve done, almost every day since landing – gone online at some point and brought up the latest images from Spirit and Opportunity. That has allowed me to walk virtually across Mars alongside the rovers, my hand resting on their sides, crump-crumping across its rock-strewn surface, kicking up cinnamon-hued dust with my boots, dragging my space-suited fingers through its icy orange dirt… I feel like I’ve been on Mars for the past decade.

Spirit and Opportunity aren’t just machines, you see. They’re every quiet kid that ever hid in a school library at breaktime, devouring science books instead of pretending they liked kicking a ball around outside. They’re every weekend hiker and walker who has trekked up a hill, stood panting on the top, and wondered what was beyond the next horizon. They’re every landscape painter who has struggled to capture in paint, on canvas, a burning sunset or icy Moonrise.

The rovers are me. They’re you. They’re all of us.

Reading that I’m sure some of you will have laughed, or rolled your eyes, or both. And yes, it’s true, strictly speaking, of course, Spirit and Opportunity are just robots – heartless, cold machines made of glass and metal, wire and cord, plastic and paint. But oh, they are so much more than that. They’re a warm, thinking, feeling human presence on an alien world. They’re the curious, wide-with-wonder eyes and shaking with excitement hands of intelligent, inquisitive, stubborn, frightened, fearless creatures that evolved from apes to build machines which could travel to, and explore, other worlds. They’re explorers, as brave and bold as Magellan, Columbus and Cook, and ships of exploration, just like the sleek, surf-sprayed, seagull-circled sailing ships of years time by. They’re connected to our past, and they connect us to the future too.


And, like other pieces of space hardware scattered across the surfaces of planets and moons across the solar system – the descent stages of the Apollo landers on the Moon, the corroded Venera probes on Venus, the Huygens lander on Titan – they’re proof that, at least for a while, Mankind had the vision, the daring and the sheer guts to reach out from Earth and touch the faces of other worlds.

The future can’t be seen, or predicted. Mankind’s destiny may be to leave Earth and walk on the surfaces of other worlds, first those orbiting our own star and then those in orbit around other, distant suns. Or it may be to cower in the smoking rubble of our civilisation, in the aftermath of war, or plague, or some as yet unknown horror. But whatever happens, Spirit and Opportunity will still be there, on Mars – either out in the open, exposed and covered in dust, or on display in some martian museum, brushed and scrubbed clean, lit by spotlights and surrounded by gawking crowds – proof that once, at least for a while, we looked at the sky and saw opportunities for adventure, knowledge and discovery there.

Right now, Spirit is still standing there in the shadow of Husband Hill, frozen and lifeless, her solar panels coated with dust and ice no doubt. But Opportunity is, at this very moment, as you read these words, surveying the martian landscape from high up above an ancient impact crater. The sky above her is cold and clear, butterscotch-hued with subtle watercolour washes of orange, lemon and cinnamon, and the Sun shining on her back is shrunken, small and cold, a tiny silvery coin hanging in the sky. Unseen by anyone, unheard by anyone, she is exploring the great and ancient world of John Carter’s Barsoom, HG Wells’s stomping war machine tripods and Ray Bradbury’s silver-masked, golden-eyed martians. Isn’t that an amazing thing?

And best of all she’s still FINDING things! She’s still making discoveries! As I reported in a previous entry, earlier this week she spotted a rock on the ground that hadn’t been there the last time she’d looked. This rock…


Steve Squyres talked about this rock – “Pinnacle Island” – in his presentation last night, and he couldn’t hide his excitement. Where is it from? How did it get there? It doesn’t belong here. Its chemistry is bizarre, unlike any rock seen or studied by either rover so far…

See? Almost ten years after landing on Mars Opportunity is still making discoveries, still leaving scientists scratching their heads, still surprising us. And that’s what makes her, and the MER mission, so special.

So far no probe – rover or lander – has found any signs of life on Mars. But don’t be too sad about that. Having been on Mars now longer than she was on Earth, having had the martian wind blowing over and through her for a decade, covering her with dust, Opportunity is a martian now, surely?

