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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“We Let You Go…”

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WE LET YOU GO

So unjust, so unfair that in the end it was the dust that killed you,

Not the natural wear and tear or honourable rust of old age.

Everyone who loved you knew the Sol would come

When Mars finally murdered you; we expected

Howls of rage as an axle broke

Or your computer had a stroke,

But not… this.

Around the world, laboratories and living rooms alike

Were filled with helpless sighs as that dust storm

Covered Endeavour’s Big Country sky, swirling ochre clouds

Of fines blotting out your Sun and settling on your back,

Blinding you, smothering you, choking you…

 

Today, as they declare your mission has ended

And the Deep Space Network’s great concave ears

Turn away from you with a grinding and groaning of gears

I can’t help wondering if you’re still alive.

Does your electronic pilot light still flicker inside you?

Does your brave digital heart still beat in your deep, deep sleep?

Have we abandoned you too soon?

Are Barsoom’s twin moons shining down on you

As you cling stubbornly to life, needing just one more

Whisper of code to prise open your dust-caked eyes?

 

We’ll never know.

There’ll be no more calling out your name from Earth’s front porch;

We’ve gone inside and closed the door behind us

Because there’s nothing left to try.

Every die has been thrown a dozen times;

Every desperate plea shouted at the sky has gone unanswered.

No-one can do any more,

So it’s time to say goodbye.

 

Perhaps, on one far future day, a weary Martian,

Standing on Cape Tribulation’s sunlit peak

Will sweep their gaze up and down the meandering

Curves of Perseverance Valley and see you standing there –

A statue, thick with dust, your shadow stretching down to

And out across Endeavour’s floor – and bound down to you,

Sweeping your back clean with their gloved hands

And understand the treasure they’ve found…

 

But our time with you is over.

And so, Opportunity, our brave, bold girl,

We let you go.

 

 

© Stuart Atkinson 2019

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(Almost) time to say goodbye…

oppy 1f b2

 

This is a very hard post to write. It’s one I’ve been dreading, for years, literally years, but there’s no putting it off any longer.

Overnight last night the final, Final, FINAL ‘Wake up, please?’ commands were sent to Opportunity, the absolutely last throw of the last dice. Its been 8 months since we last heard anything from her, and even as those last commands were being beamed from Earth we all hoped against hope that Oppy would stir, and bleep back a last minute “Ha! Had you fooled! Surprise!!” reply –

But Opportunity didn’t answer.

So.

Barring some kind of miracle it looks like this evening’s (7pm) NASA press conference will be for the announcement that Opportunity’s mission is finally over. This day was always going to come, and it’s important for everyone to remember that Oppy – which we hoped would last for 90 days after landing – survived on Mars for more than 14 *years*, making discovery after discovery, showing us fascinating new sights day after day after day. But for those of us who have followed the mission so closely, from design through construction, launch and landing and all the wonderful days beyond, this is hard, and painful. Not because a machine of metal, wire and glass has stopped working, but because an amazing interplanetary adventure has ended; because an epic trek across the surface of an alien world has finished.

Many of us have ‘grown up’ following Oppy’s journey, she’s been a constant presence in our lives, and to lose that connection is going to be tough. It means no more new images to look at and play with; no more new horizons to gaze at and drive beyond; no more exciting “Look! There!” sightings of meteorites glinting in the sunlight in the distance; no more beautiful purple sunrises or sunsets. No more… anything from Opportunity.

And oh boy, it’s hard even typing those words, believe me.

I can’t even begin to imagine how the MER team are feeling today. Many have worked on it all their careers, it has been a huge part of both their professional and private lives for over a decade. They must be absolutely in pieces today.

For amateurs like me the loss of Oppportunity is less important, but it hurts just as much, believe me. Speaking for myself, I’m gutted, and feeling more than a little lost right now. In a way, the MER Mission of Spirit and Opportunity was ‘my Apollo’, the first space mission I followed, engaged with and invested in emotionally as an adult. I was there for the Voyager fly pasts, and the Viking landings, and the end of Apollo, but I was unaware of the start of those missions, I was too young and not as seriously ‘into space’ then. With MER I was onboard from the very start, and watched the launches and landings online – on *dialup*, on a tiny RealPlayer screen on my big pc, groaning every time the image broke up into a swirl of pixels or the stream buffered – and after the landings I logged on every single day (with a few exceptions) to view the images. At the start of the mission I was viewing those images on a dialup connection and saving them to floppy discs; by the end I was viewing them on my phone, walking to work, and saving them with a tap of my finger. Crazy. Unbelievable.

Over the years I’ve processed thousands of MER images, talked about Spirit and Opportunity to hundreds of groups of people, young and old, in shiny modern classrooms, drafty church halls and over-booked community centres. I’ve written magazine articles and poems about them. I’ve written about them in the books I’ve had published. I’ve written this ‘Road to Endeavour’ blog for over ten years, and have loved doing so, even though it has been hard work at times, and even though, for some reason, it has never been promoted or even acknowledged by the high profile space journalists of Twitter and Facebook who are wailing and gnashing their teeth so loudly today.

Truth be told, I don’t care. I’m just a space enthusiast with a passion for Mars who has lived and loved every sol of Opportunity’s epic Lewis and Clark trek across Barsoom – a space enthusiast who has made friends on the MER team – and been told by them that after all my work they consider me part *of* that team, part of the ‘MER family’ , and that means the world to me, as you can imagine.

This is genuinely the end of an era. Oppy’s “end of mission” will mean the MER mission has ended, full stop. That’s it. Line drawn under it, lights switched off, bye bye. It’s strange and weird to think that when Opportunity landed on Mars in 2004 smartphones were science fiction. There was no Twitter. No Netflix. No Kardashians. No Trump. It was a gentler, lower-tech, less paranoid time, that seems as faraway now as the ages of the Egyptians or Vikings. Now the world we live in is very different, and the challenges we face might yet prove too hard to overcome. We’ll see. But it will be a world without a MER rover driving across Mars, sending us back womderful images daily.

Unless Oppy has beamed back a “Gotcha!” message in the past few hours, tonight’s NASA event will announce that the MER Mission is over, and yes, it’s going to be tough watching that press conference tonight. But those of us who have followed this incredible machine over the years, walking beside her mile after dusty mile, with our hand resting on her back, will feel both sadness and pride.

Opportunity wasn’t alive, none of us thought that, but she wasn’t ‘just a machine’ either. She represented our species’ spirit of exploration and our deep-rooted human need to see what’s down the road, over the next hill or around the next corner. For 15 years she represented the best that we can be when we put our minds to it, and use our gifts and skill to build and explore instead of kill and retreat behind walls. I’ll miss her, I’ll miss being with her on Mars, so much. So much. I’ll never get to Mars in person, I’m resigned to that now, but for a decade and a half I WAS on Mars, thanks to Opportunity, and Spirit. Their cameras were my wide-with-wonder eyes; their wheels were my restless feet; their robot arms were my trembling hands. They took me to Mars and showed me around, and I’ll love them – and their team – for that for the rest of my life.

Here’s one example of what Opportunity gave me, and everyone else who followed her so devotedly. On Sol 950 – when Opportunity had altready survived on Mars ten times longer than hoped – she was approaching the rim of Victoria Crater. The ground ahead of her was literally opening up…

vic 1 sol 950

On the far horizon, there was a bump, which no-one paid much attention to at the time because, well, VICTORIA WAS AMAZING!!!

vic end view f

At the time we didn’t know how important that bump would become…

vic end view f b

That bump was actually the rim of Endeavour Crater, many, many kilometres away, impossibly far away, ridiculously far away. But years later Opportunity not only reached that bump, she drive up it, and on Sol 4682 Opportunity reached the summit of the rim, from where she had – and shared with us – this glorious top-of-the-world view…

summit view 5 jan 2015

Opportunity would never be so high – or so free – again.

