Wrapping things up at Santa Maria…

As I write this, on Sunday March 20th, Opportunity is still at Santa Maria, taking her last set of photographs, wrapping things up at the crater before heaving her rucksack onto her shoulders and heading for the far horizon, where the hills of Endeavour await. Oppy won’t stay here for more than a couple more days, I’m sure, just long enough to complete the detailed photographic survey of Santa Maria, and make sure she’s not missed anything obvious and fascinating by her feet. Then, as interesting and beautiful as Santa Maria has been – far more interesting and beautiful than those first HiRISE images suggested, let’s be honest! – it’ll definitely be time to go.

Oppy’s a rover. It’s time she was roving again.

But before Oppy heads for the hills, literally, time to show you a few of the images I’ve made during the past couple of days.

First, here’s a colourised (as close to ‘real colour’ as I can get it) view of the RAT, or Rock Abrasion Tool, on the end of Oppy’s robot arm – the little grinding…drilling…thingy that allows the MER scientists to look beneath the surface of martian rocks:

Looking at the bigger picture, here’s a panoramic view of the part of Santa Maria directly in front of Oppy at the moment. As ever, click on it for a full-size version…

Must admit, I’m really very pleased with that…

…which means, of course, I couldn’t help myself from messing about with it a little more! 🙂

Here, then, is my “Ansell Adams style” portrait of Santa Maria, or at least a part of it. As usual, I’m not claiming this is ‘accurate’ or ‘scientifically useful’, I’m just making something that, I hope, looks attractive and conveys something of the stark, geological beauty of this fascinating, epic planet…

Now that’s a heck of a view, isn’t it? I’m very, very jealous of the people who will one day make a pilgrimage to this very spot, and stand on the jagged, crumbling edge of Santa Maria, beside a monument commemorating Opportunity’s visit, marvelling at the rover’s achievements… Maybe they’ll see something like this…

Lets go back in time now, secveral months, to New Year’s Eve 2010, when Oppy had just rolled up to the edge of Santa Maria and we were all still blisfully unaware of the amazing rocks and vistas we were going to see as Oppy drove around the crater’s edge. High above Mars, the incredible HiRISE camera onboard NASA’s Mars Reconaisance Orbiter spacecraft zoomed in on Santa Maria and took a picture showing Oppy just after she had arrived. Here it is:

If you’re wondering which ‘dot’ is Oppy, look on the crater’s left hand side and go round the rim to about the eight o’clock position – that dot there is Oppy. (She shows up much more clearly on the full size version when you enlarge it).

That’s a pretty amazing image in itsef… a portrait of a robot rover, on Mars, taken by another spacecraft orbiting high, high above… but I was sure I could clean it up a bit and bring it more to life, make it more of a proper tribute to Oppy and a celebration of her Santa Maria visit, so I got to work on it, using various bits of software to turn that raw image into something… different. And it didn’t turn out too badly, if I say so myself. So, here then, is my portrait of Opportunity at Santa Maria…

And zooming in on Oppy herself…

Wow… you can even see the camera mast and its shadow, I think..? Can’t get enough of these “rover from orbit” views, personally.

Just imagine if there was a 3D view…!

Oh, alright then…

So, here we are.. March 20th… that date ringing any bells with anyone..? No? Well, not the date itself, but March 22nd is quite a landmark date for anyone involved with or interested in the Mars Exploration Rovers, because March 22nd 2010 was that last date anything was heard from Oppy’s twin sister, “Spirit”, which landed in Gusev Crater on the other side of Mars.

You’ll know, I’m sure, that Spirit got stuck in a dust-filled crater – like a baby mammoth wandering into a tar pit – after exploring the Columbia Hills and their surroundings. She fell silent on March 22nd 2010, and despite repeated and continual efforts to make contact with here again since then she has stayed worryingly and stubbornly silent. ( If you want more detail, there’s a fantastic write-up of Spirit’s plight in this Universe Today article here and it’s always worth taking another look at this brilliant but slightly heartbreaking cartoon… )

Personally, and I hate to admit this to myself, I think Spirit has actually passed away, and we won’t hear from her again. Obviously I’d love to be proved wrong, but they’ve tried so many times, tried so many different things, that I can’t help feeling that if we were going to hear from her again we would have done by now. Mars might look all friendly and orange and cuddly, but it is actually a terrifyingly hostile planet, especially for a tiny little Mars rover that’s already lived waaaay past its expected passing away date. But we’ll see. As Scott Maxwell always says, “Never bet against Spirit”, and I’m certainly not giving up on her, at all. But there’s a voice in my head now saying “Let her go…”

So, with this imminent, bitter-sweet anniversary in mind, I’m thinking how fitting and appropriate it would be for Oppy to drive away from Santa Maria on March 22nd, as a sign that the MER journey and adventure continues. It might even represent a kind of symbolic “passing of the torch” from Spirit to Oppy, Spirit telling Oppy, heroically and nobly, just like in one of those old black and white films, “No… I can’t go on… you have to go on without me…”

So, to finish off this post, let’s imagine just that happening. Let’s imagine Spirit and Oppy, standing side by side on the edge of Santa Maria crater, and Spirit passing the torch of exploration to her twin sister…

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One Response to Wrapping things up at Santa Maria…

  1. J. Major says:

    Wonderful panorama Stu! Featured on LITD: http://lightsinthedark.wordpress.com/2011/03/21/mars-a-la-ansel-adams/

    As always, thanks for your work!

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