Welcome…

… to the “The Road To Endeavour”, a blog dedicated to following the ongoing mission of the Mars Exploration Rover ‘Opportunity’ as she explores the rim of the giant martian crater ‘Endeavour’!

Opportunity – or “Oppy” as many rover enthusiasts call her – landed on Mars in 2004, and it was hoped at the time that she’d last maybe 90 days and drive up to a kilometre across the surface of Mars. Eight years later, having survived dust storms, mechanical problems and everything Mars can throw at her, Oppy is still working, and after driving to and studying several smaller craters further north, near her original landing site, she’s now studying a huge crater called “Endeavour”, analysing the rocks and dust there, trying to figure out if that part of Mars was once wetter, and warmer, and maybe even a possible habitat for life. Every day she takes, and sends back to Earth, photographs of the martian landscape, and this is where you’ll find them – original images and many I create myself, by stitching together raw images, colourising them or turning pairs of them into 3D “anaglyphs” which can give you the impresion of being *on* Mars…

This is actually a blog I wasn’t planning to write. I was planning on starting up a blog dedicated to the Mars Science Laboratory – NASA’s next mission to Mars – but when it was announced back in December 2008 the launch of MSL (the “Mars Science Laboratory”, or “Curiosity” to give her her proper name) had been put back from 2009 to 2011, so this is Plan B: a blog that I hoped would turn into a kind of travelogue, first following Opportunity’s long, loooong drive south to Endeavour crate and then chronicling her adventures once she got there – IF she got there…

Well, she not only got there, but since getting there she’s done some amazing science – and the best may yet be to come…

So, here’s the place to come for images of Endeavour Crater, as seen by Mars Reconaissance Orbiter and other probes, and by Oppy herself. It’s not meant to be serious, or particularly scientific, just a place to come for some interesting pictures and news updates, really. I hope you like what you find here, and keep checking for new images. 🙂

Stuart Atkinson

@mars-stu on Twitter

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Still no word…

Quick update on the situation with Opportunity…

There’s no news. Nothing to report at all. It’s now three weeks since Opportunity was last in contact with Earth, since she sent back that partial, interference-speckled image, and all the MER team can do is keep listening for her with crossed fingers. She could phone home today – she could have phoned home through the night, we just don’t know about it yet – or she might not beep us for weeks or even months yet. We have to accept the possibility that she might never contact us again. We just don’t know.

What we do know is that the dust storm which has darkened Opportunity’s sky is now covering almost all of Mars and showing no real signs of winding down. Images taken by Curiosity, still trundling around on the other side of Mars, now show a sky and a landscape darkened by thick dust too, so it’s not just Opportunity being affected. Of course, as Curiosity is nuclear powered, and doesn’t rely on the Sun to charge batteries like Opportunity does, this storm isn’t so much of a big deal for it.

So, good readers, there is nothing we – or anyone – can do. All we can do is just wait and see what happens, and as we wait support the MER team as much as possible.

One other thing you can do is find Mars in the night sky, and as you look at it think how amazing Opportunity’s mission has been so far. Mars is really easy to find at the moment – it is at its closest to Earth for 15 years so is shining at its brightest for 15 years too (despite the dust storm, which amateur astronomers are really cursing; they have been looking forward to spectacularly detailed views of Mars through their telescopes and all they can see is an almost-featureless orange ball..!) – looking like a very bright orange-red “star” rising in the east (for northern hemisphere folks) around midnight. By late July it will rise in the east at the same time as the Sun is setting in the west, and will be even brighter than it is now, impossible to miss.

I’ve been photographing Mars from here in Kendal over the past few weeks, and here are some of my photos. Nothing special, I just hope they’ll encourage you to go out and look for Mars yourself. 🙂

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Opportunity and the 2018 Dust Storm

Typical. TYPICAL. I go away for a week – up to the beautiful Isle of Skye to take in some museums, castles and white sandy beaches – and after virtually ignoring her for years and years the rest of the world suddenly goes crazy about Opportunity! No-one (ok, almost no-one) has cared about her for ages, no-one has been interested in her slow, steady, scientific survey of the rim of Endeavour Crater and, more recently, Perseverance Valley. But when it became clear that the dust storm was putting the rover’s mission in danger suddenly Opportunity was big news; she was all over the internet and all around the world, and every science and space journalist, online and print was suddenly writing about the “brave martian rover struggling to survive on the red planet”. I must admit I couldn’t help thinking “Oi! Where have you all been? Some of us have been following and supporting this incredible mission and the people behind it for a decade and a half…”