And soon after, on Sol 500, she sent back images that we were able to assemble into a “selfie”. I’ll admit that when my version of that self portrait was finished – as crude and clumsy as it was compared to the ones others went on to make – I shed a tear. There she was, my girl, standing proudly on Mars in all her glory…

Screenshot_20180610-171136

But this is it. For the past 240+ days we’ve  all stood on Earth’s front porch, calling out Opportunity’s name into the darkness, desperately hoping that this time, *this* time she’d answer. But from the darkness we’ve heard nothing.

It’s time to let her go.

 

I’ll write another post after the press conference because I have something special I want to share with you. I hope you’ll come back and check it out.

Stu

 

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Birthday Blues…

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Last Thursday (24th) was my birthday – big number, don’t ask – but to be honest my mind was on a different anniversary: the following day, Friday, was another birthday of a kind – the 15th anniversary of Opportunity landing on Mars.

Yes, 15 years ago I got up at silly o’clock on a chilly morning to watch NASA TV’s live coverage of the second MER landing on Mars. With Spirit already down safely and returning spectacular photos, we were all a little punch-drunk on success and taking it for granted that Oppy would land trouble-free too. When the first images started to come in, showing Oppy had landed IN a small crater – her now famous “Cosmic Hole In One” – it was just wonderful…

pano36

And soon after she left the crater and began to rove. And she roved, and roved and roved across Mars for the next 14 years. She crossed vast deserts of ochre dust; rolled up to, drove down into and back out of ancient impact craters; discovered meteorites shining in the sunlight; watched the Sun rise and set thousands of times, and so much more…

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After reaching Endeavour Crater Opportunity started to climb, and eventually she reached the highest point of the ancient crater’s western rim. Now she began exploring the ridges, outcrops and valleys she found up there, high above the crater floor, and was doing fascinating science – until last June when a terrible dust storm brewed-up, smothering not just Endeavour Crater where she was but most of the planet. With the Sun blotted from the sky her power levels fell and with dust swirling and wafting around her, falling like soft rain on her solar panels, Opportunity sent back one last incomplete image and then fell into a deep sleep…

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That was 231 days ago. Nothing – not a bleep a chirp or a cheep – has been heard from Opportunity in that time. Efforts to regain communication with the stricken rover have continued during that time, with the MER team regularly trying to make contact with Opportunity. Until now their efforts have been familiar to anyone who has ever lost a pet – they have basically been standing on Earth’s front porch calling out Opportunity’s name into the darkness, hoping she will answer or, better still, come trotting out of the shadows, oblivious to the worry and panic she has caused. It hasn’t worked.

And it seems that we’re now entering the endgame of attempts to contact Opportunity.

The MER team has tried addressing all the most likely – and easiest to fix – reasons why Opportunity has stayed silent but without success. That means whatever the problem is might be something less likely but more serious. So it was no real surprise when NASA posted an update yesterday reporting that over the next few weeks the MER team is going to step up its efforts to contact the rover, be more aggressive in its approach, and try things they haven’t tried before – but if those efforts fail there will be a review to see what else, if anything, can be done.

This is a very serious situation, to be sure, and things are not looking good. It is clear now that Opportunity is in real trouble. She isn’t just having a nap until the skies clear properly, because the skies are now a lot clearer than they were. More worrying is the fact that the annual “windy season” at Endeavour Crater – which they were relying on to help them – is almost over; the team had high hopes that at some point in January Mars itself would help them by blowing the dust off the rover’s back with gusts of wind which always, always blow across the crater at this time of year. If the problem with Oppy was simply that she was “a bit dusty” then the chances are that she would have been cleaned enough by now to wake up and phone home. The fact that she hasn’t suggests there is something else wrong.

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Time is now running out. The windy season will soon end, and winter is coming to Endeavour crater, bringing with it cruel, circuit-chilling temperatures that Opportunity really needs to be awake and warmed-through for if she’s going to survive.

So this is it people, crunch time. If we haven’t heard from Opportunity within, I reckon, another month, it will be hard for even the most optimistic, most loyal Opportunity supporter to believe that she is coming back to us. And decisions, hard decisions, will have to be made at NASA.

Of course, there’s still hope – there’s always hope! – and it’s never a good idea to bet against a Mars rover, or her team, and I for one am absolutely NOT giving up on Oppy… but we might be getting close to the day when we have no choice but to finally, finally, let her go.

Which will be a bad day, a very sad and disappointing day for many of us. We all knew that Opportunity’s mission wouldn’t – couldn’t – last forever, but to end in this way, smothered by a stupid dust storm, would be just grossly unfair, especially when she is in such good shape otherwise; if the dust storm hadn’t come along she could have had many more months, perhaps even years, of exploring ahead of her.

Of course, there’s nothing we can do except sit here, waiting for news and wishing the MER team well in their efforts to contact Oppy and wake her up. If anyone can do it, they can, and will.

Come on, Oppy… wake up…

3 oct 2006 bf

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215 Days…

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It’s now been 215 days since Opportunity last made contact with Earth. In mid-June a raging dust storm enveloped Mars, cutting off her precious sunlight, plunging her into darkness and putting her to sleep. Since then the MER team has tried repeatedly to contact her and help her to wake up and resume her martian wanderings, but without success. And as the days tick by people are wondering how much longer efforts to regain contact will continue. Some are even asking how long they SHOULD continue – and if the time has come to finally admit defeat and declare Oppy’s mission over.

My response to that is probably no surprise…

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But what about the MER team itself? How are they feeling as the silent sols tick by?

The latest MER Update for the Planetary Society, by writer AJS Rayl, makes it clear that the team is still optimistic and positive, and are in no mood for giving up yet! January’s winds may yet scour some dust off Opportunity and provide her with enough power to rouse her from her slumber, and their efforts to regain contact with Oppy will continue for as long as possible.

You can read the update – which is, as always, crammed to bursting with facts, figures and information – here:

MER Update January 2019

And a special THANK YOU from me to Salley for continuing to use my processed Opportunity images in her updates, I really appreciate it! 🙂

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A MER-RY MARTIAN CHRISTMAS

A MER-RY MARTIAN CHRISTMAS

 

Yes I’m sure, I’ll be fine!” the Doctor sighed, rolling her eyes as her friend Yaz asked her for at least the tenth time if she was sure she didn’t want to join her and her family for Christmas Day.

“But you’re not good on your own,” Yaz said, concerned, as the pair walked past the TARDIS’ central console – draped with an outrageous amount of tinsel and baubles – towards the doors.  The Doctor frowned; it wasn’t the first time she’d been told that. “You go off and… do… stuff…”

“I love stuff!” the Doctor replied enthusiastically, adding: “I don’t do bored, Yaz, you know that. Anyway, you do stuff, all humans do – “

“Yes, but our stuff is things like watching a DVD or going shopping. Your ‘stuff’ usually involves throwing yourself headfirst into danger like a dog jumping into a ball pit, followed by a lot of running around and big explosions,” Yaz said darkly. The Doctor shrugged that off, resisting the urge to tell her friend that the explosions weren’t always that big.

“I’ll worry about you – “

“You will not,” the Doctor laughed as they reached the TARDIS door. “You’ll be too busy doing a very convincing impression of a sloth in front of your TV after wolfing down a small Aldi’s stock of turkey and stuffing and pigs in blankets – actually,” she paused mid-step, a thought occurring to her, “I love pigs in blankets… Earth is the only planet in the whole universe you can get them, did you know that?”

