Welcome…

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

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

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

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

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

Stuart Atkinson

@mars-stu on Twitter

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Opportunity – Twelve Years On Mars

If you’d been standing on the crushed cinnamon sands of the vast Meridiani Planum on Mars, a dozen years ago today, your eye would have been caught by a glint of silvery light in the huge butterscotch sky above you. Looking up, shielding your eyes from the golden Sun with your hand you would have seen what looked like a tiny white flower falling from the heavens, slowly growing larger and larger as you watched. Eventually you would have realised it was a parachute, and something was hanging from it – something that suddenly cut loose and fell free, dropping towards the ground like a stone. Your breath would have caught in your throat, anticipating a shuddering crash and a plume of dust mushrooming into the sky when the falling object slammed into the ground – but instead, as it hit, it went back up into the chill, barely-there air again, like one of the famous “bouncing bombs” from the Dambusters film. After a short flight through the air it dropped and hit the ground again, only to bounce up again, leaving a cloud of dust behind it as it continued on its way, hop-scotching across the plain in slow motion, each brief landing marked by another cloud of dust. Finally it stopped bouncing, Mars’ grudging gravity holding it down, but now it rolled across the ground, bobbing and bobbling up and over the rocks and boulders until it finally dropped down into a small crater, where it finally sat still, quivering like some kind of orange-stained amoeba, dust settling around it. If you’d loped over to it, boots kicking up yet more dust, you’d have seen the visitor from the skies resembled a huge cluster of frogspawn, or several large balloons joined together. If you’d stayed there, on the crater’s edge, watching the new arrival, you would have waited what felt like a long time before anything happened but eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, you’d have jumped back in surprise as the balloons deflated, as if pricked by invisible pins, revealing what they had been protecting – a bizarre-looking machine, an alien construction of glass, metal and wires, gleaming shiny and perfectly clean against the dusty, ruddy landscape. You’d have jumped again as the machine started to unpack itself, like a Transformer toy, or an origami model unfolding, metal petals opening to reveal a small car-like object nestling inside. Then that too began to unfold, a pair of metal wings snapping open on its back, clicking into place, even as a long, slender neck rose up, lifting a head covered with cameras and instruments up to the same height as your own… a head which began to turn, slowly, slowly, until it faced you, and looked right at you…

That was how, twelve years ago today, you would have witnessed the historic arrival of the Mars Exploration Rover OPPORTUNITY at Eagle Crater on Mars.

I watched that live online, and it only seems like yesterday that it happened, not almost a quarter of my life ago (I was 51 yesterday, I know Happy Birthday to Me..!). Things were very different then, at least for me. I watched Opportunity’s landing online, but it was a very different experience than it is now when I watch Space X’s rockets launching or landing, or Tim Peake spacewalking outside the ISS. I watched Oppy’s landing on dial-up, via a chirruping modem, and on a tiny RealPlayer screen. The video stream – more of a video rivulet, or a drip actually – kept breaking up into a kaleidescopic haze of pixels, and buffered every few minutes, so it was an enormously frustrating experience… but I was there, I was there when she landed, and yes, I cried with happiness, relief and excitement. She was the second MER to land on Mars safely in the January of 2004, after Spirit’s triumphant landing in Gusev Crater at the start of the year, and sitting there, listening to the whoops and cheers as the first images came back and appeared on my screen it seemed too good to be true: there were two rovers on Mars. Two! And for the next three months – because that was how long they were expected to survive on Mars back then – I was going to be able to see new images from Mars, my favourite planet, my true “homeworld” many have said every day. If all went well, the rovers might each drive as far as a kilometre from their landing site, but few thought that realistic.

Of course, it didn’t quite work out like that.

Thanks to remarkable engineering, brilliant driving and innovative project management, both rovers survived on Mars for years. Many years. They drive not just a kilometre, but many kilometres. They crossed vast deserts, climbed hills, circled, descended into then drove back out of craters. They survived dust storms, software glitches, mechanical problems – everything and anything Mars threw at them. And we watched them, day after day, sol after sol, as they reached and went beyond one horizon after another, showing us beautiful new martian vistas every morning when we woke up, went online, and checked out the latest images. Through their unblinking electronic eyes we watched candyfloss clouds drift across the peach sky, whirling dervish dust devils waltzing across the plains, and bumps on the skyline grow to become hills and then mountains.

