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 eight years ago, 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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The rocks of Mars…

Not an Opportunity-related post this time (but there’s a big anniversary coming up soon, obviously, so hang on for that, ok?) I just wanted to share with all of you some stunning views of martian rocks that came back from Curiosity today. Both these panoramas are stitched together mosaics I’ve made out of several different images taken by Curiosity, and I really want you to click on them to enlarge them and the just enjoy wandering around them at your leisure, scrolling around, seeing the different shapes, sizes and textures of the rocks.. then imagine actually being there, on Mars, and picking up those rocks, lifting them up to your visor, turning the around in your hand and feeling the weight of them…

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Have fun!

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Earth from Mars…

Ok, I should make this clear from the start that this is NOT a post about Opportunity, or even Curiosity, taking an image of Earth from the surface of Mars. It’s inspired by an image NASA released a few days ago showing the Earth and Moon as seen from Mars, but from orbit, not from the surface. The image was taken by the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter. Here it is…

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Here’s how the NASA website described the image:

The image combines two separate exposures taken on Nov. 20, 2016, by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The images were taken to calibrate HiRISE data, since the reflectance of the moon’s Earth-facing side is well known. For presentation, the exposures were processed separately to optimize detail visible on both Earth and the moon. The moon is much darker than Earth and would barely be visible if shown at the same brightness scale as Earth.

The combined view retains the correct positions and sizes of the two bodies relative to each other. The distance between Earth and the moon is about 30 times the diameter of Earth. Earth and the moon appear closer than they actually are in this image because the observation was planned for a time at which the moon was almost directly behind Earth, from Mars’ point of view, to see the Earth-facing side of the moon.

So, it’s not actually one image, its two, combined, and it has been tweaked to make the Moon brighter than it would actually appear. That’s ok, we tweak space images all the time; as long as we explain what we’re doing, and why, it’s fine.

Seeing that image – and you couldn’t avoid seeing it; it was everywhere online within hours of NASA releasing it – got me thinking about were Earth would have been in Opportunity’s sky when it was being taken by the orbiter high above it. Firing up Stellarium I found that Earth would have been a bright “Morning Star” in the east, shining to the lower left of Mars’ moon Deimos, which would have been much brighter…

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Let’s put some labels on that…

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I love the idea that Opportunity could have seen Earth shining in the sky as a bright blue “star” as HiRISE was taking that image. But what I love even more is the idea that one day people will stand on Mars and see Earth shining in the sky like a star, and if they have a telescope will be able to see views just like the one in the HiRISE image. It’ll be a curiosity for the first explorers, sure, but eventually there will be settlers and colonists on Mars, families, with children, native-born martians, and no doubt their science teachers will take them outside and show them Earth through a telescope, looking like this…

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“Wow…!” some will gasp, “Earth… look how blue it is… it’s beautiful… !”

“Yes, that’s it,” the teacher will nod, “the Homeworld…”

“Not mine,” one child will say defiantly, staying away from the queue to look into the eyepiece. “Mars is my Homeworld…”

And it will be.

 

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Opportunity roves on…

As she approaches the 13th – yes, 13th – anniversary of her landing on Mars, Opportunity is still going strong. As you can see from the following images, she’s now slowly but surely working her way back uphill, across terrain strewn with boulders, rocks and stones, ready to drive back out onto the plain around Endeavour Crater before heading for that gully further south along the crater’s rim. When will she get there? No way of knowing; that depends on how many things distract her on her way to the gully…

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Remembering Spirit…

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Thirteen years ago an incredible adventure – and an incredible journey – began on Mars, as the Mars Exploration Rover “Spirit” fell out of a salmon pink sky and bounced to a standstill on the surface of the Red Planet.