“So you’ll stay?” Yaz asked her friend hopefully.

“Ohhh… tempting,” the Doctor said, wrinkling up her nose, “but no. Things to do here.”

“What things?” Yaz demanded, suspicious.

“Just… things!” the Doctor repeated, rolling her eyes again. “There are circuits to clean, drive units to purge, computers to defrag… I’ve been putting off that latest Windows update too – “

“You’re going off on your own, aren’t you?” Yaz said accusingly, tilting her head to one side. “You’ve got it all planned – “

The Doctor placed a reassuring hand on her friend’s shoulder. “No, I haven’t, I promise,” she told her friend, serious now. “I wouldn’t go anywhere without you – I wouldn’t want to.”

Yaz nodded and smiled. It was good hearing that, but it didn’t change the fact that she would worry about the Doctor if she was left on her own for any length of time. But clearly she could do nothing to change the Time Lord’s mind.

“Okay, okay,” Yaz said, throwing up her hands, admitting defeat, “I’ll go, but promise me you won’t get into any trouble. Don’t go starting any interplanetary wars, or deposing any mad galactic emperors – not without me, anyway,” she added mischievously.

The Doctor smiled warmly at her friend. “Promise,” she said, crossing her hearts. “Now go on, get out of here,” she said, pushing open the TARDIS door, “your mum and dad will have a revolting Christmas jumper and a pair of reindeer antlers ready to put on you – “

“I think I’d rather go start an interplanetary war,” Yaz groaned as she walked out into the bright sunshine, but didn’t mean it; she loved spending Christmas with her family and was looking forward to this one too, even though it would mean leaving the TARDIS and her best friend. And besides, she knew she’d see her again soon.

“Merry Christmas, Doctor!” Yaz called over her shoulder as she walked briskly, hands buried deep in the pockets of her leather jacket, towards the Sheffield tower block where her family lived.

Standing in the TARDIS door the Doctor smiled and waved back. “Merry Christmas, Yaz!” she called back, watching her friend grow smaller in the distance. When she was sure the young policewoman wasn’t going to come running back the Doctor quickly stepped back inside the TARDIS and shut the door behind her.

Inside now it was quiet, unusually quiet, with only the humming of the console and the gentle, almost musical sighing of the TARDIS’ resting engines – a sound only she could ever hear – breaking the post-Yaz silence.

Looking around her the Doctor let out a long, deep breath. She had to admit that with all the Christmas decorations hanging from the console, the walls and every other available surface the TARDIS was a beautiful sight – and now it was deliciously empty too; as much as she loved Yaz and the others – and she did now, very much – she was looking forward to having the place to herself again, if only for a while. But not here.

With a few well-practiced flicks of switches and a downward tug on the main handle the Doctor dematerialised the TARDIS. The mighty, ancient engines groaned and moaned, churning and clunking far beneath her, and the TARDIS promptly vanished from the housing estate it had been parked in –

– rematerializing moments later, silently, in empty space, halfway between Earth and the Moon. As the engines fell quiet again the Doctor grinned. She was alone in her TARDIS for the first time in a long time. But no feelings of “empty nest syndrome” for her! She had lots to do. Too much to do!

The only question was: where should she start?

 

Fifteen minutes later the Doctor was slumped in a chair, feet up, half-heartedly sipping a glass of Jergi – Tarin VI’s equivalent of Baileys, but much stronger, and a shocking shade of green which reminded her of a past encounter with some rather large maggots and their slime – feeling absolutely bored stiff.

She had started her Me Time in the Library, but browsing the shelves had realised quickly that she had read everything in there a dozen times already. Moving on to the kitchen she had yanked open the fridge door with great excitement and anticipation, looking forward to making herself an outrageously unhealthy snack without Yaz or one of the others lecturing her about her cholesterol, but there had been nothing inspiring on its shelves, and even the emergency bag of jelly babies hidden at the back behind the crab sticks and yoghurts had failed to tempt her. She had been sure she’d find something good to watch in the TARDIS cinema, but without the others’ jokes and irreverent comments to interrupt them it didn’t seem much point in putting on any of the millions of films or TV shows – collected from thousands of planets, not just Earth – and she could find nothing on GalaxyFlix worth watching either.

“Maybe I should have gone with the pigs in blankets,” the Doctor grumbled, taking another sip of the creamy Jergi. Even that glorious drink didn’t taste as good as she remembered –

Then she had an idea.

“Oh yes,” she smiled, pleased with herself, “I haven’t done that in a long time… a LONG time…” She knew Yaz wouldn’t approve, especially after she’d promised her she wouldn’t go off anywhere on her own, but as the Doctor had told her friend she didn’t do bored, and she was certainly bored now. And anyway, Yaz wouldn’t want her to be unhappy, would she? Especially not at Christmas…

Jumping excitedly off her chair – after glugging down the last of the Jergi, of course; no point in wasting it – the Doctor ran over to the main console.

“Now, where are you…?” she said to herself, eyes searching the piles of items spread messily over the controls. “I really need to tidy this place up,” the Doctor admitted, feeling a little ashamed at just how messy it was, but right now she had other priorities. They were on there somewhere…

Pushing aside a Grallzx detector unit she had cobbled together/constructed skilfully out of an old Nintendo Gameboy, a toy lightsabre and a bag of Skittles, and shoving over a pile of old National Geographics, she searched frantically for her quarry. Where were they? She’d seen them just a few days ago!

Or was it weeks? Or years, perhaps?

Who knew? Who knew…

“Ah,” she grinned, remembering at last where she’d put them ‘for safe keeping’. Picking up the red fez she looked underneath –

“Of course… There you are!” she gushed, grabbing the set of headphones from under the hat. Quickly she plugged them into a jack socket on the underside of the TARDIS console and then sat down on the floor beneath it, her brown boots crossed at the ankles, shuffling in place on the TARDIS floor until she was reasonably comfortable. Only then did she slip the headphones over her ears, mouthing “Oww!” as the one on the left caught on her ear cuff. After flicking the headphones power on her finger sought out and then found a small dial set in the side of the right-hand headphone cup.

“It’s Lucky Dip time…” the Doctor said, smiling, as she closed her eyes and slowly, slowly, turned the dial.

Leaning back against the TARDIS console, with her eyes shut, the Doctor scanned the airwaves of the universe like an old-fashioned CB radio enthusiast, or a lonely radio ham, searching for – something. Anything. A voice… an electric chirp or beep… a snatch of music… anything. Sitting there, eyes closed tight, she felt like the heroine of one of her favourite Terran films, but unlike radio astronomer Ellie Arroway the Doctor heard nothing alien or even unusual in her headphones, just the scratching hiss of the cosmic background radiation, the fading echo of the Big Bang itself. Which was beautiful in its own right, of course, and at any other time she could have listened to it for hours, finding as much joy in its fluctuating tones as an opera fan listening to Carmen, but this time, all alone in the TARDIS, this time she wanted – no, she needed – more.

Come on, there must be something to listen to, the Doctor thought to herself, listening to the static pop and hiss. The universe is huge, everyone can’t be asleep

The Doctor’s eyes opened suddenly. A smile spread slowly across her face.

There

She could hear a fainter-than-faint noise hiding behind the background hiss. It was little more than a plaintive bleep, but definitely there.

