Arrival at Santa Maria

We all have moments of revelation in our lives, moments that imprint themselves upon us and take root in the back of our minds, never to be dislodged for as long as we live. We all make ‘discoveries’ that countless others have made before us, i.e. we eventually see places – well-known places, famous places – for real, for the first time, after wanting to see them with our own eyes for years, perhaps after reading about them in a book or magazine, or seeing them in a film or on TV. 

As a child I had lots of such “There it is!” moments. I remember grinning like an idiot on a school trip to London and seeing Big Ben, Nelson’s Column and Tower Bridge with my own eyes for the first time after a dozen years of films, TV dramas and books. They were real! They weren’t just pictures! The first time I saw the famous “Blackpool Tower” I was beside myself – and, to be honest, I still get a bit of a thrill from spotting it above the houses whenever I go to Blackpool even now…

And many years ago I stood, in tears, by the wall on the edge of the Yosemite Valley tunnel car park, looking down that magical valley for the first time. I had fallen in love with Yosemite many, many years earlier as a child, leafing through a faded copy of National Geographic. In that magazine there was a double page image of the valley at sunset, with the top of El Capitan and the peak of Half Dome bathed in light the colour of molten lava, or hot bubbling marmalade, and I vowed to myself that one day I’d GO there and see it for real. Eventually, thanks to the generosity of my two great friends from California, Chris and Peggy, I made it, and my life changed. As we drove through the long, dark tunnel that leads to the valley my heart was racing with anticipation, I remember it vividly. Would the valley look like it did in the picture? Would it be disappointing? Would it have changed in some way – ?

Then we came out of the tunnel into the bright sunlight – and I could hardly see for the tears in my eyes. There it was, right in front of me, Yosemite Valley, as beautiful and bold and epic as I’d imagined it would be…

Jumping out of the people carrier I literally stumbled over to the wall, unable to believe what I was seeing: the valley was like a piece of Middle Earth brought to life, as fantastic as anything ever imagined by Tolkein or painted by a fantasy artist, a great chasm in the Earth that looked as if God had reached down from the painfully-blue Californian sky and wrenched apart the planet’s crust with his bare hands, Yosemite Valley bewitched me in that moment, in one breath, in one heartbeat, and I’m beyond desperate to get back there again.

What has this got to do with Mars, and with Oppy’s trek across Meridiani?

Well, those moments all came after long periods – years – of anticipation. I’d seen pictures of those places, and finally, finally, I was seeing them for real. And exactly the same thing has just happened to me ‘on Mars’ courtesy of the rover Opportunity: I can now see a place ‘for real’ (well, almost) that I’ve wanted to see for a long, long time, ever since seeing it on a photo.

Many, many months ago, when the MER team – having exhausted their exploration and study of Victoria Crater – decided that they’d send Oppy to Endeavour crater, like many rover enthusiasts I went straight to the HiRISE site and looked for images of the crater as seen by MRO, just to see what lay ahead. There were a few, and more have been taken since then, of course, and looking at those images it was pretty clear, right from the start, that between Victoria and Endeavour, apart from the odd small crater here and there, there was a whole lot of Nothing. One little crater “close” to Endeavour did look interesting tho: it looked like a miniature version of Endurance, a crater Oppy had dipped her toes into before driving to Victoria. I zoomed in on the crater – un-named then – and saw it had interesting-looking bays, and capes, and some dust dunes on its floor. Interesting, to be sure, but a long way away, such a long way away that it was unlikely Oppy would actually reach it…

Well, Oppy turned her back on Victoria and headed south, then turned east and pointed her nose at Endeavour. Driving onwards, ever onwards, she passed one small crater after another, all interesting in their own right but pale imitations of the Great Craters she had visited further north. She came across meteorites, great gnarled-looking nuggets of chewed-up cosmic iron that stood alone on the surface of Mars like bizarre modern art sculptures. And she drove onwards.

And up ahead, invisible, hidden by the countless sandworm-like dust dunes and ripples of Mars, concealed by the rises and falls of the great Meridiani desert, Santa Maria waited, unlikely ever to be reached; destined, in all likelyhood, to be known as just a crater that Oppy might have explored en-route to Endeavour, if only…

But Oppy survived. Oppy thrived, and drove on, and on, strong as ever, determined as ever, and as weeks of driving became months of driving doubt turned to hope, and hope to belief, and Santa Maria suddenly became reachable. As the sols passed we scanned each new image carefully, studying the land ahead of Oppy, straining to see a line, or a hump, that might possibly be Santa Maria. Eventually we caught our first glimpse – just a bright line on the ground up ahead, waay up ahead, but it was there. Sols passed and we drew closer and closer, and the line became a hump, then several humps, with light and dark patches on and between them and Santa Maria became The Next Stop…

Yesterday, finally, Opportunity reached Santa Maria crater, and I was that kid again, seeing Big Ben or Tower Bridge for the first time, seeing Blackpool Tower for the first time… gazing down Yosemite Valley for the first time.

We were There. I was there. Santa Maria was real. And I was standing almost on its edge.