I watched it happen – not on TV but online, sitting in front of my PC monitor, watching a live NASA TV broadcast on a tiny RealPlayer screen. I was on chirruping dial-up in those days – “broadband” was still thought of as some kind of sorcery or wizardry – so the picture kept stopping and buffering, or, worse, shattering altogether in a kaleidescopic haze of pixels and static. But I was able to follow what was going on, and it was obvious to me and everyone watching when the rover was down safely on Barsoom because the control room exploded with joy, engineers and scientists leaping into the air, grabbing each other, patting backs, hugging, punching the air.

And then when the first images appeared – far sooner than we had been expecting – well, then it went really crazy…

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As a martian in exile and a British space enthusiast it was an enormous relief and a joy to have a working space probe on the planet’s surface; a week or so earlier the Beagle 2 lander had failed to phone home after landing on Mars, so to sit there and know that we were going to be able to explore Mars through Spirit’s eyes was a fantastic feeling.

Not that Spirit was going to see much, or get very far. The expectation was that before the harsh martian environment killed her, Spirit might just drive up to a kilometre on Mars, and survive as long as 90 sols, or martian days…

Of course, Spirit had other ideas. And before her roving ended – prematurely – on May 1st 2009 she had travelled over 7km across Mars, on an incredible journey that took her across a vast dusty desert on an ancient crater’s floor, up a range of hills and down their other side and past a stunningly beautiful “pool” of glittering black dust blown into ebony crests and waves by the Red Planet’s softly sighing winds.

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Every sol Spirit sent back new, stunning images. and as she rolled over one horizon after another it seemed that nothing could stop her.

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And then…

After spending months exploring a flat cap of layered rock dubbed “Homeplate”, like R2D2 rolling down that canyon on Tattooine, Spirit trundled down an innocent-looking path en-route to “Von Braun”, a rock-covered mound. What she had no way of knowing was that Mars had laid a trap for her, and as her wheel rolled over a small crater, filled with dust, she sank into it.

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And, despite valiant efforts by amazing people back on Earth to find a way to free her, there she stayed, trapped like a baby mammoth in a tar pit. On March 22nd 2010 Spirit sent her final message back to Earth – and then fell silent, never to be heard from again. Her mission was over.

Many of us who followed Spirit’s incredible journey across Mars – and there were many, many thousands of us who checked her progress every day, waking up and looking at her latest images before we had even had our first cup of tea, or were properly awake – still feel her loss like an open wound. Of course, even as we celebrated Spirit’s successful landing on that magical January day in 2004 we all knew the sol would come when she ended her roving, but we thought she would succumb to a technical failure of some kind – a stuck wheel, a software failure, a computer glitch, something like that. So to have her taken  out in such a sneaky, underhand way hurt… it really hurt. It was wrong, just wrong. She should have gone on to explore Von Braun, damnit,  and then gone further still, to discover – well, we’ll never know what she would have discovered.

I wrote this astro-poem to mark/celebrate/mourn Spirit’s passing, after NASA released a remarkable image of the rover taken by a spacecraft orbiting Mars…

“Freeing Spirit”

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Above: a crop from a colourised image I made using the image taken by the HiRISE camera

Spirit’s sister, “Opportunity”, which landed on Mars a couple of weeks after Spirit, is still roving. Having survived dust storms, technical faults, computer spasms and everything else Mars could throw at her, as she begins her 13th (terrestrial) year on Mars she is now exploring the high rim of an ancient crater, and shows no signs of stopping or even slowing down. We “rover huggers” are all immensely proud of her, and of the amazing men and women who continue to guide her across Mars.

And yet…

In our quiet moments, and on anniversary days like this, we remember Spirit, the rover which had to fight for every kilometer she drove, and brought Mars to life for the generation of armchair astronauts too old to remember the heady days of the Viking missions, and too young to expect to be around when the first crewed expeditions set off for Barsoom. And on some mission after that, who knows how any years from now, people will fly out to Homeplate, land beside it, and go over to where Spirit stands, coated in a layer of dust, looking like a statue. They’ll dust her off a little, then reverently carry her back into their shuttle, to fly her back to the Museum at their colony. And there, after being lovingly cleaned and restored, she’ll be put on display for everyone to see. Historians from Earth will jostle at the barriers with tall, pale-skinned native martian kids for the best view of the famous robot “Spirit”, and they’ll all shake their heads in wonder as they see just how small, how fragile-looking but noble the ancient rover looks.

But that’s for the future. Right now, as you read this, Spirit stands silent and still on Mars, covered with dust and sparkling crystals of ice. She could have done so much more if she’d been given the chance. Her adventure ended far too early.

Sleep well, Spirit. It might take us a while to get there, but we’re coming for you.

 

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Rovers Rocking On…

Quick update about what Oppy is up to…

Opportunity has now left Marathon Valley behind, and is working her way back up-slope en-route to The Still Unnamed Gully, which is her next major science destination. No doubt on the way to that feature she will stop a few times to look at something shiny and interesting, scientific magpie that she is, but her next long stop will be at that gully. When will she reach it? No idea. Just enjoy the journey.

Here’s her latest panoramic view, anyway… as ever, feel free to click on it to enlarge it…

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Another recent view…

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Meanwhile, on the other side of Mars, Curiosity is taking some beautiful images of martian rocks too… Here’s a mosaic I put together from around half a dozen individual frames, and then processed a little to bring out textures and structures of some very intriguing geology Curiosity is studying… you’ll definitely want to enlarge this one..

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A zoom-in of one part of that image is in order I think…

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Love those spindly stalks sticking out of the rock…

But my favourite image of the past few weeks is this one…

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Do you know what that is? You’re probably thinking “Yes… it’s a rock…” and okay it is, yes, just a rock, one of countless gazillions of rocks scattered across the dusty surface of Mars. But that rock is something else – that rock is a book. On one level it’s a science book,  a geological record of martian history. On another level it’s an epic tale the equal of anything created by Tolkien – the saga of a noble, beautiful world that once knew whispering, warm winds and soft, gentle rain, and perhaps life too, all written on pages of ancient stone…

As you look at that image, imagine being there beside that rock, kneeling down next to it, seeing all the layers in the sunlight…imagine running your gloved hand down it, your fingertips passing over and feeling the layers, one after another, each one a record of Mars’ past, like the rings in a tree…

One day people will do that for real. I think, sadly, that day is still a long way off, and I do sometimes wonder if  will actually live to see it myself, but one day people will go to Mars and see rocks like that – maybe even that very rock, if they go to Gale Crater  to follow up on Curiosity’s work – and touch them with an even greater sense of wonder than we feel when looking at these photos.

 

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Ten Years Ago…

This blog has just celebrated a rather special anniversary. The first “Road To Endeavour” post appeared on December 4th, 2008, eight years ago. A the time I didn’t really think Opportunity would make it through another two or three years, and I expected to be writing this blog for only that long. Eight years later, both Oppy and “Road To Endeavour” are still going strong. So, if you’re a regular reader, thank you for your visits! And if you’re a new reader, thank you for stopping by – I hope you’ll stay. The best really is yet to come, I think…

Speaking of anniversaries…

It occurred to me yesterday that we have a much more important and quite incredible anniversary coming up soon. In January next year Opportunity will have been on Mars for thirteen years (Earth years, not Mars years before anyone comments!). T H I R T E E N   Y E AR S !!! Not bad for a rover its team hoped would last for 90 days on the Red Planet and drive up to a kilometre from its landing site before its wheels stopped and it died. In those 13 years Oppy has seen and done amazing things. She’s driven to, into and back out of craters; she’s discovered and studied shiny metal meteorites; she’s crossed vast stretches of dusty desert; she’s found – then gleefully crushed – deposits of gypsum; she’s climbed a mountain; she’s done everything asked of her, and more. And she shows no signs of stopping.

Realising that set me wondering… where was she ten years ago? What was she doing? What was she seeing?

Turns out she was seeing this incredible view, as she explored Victoria Crater…

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Yes, that was ten years ago. Unbelievable, isn’t it?

