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

Posted in Uncategorized | 25 Comments

Quiet time…

Things are rather quiet for Opportunity at the moment, as you will have noticed from the lack of posts here recently. Having explored the Spirit of St Louis crater/whateveritis and studied the pile of rocks in its centre, Opportunity has now pointed herself towards the nearby entrance to Marathon Valley, but isn’t heading off to it just yet. At the moment Mars is behind the Sun – as seen from Earth – making communications between Mars and Earth difficult, so Opportunity is just taking advantage of the downtime by taking a well-earned breather and not doing much at all. I’m sure that as soon as Mars emerges from behind the Sun Oppy will crack on and head for the valley entrance. In the meantime, here’s what she’s looking at…

pano1b2

pano7

More soon…

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Looking at Lindbergh…

Opportunity still hasn’t set off for the mouth of Marathon Valley yet, but it surely won’t be long now; the MER team has been enjoying a good long look at “Lindbergh”, a pile of shattered and cracked rocks in the centre of the “Spirit of St Louis” crater…

bw

lindbergh rocks bf2

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Lindbergh looms large…

Opportunity is slowly making her way around the “Spirit of St Louis” crater, on her way towards the entrance to Marathon Valley. At the centre of the crater is a tall pile of rocks, “Lindbergh”, which looks a lot like one of the cairns found at the summits of many Lake District fells. Here’s the view from a few days ago…

1N483644994EFFCMX8P0776L0M1

And here’s the latest view…

pano10b

…and my colourised view…

Image1c2f

Opportunity has been taking a closer look at some of the rocks in this area too…

Image2bb

All this, of course, as Opportunity passed a major – a HUGE – milestone. A couple of days ago, Opportunity celebrated her 4000th sol on Mars. I was planning a big blog post about that, as you would expect, but when the big day arrived and Oppy’s clock ticked towards and then past 4000 sols I really didn’t know what to say.

I tried; I sat down to write my long-anticipated “4000 sols on Mars!” post several times, but staring at the screen I just didn’t know what to write. Not because I was unmoved by the occasion, far from it, I just found myself struggling to put into words how proud I was of the rover and the team behind her.

As regular readers will know I have followed this mission since Day 1, actually since the rovers began to take shape in their assembly room at JPL, and I am proud to say that – like many – I have walked every mile alongside Spirit and Opportunity since their dramatic landings. I followed Spirit on her trek across the floor of Gusev Crater, up the slopes of Husband Hill and down the other side again, and was with her as she struggled to free herself from that wicked dust trap on the edge of Home Plate. When she was declared dead I mourned – in a way – for her, but continued to walk alongside her sister, Opportunity, keeping her company as she headed to and then skirted around Victoria Crater…

And then I began this blog as she took off on her Impossible Journey to Endeavour…

Now, 4000 days after landing on Mars, after crossing all those miles and miles of desert, after exploring craters, studying meteorites and climbing hills, Opportunity is standing proudly on the rim of Endeavour, high above the crater, looking down on the world. It’s a genuinely magnificent achievement for the rover itself and every single one of the remarkable men and women who have ever worked on the mission, and work on it now. And even now, writing this , I’m struggling to express how I feel about it.

I suppose my overwhelming feeling is one of gratitude – gratitude that I have been allowed to “go to” Mars through the images taken and returned to Earth during the missions of Spirit and Opportunity. Almost every day for the past eleven years I’ve gone online and checked out the latest pictures taken by them, and it really has felt like walking alongside them. Through their unblinking electronic eyes I’ve truly seen Mars.

And that means a lot to me because, confession time, I’ve never really seen Mars, not personally – at least, not at its best, at its most impressive. Of course I’ve *seen* it lots of times through telescopes, including my own, but thanks to basically just bad timing I’ve never managed to see Mars through a big telescope when it has been at its closest to Earth. As an amateur astronomer on a very limited budget I’ve only ever seen the red planet as a small red disc through my small telescopes, like a faraway orange button with a hint of a bright ice cap at one pole and even more subtle hints of vague, dusky markings on its disc. I know that through a big telescope it would look impressive, and I’d see so  much more detail, but that just hasn’t happened, not yet. Maybe I’ll have a bigger telescope – or be in the right place at the right time – in May 2016 when Mars is next at opposition. I hope so.