While there has been a lot of media support for Opportunity and her team, of course a few reporters have taken the – ahem – opportunity to be snarky about the situation. Well done the New Scientist editor who self-righteously Tweeted their screeching disapproval for people calling Opportunity “Oppy” (listen mate, for a start you don’t get to tell anyone what we can and can’t call things, and also if the MER team itself is happy to use the nickname ‘Oppy’ it’s good enough for us and for anyone, ok?) and the reliably-miserable online commentators who moaned that they were uncomfortable with people referring to space probes as “she”.

It has been great, though, to see such an outpouring of public support and love for Opportunity and her team online. The team has received so many messages of support and encouragement on social media, they must really have been boosted by that at this difficult time.

And it will be a difficult time for them. Because although it’s true that Opportunity is only a machine – a collection of parts made out of metal and glass, wire and plastic – and she has no heart or eyes, no hands or feet, no feelings, no soul, she was designed, built, launched and for the past 14 years driven across Mars by incredible people who have all those things, who have poured their hearts and souls into her for a huge portion of their lives, and those people are hurting a lot right now and you have to be pretty damned heartless not to feel for them.

Also, this is a big deal because Opportunity’s mission has been – and is continuing to be – incredibly successful. For almost a decade and a half she has driven into and out of craters, crossed vast plains of dust, found and studied meteorites, and is now exploring a fascinating valley on the slopes of a huge crater. She has done fantastic science every place she has visited, and was ready to do more, much more, before this dust storm enveloped her. If her mission ends this way it will be tragic, and we will have been cheated out of a lot more discoveries.

So, no, Opportunity is not alive. But she was built with dreams and hope as much as she was built with spanners and lathes, and although she has no heart beating inside her she thrums with the heartbeats of the many thousands of people who put her together, guide her and follow her. It will be a long time beforw people stride across the ruddy surface of Mars, and until then robots will be our astronauts. Opportunity’s wheels are our boots, crumping across the Martian desert; her camera are our eyes, scanning the horizon, awed by Mars’ beauty; her robot arm’s instruments are our hands, reaching down to trail our fingers through the dust.

For the past 14 years this little rover has been our Martian Ansell Adams, roaming the Martian wilderness, stopping here and there to drink in the scenery and take photographs showing the raw, rugged beauty of Mars, which will be, whatever some people say, the next frontier.

Many of us have huge respect for her and, yes I suppose, love for her too. To think of losing her in this way is genuinely upsetting. I can’t imagine how helpless and useless the rover team must be feeling.

So, Opportunity is a machine, yes, but not just a machine. She is one of us, if you’re ‘into’ space or not. And that’s why this is ‘a big deal’.

Anyway, the latest news is that Opportunity is currently still asleep on Mars, or the next best thing to it. Not because – as some breathless reports are claiming, wrongly – she is covered or blanketed with dust. She isn’t. At a NASA teleconference held last week senior experts on the MER team made it very clear that Opportunity has only a very light dusting of dust, she isn’t smothered by it. The problem is the sky. It is so choked with dust that the Sun – which powers her – is hidden from her view so she can’t recharge her batteries. To save what energy she has left she has shut down almost all her systems to save power, apart from her internal clock.

But those senior experts said in that teleconference last week that they are confident Opportunity will get through this. They hve calculated that the dust blocking the sunlight will actually help stop Opportunity getting so cold that she can’t wake up, and it’s really just a matter of time, a case of waiting out the dust storm and then waking Opportunity up and getting her fighting fit again. There’s an easy way of doing that, and a much harder way, but the team are not weeping wailing, there’s no gnashing of teeth or tearing of hair. It’s just a “wait and see what happens” situation at the moment. The team is helpless, we’re helpless, and Oppy herself is helpless. As the dust storm grows and grows – it’s now covering much of the planet, and has darkened Curiosity’s sky too (but that rover is nuclear powered, not solar powered, so it’s not such a big deal for it or its team) – all we can do is wait for nature to run its course and for the storm to blow itself out. And it will. Eventually Opportunity’s sky will start to brighten, the Sun will reappear, and then the team will do what they do best, what they have done for the past 14 years: get Opportunity roving again.