It’s been a wonderful ten years, and I feel lucky, and privileged, to have been able to follow and, in my own small way, through this blog, and my poems, be a part of the MER mission.

Here’s to the next ten years!

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Close up of Pinnacle Island

Stitched together a couple of MI (“Microscopic Imager”) pictures Oppy took of the enigmatic “Pinnacle Island”…


I also had a go at recolourising the image… this is more accurate, I think…


Wonder where it came from? I think there are four reasonable possibilities. 1. It’s a meteorite, and it literally fell from the sky and landed next to Oppy. That seems a hell of a longshot, don’t you agree? Even more of a cosmic coincidence than Oppy’s own unlikely “Cosmic Hole In One” landing in Eagle crater a decade ago… 2. It’s a piece of ejecta – a piece of martian rock which landed here, next to Oppy, after being blown out of the ground nearby/miles away by a meteoroid impact. Less unlikely than being a meteorite, but still, whar would the odds on that be..? Option 3: Oppy put it there herself. HOW?!?!? Well, maybe she dislodged it while driving a little while ago, it got stuck in her wheel, and finally fell out heere. Hmmm. That’s possible, very possible actually. Or, option 4, it simplty rolled next to Oppy, having rolled down the slope of the hill from somewhere higher up ahead. That’s the least crazy but also the most boring idea. Anyway, it might be something else entirely. We’ll just have to wait and see. As usual!

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Two weeks to go…

It’s hard to believe that in two weks time, Oppy will be celebrating the tenth anniversary of her landing on Mars, but it’s true. A decade ago we were all waiting anxioulsy for Oppy to enter the martian atmosphere, streak through it, inflate her air bags, drop to the surface, bounce across it and then… hopefully… stop safely and begin her mission. Obviously all those things happened because ten years later Oppy is slowly but surely working her way u to the top of Cape Tribulation, having made landfall at Solander Point, but it’s sobering and humbling to think that if any of those things hadn’t happened perfectly, Oppy would have smashed into the martian surface and all we’d be seeing from orbit would be a pile of shattered debris, scattered across the martian sands. What an adventure it’s been!

Now, OBVIOUSLY I’ll be writing a BIG post about the anniversary when it actually gets here, but for now here are a couple of colourisations I’ve made showing a rather bizarre-looking rock Oppy has come across up on the slopes. I’ll show you a black and white image of it first, just to set the context…


How weird is that? What could it be? My gut instinct is to think it’s a hollowed-out meteorite of some sort, especially when you see it in colour…



…but clearly more images are needed of that little guy before any useful speculation can begin. I’m sure they’ll be taken soon, that rock must have the geologists smiling like Cheshire Cats…

Looking up from the ground, Oppy can now see back to where she came from, all the way back to Cape York, and these are the views I’ve really been looking forward to! The images taken by Oppy over the last few days confirm a couple of things about Cape York. Firstly, it’s very short, in terms of height. As we approached it, back in August 2011 (what!!?!?!?!) we were all wondering if the Cape’s tallest parts would jut up from beyond the horizon like mountain peaks, but that didn’t happen; the Cape turned out to be really just a low rise in the landscape, a low rocky island in the Meridiani dust sea. Secondly, the new images confirm that, essentially, the Cape is on the INSIDE of Endeavour Crater’s great eroded rim, making it more like a ledge in the crater wall than a hill. Here, take a look… first, a panorama showing what Oppy sees…


See Cape York, over on the right there? Small, isn’t it? Now, if you stretch that scene vertically you can really begin to appreciate the true nature of the Cape…


Isn’t that fascinating! LOve that view, and really looking forward to making a colourised version of it when those filter sets come down.

So, there you are, some new images from Oppy. Again, apologies for the lack of updates, but sometimes real life has to take priority, and with a family bereavement to deal with at the moment I’m sure you – or most of you – will understand why I can’t update RtE daily right now. Be patient, more will come, and you’ll love the tenth anniversary tribute we have planned.

More soon…

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