Until then, I have the Mars rovers to show me Mars, and I’m very grateful for that! So, just as I have done for the past 4000, I’ll continue to walk alongside Oppy every day until she eventually stops roving. That sad day will dawn, it’s inevitable, but I don’t think we’re anywhere near it. Opportunity has great discoveries to make inside Marathon Valley yet!

And in the future? I have absolutely no doubt that once there are settlements on Mars Spirit and Opportunity will be plucked off the martian surface and carried away to be put on display in a museum, dusted off and restored to their original shining glory for people to see. Full size, diamond-coated statues of the rovers will be erected at their final resting places, for tourists, historians and native martians to make pilgrimages to, and have their pictures taken beside after following the “Spirit Trail” across the floor of Gusev Crater, and the “Opportunity Trail” across Meridiani. Along the way, tall, slim-limbed Marsborn children will run shrieking around the standing stones of the “Rock Garden” of ejecta on the edge of Cape York’s Odyssey crater,  and young couples will stand on the edge of Victoria Crater at sunset, holding hands as they watch the achingly-beautiful sapphire spark of Earth setting across the crater, bathing the landscape in a silvery-purple light.

And beyond that, in the far future, when restless Marsborn explorers are crumping across the snows of Europa, sloshing through the sucking tholin lakes of Titan, and standing on the edge of Miranda’s Verona Rupes cliffs, they will still speak the names “Spirit” and “Opportunity”  with reverence and awe, honouring their achievements.

And I have no doubt at all that one day, when men and women from Earth, the Moon, Mars, Ganymede and all the other settled worlds of Sol’s system are building their homes on the fields and lakesides of worlds orbiting distant stars, unable to find the faraway Sun in their star-crowded night skies, they will still speak the names “Spirit” and “Opportunity” with pride.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A very special rock…

As you can imagine, I check the internet for new images from Opportunity every day – ok, a couple of times a day… ok, every few hours… and the other day a picture appeared on the fantastic “Midnight Planets” site (which you absolutely should bookmark if you want to be able to look at the latest images from both Opportunity AND Curiosity) which caught my eye…

stone

Look at that… a big boulder just sitting there on the slope of the hill, like a martian standing stone… I hoped Opportunity would take more pictures of it, and get a little closer, and that’s just what she’s done. We now have this view of the rock…

x2

Isn’t that fascinating? A big, dark stone just sitting there, with what looks like a piece of it split off and lying next to it. Of course, it’s totally natural, there are gabillions of rocks like it all over Mars, but I’m counting down the days until some conspiracy theory loving, “martian anomaly” hunting nutter sees that picture and declares he or she has found a statue on Mars, or a severed robot head, or something equally ridiculous. Think *I’m* being ridiculous. Well, they’ve already “spotted” and” discovered” gorillas, rabbits, Bigfoot, dinosaur skulls and alien technology on Mars, so it will happen, you can guarantee it. Just to get in there first, let me just slide this across the table to them…

rock

Is that clear? Great. Moving on…

So, it turns out that this rock isn’t just any old rock – not to the MER team, anyway. Because they have given this particular rock a very important name, one we should have seen coming really…

“Marathon Monument”.

Oh, I love that. They’ve named that rock in honour of Opportunity completing her first martian marathon. :-)

As detailed on this blog recently, Opportunity has just passed the 42km mark on her long, long trek across Mars, meaning she has essentially “run a marathon” on the red planet. So it’s very fitting that the MER team have chosen to celebrate that amazing achievement by giving this big, striking rock a name which will honour Opportunity’s Marathon for decades of not centuries to come.

