In praise of rock

Over the past few days I’ve been posting colour images of some of the various large rocks and boulders scattered around the huge, flat-topped, slab-like rock “Tisdale 2” which Oppy is currently studying. Those images have taken a lot of work, but I think that work has been worth it, because looking at those pictures shows what a truly fascinating place Oppy has found herself at in her long adventure. This “rock garden” – more scientifically this”ejecta field”, consisting of lots of rocky debris, spread and scattered across a wide area after the impact that formed Odyssey Crater – is, I think, one of the most intriguing places visited by Oppy since she landed in 2004. True, Eagle Crater was great, with that right-under-our-nose-after-landing bedrock pavement, and yes, ok, Victoria Crater was magnificent, with all those capes and bays, and the gateau-like layering in its crumbling, ancient walls, and absolutely, I agree that Santa Maria had a lot of exciting things going on too… but this, ah, this place is different. This place seems… I don’t know… both bewilderingly alien and comfortably familiar at the same time.

Maybe it’s the view. We’ve all wandered up paths and – deliberately or accidentally – found ourselves on a hillside, looking at a wonderful view. When I lived in Cockermouth, almost eight years ago now, I used to hike up a local hill known as “The Hay” but actually called “Watch Hill” because from the top I could enjoy a fantastic view. To my left the Lakeland fells of Grasmere and Skiddaw were turned purple by distance and haze, while to my right the waters of the Solway Firth glittered like mercury (on a sunny day, at least!) with the faraway mountains of Scotland beyond them, on the western horizon. And below me, Cockermouth, stretched out like a model. I spent hours up there, just sitting a big rocky outcrop, either reading a(nother) science fiction book or just, well, sitting, and drinking in the view. It was My Place. Then I moved down here to Kendal and found another My Place, this time up at the ruins of the castle which stand guard over the Auld Grey Town like a shattered, crumbling stone sentinel. From there I can see those same Lakeland fells, only this time they’re on my right. There’s no sight of any water from my new place, but I can see green fields all around, and to my left the castle  is a strong, silent companion. Beneath my feet, the grey, white and tan buildings of Kendal, stretched out like a model…

Oppy is essentially on a martian hillside, looking down at and across a beautiful landscape. She has hills to her right and, across the great bowl basin of Endeavour crater’s interior, morehills right in front of her, though dimmed by distance. And all around her, like some bizarre collection of martian modern art sculptures, rocks, and boulders, and stones, of all shapes, colours and sizes. Flat-topped rocks; rounded rocks; smooth-sided and jagged-edged rocks. The Odyssey Crater ejecta field is a geological wonderland, waiting and desperate and ready to be explored.

I think Oppy has found Her Place on Mars.

But not her final place. I actually think I know where that is, but I’ll come to that later.

There’s something quite remarkable about where Oppy is now. Yes, the drive south from Victoria was exciting, in its way; steadily counting down the remaining kilometres, watching the Hills of Endeavour growing larger, rising (then falling, then rising again!) above the horizon, seeing their structures and faces slowly but surely coming into view. But Oppy is, above everything else, a robot GEOLOGIST, and, except for stops to look at the few meteorites she passed en-route to Endeavour (I loved those meteorites… I miss them… I hope she’ll find a couple around Endeavour) and examinations of those patches of pale bedrock scattered here and there, she must have been pretty bored during the past three years. Ah, but now, now, everywhere she looks there are rocks just shouting out to be prodded and poked and drilled and photographed and measured.

Imagine how you would feel if you were a geologist who had just walked for all those empty, featureless kilometres, weeks or even months between each Something Interesting To Look At. How giddy with excitement would you feel now, standing on top of Cape York, surrounded by all these beautifully-ugly rocks?

You know, if Oppy had a tail, I bet she’d be wagging it like crazy now… 🙂

But what is it about seeing rocks that gets us – well, gets some of us – so excited, and makes Oppy’s continuing adventure so fascinating? because after all, we’re here – and she’s there – for the rocks, right? Oppy’s a geologist – made of glass and metal and wire, instead of flesh, blood and bone, perhaps, but a geologist nonetheless – and she was sent to Mars to look at rocks, to drive between rocks, to trundle over powdery, cinnamon-hued dust that used to be rocks to get to younger, more solid rocks. She’s never going to find life. She’s never going to find evidence of past life… probably… no, almost certainly… and she’s never going to take photos of martian water glinting in the light of the shrunken Sun. All she’s ever seen is rock, and all she will ever see is rock, in one form or another, with the odd cloud, or iron meteorite or dust devil caught now and again.