And we saw Earth itself as a silver sequin, shining in an alien, lavender sky.

On opposite sides of Barsoom the two rovers went about their work, “doing a science” on Mars for half a decade before hipsters had even invented the term. Sol after sol their wheels crunched across the rocky ground, leaving dark tracks snaking behind them. As they rolled on across Mars, relentlessly, exploring, discovering, revealing wonder after wonder, we began to think of them as immortal.

Spirit fell first. Mars could not kill her with its wind, or dust, or cold, so it set a trap fir her, digging a crater out of the ground in her path, filling it with dust and camouflaging it with a thin crust of icy dust, like hunters building a pit trap in a forest to catch a lion or a tiger. Spirit drove towards it blissfully unaware of the danger – and almost missed the trap. But the ground gave way beneath the one wheel which drove over the trap, and she sank into it, stuck like a baby mammoth in a tar pit. Despite valiant efforts by her team back on Earth she could not be freed, and finally fell asleep there, her dust-scoured eyes shutting for the final time on March 22, 2010, 2210 sols (martian days) after landing.

On the other side of Mars, slogging across Meridiani Planum, Opportunity – maybe after pausing for a moment, sensing the loss of her sister due to a disturbance in the Mars Rover Force – carried on, heading for an impossibly-far-away mountain range on her horizon…

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Today, 4,266 sols after landing, Opportunity marks her twelfth landing anniversary on the summit of those mountains, high above the Meridiani Plain, looking down on Endeavour Crater.

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Today she will continue her work, studying the rocks, dust and dirt of “Marathon Valley” a notch in the mountain side named in honour of her incredible achievement of driving the length of a marathon – 26.2 miles (42.195 kilometers) – across the surface of Mars.

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But you probably won’t hear much about this. Opportunity is the forgotten Mars rover. NASA now concentrates its attention on her bigger, sexier, more high tech cousin CURIOSITY, the Mars Science Laboratory which is exploring Gale Crater. Curiosity is doing great work on Mars, re-writing the textbooks with her discoveries, it’s true… but, largely ignored by NASA, her ancestor, Opportunity is still there, on Mars, still exploring, still discovering, still being amazing.

I sometimes wonder – probably quite unfairly – if NASA would be happier if Opportunity finally died, surrendering Mars, and the media’s attention, to Curiosity. It seems that every year Opportunity is threatened with being switched off to save money, which would be a crime, it really would; every day she sends back new images from Mars, from high up on the summit of Endeavour Crater, and every image is a reminder of how incredibly successful the MER mission has been – and continues to be. They should drive Oppy until her wheels seize up, or fall off. They should squeeze every last drop of science out of her. They should just let her keep being what she is – an explorer – until she can go on no more. Then, and only then, should her mission end.

To pay tribute to this amazing machine, and the legion of incredible men and women who stand unseen behind her up there on the summit of Endeavour – the people who designed, built her and landed her safely on Mars; the people who have driven her across Mars for all these years; the people who have fixed her software glitches, hauled her out of dust-dunes and helped her survive all these thousands of freezing cold nights – I am going to post some of my favourite Opportunity images. And I mean MY images; these are all images I have made myself, with art packages and photo processing software, from the original images sent back to Earth by Oppy, and posted here on this blog.

Having posted many hundreds of such images here I can only scratch the surface, I know, but I want to at least try to give a feeling of how much the rover, and the people behind it, means to me. I have walked beside Opportunity across the surface of Mars every day since she landed, a dozen years ago. Big changes have happened to me, and to the world, in that time.