“Yes!” the Doctor laughed triumphantly. “I knew it!” Jumping quickly to her feet she deftly tapped out a combination of numbers and characters on the old ZX Spectrum keyboard she had fitted into the TARDIS console – with that bright rainbow splashed across its bottom right corner  how could she resist it? – and the TARDIS amplified the weaker-than-weak signal it had just detected. “On speaker, please..?” the Doctor requested, pulling off the headphones, feeling like a starship Captain from a TV show, and the previously silent TARDIS suddenly filled with sound.

“Radio… it’s an old-fashioned radio transmission…” the Doctor smiled.

Leaning forward the Doctor listened to the signal intently, trying to make sense of it. It sounded so… basic, so primitive, that it took a few moments for her to process it – but then the lightbulb came on above her head.

“..and it’s a call for help. Someone out there needs our help – my help,” she corrected herself, suddenly remembering she was alone.

A feeling of guilt trembled through her briefly. She had promised Yaz she wouldn’t go anywhere, hadn’t she? Told her that she would just enjoy peace and quiet and not do anything dangerous. But it was Christmas Day… and someone needed her.

Yaz would understand, surely?

“Of course she will,” the Doctor told herself. “Come on old girl,” she told the TARDIS, “we’re going to see if we can help!” and yanked down the lever. “Follow that signal!” she said happily, as the TARDIS dematerialised once more, blinking out of existence, leaving the Earth and its Moon far, far behind…

 

 

A twin heartbeat later the TARDIS re-materialised with a shudder and a shake, and the loud “Whumpf!” of the engines shutting down announced the time machine’s arrival at – where?

And more to the point perhaps, when?

But first things first. “Let’s see where we are…” the Doctor said, activating the large wall-screen which would show the view outside. After a moment it showed they had materialised in a desolate landscape covered in rocks, boulders and stones, with rolling hills on the far horizon. Everything had been painted with various shades and hues of red, orange and brown, with hints of yellow and gold here and there, all beneath an orange-pink sky.

“Oh, brilliant!” the Doctor exclaimed, “I’ve not been here for ages!” She had recognised the landscape on the viewscreen instantly. “Welcome to Mars!” she said to herself happily. “And now we’re here, I know just what to wear…!”

Pausing before the TARDIS door the Doctor took a moment to check her spacesuit one more time. After all, you could never be too careful with spacesuits, what with all their life-or-death hoses, clips and seals and all, and this one had more of those than most…

Throwing open the doors to her fifth wardrobe half an hour earlier she’d had the choice of a dozen different spacesuits “acquired” from a dozen different worlds and spaceships, but she had known which one she was going to go for before even looking. Not the sleek, form-fitting gold amoebaskin she had ‘borrowed’ from Kendrih Six; not the living exoskeleton she had forgotten to return to the Captain of the Vortega super-destroyer after surviving the Battle of Calabria. No, this was something much more basic, some might even say “primitive”. It was big, bulky and heavy, a beautiful, over-engineered, 21-layered construction of thick padded cloth, metal rings and joints, topped by a huge goldfish bowl of a helmet with a gold-plated visor, all connected by a spaghetti of hoses and lines to a large, very ungainly rectangular life support pack mounted on her back.

It had been a nightmare to put on, of course, like wrestling with a particularly large and octopus inside a fluffy duvet. To get inside she’d had to lose her long, grey-white coat – she always hated taking that off – and then her boots too, but she’d managed to squeeze into the EMU without having to take off her short trousers, with their mustard braces, and her rainbow-streaked t-shirt too. The ear cuff had had to go though; there was no room for it beneath the skin-tight “Snoopy Cap” she had to pull on before donning the helmet, so she’d reluctantly slipped the cuff off her ear and hung it up on the wardrobe door, pausing for a moment to watch the pair of linked hands and the cluster of eight stars, linked by their fine silver chain, glinting and flashing, reflecting the blues, reds and greens of the Christmas fairy lights wound around the tree in the corner.

“I’ll be back for you soon,” she told the cuff, adding, with a melodramatic grin, “My Precious…”

Then she was done, and clomp-clomped her way towards the TARDIS doors. Anyone looking at the spacesuit she wore as she stood there would have thought it was a perfect copy of the spacesuit worn by Neil Armstrong as he became the first man to set foot on the Moon on the Apollo 11 mission of 1969, especially when they saw its legs and arms were very accurately streaked with grey and black. But they’d have been wrong.

It was the real thing – A-7L, the very same spacesuit Armstrong had worn as he took his “One Small Step” off the Eagle’s ladder and planted his boot in the lunar dust all those years ago. The Doctor had ‘borrowed’ it from the Smithsonian Museum several years ago, to help out Clara with a science project at her school; she just hadn’t got around to giving it back yet. She’d had to do some restoration work on it – it hadn’t been designed to last half a century, and specialists in the Smithsonian had been working hard to preserve and protect it before she’d borrowed it – and add a few bits and pieces, and given it a good soak in a nanobot bath for a week and now it looked exactly the same as it had done in July 1969.

Luckily the cosplay suit she’d left in its place was obviously very convincing as no-one had reported the original as stolen yet, despite the “Made In China” label on its neck…

“Ok, here we go,” the Doctor grinned, pushing at the TARDIS doors.

A subtle orange light flooded the interior of the time machine as its doors swung open, revealing the martian landscape beyond. “Beautiful… so beautiful…” the Doctor sighed, taking a moment to appreciate the glorious view from the TARDIS doorway, then stepped out onto the rocky surface of Mars, boots crumping into the frozen red-brown dust.

“Well, Neil,” the Doctor said quietly, savouring the moment, “looks like your suit made two giant leaps, not just the one…”

After walking a few steps away from her TARDIS, boots crunching through the brittle duricrust, the Doctor stopped to get her bearings. It seemed the TARDIS had materialised high up on the rim of a crater, and a big one at that. The ‘rolling hills’ she had seen on the viewscreen was actually the opposite rim of the crater, a good 20km or so away on the other side of the crater’s wide, dust-rippled floor. Those hills’ steep slopes were pocked with their own round and oval impact scars, evidence that the crater was old – very old.

Turning in place, hands on her hips, the Doctor saw she was on a ridge or summit of some kind, with the crater’s rim dropping away in either side of her. Behind her the crater rim curved around to the south, forming a sweeping range of orange hills; ahead of her the ground dropped away a little. And all around her, rocks, boulders and stones, hundreds of them, thousands of them, littering the landscape, each one casting a dark brown/black shadow on the ground beneath it in the late afternoon sunlight.

But looking around her the Doctor could see no sign of anyone, or anything, in the desolate landscape. So where had the message come from?

There had to be someone or something out there. Maybe, she thought, the signal was an SOS from a crashed 30th century spaceship? Or a distress call from one of the many colonies that dotted Mars by the year 2150? Or had she gone back in time, to the age of the fearsome Ice Warriors, and one of their royal families was in need of her special kind of assistance?

She had no idea – and wouldn’t even be able to begin to guess until she knew what year she had landed on the Red Planet. At least that was a mystery easily solved…

Reaching into a pouch on the front of Armstrong’s suit – and it had lots of them, and pockets too, one reason why she loved it so much; you can never have enough pockets, she was always telling Yaz – the Doctor pulled out her sonic screwdriver and quickly scanned the area, sweeping the device to and fro. Flicking it around and studying the small readout screen set into its curved handle the Doctor frowned.