Marathon Monument

Just think… in the years to come, when there are people on Mars, when Opportunity and Spirit have been picked up, dusted off and placed carefully in the Museum of Mars (and full size, diamond-coated replicas have been left in their final resting places out on the surface of Mars) to be gazed upon by tourists from Earth and native martian schoolkids, that rock will bear a plaque celebrating the end of Opportunity’s historic marathon, and rover fans from across the solar system, following the famous “Opportunity Trail” from faraway Eagle Crater to Cape Tribulation and beyond, will have their photos taken beside it…

Wish I could be with them.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Taking a breather…

Opportunity is still hanging around at the entrance to Marathon Valley, like a shy kid nervous about walking into a party… but the view she’s enjoying is nothing short of spectacular… Click on the image below to enlarge it and see what I mean…

pano8f

Isn’t that something? Just look at all those gorgeous rocks and boulders scattered everywhere! Imagine wandering around that place… “Spirit of St Louis” crater… imagine stopping, reaching down to pick up a rock, hefting it in your gloved hand, holding it up to your helmet faceplate so you can see the lines and markings etched into its surface by aeons of martian wind…

Imagine that scene in colour…?

Imagine no longer…

SoSL Cairn

This must be one of the most impressive places Opportunity has been to in the whole of her time on Mars. Just look…

pano11bf

You can almost taste the dust in the back of your throat, can’t you? You can almost feel the grit as you rub it between your fingers…

Yes, a wonderful place… but I can’t wait for Opportunity to head into that valley and see all those layers… :-)

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

A fascinating place…

Having completed her FIRST marathon on Mars, Opportunity hasn’t started the drive towards Marathon Valley just yet. It seems the geology around the valley entrance is just too interesting to ignore. Oppy is now parked next to a raised outcrop of light rock which has been christened “Athens” by the MER team, and she’s taking a good, close look at it.

x1

Image1b

Imagse1

And over there – no, not there, over there – is a very interesting boulder indeed…

stone

Ok, everyone, synchronise watches, it’s countdown time… T minus four hours until the tin foil hat-wearing nutters declare Opportunity has found – and NASA is hiding – a Standing Stone on Mars…  MARK…

:-)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Opportunity Completes Her First Marathon

pano1cflag

Well, she did it. And why did we ever doubt she would? After a lot of very careful and intense measuring and number-crunching, it has been confirmed by NASA that two days ago, on day 3,968 of her proposed 90 day mission, more than eleven years after bouncing to a halt inside Eagle Crater in that much celebrated “cosmic hole in one”, Opportunity made history by reaching a point on Mars some 26.219 miles from her landing site. That means that a rover we all hoped would survive on Mars long enough to drive a kilometre has now driven more than 42 kilometres – the equivalent distance of a marathon.

finishing-line-converted

CONGRATULATIONS OPPORTUNITY AND THE WHOLE MER TEAM!!!!!!

This rather nice graphic from NASA, released yesterday to mark the occasion, shows very well what an incredible achievement this is…

15-049c

That really brings it home, doesn’t it? Look how far she’s come! Look at that long and winding road from Eagle Crater to where she is now, high up on the rim of Endeavour Crater…

Follow that track and cast your minds back to all the incredible things Oppy has seen and done along it… and remember how, thanks to the generosity and vision of the MER team, especially Steve Squyres and Jim Bell, who decided right at the start of the mission that MER images should be shared openly and quickly, we’ve all been able to walk alongside Oppy on her epic trek across Barsoom. Again, a huge thank you to them.

It really is hard to over-state how incredible an achievement Opportunity’s completion of the first ever extraterrestrial marathon is, both for the rover itself and the team behind her – all those thousands of men and women who designed her, built her, wrote her software, got her to Mars and have kept her busy and healthy ever since. Because remember, as she has shown us time and time again, Mars hates having Terran visitors. It loathes them. It detests them. It takes a wicked, perverse delight in killing machines sent from Earth to try and uncover its secrets. So when Oppy landed, all those years ago, the chances were that sooner rather than later she would be murdered by Mars too, either subtly – with a small mechanical failure, or a software glitch – or more dramatically, with her wheels left whirring helplessly in a dust trap, an axle snapped by an ancient, unyielding rock, or some other calamity.