The world of 2016 is a very, very different place to the world of 2004 when Oppy bounced across Meridiani and landed in that incredible “cosmic hole in one” in Eagle Crater. Today the world is under threat in so many different ways – global warming, disease, political unrest, and I have no doubt that terrorist horrors lay ahead of us, over our horizon, which will make those we have endured so far seem like arguments in a school playground. we also live at a time when ignorance about science, and distrust and fear of it, are stronger and more widespread than ever before, and getting worse. If you had told me back in January 2004, as I sat there at my desk in the early hours of that morning, watching Opportunity land, that when I was 50 there would be people insisting that NASA faked the Moon landings, that global warming is a scam, that airplanes paint the sky with poisonous chemtrails to cull the world’s population, that there are ancient cities and statues on Mars, and that the International Space Station is fake too, I would have slapped you across the face for thinking me so stupid as to even sit there and listen to you. And if you had tried to tell me that in 2016 there would be crazy, dribbling idiots tapping away on their computers, writing bullshit on Facebook and Twitter and blogs, and creating crappy YouTube videos insisting that the Earth was flat, I would have thought you were the insane one. But we actually live in that world, the same world in which black flag-waving psychopaths burn people alive in cages, demolish priceless ancient temples and turn innocent men and women into splashes of lasagne with their bombs, all in the name of their god. It’s tempting to just go curl up in a dark corner, wrap your arms around your knees, and hide, convinced that the world is either going insane or is there already.

But look at these pictures. Each one of these images is proof that when we set our minds to it, we can achieve great things. Each image was made possible because smart men and women lifted their weary eyes from the litter-strewn, filthy streets and looked to the heavens, imagining more, wanting more. While evil people elsewhere used their technical skills and knowledge to create bombs to slaughter people, they joined together the same materials – wire, glass, metal – to create a machine that travelled across the gulf of space to land on another planet and explore it in the name of science, and the pursuit of knowledge. That’s an amazing thing. An incredible thing.

Look at these pictures and just think that right now, as you read this, a dusty, tired robot is standing on the floor of an ancient valley, high up on the side of a mountain on Mars… on Mars… and tell yourself that while we still do things like this, evil and terror and fear cannot and WILL not win. Because our urge to create and explore is far, far stronger than our urge to destroy. And one day, maybe in half a century’s time, maybe a lot further into the future than that, men and women will walk across Meridiani Planum, hike up that mountain and find Opportunity, standing wherever she eventually came to rest, and rest their gloved hands on her back, by then thick with dust, and gratefully whisper…

“Thank you.”

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Thank you Opportunity – and all the men and women who got you to Barsoom – for a dozen wonderful years, for the thousands of alien sunrises and sunsets you showed me, for the meteorites you discovered, for everything.

And keep roving. Because the best is yet to come.

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Big anniversary on Oppy’s horizon…

High above the huge Endeavour crater, Opportunity is still slowly and methodically exploring and surveying the upper slopes of Marathon Valley, taking close up images of the rocks and dust, pausing now and then in her work to lift her eyes from the ground and take in the magnificent view, which looks like this…

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It’s incredible to think that Opportunity has now been on Mars for almost a dozen years – yes, it’s true, she landed in January 2004. As the actual anniversary draws closer we’ll pay a proper tribute to her mission here, and look forward to what lies in the rover’s future. For now, though, just picture her standing proudly on the top of that crater wall, silhouetted against the orange sky, being fantastic, still, after all these years. :-)

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Me and my shadow…

High above the wide open plains of Meridiani, at the summit of Cape Tribulation on the rim of ancient Endeavour Crater, the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is busy exploring Marathon Valley. She is seeing some fascinating rock formations around and on either side of her, as she carries out a thorough geological survey of the area.

Earlier this week Opportunity set back a sequence of images taken by her one of her HAZCAMs, which I’ve assembled into this panoramic view. I love this image because it shows Opportunity’s own shadow being cast on the hillside by the low Sun…

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Roving ’round rugged rocks…

Opportunity is continuing her survey of “Marathon Valley”, high above the dune-rippled floor of Endeavour Crater. While I wait for a new batch of red, green and blue images to come back, here are the latest views of the side of the valley, and the pebble- and stone-strewn ground around her…

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Oppy still exploring Marathon Valley

Just a quick note to reassure readers of the blog that, like Oppy herself, it is very much alive. If the lack of recent posts had left anyone worried that my commitment to either was flagging, I can assure you that is absolutely not the case. Real, non-blogging life gets in the ways sometimes, and that has been the case: like all bloggers, away from my laptop I have commitments to family, work and other things which mean sometimes, just for a while, blogging has to take a breather. So, thanks for hanging in there – I know many of you check-in regularly for updates, and I appreciate it. :-)