If you want a really – and I mean really – comprehensive update on Opportunity’s current situation you have to read this excellent report by space journalist AJS Rayl, who has been chronicling Opportunity’s mission on a blog on the Planetary Society website for a long time.

Wow, that’s a lot of writing! Let’s look at some photos…

Firstly, here’s the last image Opportunity sent back before she shut down. It’s a pancam image taken on June 10th, but the scene around Oppy was so dark, the sky so clogged with dust, that it is just blank, apart from some electronic noise – in fact, the whole image wasn’t transmitted, hence the black area at the bottom…

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I think that’s a really sad and quite powerful image, don’t you? I’m sure it won’t be the last image ever taken on Mars by Opportunity though.

And here’s my (probably totally inaccurate) artistic impression of what Opportunity might have been seeing as the sky clogged up with dust as the storm rolled over Endeavour crater…

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Now, here’s a very special treat. I am hugely indebted to image processor extraordinaire Sean Doran who has been creating breathtaking images of Mars (and other planets) for  a long time, with levels of skill, accuracy and artistic flair I will never, ever come close to having myself. Sean regularly posts his work on social media, and he has very generously sent me high resolution versions of some of his latest images. These show very accurately exactly where Opportunity is in relation to Endeavour crater, and really show how tiny she is in such a huge, epic landscape… You’ll want to click on these to enlarge them, trust me…

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Thanks Sean!

So… here we are… waiting. Waiting for a new image, or just a bleep, or an uptick of a trace on a graph on a screen… We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

Keep checking back for more news.

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Hang in there, Oppy…

Opportunity is facing something of a challenge at the moment. As you can see from the graphic I’ve created below – using images taken by ace astrophotographer Damian Peach, it appears that a big dust storm is brewing up on Mars, not far from Endeavour Crater (her position is shown with the yellow pin) – in fact it’s close enough to already be darkening Oppy’s sky and reducing the amount of sunlight falling on her solar arrays which is reducing the power available for her to use.

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So, Opportunity will probably have a quiet time of it for a while, and just hunker down while the dust storm does what it’s going to do – either slide past without too much drama, or flow right over her and maybe dump a whole load of dust on her, which would not be good. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that she’ll get through this storm as she has got through others.

In the meantime, a couple of catch-up images…

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On a roll…

Apologies *again* for lack of updates recently, but my recent (second) knee operation didn’t go quite as planned so I’ve been cutting down on writing for a while and just taking it easy. Much better now, and so it’s catch-up time.

First, a reminder – as if anyone reading this needs reminding! – of how awaseome Opportunity is…

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Look at that… Sol 5,098 of her 90 day mission…! What a fantastic achievement, and what an amazing team of people behind her, keeping her going.

Ok, in no particulkar order, here are some newly-processed images for you to (hopefully) enjoy…

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There you can see images Oppy took of Mars’ largest moon, Phobos, passing in front of the Sun…

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I love seeing Oppy’s tracks criss-crossing the surface. After all, she’s a rover, she was designed and built to rove about..!

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That’s a close-up of the surface of one of the rocks Oppy has been studying. It’s a mosaic of three seperate images, stitched together and then processed to bring out details…

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More images soon… 🙂

 

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Still here…

OK, hands up, who thought the blog has folded? No, no… I’ve just been busy with writing work, “work” work, and getting ready for my second (and hopefully final) knee operation later this week. So the blog has had to go and sit quietly on the back row for a while. But here we are again, and time to catch up on some of the latest views to come back from our favourite rover – still roving, still exploring, stil making discoveries 14 years after landing on Mars…

Please note: Original images Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech, Additional processing by Stuart Atkinson

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Some new views…

Hope no-one thought the blog had folded, so soon after the historic 5000th Sol! No, I’ve just been AFK (Google it, kids!) for the past three weeks and unable to access, process or post images. But home again now so let’s have a look at some of the images Opportunity has been sending back recently – or rather, my processed versions of them…

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Catching up with Opportunity…

Just a quick catch post up this time – a look at some of the images Opportunity has been sending back since Sol 5000, which seems a long time ago now, doesn’t it?

Opportunity is slowly working her way down Perseverance Valley, studying rocky outcrops, free-standing stones and features in the landscape as she goes. She’s now trundling down the south fork of the valley, and enjoying great views of the crater floor and its opposite rim.

Let’s look at what she’s been seeing since our last update…

Note: Original images credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell, additional processing by Stuart Atkinson

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