No… that had to be a mistake…

“2018?” she growled, glowering at the date on the sonic’s screen. “But… that’s the same year I just left! That makes no sense! There’s no-one on Mars now! The first person won’t set foot on here for another ten years yet, and she won’t need any help – ”

Then she saw it – a glint of sunlight reflecting off dull metal, halfway down the slope that dropped away to her right. She narrowed her eyes for a clearer view – yes, there was something down there…

Sweeping the sonic in its direction she checked the screen again – yes, that was it, the signal was coming from it – whatever “it” was. But staring down the slope through her curved helmet visor the Doctor was now even more puzzled than before. Whatever was down there, bleating out its weak distress call, was small. Ridiculously small. Definitely too small to be a colony, a crashed spaceship or even a lone Ice Warrior. What then?

There was only one way to find out.

Tucking the sonic back in its pouch the Doctor set off down the slope, heavy boots scuffling and slipping in the loose dust covering the rocky surface. And there was a lot of dust, more than she would have expected this high up. In fact it looked like huge amounts of the stuff had been dumped on the ground from above, like a huge sack of orange flour being emptied out. There was a layer of it covering, smothering everything…

There was definitely something up ahead, she could see it a little more clearly now. It wasn’t humanoid-shaped, in fact it looked more like a machine of some kind. Making her way further down the slope – she could see now she was walking downhill between the low sides of a meandering valley or channel of some kind – the Doctor began to see details. Yes, it was definitely a machine. Squinting she could now make out wheels, three of them on the side facing her – so she could assume safely it had six in total? – and a white, stubby metal mast protruding from its top, which looked like it was a platform for a number of cameras? Its back was v-shaped, giving it the appearance of a beetle or insect of some kind. And it was totally, totally still.

“A rover..?” the Doctor said to herself, panting with the exertion of plodding down the valley in Armstrong’s heavy suit. Now she was so close to the machine, just a few feet away, she could see that she had been right, it was a rover, and it was covered with a layer of the same fine orange dust that had smothered the landscape around it. The dust had built-up on the tops of its wheels, on the top of its camera mast and across its flat back too. It looked more like an ancient statue of a rover that had stood on Mars for a thousand years than an actual machine.

“Oh, you poor thing,” the Doctor sighed sadly, coming to a halt beside the rover. “Look at you, dustier than a teenager’s bedroom…” Reaching out she gently trailed a gloved finger across the rover’s back, clearing a small line of dust away. Beneath it, the rover’s solar array panels shone with a beautiful grey-blue colour which reminded her of a dragonfly’s wing. So beautiful…

“So which one are you..?” the Doctor asked, eyebrow arching upwards, “They sent so many to Mars before they dared to go themselves…”

She had seen many different spacecraft over the centuries – landers, rovers, orbiters, drills, scuttlers, berserkers and many more – on or above a thousand different worlds, so it was no surprise to her that she didn’t recognise the rover in front of her immediately. She looked at it closely, trying to jog her memory. On the far side of the rover’s back was a tall antenna mast next to a communications dish of some kind, almost like a cake tin or a small drum pointing towards the sky.

                Maybe that has a name on it, beneath the dust? the Doctor wondered, but it was too far away for her to reach, so walking around the front of the machine, carefully stepping around the spindly, very fragile-looking arm that protruded from it, the Doctor squatted down beside the rover – as much as she was able to in the thick Apollo suit – stretched out her gloved hand and brushed dust off the comms dish, sweeping her fingers to and fro until the shining clean metal beneath was revealed.

“Oh yeah, that would have been too easy, wouldn’t it” the Doctor huffed, finding no name or even an ID number on the cold metal beneath the dust.

“Think… think…” she told herself, tapping her fingers against the temples of her spacesuit helmet. “A rover… high up on the rim of a crater… fast asleep, in 2018 – “

And a name from the history books popped into her head.

“Hello Opportunity…” the Doctor said quietly, recognising the second Mars Exploration Rover to land on Mars. “Fancy meeting you here, little one..!”

               Now the pieces of the puzzle began to slot into place.

After exploring Mars for fourteen incredible years – thirteen years longer than her designers, builders, drivers and fans had expected her to – Opportunity had fallen foul of a huge martian dust storm, a global event that had cruelly blotted the Sun from the sky and sent her power levels plummeting to the point where she had effectively gone into hibernation. Falling into a deep, almost coma-like sleep as the Sun went out and the martian landscape around her was smothered with a soft but seemingly endless rain of powder-fine dust, Opportunity had stopped talking to Earth, to the consternation of her science team and many thousands of supporters and enthusiasts around the world. Efforts had been made to regain contact with her, and using the best radio telescopes and transmitters available her brave and stubborn team had called out to her across the gulf of space, again and again, like a distraught cat owner calling out their lost pet’s name into the darkness from their doorstep, but she had failed to answer them, and only cold, cruel silence had been heard from the steep slopes of Endeavour Crater.

Now the Doctor could see why: so much dust had fallen onto the solar-powered rover that it had fallen into a deep sleep it would never wake from on its own.

“But you didn’t just give up, did you?” the Doctor said, gazing with admiration at the stricken rover standing in front of her. “You didn’t have enough power to send a message to Earth, but in your dreams you whispered into the darkness, hoping someone would hear you…”

Standing up the Doctor patted the rover on the top of its camera mast affectionately.

“Well, I heard you…” she said, smiling, adding proudly: “I’m probably the only one who could, with the TARDIS’ enhanced communications capability. Good thing I decided to not take Yaz up on her offer of pigs in blankets after all, eh?”

And with that she started searching through the many pouches and pockets on the outside of Neil Armstrong’s suit, looking for something she was sure – well, pretty sure – she had stuffed into one of them, just in case she ever needed it. And she needed it now.

“Aha, gotcha!” she said, beaming happily through her helmet visor as she felt a familiar shape through the thick fingerpads of her glove. Feeling very pleased with herself – and more than a little relieved – she pulled out the brush and held it up in front of her face. “Come on you, we’ve got work to do,” she said to it, and then began.

Slowly, slowly, the Doctor worked her way around the rover, sweeping the dust off its back, one hand-sized section after another, taking great care not to brush too hard or too vigorously in case she damaged the delicate solar array beneath the layer of dust. Gradually the rover’s blue-grey panels re-appeared, one inch at a time, until Opportunity was half-clean and the Doctor needed a break.

“I bet they think your story is over, back on Earth,” she said to the rover as she stood up and straightened out her stiff back with a groan, “I bet they think you’ve ended your mission here, stuck halfway down Perseverance Valley. Well, they’re wrong, Oppy, my brave little friend. You’ve a lot more roving to do yet!”

She got back down to work, talking to the rover as she brushed the dust from it.

“After you wake up and phone home it takes you a while to get back on your feet – sorry, wheels – but when you do you drive on down to the bottom of this valley and roll out onto the crater floor,” the Doctor said, brushing dust away from around the small sundial that had been fitted to the rover’s back. “You find – ah, well,” she stopped herself then, “I can’t say… spoilers and all that… but trust me, it’s brilliant!” she gushed, flicking the last of the orange dust away from the sundial’s square base, pausing a moment to read the words engraved on it: “Two Worlds, One Sun”. Cute, she thought, and went back to her brushing, laughing in surprise as what looked like a DVD with a small LEGO figure in its centre emerged from beneath the dust next.

“Ooh, a secret code!” the Doctor beamed, seeing the symbols etched around the edge of the disc. She stared at the code for a moment. “Huh, that was easy…” she said, a little disappointed she had solved the puzzle so quickly, and moved on.

“Where was I?” she asked the rover, which of course didn’t reply. “Oh yes… I was avoiding spoilers… well, let’s skip that bit, I don’t want to ruin the big surprise for you,” she went on, brushing more dust off the rover’s back. “Let’s just say that when your roving days are eventually over, after a good long sleep – much longer than this one, we’re talking thirty years here my little friend – they come and get you, wake you up and put you in a museum, along with all the other landers and rovers they sent here. People come from all over Mars – from all across the solar system – to see you. You’re a real celebrity! They sell models of you in the gift shop and everything!”