Another problem has been that this is, primarily, an unashamedly pretty picture image-driven “travel blog” for Oppy’s adventure on Mars – and for the past few weeks, as fascinating as the views of the rocks and boulders scattered around Oppy’s wheels are (and they are, it’s beautiful geology)  there haven’t been many of those available to make from the raws coming back…

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It also hasn’t helped that the image stitching software I use hasn’t been able *to* stitch together the images being sent back, which has been frustrating –

** sigh **

But anyway, enough moaning. Just wanted to reassure anyone who was worried about it that all is well with the blog, and my devotion to Oppy, and commitment to supporting her and her team as she roves Mars, remain. There’ll be a big update soon, but for now, here are a couple of stitched mosaics of images taken by Oppy’s microscopic imager showing, in great detail, the wide variety of shapes, sizes and forms of rocky fragments and stones on the floor of Marathon Valley…

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Opportunity – the REAL Martian…

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Unless you’ve been living on Pluto for the past year, or locked in the dungeons of the ROSETTA mission’s OSIRIS camera team, you’ll have heard about “THE MARTIAN”, a blockbuster movie, made from a best-selling book which took the world by storm when it was published, after already gaining a loyal and rabid following as an ebook. After a breathless media build-up, the movie comes out next week, and all the reviews so far have been gushing in their praise for it, with one reviewer after another waxing lyrical about the trials and tribulations of future NASA astronaut Mark Watney who is marooned on Mars after a dust storm ends a crewed mission to the Red Planet rather sooner than planned.

Obviously NASA knows a good PR opportunity when it sees one, and so is supporting the film enthusiastically, and using it to promote its own Mars missions –

Well, some of them.

It’s certainly promoting Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory, currently trundling forlornly around the foothills of Mt Sharp in Gale Crater on its raggedy wheels. And it’s using THE MARTIAN to highlight its future plans for crewed and uncrewed missions to Mars, too. Fair enough, of course, they’d be daft not to ride such a towering wave of free publicity. But, amazingly, and ridiculously, NASA’s most successful Mars mission to date has not been touched by the magic MARTIAN hand.

Yes, incredibly, NASA continues to ignore the continuing success of Opportunity, which landed on Mars in 2004, more than a decade ago.

Opportunity is now, I think it’s pretty obvious, The Rover That NASA Forgot – or is at least the rover that some in NASA want to forget. She’s not mentioned at media events anymore, isn’t acknowledged when “successful” NASA missions are listed, and as far as I can tell it is over a year – over a YEAR – since she was photographed by the HiRISE camera, which is ridiculous. ( Seriously, NASA, as beautiful as the HiRISE images are, enough pictures of dust dunes, gullies and sedimentary layers have been taken to be going on with, thanks…)

In fact, the last time NASA really acknowledged Opportunity in any meaningful way was when she crossed that imaginary but historic “First Martian Marathon Finishing Line”. At the time – along with several others – I worried that NASA would consider that as an informal end to Opportunity’s mission, and would quietly tiptoe away, leaving her to her fate afterwards. And sadly it seems this is exactly what has happened.

So, I’ll just come out and say here what I think others are thinking but don’t feel they can say: I can’t help wondering if some of the NASA high ups wish Opportunity wasn’t working any more, and actually wish she would just get it over with and die, so the media spotlight would shine on Curiosity alone.

Oppy’s extended life on Mars has taken NASA by surprise, I’m sure. She wasn’t expected to survive this long on Mars. Being honest, when she landed, in her “cosmic hole in one” all those years ago, no-one, not even the most giddily optimistic amongst us, dared to imagine she would still be roving Mars more than a decade later. But she is. Today, as you read this blog post, having explored numerous craters, discovered and studied a dozen or so meteorites, crossed a marathon’s worth of unforgiving desert, survived dust storms, computer glitches and budget threats, Opportunity is STILL driving on Mars, STILL sending back beautiful images, STILL making important scientific discoveries. She is now exploring Marathon Valley, in search of deposits clay-rich minerals spotted and mapped from orbit. This is something NASA should be celebrating, not ignoring.