Thinking back to Oppy’s arrival at Victoria Crater still gives me goosebumps after all these years. And as fascinating as her exploration of Endeavour Crater is, I still consider the Victoria phase of her mission to be its most exciting. I remember how we watched Victoria Crater “open up” ahead of Oppy as she rolled towards it, first becoming visible as a dark line in the terrain ahead before opening up and being revealed as that huge, deep pit, with its scalloped edge, gorgeous, crumbling cliffs and dust-rippled floor…

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I remember that time very fondly. I’d get up in the morning and check the “overnights” from Oppy with my first cup of the day, and there would (almost) always be some stunning new images to drool over. And if there weren’t I knew that when I got back from work later that day there would be. And the views were spectacular… Victoria’s ancient, crumbling cliffs were majestic in their raw geology. I couldn’t help but wonder what the mission’s geologists were thinking, looking at those same images, desperate to BE there, studying the naked stone, running their gloved hands over it, feeling its texture and seeing it with their own eyes.

I thought I’d go back to those images and re-process some of them in the way I process the images Oppy is taking now…

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If you look closely at that second image there you’ll see Oppy’s own tracks on the ground, leading away from the horizon. I love that view!

And a colour view of the base of one of the cliffs, too…

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As Oppy looked out across Victoria she could see a few bumps on the far horizon – look at the centre of the skyline on the following image and you’ll see them too…

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Let’s zoom in on those bumps a little…

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At the time we didn’t pay much attention to them; they were features 16km away, parts of the rim of another crater more than 16km away – a curiosity, nothing more. But as Oppy finished her tour of Victoria her team had to decide where to send her next.. and they chose those bumps. Because those distant humps are the hills which form the rim of Endeavour Crater, were Oppy is now.

As Oppy set off for the hills of Endeavour I’m pretty sure very few people thought she;d actually reach them. I know I didn’t. I hoped that she’d get a fair part of the way before she died, and find some more interesting things before then, but they were so ridculously, impossibly, stupidly far away that she would never reach them, surely?

Well, not only did she reach those hills, but she climbed them, sending back stunning views like this…

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And now she’s exploring those hills, trundling along the side of one of the slopes heading towards an ancient, water-carved gully, seeing views like this…

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So… just think about that for a moment, just think about Oppy’s incredible journey…

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Where will Oppy be in ten years’ time? Will she still be on the hills of Endeavour, having rolled to a stop years before? Or will she be exploring Iazu Crater, the “next one along” in the chain of craters in this region of Mars? That might sound like a ridiculous dream, but ten years ago reaching Endeavour was that, so who’s to say? If I’ve learned one thing during the past 12, almost 13 years it’s that you should never think a Mars Exploration Rover can’t do something because it will swivel its camera-covered head towards you, laugh at you, then trundle off and do it.

Keep going Oppy, keep going for as long as you can. And we’ll walk beside you all ythe way.

Won’t we? 🙂

 

 

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The colours of Mars…

Mars is a beautiful planet – well, I think so anyway. Nature painted it with an artist’s  palette of rusty reds, caramel browns and salmon pinks, and every image taken by a rover trundling around the surface or a by a spacecraft staring down from orbit has something in it I find mesmerising. No surprise then that Mars has been visited in many dramas on TV and in the cinema, and depicted with varying degrees of success and accuracy. Here are a few compared…

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Of those, special credit must go to the BBC series “Space Odyssey” which did a really good job of showing a realistic view of Mars. “The Martian” did pretty well too, and the much- (and rightly!) maligned “Mission To Mars” actually showed a realistic version of Mars too, before ruining it with that stupid sand monster and then tipping over the edge into utter “Oh you’re having a laugh!!” insanity with the aliens at the end. The original “Total Recall” is hugely entertaining, one of my favourite cheesy sci fi films, but the Mars shown in that movie is SO red it makes your eyes hurt almost as much as Arnie’s as they bulged in their sockets after his helmet shattered…

Now we have “Mars”, the “television event” drama/documentary being shown on National Geographic, which, we were promised, would be a gritty, realistic dramatisation of a mission to Mars and the start of the colonisation of the red planet. I’m not sure it’s that… not sure at all… It’s ok, but it’s sooooo slow, and the characters in it are so dour and so utterly devoid of wonder and enthusiasm that it’s quite a dark watch. It’s taken me four episodes – and the arrival of some much more interesting secondary characters – to really get into it, but it seems to be in its stride now, and I’m looking forward to how it pans out, although to be honest if all of the characters died I wouldn’t mind too much, I don’t really care much about them.