You’re probably like me – you see images of the rocks taken by Oppy and you can see something in them, some kind of beauty, something exciting. You grasp their importance, their significance. I mean, that’s why you’re here, right? You Get It. But others don’t. Many people Out There just don’t understand. I’ve seen them, I;ve met them at my talks. They listen to me praising Oppy and Spirit, and see the pictures on the big screen, but you can see it in their eyes – The Question: why should we get so worked up about rock? Why did all those clever people at NASA spend all that time, and money, designing and building a robot, launching it on a mighty rocket, and then landing it on and driving it across a distant, alien world, just to look at and photograph rocks?

For years, I’ve tried to answer them. I’ve tried to explain that studying rocks – anywhere, not just on Mars, but anywhere – lets us travel back in time to learn about the past, and how things have changed. I’ve tried to explain that craters are time machines which let us travel waaaaaay back in time, showing us great changes, revealing secrets to us. I’ve handed them meteorites and tried to get them to see it, to really see it, to look at it, sitting hard and heavy and dark and cold in their hand and Get It… but I’ve never really been happy with my efforts, not really. And, if I’m completely honest, I’ve never managed to explain it properly to myself, either.

But that changed when I borrowed a geology book from the library a couple of years ago, “Reading The Rocks” by Marcia Bjornerud, and in it I read a passage, a single, short paragraph, which put my thoughts into words and explained exactly why rocks are deemed worthy of such time, and effort, and money.

Unfortunately stone has an undeserved reputation for being uncommunicative. The expressions ‘stone deaf’, ‘stone cold;, ‘stony silence’ and, simply, ‘stoned’ reveal much about the relationship most people have to the rocks beneath their feet. But to a geologist, stones are richly illustrated texts, telling gothic tales of scorching heat, violent tempests, endurance, cataclysm, and reincarnation. Over more than 4 billion years, in beach sand, volcanic ash, granites and garnet schists, the planet has unintentionally kept a rich and idiosyncratic journal of its past.”

And ever since Oppy rolled up to the Odyssey Crater ‘rock garden’ that’s exactly why I’ve been so excited about this new phase of her mission. These rocks have so much to tell us about this part of Mars, and about the planet itself. Just look at these two, for example…

Now, a lot of people would see those pictures and think to themselves “Two rocks, big deal…” But not me, and probably not you, either. I look at those two pictures and think to myself how come those two rocks – which stand just metres apart – are so different? Why is one all knobbly and sharp and jaggedy, and the other so smooth and flat? What processes made them so different? Where did they originally come from? How long have they been here? And why does that one, over there, look as different again? And they’re just the most slap-across-the-face obvious questions! What thoughts and questions go through the minds of the geologists on the MER mission – people who actually know what they’re looking at – when they see those images?

Damnit, I wish I knew more about geology, then I could make sense out of what I see when I make an image like this new portrait of the rock “Kidd Creek”…

…but I don’t, so all I can do is make and then look at pretty pictures, enjoy the view from Oppy’s hillside, and wait for the People Who Know to fill me in on the science part.

That’s okay. I like the view from here. But in my heart I’m there, with Oppy, standing on Cape York, turning on the spot, looking at the dark pit of Odyssey Crater on my left, the crater-scarred hills on the far side of Endeavour right in front of me, and at the peaks of the Tribulation Range on my right. And I’m surrounded by rocks… the toppled over headstone of Pacaud… the fossilised dinosaur dung pile of Tisdale 3… the cracked marble altar of Tisdale 1… and the great gothic sarcophagus of Tisdale 2, which looks like its dusty, golden lid might creak open at any moment, with a puff of ancient orange martian air, to reveal – !!

So here we are, on Cape York, after our long trek across the Meridiani desert. Looking around us what do we see? “Just rocks”? No. Never, ever that. There are questions to be answered here, mysteries to be solved – and yet more mysteries poised to take their place. So settle back, take a seat on a Tisdale – there are enough of them! – and enjoy the view. We’re going to be here a while.

…but not forever. Eventually Oppy will have exhausted her exploration of the Odyssey Crater rock garden, then she’ll be off, heading north to the Promised Land of the Phylosillicate Signatures! Hallelujah! What she finds there might well define the whole MER mission.

But she might not find those clays. Or she might find whispered traces of them, but not enough to study properly. What then? Well, likely she’ll turn round, drive south again, roll right off Cape York, cross Botany Bay and head for the foothills of the Tribulation Range – and start climbing. because up there, high on Cape Tribulation, is where orbiting satellites have detected concentrations of those phylosillicates, so if Oppy has no or little luck on Cape York she’ll probably take a leaf out of Spirit’s Big Book of Martian Mountaineering and start climbing.

And it’s up there, up on Tribulation, that I think she’ll find her final resting place, one way or another.

No, I don’t mean she’ll conk out there, though she might. I think that’s where, one day, in the distant future, she’ll be immortalised, in statue form, for future generations of martians – settlers and natives – to see.