NASA is enjoying great PR and levels of public interest at the moment. The world was fascinated by the first NEW HORIZONS images of Pluto, and every release since has been greeted with whooping and cheering. Likewise, the enigmatic and mysterious “White Spots” of Ceres, being photographed by the DAWN probe, are intriguing to space journalists and armchair explorers around the globe. And yet, as the world goes crazy over THE MARTIAN, and NASA shamelessly drapes itself over the film like a jazz club singer over a piano, Opportunity rolls on, ignored. Basking in the icy sunshine at the summit of Endeavour Crater’s eastern hills, high above Meridiani Planum, she is surveying Marathon Valley, and sending back views like these…

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I hope that NASA starts to pay Oppy the attention she deserves soon. Her dedicated – if shrunken – science team is still in love with their rover, their mission, and with Mars too, and they deserve better than this.

So, you have to ask… who is the REAL Martian?

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Marathon Valley doesn’t disappoint…

Opportunity is now well into Marathon Valley, and sending back pictures every bit as beautiful as we hoped they would be. Leading down the slope into Endeavour Crater there are rocks, boulders and stones of all shapes and sizes strewn across the valley floor, and on either side of Opportunity as she works her way downhill layered walls rise up into the salmon-pink sky. Here are some of the views she has been enjoying, and sending back, recently…

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Depending on how much time you spend online and how much attention you pay to this kind of thing, you may or may not be aware that there has been a lot of nonsense online and in the media in general recently about images being sent back from Mars. Not so much about Opportunity’s images, but definitely Curiosity’s. People – and of course, by “people” I mean the Martian Anomoly Division of that deluded army of sad, tin foil hat-wearing conspiracy theorist nutters and losers who sit in their parents’ basements tapping out fevered blog posts or making crap YouTube videos about chemtrails, Nibiru and the Apollo Moon Landing Hoax – have been “discovering” all sorts of amazing things on Mars, snapped accidentally (or deliberately, maybe…!!!????) by the rovers. Most recently they have “spotted” a giant crab hiding in the shadows beneath a ledge, and a mysterious “woman” walking across the shifting sands of Mars…

Regular readers of this blog will know I have no time or tolerance for these idiots – and that’s not “having a closed mind”, before any of them start flaming me; it’s just someone who has an understanding of real science, and the real conditions on Mars, having a zero tolerance for bullshit being produced and spread by the growing legion of crackpots, idiots and liars with no interest in genuine science.

Whenever I write something like that, someone always comes back with “Some are troubled people, with mental problems, you shouldn’t be so dismissive of all of them”. Ok, that might be true, and obviously some of the people who write this stuff are doing so because they lack the capacity to question it, and have been disturbed or scared by it when they were introduced to it. But I think the majority of the people who spread this stuff are not mentally disturbed, or vulnerable, they are either naive and lacking in basic scientific knowledge, or deliberately and mischeviously spreading rubbish to alarm and mislead people, and should be challenged. The “research” they always urge us “sheeple” to do whenever we call them out consists of reading other fevered blog posts by equally-deluded fools, and watching hour after hour of badly-produced, gibberingly-insane YouTube videos produced by people who never use their real names but like to be known to the disbelieving outside world as “Armageddon Truth” or “Mars Detective” or “Revelation Omega” or some similiar New Age trippy crap. If they could be bothered to do some real research – on NASA sites or even just on the much-maligned Wikipedia – they would know that it’s impossible for such things to exist on Mars, just impossible.

But they never do that, and never will, because they enjoy sitting there, tapping away at their computers like Neo in The Matrix, feeling that they are somehow “in the know”, that they are part of an elite group of people around the world who “know the truth”. It makes them feel big, and important, and special. I actually think some of them know they’re talking and spreading BS, they just want their websites, blogs or YouTube channels to get a lot of views, and probably get an income from adverts on them.

So, if you want to ignore them, or shake your heads sadly at them and try to be understanding and tolerant, that’s your choice. I think they are idiots, fools and liars, and will treat them as such because I believe they are dangerous and should be fought against. I have no tolerance for them, and I will call them out if I get a chance to. Like the rest of the universe, Mars is  too beautiful and fascinating and amazing without having to be embellished and embroidered with “extras” like teeny tiny martian Bigfoots, statues, sentinel crabs or dark ladies.

So… this…

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Can’t wait to see what Opportunity shows us next! :-)

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