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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Here we go…

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Well, it looks like the infamous 45 Days have started… For the next month and a half the MER team will be calling out to Opportunity regularly, shouting at her to WAKE UP and phone home. Fingers crossed she hears them, puts a coin in the slot and calls Earth to let us all know she’s ok.

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89 Days…

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Opportunity landed on Mars in January 2004, and back then it was hoped that she would survive for 90 days after that and perhaps drive a kilometre in that time. Today is Sol 5,198 of her 90 day mission, and she has driven more than 40km across the surface of the Red Planet.

However, today also marks 89 days since we last heard from Opportunity – in other words, we have now not heard from our rover for only a day less than her 90 day original mission target. The recent social media storm in support of Opportunity and her team has now died down, the media spotlight has swung away from Opportunity, and the attention of many high profile space reporters, journalists, bloggers and Tweeters has moved on too. So let’s all just take another moment to think about Opportunity, and send the MER team our very best wishes again. Here’s hoping that Oppy will wake up soon, so she can be brought back to full operation and can drive away from her parking spot, to make more discoveries and send us back more beautiful views like these (which regular readers will recognise as being images I’ve made myself from the raw B&W images sent back by Opportunity over the past few years)…

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Opportunity Under Threat

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When I started writing this blog – almost ten years ago now – I thought that Opportunity had two, maybe three more years of roving ahead of her. Five at the most. She had already travelled so far, seen so much, made so many discoveries, that to expect many more years than that seemed not just greedy but unrealistic.

So by the time Opportunity had reached the rim of Endeavour Crater I was absolutely sure (although I never said it here of course!) that it was just a matter of time before her mission was ended by a technical failure of some sort – a computer glitch that left her with the robot equivalent of dementia, or maybe a physical fault with some part of her structure. There was also a good chance that Mars itself would take out the rover, just as it took out her sister, Spirit, years earlier. So I started writing this blog with the mindset that every day Oppy woke up was a bonus, every sunrise and sunset she saw was a gift, every metre she rolled and crunched and scrunched across the dusty surface of Barsoom a wonder not to be taken for granted.

So when the dust storm blocked out the sky above Opportunity – and then all over the planet – at the start of June I wondered if the bullet with Oppy’s name written on it had finally been fired. She’d survived other dust storms, but this one was different. This storm was brutal, and cruel, and within a couple of sols had plunged Opportunity into an almost stygian darkness. Of course, with no sunlight to bathe in and be charged by, our solar powered rover was soon in trouble, and as her power levels dropped she stopped sending back images and fell into a deep sleep.

It’s now been 83 days since we heard anything from Oppportunity, but during that time her team has stated over and over again how confident they are that she will come back once the sky has cleared enough to recharge her batteries again. It was just – they and we thought – a matter of time until she woke up, yawned, stretched and beeped off a “Hey, I’m awake – did I miss anything?” message to Earth.

But it seems Time is not on Opportunity’s side.

Early yesterday morning my (UK) time, social media lit up with Tweets and Facebook posts from people aghast at what they had read in a NASA media release. Here’s a link to it…

https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=7227

I urge you to read it, but to save time right now basically what it says boils down to this: the dusty sky above Oppportunity is  now clearing, so we are hopeful that she will answer our calls and phone home soon. But if she doesn’t do that very soon, i.e. within 45 days of the sky essentially becoming reasonably clear again, then we’re going to stop calling her and just listen out for her instead.

Yes, you read that correctly: after all she has been through, after all the amazing discoveries she has made, after all the wonderful sights she has shown us, Opportunity now has a Sword Of Damocles hanging over her head. Unless she replies to our calls soon then we’re going to abandon her after one final, clearly begrudged month of trying, and then just wait and see if she tries to contact us on her own.

I say “we” but of course I don’t mean the MER team. They are absolutely committed to trying to contact Opportunity and bring her back to operational status again, and will obviously try everything they possibly can to make that happen. No, this deadline has been imposed on them – to their surprise and shock – by people above them.

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Like many followers and supporters of the MER rover and its amazing team I am feeling both shocked and furious. For the past 14 years I have followed Oppy’s epic trek across Mars, walking beside her as she crossed deserts, ploughed through endless fields of dust dunes, rolled into and back out of craters, and more. I was there on the day she landed and have always imagined being there on the day her mission ended, with her either lying on her side at the foot of a cliff or on the floor of a crater.

This is wrong.

Why this sudden, almost desperate rush to abandon Oppportunity to her fate on Mars?

