Another chat with Scott Maxwell, rover driver…

Yet again, Mars Exploration Rover driver Scott Maxwell has given up some of his valuable time to answer some questions for “Road to Endeavour”! This time I asked him about Santa Maria, and what comes next…

Ok, so, here we are, Santa Maria! Long drive, but it was worth it. What a spectacular, beautiful place, surely one of the most picturesque craters Oppy has visited so far. What were your first thoughts and impressions as Oppy drove up on arrival day, looked over the edge and saw… that?!

Well, first: what a sight for sore eyes!  It’s been a few years since we’ve had a view like that — Opportunity’s terrain has been a parking lot (with speed bumps) for so long, I’d practically forgotten what a proper pothole looked like.

Moreover, this particular view was pretty fantastic.  I’m no geologist, so I have to largely content myself with appreciating the intrinsic beauty of the scene, and Santa Maria’s an intricate and lovely place indeed.  (OK, I don’t have to *completely* content myself with that: I have the fortune and privilege of being able to turn around and ask the world’s best minds on the subject, hey, what’s going on with *that*?)

And finally, I think, I feel great pride — pride in the team that got Opportunity safely to this place, seven years into a three-month mission, and pride in our ability to dance so closely with beauty and danger.

Oppy is now making her way slowly and carefully towards Yuma, where she’ll spend some time doing some serious studying of some potentially very important rocks there. From what we can see of Yuma so far it looks like a pretty challenging location – near the edge, what looks like some pretty deep drifts of dust, etc. What special precautions are you taking now, and will you take once Oppy reaches its scientific targets?

We have a usual set of precautions we break out for driving near a crater rim: suspension limits, tilt limits, separate limits on pitch and roll when that makes sense, keepout zones, and visual odometry to make sure we know where we are and compensate for slip.  Usually, all of these are active for a particular drive — we’re pretty careful with our girl!

We’ll continue to keep those same limits in place for any science targets near the rim.

These “hydrated sulfate” minerals.. they’re minerals that were affected and changed by exposure to water in Mars’ ancient past, as I understand it. Just to clarify, have you identified any specific targets yet? Is Oppy looking for ‘chunks’ of rock, or is it the slabs and plates of exposed ‘bedrock’ she’s going to be studying?)
You’re right about what hydrated sulfates are, but to the best of my knowledge, we don’t have specific targets yet that we think are hydrated sulfates.  (I could be wrong about the latter part; for various reasons, I’ve been unable to make it up to the sequencing room for a few days.  I’m looking forward to fixing that tomorrow. 🙂

Right now, we’re scrambling to get ourselves into a good place to do science during conjunction.

The Hills of Endeavour look soooo close now, deceptively so because we see them in the same images as the Santa Maria walls, etc. How are the rover team feeling about the rest of the journey to Endeavour, with it so clearly in sight on the horizon?

Are we there yet?  Are we there yet?  Are we there yet?

Seriously, I want to make sure we give Santa Maria its due, but I’m itching to drive that final sprint to Endeavour.  We’re right in the middle of prime driving season; if we somehow ignored conjunction and wanted to just go for it, we could be there by Easter.  I’m salivating.

We recently celebrated the seventh anniversary of Spirit’s landing at Gusev, and will shortly celebrate the 7th anniversary of Oppy landing at Meridiani. Much has been said and written about how no-one expected the rovers to last this long, etc etc, but what about the human side of this? As someone who’s been there from the start, with his hands on the wheel steering Spirit and Oppy across Mars, how do you think being a part of the MER adventure has changed you? Do you still have “Wow… I’m on Mars!” moments?

Only every day, Stu.  Only every day.

I consider myself very fortunate to have something wrong with my brain.  When I like something, that feeling doesn’t really wear off for me, as it seems to do with most people.  On the one hand, this often keeps me from seeking novelty, and I occasionally feel like I’m missing out on that aspect of life experience — but on the upside, when I’m involved in something good like this, it keeps *being* good for me, more or less the same as when I started, and more or less forever.

I still look through the 3-D glasses at the latest scene from Opportunity and think, wow, that’s on *another planet*.  Another.  *Planet*.  Nobody has *ever* seen this before.  I’m lucky, and immensely grateful, to be alive at this place and time and to be able to help lay down this small part of human history — that grand sense of what we’re doing comes in from time to time as well.  And, as a bonus, I’m slowly accumulating an undergraduate’s worth of knowledge on geology.

I am having the time of my life. 

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2 Responses to Another chat with Scott Maxwell, rover driver…

  1. That’s wonderful to hear that the very driver (pilot?) of the rover gets that “this is another planet!” feeling. Exactly what gets me, especially when looking at those vista/horizon shots.

  2. Paul Brenot says:

    I remember the news announcement of Sputnik I. The space race was on and I remember my father saying that one day we would see live pictures from Mars. We used to joke that the evening news was going to show pictures from Mars. It was sooo far out and totally unimaginable!

    I want to thank you, Stu, and the team at JPL for allowing me to follow Oppy. I also can’t wait to hear that Spirit has phoned home.

    The guys and gals at JPL are awesome. I was at JPL with the Planetary Society when the Mars Pathfinder with Sojourner landed. You and Oppy have made my heart sing again.

    Thank you so very much.

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