No, my main issue with the series is the main character in it – the planet Mars itself. It just doesn’t look like Mars. It’s a bland, washed-out desert wasteland that just looks fifty shades of beige, with a bit of greeny-grey here and there. To me it looks nothing like Mars at all.

Now, the whole “what colour is Mars?” question is a minefield, and that topic has been debated at length – and often heatedly -in space enthusiast forums and groups countless times already. If we were both stood on Mars, you and I dear reader, what you would see would be different to what I saw; our eyes would not see exactly the same shades and hues. So, any colour picture or depiction of Mars is very subjective, really just the personal choice of the person or people making that picture. I know I make my colour images reflect the Mars I “see” in my head, and feel in my heart; I don’t claim for a moment my images are scientifically or visually accurate, I never have done. But my colourisations are based largely on the processed and calibrated images produced and posted online by the team behind the Mars Exploration Rovers. Images like this…

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That’s the kind of colour balance I try to get in my images. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, it depends on the images that came down and what I can do with them using the software I have. Here are some of my recent “views” of Mars made with raw images sent back by Opportunity…

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… but when you look at the Mars shown in “Mars” it seems sadly lacking in martian colour and beauty to me…

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What do you think? Maybe it’s just me, but that looks really washed out to me, more like the hideous and unrealistic bile yellow-green “colourisations” some image processors make. I can’t help thinking that if the producers of Mars had just tweaked the colours a little it would have looked so much better…

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Does it matter? Really? Probably not, I said this was just a personal thing. But watching “Mars” I honestly don’t feel like the characters are ON Mars, and I can’t help wonder if others are feeling the same. None of the planet’s raw beauty or geological grandeur is on the screen. We haven’t seen any of the famous landmarks, either, which is puzzling and frustrating considering the budget the production must have had.

Maybe I’m in the wrong here. Maybe “my” Mars, the Mars I make in my images, is too red, too colourful, too saturated, and my images should be toned down a bit? Here’s a new panoramic mosaic I made today, from images taken by Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory… to me, THIS is Mars, this is MY Mars, the Mars is see in my head and, yes, feel in my heart… (click to enlarge)

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I don’t claim that’s 100% accurate, and again, this whole colour thing is very personal and subjective, but I feel that, based on NASA’s own calibrated images, that’s not too far from the view you would see if you stood on Mars at that spot.

That is the Mars I see in *here* (taps head), and feel in *here* (taps chest), and  make no apologies for showing it like that.

I wonder when I will see that Mars… my Mars… on TV or in a film?  I think it will probably take someone to film Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic “Mars Trilogy” to make my Mars appear on a screen, because the first book in that series, “Red Mars”, was the book that literally changed my life when I read it, back in 1992 (oh… my… god… that’s almost a quarter of a century ago…!)

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That book (yes, that book there in the photo, that’s my beloved first edition copy) picked me up like the claw of a martian war machine, transported me to Mars, dropped me on its surface and made me fall hopelessly, head over heels in love with it. The landscape KSR described was achingly beautiful..I was there, with the icy regolith crumping beneath my boots, staring out at rolling cinnamon-dusted hills beneath a huge pink-brown sky…

Maybe one day some brave person or team will film “Red Mars” and do it justice, and then, finally, *my* Mars will appear on screen. Until then I guess I’ll just have to make do with the Mars of ‘The Martian’ and now ‘Mars’. Which is better than nothing, don’t get me wrong.

But I want to see my Mars.

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