Because up there, there’s a ledge of a kind, that looks out over Endeavour Crater, and I honestly can’t think of a more fitting spot for her statue when the time comes for the martians of the future to pick a spot where they can go to celebrate and honour her achievements. This is where I think Oppy’s statue will be, one day…

Why there? Well, because surely Endeavour Crater will be Oppy’s final stop. It would take her a generation to explore this crater fully, if she had the time, which she doesn’t. Driving anywhere else after Endeavour would be another multi-year gamble, and I just don’t think they’ll do it, not with so much science to do here at Endeavour. Reaching Endeavour was, many people thought – myself among them – asking Oppy to do the impossible, but she did it, so I can’t imagine anywhere more appropriate for Oppy’s statue to go.

So, why not put it at the top of the hill? Well, if her statue was put at the top, then it would be harder to see. If it’s on that ledge, it will be much more easily visible from the ground, especially when it’s catching the sunlight, and glinting and shining like Edward Cullen on a day out at the beach.

And I base this idea on a very personal experience. As I used to live in Cockermouth, that meant I travelled to and from Keswick many, many times. Between the two towns is a long lake called Bassenthwaite, and on the western side of that lake is a hill called Barf Fell (stop sniggering, American readers, it’s not funny. Okay, it is funny, but behave!) and halfway up that hill is… something white…

For decades visitors to the Lake District, going along that road, have looked up and seen that white…something…and wondered “What the heck/hell/**** is that?” Well, from up close, it is revealed to be this…

… a big, white-painted rock. It’s known locally as “The Bishop’s Rock”, because back in 1783, the Bishop of Londonderry, making his way back home, stopped off at the hostel at the foot of the hill. While he was there he, shall we say, “enjoyed the refreshments available”, a little too much, and ended up making a bet with the locals that he could ride his pony up to the top of Barf. The locals took the bet, so off the sozzled Bishop went, urging his poor pony up the hill.

Now that would be quite an ask for a pony on a grassy hill, but the side of Barf is covered with scree – loose rock – so it was impossible. The poor pony fell, back down the slope, taking the bishop with it. Both died. The rock was placed there to mark the limit of their adventure, and ever since then it has been painted white regularly, by a local who offers to take on the job for free ale from the pub below. It’s quite a tourist attraction now, visile for miles around, and people hike up the hill to have their photos taken beside The Bishop Rock…

So, you see, that’s why I love the idea of future martians placing a statue of Oppy up there, on that Tribulation ledge, to celebrate her amazing life, even if she drives way past it for real and ends up miles away. It would be a wonderful and, I think, very moving sight for martians and visitors from across the solar system to see when they reached the end of the Opportunity Trail from Eagle Crater, their reward for following in Oppy’s tracks…

But that’s for the future. For now, Oppy is alive and kicking, and having the time of her life exploring the rocky rubble strewn around Odyssey Crater. There’ll be more pictures back from her soon, so keep checking back for the latest. 🙂

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6 Responses to In praise of rock

  1. Ben says:

    As a geologist, I truly appreciate your comments, particularly those in this post.
    I have found sadly that most people care little about rocks because they don’t understand the complete story involved in what they are seeing and it is difficult to explain to them so they understand.
    I anticipate a great deal of frustration , even among geologists, looking at the complex melange we see here.
    After all, we are looking at chunks of ejecta from Endeavours ejecta.

    Maybe it will be easier once we can view the primary injecta in place

    Regards, Ben

  2. Harald Wolf says:

    I share your enthusiasm, and very much appreciate all the material you compile for us!
    These rovers are the best ground explorers NASA ever sent off. I am very disappointed they did not leverage their success by replicating them. Imagine if they had sent a dozen to Mars, and maybe a few more to other planets. Of course, with upgraded capabilities, based on what’s been learned from these two. Putting all their (our) eggs into just Curiosity is a huge risk. The complexity of the landing system really concerns me. If it fails, it could be a long long time before the money is put together for another attempt. Well, maybe by the Chinese, but I wouldn’t expect such open access to the data.

  3. Graham Perks says:

    All these photos leave me wanting to understand more of the geological story they are telling people… where can we go for that? Even if the current rocks are embargoed pending some publication, what about the results from Eagle and Victoria craters? It would be great to be able to dig further beyond enjoying the wonderful photos.

  4. Ildiko Ross says:

    Stu, I very much appreciate your full size rock garden composite anaglyph posted on It is an inspiring image. I am seriously considering upgrading my computer to one with the biggest honking screen I can afford, so I can enhance my viewing pleasure! Your public outreach efforts may be lost on some, but not others and that is what is important.

  5. as TS Eliot once said ” only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go”…..

  6. Matt Lenda says:

    Fantastic post.

    Don’t worry, we’re dreaming big — Cape Trib is in our crosshairs. It’ll take a little more of that patience we learned in the Meridiani.


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