Well, playing Devil’s Advocate for a few lines, we have to be honest with ourselves and each other and acknowledge that Opportunity might already be dead, or at least in such a poor condition that she will never call home again. Perhaps there’s just so much dust on her that she can’t come back from this storm, and the time has come to let her go. By continuing to try to contact her we’re not just spending money for no reason but using precious NASA resources too. This two-stage plan might be the best plan on offer under the circumstances –

No, sorry, I don’t buy that, not for a minute.

The truth is, we don’t KNOW what state Opportunity is in at the moment. She could be just weeks, days, or even just hours away from waking. The sky above her is clearing, as NASA has said, so she might just need a little more time.

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So why isn’t she being given that time? Why is there this sudden desperate, against-the-clock rush to pull her plug, or at least turn our backs on her?

And it is a rush. That 45 days deadline is ridiculous – actually, no, let’s be perfectly honest here, it’s absolute bullshit, a figure plucked out of the air with no apparent scientific justification.

Isn’t that a bit strong? If they think Opportunity is dead or can’t operate any more, isn’t 45 days quite a generous timescale? No, it’s not: the MER team was allowed to attempt to contact Spirit for over ten MONTHS after she fell silent, yet they are only being given 45 DAYS to try and contact Opportunity. That seems like a deliberate attempt to thwart the team’s efforts to me. It’s hard not to conclude that someone, somewhere, sees this as a way of ending Opportunity’s mission quickly.

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Another question needs answering: why aren’t the MER team being allowed to keep trying to contact Opportunity through the next “dust cleaning season”? Between November and the end of January Opportunity will be in a good position – physically, because of where she is parked up on the inner slope of Endeavour crater – to be cleaned by the winds that sweep up from the crater floor, maybe even by whirling dust devils. This has happened in previous years, and has resulted in Opportunity being given a real energy boost. There’s a good chance that if the team is allowed to keep trying to contact Opportunity until the end of January Mars itself will help them out by giving Opportunity a good brushing – but for some reason they’re not being given that chance. Why?

Is it boredom? Are NASA now simply bored with small, slow, aged Opportunity trundling across Mars and are wishing that bigger, sexier Curiosity had Mars – and the public’s and media’s attention – all to herself?

Is it politics? Are the MER mission managers trying to score points with their bosses by wrapping up the mission once and for all, allowing its funds, resources and people to be transferred to other projects?

Maybe a bit of both of those, but really, no matter how they try to dress this up, it has to come down to one thing: MONEY.

Opportunity doesn’t run on fresh air and good wishes. It costs money to keep her rolling across Mars. The people who drive her, who communicate with her and keep her fit enough to explore Mars all have to be paid, equipment has to be maintained, serviced or replaced, etc etc.  That doesn’t cost a fortune in space exploration terms, but it’s not peanuts either. So, are the NASA bean counters and accountants now regarding Opportunity’s tiny budget with envious eyes, and slowly, and surely, drawing their plans against her? Of course they are. Are they wanting to spend the money being spent on Opportunity on other projects, like the 2020 Rover perhaps? If that follows the same track as Curiosity it will suffer delays and budget problems, and its managers, and the NASA higher ups, must be looking at the money spent on Opportunity and thinking what they could do with it…

If this is a financial decision then NASA needs to be honest and just say so, and stop pretending it’s anything else. People would hate that Opportunity’s mission had to end that way but I think they’d accept it, grudgingly, because figures on a balance sheet don’t lie. But all this cloak and dagger/Game of Thrones plotting crap is beneath JPL and beneath NASA, and is the wrong way to end Opportunity’s incredible mission.

The more I think about this the more it seems like a stitch-up. And when I read this in an article published online a short while ago I can’t help thinking that someone, somewhere, has been looking for a way to end Opportunity’s mission and this has all been plotted in secret:

Rumors had swirled at JPL this week that officials were making such preparations for the end of Opportunity’s mission, according to another member of the Opportunity team, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the press. The Opportunity team did not receive formal notice about the plans until minutes before JPL published its press release Thursday afternoon, she said.

Wow. The MER team weren’t told until minutes – minutes! – before the press release went out. That’s very crafty, very sneaky, and a deliberate ploy to keep them out of the loop and stop them protesting. It’s also proof that all this has been done behind their backs, which is frankly disgusting.

So where are we? Well, there will now be two periods of “listening”. When the sky above Opportunity reaches a certain degree of clarity then the countdown Doomwatch clock will start, and the MER team will have just 45 days to send commands to Opportunity in the hope of waking her up and getting her to talk back to them – “Active Listening”. If there’s still no word from Opportunity at the end of those 45 days then the MER team will be told to stop sending commands to Opportunity and will just listen for any signals beamed back from her after waking up on her own – “Passive Listening”.

