Approaching Base Camp…

Oppy is now less than 600m away from Santa Maria, the fascinating-looking impact crater which will be her “base camp” for her final assault on the distant rim of the mighty crater, Endeavour. Santa Maria is now “opening up” for Oppy’s cameras, and we can now see the largest blocks and boulders of ejecta scattered around the crater, too. Already we can see hints of layering and structure in the walls of Santa Maria, and I think it’s farir to say that there are many thousands of back seat rover drivers all around the world counting off the sols and the drives now, eager and impatient for Oppy to roll up to the raised rim of Santa Maria and gaze across and down into it.

Here’s the latest view of Santa Maria, a mosaic I made from images which came down yesterday.

Let’s take a closer look at Santa Maria itself…

We’re (and by “we” I mean, of course, Oppy!) now still almost 600m away from the crater, but already we can see layering in the walls, and large boulders scattered around it. The closer we get, the more detail we’ll see. And after another couple of drives I think we’ll see a LOT more detail because Oppy seems to be approaching a dip in the terrain, so soon the view will really open up ahead of us then we’ll see Santa Maria properly. You can see what I mean when you look at a wide angle, 3D view…ok, glasses on… here we go…

So, where are we? Let’s update the “road ahead” pic I’m using here…

Now you can see just how close Oppy is to Santa Maria. IF she could be guaranteed to drive 120m each day, she’d be there in less than a week. But that’s a guarantee that’s pure fantasy. Things happen. Things get in the way. Problems crop up, often not with Oppy herself but with the satellites, dishes and equipment backing up her mission. So, when will Oppy reach Santa Maria. WHEN SHE GETS THERE!

Looking at the Google Earth image above you can see Oppy recently passed a couple of craters named after Russian spacecraft. The largest of these was Voskhod, and here’s a picture of it…

But we’re all looking forward to seeing more of Santa Maria, so here’s a new “portrait” I’ve made of it, using a HiRISE image. The ‘rocks’ scattered around it at the bottom are, I’m pretty sure, the ones that are now becoming visible in the approach images Oppy is taking. Click on this pic to enlarge it, as usual…

Finally, let’s just  reflect on the opening statement of this post: “less than 600m away from…” It’s quite incredible to think that we now think nothing of quoting such distances; that we almost take for granted that Oppy will cross that distance without a problem. Back at the start of this fascinating adventure we were all amazed at the prospect of Oppy travel more than a kilometre on Mars! Now we casually divide the distance between features on the Meridiani landscape into 100m or even 120m sections, and calculate “how many drives” it is between A and B, assuming without a second thought that Oppy will make it, and then go somewhere else, and somewhere else after that…

Of course, we shouldn’t. That’s like poking Fate in the eye with a sharp stick and then giving it a rapid Benny Hill slap on the head just to really annoy it. But we can’t help it, can we? We’ve now got so much faith in the rover, and in the amazing men and women who drive it, who plan its operations, and who basically keep it alive and trundling across Mars that we don’t believe that anything can stop Oppy now from reaching Endeavour, and even climbing up to the top of the highest point on Cape York and looking down into Endeavour. We know, in our hearts, that every time we go online to check our email, read the latest posts on UMSF or the most recent tweets on Twitter we might read that Oppy has suffered some technical failure and has either broken down or died completely. It’s the big, rover-shaped elephant in the room that everyone ignores and creeps around, looking at their feet, at each other, at anything else they can find…

One day Oppy will stop roving, that’s an unavoidable fact. Death walks slowly and softly alongside Oppy, scythe trailing through the dust, biding its time. One day Mars, which has tried to kill her on so many occasions in the past, with computer glitches, dunes and dust storms, will finally win, and Oppy will grind to a halt. On that sad, sorry day there’ll be much wailing and gnashing of teeth, as many thousands of people all around the globe realise that one of the greatest missions in the history of space exploration – and one of the most epic journeys in the history of human exploration itself – has finally come to an end.

But today is not that day. And I have a feeling, down here, in my gut, that that day is some way away yet. I believe – I have faith – that Oppy will reach Endeavour, and that when she does she will make discoveries there that will make her a legend, and change the way people look at Mars forever.

There’s a long road behind Oppy, and a long road ahead. That road is strewn with challenges, obstacles and problems, any one of which could bring our beloved rover’s incredible Lewis and Clark trek to an end.

Bring it on.

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