Now her brush was carefully clearing dust away from a number of coloured wires snaking down the rover’s side, connecting its main body to one of its fold-out solar “wings”. It was more delicate work and she stopped talking to allow herself to concentrate. Eventually the wiring was clear.

“When it’s the hundredth anniversary of your landing on Mars,” the Doctor continued, “there’s a big party, all across Mars. They light beacons on the tops of all the big volcanoes and mountains, a chain of fire stretching all the way around Mars… There are thousands of people living here then, and they all know about you and your mission and want to come and see you…”

She stopped herself from saying any more.

“But don’t you worry about all that now, let’s just get you clean enough again to get back on the road…”

And she went back to work, carefully sweeping her brush to and fro, to and fro, until most of the dust dumped on the rover by the Great Dust Storm of 2018 had gone.

Back burning, wrists aching, absolutely gagging for a cup of tea, the Doctor stood up, stepped back, and surveyed her handiwork.

“That’ll do,” she said, nodding, “can’t leave you looking factory clean; they’ll get suspicious when they take another selfie. This way you’ll just look like a dust devil has come along and given you a good scouring.”

Putting the brush back in its pouch the Doctor retrieved her sonic and pointed it at the rover. It chirruped, scanning the robot’s systems, then reported its findings on its screen.

“Battery looks fine…” the Doctor said, reading off the display. “No new internal damage, just wear and tear from old age… Yep, looking good. No reason now why you shouldn’t wake up and phone home,” she concluded, smiling down at the rover.

Taking a step forwards the Doctor leaned towards the rover one last time, touching her helmet’s faceplate gently against the head of its camera mast. “Take care, little one,” she said softly, “and when you get down there onto Endeavour’s floor and find that… thing… think of me, ok?”

Her work was done. It was time to go.

Slowly the Time Lord walked away from the rover, stomping back up the gentle slope of Perseverance Valley and back to the TARDIS. She was about to go inside when she remembered something very important.

“Idiot!” she scolded herself, and pointed her sonic downhill back towards Opportunity. A sonic wave pulsed from the device and rippled downhill, lifting all the dust for half a kilometre around the rover off the ground for a second before depositing it back again – obliterating her boot-prints in the process. “That would have raised a few eyebrows back at JPL, wouldn’t it?” she said, “seeing my dirty big boot prints everywhere…!”

Her tracks covered, literally, the Doctor took one last lingering look at Opportunity, shining bright and clean again in the late afternoon sunshine, then went back inside the TARDIS, closing the door behind her. Soon the stolen time machine began to fade in and out of view, and for a few moments the thin air of Mars carried the sound of the moaning, groaning and grinding of its ancient Galifreyan engines before they were carried away by the soft martian winds, and the TARDIS vanished, leaving not a trace of its visit behind.

 

When the Doctor opened the door again she found she had arrived back at Yaz’s estate several hours after leaving. Christmas Day was coming to a bitterly cold end. The Sun had set, leaving behind a sky the rich purple colour of a fresh and painful bruise. The tower block was ablaze with light, hundreds of its windows lit brightly. One of the flats, she knew, was her friend’s family’s. But which one? How would she find it?

She didn’t need to.

“I knew you’d come back!” Yaz shouted, running down the steep banking towards the TARDIS.

“Well, pigs in blankets,” the Doctor said, smiling as her friend reached her and wrapped her up in a hug, “how could I say no? Earth is – “

“ – the only planet in the universe where you can get them,” Yaz said, “yes, you told me. Good thing I saved you some isn’t it?”

“Awww, no, you’ve eaten already?” the Doctor groaned, disappointed, locking the TARDIS door and pulling her rainbow-trimmed coat around her for warmth.

“No, don’t be daft,” Yaz replied, “I was joking. That raptor of a turkey will take another hour to cook yet…”

“Brilliant…!” the Doctor smiled, and linked arms with her friend as they strode up the hill towards the tower block.

“So, did you do your ‘stuff’..?” Yaz asked, a little too casually.

“Oh, you know…” the Doctor replied carefully, “I just pottered about… did a few things… this and that… nothing too exciting…”

“No little adventures then?” Yaz asked, a strange tone in her voice.

“No, no…” the Doctor insisted, “just housekeeping.” She had a feeling she needed to change the subject. “Did I miss anything exciting here while I was gone?”

Yaz shook her head. “No… not really – oh, there was one thing that happened, it’s been all over the news, quite exciting really…”

“Hmm?” replied the Doctor quickly, eager to turn the conversation away from what she had been doing, “what was that?”

“Well,” Yaz went on, “it’s weird, but on Christmas Day there’s usually a big news story about something horrible – an earthquake, a flood, a plane crash, something like that, and this year – “

“Oh no!” the Doctor said, worried now, “what’s happened?”

“Nothing!” Yaz replied, surprise in her voice. “Well, nothing bad, not this time anyway.” She paused for a moment, looking up at the sky, now filling with stars, and the Doctor thought she was searching for something. “They’re calling it the Christmas Mars Miracle,” Yaz said.

The Doctor’s hearts skipped a beat, but she said nothing.

“Yes… dad’s fascinated by it, he’s always loved anything to do with space,” Yaz continued. “Anyway, there was this robot, on Mars, been out of touch for months, everyone was sure it was dead,” Yaz said, “then a few hours ago, out of the blue, it just woke up and phoned home again…”

“Amazing!” the Doctor said, trying to sound surprised.

“Isn’t it?” Yaz agreed. “The TV news showed people at NASA jumping about like kids, high-fiving, hugging each other… one was crying… they can’t believe it…”

“I’ll bet,” said the Doctor, “they must be really chuffed – “

“They are… strange tho, that it should happen today, on Christmas Day of all days,” Yaz observed, eyes still scanning the sky.

“Not really, it’s just another day on every other planet out there – across much of this one too, when you think about it,” the Doctor observed nonchalantly, “and I don’t think it was even Christmas Day on Mars using your calendar… the time difference, you know?” she suggested.

“Hmmm….” Yaz said. “I don’t suppose you had anything to do with it, did you?” she asked the Doctor directly.

“Me?” said the Doctor, feigning shock. “No, told you… I’ve been too busy – “

“Yeah… doing ‘stuff’…” Yaz interrupted her friend.

“Anyway,” the Doctor said as they reached the main entrance to the block of flats, “that’s great news, but I’m starving, are we going to go inside or stay out here all night?”

“We’ll go inside in a minute,” Yaz said, then, without even turning around, added: “But first… better shake some of that orange dust off your boots, mum’ll go mad if you trail it in all over her carpet…”

The Doctor looked down at her feet and cringed when she saw that her boots were covered in a fine layer of martian dust. It must have fallen on them when she took off her lunar EVA boots…

“That one’s Mars,” Yaz said, pointing at a red star in the sky. “You want to wish your new friend goodnight before we eat?”

The Doctor smiled at her friend, and just shrugged guiltily. “Busted…” she admitted.

Yaz shook her head. “Merry Christmas, Doctor,” she said kindly, and went inside.

On her own now, the Doctor stared up at Mars, shining between two tower blocks and smiled.

“Merry Christmas, Little One,” she said, “and welcome back…”

And 181 million kilometres away, halfway down a meandering valley cut into the slope on the rim of an ancient martian crater, a rover opened its eyes, just in time to see its first sunset in a long, long time.