And this, again, seems to me to indicate that they – whoever they are – don’t actually want contact with Opportunity to be regained, so they can declare the mission over and use its people, resources and budget for other things.

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Think of it this way: if you knew someone was lost on the bleak, windswept, rain-lashed hills shown above,  what would be the best way of finding them? You’d go up onto those hills and call out their name, again and again, hoping they’d hear you and call back so you could find them and bring them back down to safety. If you just sat in your car in the car park at the foot of the hills, miles away from the area they went missing in, and every now and again rolled down the window halfway to see if you could hear them calling out to you you’d have no chance of finding them, would you? Of course not. Well, this is exactly what the MER team will have to do after the 45 Days are up.

Oh… just imagine if, on Day 44, or even 45, Opportunity DID call home, letting the MER team know she was alive and ready to get back to work. Wouldn’t that be the greatest two-fingered salute in the history of space exploration? Imagine THAT press conference…

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As I said, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that someone, somewhere, has decided that it’s time for the MER mission to finally end, and this dust storm hibernation has given them a chance to end it. We don’t know if Opportunity is lost yet, it’s still too early to say. The MER team have a lot more work to do yet trying to contact and revive her.

They should be given the chance to try.

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Don’t Give Up On Opportunity Yet!

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“Waking Opportunity”

Sorry, still no word from Opportunity.

It’s been over two months now since she fell silent, the precious Sun stolen from her sky by a planet-shrouding dust storm. Every day the Mars Exploration Rover team cups a hand to their electronic ear and listens to the sky, hoping to hear signs of Opportunity waking, yawning and stretching but every day they are disappointed. But they try again the next day, and the next, and the one after that.

When might they hear something? Perhaps today! Maybe they heard something a few hours ago and gave yet to announce it to the world! Or maybe they’ll hear something tomorrow… or the day after… or next week… or next month…

Perhaps they’ll never hear anything from her again. Perhaps the time is near when we have to, reluctantly, and with great sadness, let her go.

But somehow I don’t think so. I believe Opportunity still has work to do, still has discoveries to make, still has more history to write. So every day I’ll look towards the sky and let her know I’m thinking of her, and wish her amazing team well too.

For now, here’s a new astropoem I’ve written about Opportunity and her current situation:


 

WAKING OPPORTUNITY

Maybe, if we all look to the sky
On the next cold, clear night,
Seek out Mars shining there like
A red hot coal and wish really hard
Opportunity will wake.

Children do it all the time
And it seems to work for them.
On Christmas Eve they lie in bed,
Eyes squeezed tight, fighting off sleep,
Hoping to hear the stairs creaking
As Santa creeps down to leave
Gifts beneath their tree – and next morning
There they are.
When a tooth falls out they hide the white nugget
Beneath their pillow, wishing and hoping
For a calcium-deficient fairy to swap it
For a coin – and one magically appears.
Why can’t it work for us?

For two long months now we’ve waited
For her to phone home, checking our laptops
And phones to see if someone at JPL
Has Tweeted “She’s alive!”
But all we hear is silence.
Although her dust-curdled sky
Is clearing now, the softly-falling fines
Leaving Endeavour looking even rustier than before
Our brave girls sleeps on, deep in
A power saving mode computer coma,
Unaware of the sols passing,
Every marmalade-hued sunrise and sunset
Going unseen.

So maybe, if we all look to the sky
On the next cold, clear night,
Seek out Mars, and wish really hard
She’ll hear us, open up her gritty eyes
And with a yawn come back to life.

Let’s try.

© Stuart Atkinson 2018

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Still no news…

It’s now almost two months since we last heard from Opportunity. It was on June 10th that she sent back a partial image before falling asleep, and we haven’t heard a peep from her since then. The good news is that the dust storm blanketing much of Mars seems to have reached its peak of activity and is starting to settle out; images of Mars taken by amateur astronomers are now showing more hints of surface features than they did a couple of weeks ago when Mars was at opposition, so hopefully the skies above Opportunity will begin to clear soon and with sunlight available to charge her batteries she will wake up and phone home soon. How soon? We can have no idea – maybe tomorrow will be the day we hear from her, or that day might not come for another month or so. We’ll just have to wait and see. Obviously as soon as there’s any news to report we’ll have it here.

So, with no new images from Opportunity to show you, let’s look back at some classic views (which I processed) from sols gone by…

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And a couple of recent views from Curiosity, just because they’re so pretty… 🙂

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Still no word…

Quick update on the situation with Opportunity…

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

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

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

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

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

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