Santa Maria is the final “distraction” of any size on the final leg of her epic journey to the rim of the mighty and distant Endeavour crater, which is still many months’ drive away…

For weeks now MER team members and legions of armchair rover fans around the world have been following Oppy’s approach to Santa Maria, seeing the crater get gradually larger and larger, closer and closer, in the images posted on various websites. Each sol – martian day – the crater’s upraised rim has appeared just a little higher, just a little more detailed up ahead; each sol we’ve been impatient to see the next sol’s images, hoping that the crater would start to show some real structure, some real features. Oppy has been doing her best, driving more than 100m every day, almost sprinting towards the crater, and across the world countless thousands of mouse buttons and “refresh” keys have been clicked to within an inch of their lives as rover huggers have frantically reloaded raw image pages, hoping to see newer, more recent images…

Last night, just after 8.30pm UK time, I did just that – and Santa Maria finally appeared in all her rock-strewn, rubble-scattered, deep-walled glory on my monitor…

Look at that. Just Look… At… THAT

Santa Maria has been called, at various times in the past few months, “mini-Endurance”, “just another small crater”, and worse. But the moment I saw that first picture I knew that it is definitely something unique, and exciting, and much, much more than we all imagined.

The images sent back by Oppy as she pulled up at a point just 20m or so from the crater’s edge show a breathtaking amount of detail – and potential;. the crater’s outer slopes are steep and absolutely covered with shards, fragments and pieces of rock. In fact, my first thought when I saw the first images was “What a mess!! It looks like a plane crashed here...” Here’s a sharpened-and-messed-about-with panorama I made by stitching together some of the raw images. Click on it and you’ll see what I mean.

There is SO much on that picture! You can see some of the largest rocks scattered around the crater, and the far crater wall too, which looks absolutely fascinating, with big blocks of breccia embedded in it. You can also see Endeavour’s faraway hills on the distant horizon too – what a view! 🙂

But it’s when you start looking at this place, this magical place, this Enchanted Stone Garden, in 3D that it really comes to life. So, everyone, time to put on your red/blue glasses and walk with me towards Santa Maria crater…

That image above really blew me away when I made it last night. Looking at it you really can imagine strolling around on this crater’s slope, walking around the rocks and boulders, shielding your eyes from the Sun with a raised hand and staring out across the wide open Meridiani plain to the hills of Endeavour crater, far far away…

And then there’s this fellow here

Er… what?!?!?!?!?!

This bizarre looking rock was swiftly compared to a “snapped-off crocodile tail!” by UMSF’s Sunspot, and today that nickname – “Crocodile Tail rock” seems to be sticking across the internet. Personally, when I saw it I was reminded more of a baby stegosaurus, or even the half-buried skull of one of these, one of Dr Who’s most famous adversaries – the Zygons (which many Dr Who fans are hoping make a return to the screen under Mr Moffat)…

But I digress. Back to Santa Maria. This place is a wonderland, it really is, and as refreshing as a bucket of ice-cold water thrown over our weary, dust-coated faces after all these weeks and months of dragging ourselves across the flatter-than-flat desert plain. Now, again, we have slopes to (virtually) hike up and great big beautiful boulders to weave our way in and out of! Now, again, we have a hole to look into! Now, again, we have somewhere to explore and study in detail and depth – a proper crater, with steep walls you could clamber up, or down, not a lame excuse for a crater that’s little more than a shallow dip in the ground… Santa Maria is an oasis of topography in a desert of blandness, a geological, photographic oasis in a wasteland of sameness.

Let’s take a look at where Oppy was when those previous images were taken…

The first images from close to the crater’s edge show Santa Maria to be a very interesting place, with a great variety of rocks and boulders and some fascinating geology to study and explore. And I think it is going to be a beautiful place too, particularly if you look at it with a more artistic eye. Here are a couple of ‘portraits’ I’ve made of the most interesting looking rocks we’ve seen so far…

What a place. What a beautiful place.

Oppy could spend many months exploring this crater. In fact, if Santa Maria hadn’t been so ‘close’ to Endeavour she might well have done just that. But with Endeavour so tantalisingly close, Oppy’s stay at Santa Maria will be a brief one, and she’ll be on her way again in February. But before she leaves, Oppy will conduct a thorough study of Santa Maria. She’ll drive around the crater and take panoramas from different points around its edge; she’ll use the tools and instruments on the end of her robot arm to study the rocks around and the layers inside the crater. She’ll wring every last bit of science out of Santa Maria she can before  turning her back on the crater, lifting her eyes to the horizon once again and setting off for Endeavour.

But that sol won’t dawn for many weeks. Before then we have a rocky, dusty wonderland to explore.

I hope you’ll come back to “Road to Endeavour” and explore it with me here. 🙂

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4 Responses to Arrival at Santa Maria

  1. Tom says:

    VERY cool!
    I had the same “Yosemite feeling” when I first saw the Saturn V at Kennedy Space Center. (ok, I’m a geek).

    Tom

  2. Buck says:

    Right on!

  3. Pingback: Opportunity am Rand von Santa Maria – und der Mars Global Surveyor weist den Weg « Skyweek Zwei Punkt Null

  4. J. Major says:

    Wow, great post Stu. Very heartfelt and emotional. Very exciting to be actually seeing INTO the crater now!! I can only imagine what it will be like when she gets to the Big One!!!

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