 

Stuart Atkinson 2018

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Ten years on the road…

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Ten years ago – well, ten years and five days ago to be precise – I sat down to begin this blog. By that time Opportunity had already been on Mars for four years or so, and I’d walked by her every step of the way, reporting on her incredible journey across Mars now and then on my main “Cumbrian Sky” blog. As time allowed, and using images I processed myself from the “raw” images released by the MER team I wrote about her initial exploration of Eagle Crater after her amazing “cosmic hole in one” landing’; I reported on her arrival at Victoria Crater after all those months of slogging across the desert like C3PO and R2D2 crossing the desert on Tatooine; I told my readers how Opportunity found meteorites, watched sunsets and sunrises, and how she photographed the landscape like a robotic Ansel Adams.

But when Opportunity set off for Endeavour – on what many people considered to be a futile expedition across the shifting dust dunes of the Meridiani Plain – I decided that I wanted to do more than just write about her now and again; I wanted to chronicle her trek properly, in the depth and detail it deserved. As I sat down to open up WordPress and chose the fonts, layout and structure of my new blog I thought that after a couple of years, maybe three, perhaps even four, my blogging would come to an end as Oppy’s trek came to an end and she rolled slowly to a halt, her mission ended by some kind of mechanical failure, software glitch or just plain old age.

Surprise…!

Yes, to my amazement, and delight, I’m still here, writing “The Road To Endeavour” a decade after writing the first post.

I’ll be honest – I didn’t think I would be. I thought Oppy would have “gone to live on another farm” years ago by now. Mars just doesn’t like having visitors, and does its best to kill them once they’ve arrived, so as I sat down to set up this blog I had no idea that I’d still be reporting on Opportunity’s mission all these years and all these miles later. But I’m glad I am. Opportunity means a lot to me – as do her team. I followed the MER mission from the very beginning, from the initial announcement that a pair of rovers would be going to Mars, through their design and construction and on to their launches, and after each landed safely I devoured every image they sent back, and – in my heart at least – walked alongside each of them as they trundled across Barsoom, seeing new amazing things every day.

As I’ve said before, in many ways the MER mission is my Apollo. I only remember the latter crewed missions to the Moon, from 14 onwards, and by that time there was already a feeling that the Apollo adventure was coming to an end. People talked of pushing on, of sending people to Mars, but those plans all came to nothing, and instead of sending men and women to the Red Planet we sent robots in our place. By the time I was a teenager sending people to Mars was as much a fantasy again as it had been when I was starting school. Yes, beautiful snow-white space shuttles were flying, a space stsation was being designed, and robot probes were being sent out to explore the solar system with great success, but it was clear there would be no boots on Mars for a long time.

The MER mission gave me, and many like me, the chance to explore Mars virtually. Thanks to the brave decision by the MER team to release their rovers’ raw images on the internet almost as soon as they were taken, instead of hording them, we were able to see new scenes from Mars every day. We watched far horizons approach and fall behind us, replaced by new ones. The MER rovers’ unblinking cameras were our eyes staring out from oyur helmets; their wheels were our feet, crumping across the martian plains, leaving bootprints in our wake; their robot arms were our gloved hands, reaching down to pluck rocks off the ground and lift them up to see them more closely.

When Spirit became trapped and then perished I felt gutted, I honestly did. It seemed SO unfair to lose her in that way. But when she had gone I still had Opportunity, and I made it my mission to write about her for as long as she kept going. I just didn’t expect to still be doing it ten YEARS later…!

Over the past ten years Opportunity has seen, and done, a lot. Against all the odds she reached Endeavour Crater, making landfall at Spirit Point before setting off on what many saw as a whole new mission – the exploration of the hills, ridges, peaks and valleys of the rim of Endeavour, the largest crater she had encountered so far and in all likelyhood will ever visit on Mars. Since she rolled up onto Spirit Point Opportunity has driven many kilometres and made many more discoveries, and through her eyes we have seen startling sights sunrise after sunrise, sunset after sunset. Standing beside Opportunity we have all stared up at acandyfloss clouds drifting across the huge pink sky and stared out across Endeavour to the other side of the crater, at tall hills we will never draw any closer to and never climb. Endeavour has become a home for us as it has for Opportunity.

Of course, this is a dark time for followers of Opportunity. It’s now 183 long, lonely, silent days since she last phoned home. When a global dust storm curdled her sky and blotted out the Sun Oppy’s power levels plummeted and eventually she fell asleep – and despite the best recovery efforts of her team she has been asleep ever since. Will she wake? No-one knows. The MER team are still calling out to her and listening for her reply, day after day, but so far all they have heard is silence. She may be dead. She might have gone. But we have hope, all of us, and we will not lose that hope until it is clear there is no chance of Opportunity coming back to us.

It was tempting to write a 10th anniversary post looking back at my special memories of Opportunity’s mission, but I thought “What’s the point? They’re all on the blog already, people can find them if they want.” So instead I invited members of the MER team, past and present, to tell me – and you – about their special memories. As usual, many responded with great generosity and enthusiasm.

Here’s what they told me…

My most memorable moment was Sol 5000 and the rover selfie. It’s not everyday we get to 5000 days of operations for a vehicle, especially this one with only a 90 day mission design. The team had been planning for about a month on something special we could do for that day, and we ended up on talking a sunrise image on Sol 4999 and then the selfie on Sol 5000. Doug Ellison had previously modeled the selfie sequence and he and Ashley Stroupe had it built and ready to go that morning. It was one of those really fun sequencing days, and I remember when the data was schedule to come down, I had Keri Bean and Doug Ellison sitting in my office watching the data as it started hitting the ground, then all of us running over to the SMSA when Hallie Gengl called that she had the images and a partial mosaic already built.

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Needless to say, it worked out spectacularly, and the team had a really neat outreach image to share with the public, and we all got to see the rover for the first time on Mars … really special moment after 14 years of operations.Michael Staab, Spacecraft Systems Engineer, Lead Dust-Storm Systems Engineer, and Flight Director.

It is SO hard to pick any one memory! One that stands out is when we were all at our team meeting in January 2014, it was in Washington DC at the Smithsonian that year. Then in the science planning meeting someone pointed out that there was a rock in our work volume that hadn’t been there before! That was the so-called “jelly doughnut” that we named Pinnacle Island.

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That incident was noteworthy both because it was so odd to have a rock just turn up like that, but also because it was one of those rare instances that most of the science team was together in person. That rock was also very interesting in terms of its multispectral properties and in terms of its chemistry with a manganese oxide coating and sulfate-rich materials. Of course, we later figured out that it was flipped over by a turn-in-place maneuver, but there was some wacky speculation on the internet. In terms of my role on the team, I am an Athena science team member (got on as a Participating Scientist in 2002). I have contributed as a member of the Mineralogy/Geochemistry science theme group and as a Pancam Payload Downlink Lead. I’ve also been the principal author of several peer-reviewed publications on Pancam multispectral imaging results.Bill Farrand (“I am an Athena science team member (got on as a Participating Scientist in 2002). I have contributed as a member of the Mineralogy/Geochemistry science theme group and as a Pancam Payload Downlink Lead. I’ve also been the principal author of several peer-reviewed publications on Pancam multispectral imaging results.”)

You know, the first image that comes to mind isn’t one *from* Opportunity, it’s an image *of* Opportunity: that first HiRISE of Opportunity sitting on the edge of Victoria crater still gives me chills. When we launched her, we never thought we’d see her again — and then suddenly, there she was. I was there when we got an advance preview of the image from Squyres in the middle of a planning day, and for all of us it was a startling new perspective on a rover we already knew so well.