But she prevailed. After leaving Eagle Crater and heading towards the far horizon in pursuit of knowledge and discoveries, she survived lengthy desert crossings that would have made a Spice-eyed Fremen think twice, dust storms and more, to finally roll up onto the slopes of Cape York in triumph. Along the way she found meteorites that will one day be displayed in martian museums, drove around and into craters, and bathed in the gun metal blue light of thousands of sunsets and sunrises. No wonder the MER team became so attached to her, so loyal to her. I am lucky and honoured to know a handful of them personally, and know many more from media stories and the like, so if I’m feeling proud to bursting point of them, and of Opportunity, I can only imagine how proud they must be feeling.

Let’s just remind ourselves, with another NASA-provided image, of how far Opportunity has come on Mars. Click on the image below to enlarge it and then follow the yellow line from Eagle Crater, up at the top, to Oppy’s current position, at the mouth of Marathon Valley, high up on the rim of Endeavour Crater…

15-049b

To put that into context, I began writing this blog on December 4th 2008, or Sol 1729, when Opportunity had just driven away from Victoria Crater and was starting to cross the Great Meridiani Desert which stretched between Victoria and Endeavour, stalking across an area of light-toned, flat rocky plates nicknamed “Conjunction Road”, having just found this small meteorite called “Santorini”…

santorini c

All around her, the scenery looked like this…

pano6

At that time the prospects of her actually reaching Endeavour were not considered to be good – it was ridiculously far away, years away for a rover that had already survived on Mars way longer than even its greatest, most optimistic fans had dared hope it would. And yes, I’ll be honest, when I started this blog I really did not think Oppy would reach Endeavour, I was sure she’d get a fair part of the way to it, more than halfway, but it seemed such a huge ask, such a huge challenge it seemed just too optimistic, even for a self-confessed rover hugger and MER cheerleader like myself.

But Oppy kept driving, kept her weary wheels whirring, and showed us one fantastic sight after another before arriving at Cape York, rolling up onto it, and beginning her exploration of Endeavour. So, as a tribute to Oppy’s achievement, here, in no particular order, are some of my favourite pics I have made and posted here on “Road to Endeavour” since that first post back in December 2008…

23-col-2b

baltra-beagle-sol-894

before-after

col1b

cropped-pano-final1

hike-meridiani-2

hpmestake-col1

hs2

jan27a

mets-jpg

pano-1b2

panoStaughton-4b

rathole_2732

It’s been a true privilege to be able to walk alongside Oppy here on this blog for the past seven years.

then now

So, Oppy has finally completed her marathon! As President Bartlett was so fond of asking on The West Wing – what’s next?

Well, in terms of science, as you read this Opportunity is studying an area of bright rock just away from the edge of Spirit of St Louis crater, at the entrance to Marathon Valley. I’ve made this image showing the area, and put a ‘virtual’ Opportunity – to scale – on the picture. Click to enlarge it, then look for the arrow, bottom left…

pano8mb

And Oppy’s view at the moment..? This…

pano4

pano5b

Here is “Athens”, the light, rocky outcrop the rover is investigating…

Image1bf

More pictures of that soon, no doubt. :-)

Obviously Opportunity completing her marathon on Mars is a cause to celebrate, but this might be a time to worry, too. Even as I sit here grinning like a Cheshire Cat, I can’t help wondering… will the politicians in control of NASA’s budget – and NASA’s own Administrator, who seems decidedly cool about NASA’s most successful ever Mars mission, a rover which outperformed every other current Mars mission in a recent independent review – decide that Opportunity’s historic crossing of the finishing line would be a fitting time to declare the end of her mission? Will they consider it a milestone marking the end of her martian journey? Surely not, not when she is poised to enter the Valley she has worked so hard to reach? Let’s hope this really is just another game of political Chicken being played by NASA and its political masters, and that common sense prevails. Or they all just grow up. Whichever happens first.

In the meantime, on Mars a robot has just finished a marathon, the first off-Earth marathon in history. And who knows, maybe she’ll complete another one before her wheels turn for the last time! But for now, just take a moment to think about that and say a silent Thank You to all the people, famous or unknown, who made it happen.

Now, Oppy…onwards- Marathon Valley awaits! :-)

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment