Oppy’s 2009 Tour of Block Island…


* Welcome to readers of the 120th Carnival of Space!*

When the definitive history of the MER mission is written, the chapter describing Opportunity’s activities between July and September in 2009 will be one of the longest and most fascinating, because during this period the Mars Exploration Rover conducted an exhaustive study of a large, metallic meteorite called “Block Island”.

The excitement began back around July 22nd (I say “around” because the exact date Oppy first “sees” things is a bit blurry… images are taken on a certain day, sent back to Earth then appear on the web with a slight delay, so the following dates aren’t gospel, ok?) when a dark, blocky… something… was spotted on images Oppy took of the Meridiani landscape behind her. I took the raw black and white images and turned them into this colourised view…


Hmmm… that dark object stood out very starkly against the lighter terrain, and even from this distance it showed tantalising detail and structure. But it had been passed by Oppy, and investigating it would mean some serious backtracking. Was it worth it? Well, someone on the MER team clearly thought so, because soon Oppy was heading right for it. The decision made sense: there was nothing else of any real interest in the area, and that rock had to have come from somewhere! Maybe it was a boulder thrown there by the formation of Victoria Crater, or even Endeavour itself?

So, Oppy headed for the object. And, as everyone knows, it’s not long before an “object” spotted on Mars by the rovers is given a catchy name, and this new one was christened “Block Island”, after a small island that lies off the coast of Rhode Island.


It’s a very pretty place – just 7 miles long by 3 miles wide, with a population of a thousand or so – and its 17 miles of beaches ensure a steady flow of tourists from the mainland…

So, Oppy approached Block Island. This 3D view of mine (you’ll need a pair of those special glasses to view it, but I’m sure most of my readers have a pair of those handy now, don’t you?) shows how it was really standing out against the landscape on July 27th, looking like a big, dark, heavy, blocky… something


As the metres between rover and rock were eaten away we all waited impatiently for close-up pictures to start coming in. Slowly but surely Block Island grew larger before us – and pretty quickly it became apparent that this was Something Special…


Soon Block Island – which I’m going to just call “BI” from now on – started to look very, very interesting. As you can see from the hazcam image above, it had bizarre-looking pits, holes and very damaged areas on its surface. Clearly, it wasn’t Just Another Rock. In fact, it looked both odd and strangely familiar at the same time, very similar to other objects spotted by the rivers during their travels. And looking at those images, around the world thousands of people had the same thought as they gazed at the tattered, torn, ripped-apart structure of BI: that’s no rock, that’s a meteorite.

This was when my own interest in BI really leapt. I’m a meteorite fan, I love them, I even have my own small collection – currently on-loan to Kendal Museum as part of the “Our Amazing Universe!” exhibition – and every time a rover has found a meteorite on Mars it’s resulted in a wealth of beautiful images, great discoveries and rewarding science. So when it became clear that BI was not just a meteorite, but a great, big, fat, heavy, torn-up, millennia-old meteorite, I did a little mental “woo-hoo!” jig and looked forward to the following study with relish.

Why am I so fascinated by meteorites? Because I still feel a kind of childish thrill whenever I get to see, and hold, something that’s Come From Space, that’s why! Whenever I hold my pieces of Canyon Diablo (the meteorite that blasted Meteor Crater out of the Arizona desert) I feel a little giddy, thinking that the smooth chunk of metal weighing heavy in my hand is just a small piece of a might larger, much mightier meteoroid that spent countless millennia spinning and tumbling through the Great Dark before slamming into our planet. Most of my collection’s pieces are small – very small, in fact – but every single one of them sings to me, and I wouldn’t part with them for anything. So having a front row seat for the study of the biggest, baddest meteorite ever found on Mars was always going to be a joy… 🙂

Eventually Oppy pulled up in front of BI, and as I combined and colourised another triplet of raw, b&w filtered images to make a single colour image (on July 29th I think it was, please don’t rely on these dates!), its full glory was revealed… roll on the drums, please… Ta-DAH!

BI col cb

That’s when we all knew that by backtracking, and taking a diversion from its long trek to Endeavour, Oppy had found herself standing in front of the biggest, most fascinating-looking, most beaten up meteorite seen on Mars so far.

And so began almost two months of intensive study by Opportunity, and almost obsessive scrutiny by space enthusiasts and back-seat rover drivers around the world. Almost every day new images of BI came back to Earth, and we devoured them hungrily, turning them into colour panoramas, close-ups and even 3D anaglyph pictures, like this, which clearly shows a deep, ragged-edged pit in the side of BI…

B Island-LGE

Every day that followed brought intriguing new views that made our jaws drop even further. BI was just so messed up, so beaten up, it looked like a piece of shrapnel from an ancient martian war, uncovered after millennia of hiding beneath Barsoom’s sifting, shifting sands. It had bays and caverns, jagged points and round-edged nubs, shiny surfaces and dull, dust-scraped ones too…


It had everything. It was, truly, a gift from the sky.

And it turned out that BI was actually visible FROM the sky. Amazingly, close-up images of Opportunity’s driving path, taken by the HiRISE camera onboard the MRO spacecraft were sharp and clear enough to actually show BI as a dark spot on the ground…


Up close, BI continued to provide the MER team and the rover’s legions of followers with intriguing and thought-provoking new views.


Even the rover’s microscope camera was drafted in to help study and investigate the meteorite’s structure and composition…


Images like this just added to our fascination with BI…


What the..?!?!

Soon questions were flying. Where had BI come from? How old was it? Was it related to any of the other meteorites found by the rovers? This bizarre object will certainly keep Mars scientists and armchair explorers talking, debating and arguing for a long, long time.

Eventually the “near side” of BI was completely imaged, and when this early September image, showing Oppy backing away from BI, appeared on the web…


…the guessing games started. Would Oppy now back away from the meteorite and continue on her way? Or would she start to drive around the meteorite to see what was on the other side? Each option had its supporters. Some people were keen – impatient even – to drive on, head for those hills on the horizon, and see new sights. Others were desperate to see the Other Side of BI, to enable planetary scientists to construct a proper, 3D model of the meteorite, which would provide a wealth of information about its origins, structure and history too. We all waited to see what the images would show…

Eventually this image came back, and we all knew that the circumnavigation of Block Island had begun…


Since then Oppy ha fairly scooted around BI, and we’ve now seen all sides of it. Here are the colourisations I have made in the past week, roughly a day apart. They will give you a kind of “walk around” of BI…






This side of BI looks particularly fascinating. Take a peek under that “ledge” on the edge there, and all sorts of detail and structure pops out at you…


Isn’t that beautiful?

With Oppy having completed her “drive-around” of Block Island, I actually thought she’d spent a sol or two taking a closer look at the chunks of dark rocky material scattered around her. Are they bits of BI that have been eroded or dust-blasted out of it? Looking at a crop like this makes me think so…

crop stones

But today, as I write this, it seems that Oppy has driven away from BI, and is now headed back north, and west, to the track she was taking before she was lured off course by this incredible meteorite, so that appears to be that. It was a heck of an adventure while it lasted, but Oppy’s – and our – 2009 Tour of Block Island appears to be over.

By the way, if you’ve been wondering how big BI is, then that gorgeous artist’s impression at the top of this post – created by my good friend, and fellow UMSFer AstroO, shows the trover and meteorite to the correct scale. Yes, BI really is that big! UMSF’s Mike Howard also illustrated the sizeof BI with his popular Mars Midnight Browser program…


No doubt many new wonders await us in the dunes up ahead. We might find more meteorites – maybe even more chunks of Block Island’s parent meteorite, if it is just a larger body – or we might not find another one for months or even years. That seems unlikely, as Oppy found two big iron meteorites in just 10 miles of desert, but we’ll have to wait and see. I must admit I’m very curious about what all these dark objects are, sitting on the surface nearby, and can’t help wondering they’re all mini Block Islands too…


… but I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Now it’s time to look back on this thrilling leg of Oppy’s epic journey, and be thankful that we were all allowed to walk alongside and then kneel down beside the rover as she took a look at what might go down in history as the most fascinating meteorite seen on Mars during the MER mission.

mars mets

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1 Response to Oppy’s 2009 Tour of Block Island…

  1. Pingback: Farewell Block Island… « Cumbrian Sky

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