3 oct 2006 b

But for images *from* Opportunity … oh, there are so many to choose from. But I’ll be selfish: I’d choose any of the NAVCAMs we took of her tracks after we started doing backward autonav, the ones with the characteristic little “notches” that you yourself referred to as our footprints on Mars. (As you know but some of your readers might not, the “notches” came from small turns in place Opportunity had to do when looking back over her own shoulder to take the autonav images. If she didn’t turn, her own low-gain antenna would block her view.) I invented that technique and I’m absurdly proud of it; it helped us reach Endeavour Crater weeks or months earlier, so that there was time to do the research that turned into a Science paper they specifically crowed about when asking for another mission extension. Needless to say, they got the extension. 🙂 And I’m sure they would have gotten it even without that paper, but I’m proud of my role just the same. – — Scott Maxwell, Mars Rover Driver Team Lead (Emeritus).

 

I was wondering what to tell you, because obviously being TUL for sol 5000 and our first selfie was amazing and my first shift where I got to do the RP job was amazing even if I accidentally started the global dust storm with that RAT brush.  But honestly it’s more about working with the team. And our team mascots, the porgs! – Keri Bean, Rover Driver

There are two images that stand out: There was a navcam of the tracks right after egressing Victoria Crater. Paolo had driven Opportunity out right over the ingress tracks. Due to the soft dust at the edge, it looked like ski tracks. My dad really liked the image so there is a print of it hanging in the den at my parents house. The second is the image of the RAT and US flag atop Cape Tribulation. It took many many kilometers to reach the Eastern summit of Endeavour. I was lucky to be on shift the day we imaged the RAT. Thankfully I had paid attention to how Scott Maxwell and Julie Townsend sequenced the imaging of the RAT for Sept. 11, 2011. It is extremely likely this will be as close to raising the stars and stripes on another planet as I will get in my lifetime. It was amazing to be part of the effort to get Opportunity to that point, even more so to be in the RP seat that day (I was shadowing RP1). A few days later when tweeted the RAT image from ISS I was astounded. Something we had worked on for so long was noticed by folks actually flying in space. – Mike Seibert Former Lead Flight Director for Opportunity. Responsible for the health and safety of the rover and for training and leading the mission’s flight directors in doing the same. Former Senior Rover Driver. Commanded 2175m of driving with Opportunity (per Paolo who maintains the list)

My favorite Opportunity image is the deck pan showing the solar panels before and after dust cleaning. I can’t remember the sols…do you remember that split screen image? I had just started working at JPL when Mars Pathfinder landed. I remember jealously watching the EDL engineers happily hugging and crying their success. I wanted to have a happy hug and cry moment too! I thought I would have my chance with the Mars Polar Lander, but that hugging and crying was missing the “happy”. Years later I joined MER, but not until a year after EDL. In 2007, we were so nervous about losing Opportunity in the planet encircling dust storm that we had planned 4 sols between downlinks. The array energy was getting worse as the storm intensified. The four sols was a very long wait. Then we received telemetry and the storm was abating! I finally had my happy hug and cry!Jennifer Herman, MER Power subsystem operations team lead.

Can I cheat and say ‘see the Sol 5000 selfie story I wrote for TPS’? http://www.planetary.org/blogs/guest-blogs/2018/20180420-opportunity-selfie-5000.htmlDoug Ellison

Some wonderful memories there. Thanks to everyone who sent me their contributions, I really appreciate it.

As for my own special memories, well, two spring to mind. Firstly, when Opportunity was approaching Victoria Crater. At first all we could see was a dark line on the horizon, up ahead, and then suddenly that line opened up and became a hole, a gaping chasm in the ground – we had made it, we had reached Victoria Crater and it was more incredible and beautiful than we’d dared hope…

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And the other? That night when I sat there watching the small, fuzzy MI frames of the “Sol 5000 Selfie” come down. My heart was pounding in my chest when I saw them appear, and I downloaded them as quickly as I could and set about stitching them into the self portrait. My efforts were very crude, incredibly crude compared to the images that would be produced later by more skilled image processors, but it didn’t matter, I knew I had to try… and then suddenly the last tiny frame slotted into place and there she was: Opportunity, my brave, weary girl, standing on the surface of Mars, the first time I – or anyone else – had really seen her properly since she had been folded up inside the clean room at JPL.

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I’ll admit I got very emotional when I saw that. In my head, and in my heart, I’d walked alongside Oppy for every one of the previous 5000 sols, and now I was standing in front of here, there, on Mars, on that historic day.

What happens next we cannot know. Opportunity will either wake up, or she won’t. If she does, she will hopefully stretch, yawn, open her gritty eyes and after a suitable period of rest roll on to make more discoveries over new horizons. If she doesn’t, well, we will be sad, heartbroken even, but we will have all these years of memories. And if we hear soon that all hope is lost, that there is just nothing more anyone can do, then I’ll go outside, seek out Mars shining in the night sky, and wish her the fondest of farewells.

And whatever age I live to, I will always remember the decade and a half when I walked across the cinnamon sands of Mars with a rover called Opportunity.

 

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173 Days…

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Today is the 173rd day since Opportunity fell silent.

Despite the best efforts of the MER team and other teams of scientists at NASA and around the world, no bleep, beep or electronic cheep has been heard from our rover, which fell silent on June 10th as a huge dust storm enveloped most of Mars, blotting the Sun out of Opportunity’s sky and robbing her of her power – so after transmitting one last, incomplete image (above) she fell into a deep sleep. 173 days later she is still sleeping, halfway down Perseverance Valley. And we miss her.

While Opportunity has slept, inevitably the attention of the space media has moved on to other missions and other planets, Opportunity’s plight all but forgotten. The high-profile commentators, reporters and bloggers who waxed lyrical about how much they loved Opportunity when it seemed NASA was ready to give up on her have fallen silent, leaving only a handful of us amateurs and enthusiasts actively supporting Opportunity and her team online, making sure the public don’t forget about her. They don’t Share our stories or reTweet our posts on Twitter – but no change there; I realised a long time ago that blogs like this one aren’t cool enough for them. 🙂

Despite the lack of a phone call from Opportunity it has been a busy old week on Mars. The InSight lander touched down safely on Elysium Planitia late Monday, and the first image of the landing site – specially chosen to be as flat, safe and boring as possible – was released online to the waiting world…

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No, the lander wasn’t attacked by flies; those dark splotches are dust grains and clods on the clear lens cap protecting the camera lens. An image taken soon after was rather cleaner…

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InSight isn’t a sightseeing mission, so we won’t be seeing lots of “pretty pictures” from it. InSight’s mission is to study the interior of Mars, not its rocky, dust dune-covered surface, so most of the graphics produced by the InSight team will be charts, graphs and data plots, not beautiful panoramic portraits of the landscape. I’m sure we’ll see some views of the surface of Mars around the lander, but if you’re expecting dozens or even hundreds of new images to be posted online, like we’ve been spoiled with by the MER and MSL teams, you’re in for a disappointment I’m afraid.

Which is why it’s more important than ever that Opportunity wakes up and resumes her travels. For the past fourteen – almost fifteen – years she has shown us Mars ass we would see it if we were there, crumping across its dusty surface. I’ve followed her literally every step of the way and I’ve got used to seeing her spot, head for and then roll over one new horizon after another, and I really miss seeing what she’s seeing.

So to keep myself – and maybe some of you – going, here’s a selection of some of my favourite Oppy images posted on this blog over the past few years. Some are raw images, some are processed and colourised, others still are artistic creations. I hope you like some of them. If you, then do me a favour? On the next clear night where you live, pull on a jacket, go outside and find Mars in the sky – and tell Opportunity to wake up…! 🙂

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