BREAKING NEWS – Oppy has driven away from Greeley Haven!
The latest images to come back from Opportunity show that yesterday she drove 3.6m away from Greeley Haven. That’s not much, I know, but it marks the end of the rover’s long Winter stop-over park-up at Greeley Haven, and the start of a whole new phase of the mission. Greeley Haven allowed Opportunity to survive the brutal martian winter, and provided her with solar panel cleaning gusts of wind, but new rocks, new science and new discoveries now await the rover. It’s good to be on the road again!
Yesterday, anticipating this – well, it wasn’t exactly a secret – I thought it would be good to talk to one of the rover team about what was going on, and what was going to happen. And, as usual, they were more than happy to help, answering some email questions even though they were obviously very busy with what was going on. This has been one of the trademarks of the MER mission I think – the way the team behind it have always been so incredibly generous with their time, making sure people who want to engage with the mission, and the people behind it, can.
So, I hope you enjoy this interview with Rover Planner – and all round great guy, I have to add – Paolo Bellutta…
Thanks for agreeing to talk to “Road to Endeavour” Paolo, especially when you’re so busy. First of all, can you tell our readers a little about yourself and your role in the MER mission..?
I am one of the “Rover Planners”. RPs for short are the people responsible for moving the rover and placing the instruments on the IDD (Instrument Deployment Device) in contact with the Martian surface. I joined MER in October 2004 so I missed the initial portion of the mission but have traveled for several Km on Mars and drilled holes on rocks that will probably last thousands of years. Talk about leaving a mark! I’m originally from Italy from a town called Rovereto. The fact my hometown has the word ROVER in it never occured to me until recently. Oh and no jokes about Italian drivers on Mars, please.
Thanks. Before we talk about Opportunity, I know you were very heavily involved in the attempts to free Spirit after she got stuck. What are your memories of that time, and how did it feel having to finally “let go” of Spirit when it became clear there was nothing more anyone could do?
It still hurts. It seems silly but after years of receiving data from the rover, seeing the pictures she took, following her in her Martian exploration, it becomes an extension of yourself. It was like losing a part of me. It was especially hard because after weeks of failed attempts we did find a way to move her but lost the battle due to lack of power from the solar array.
On to happier things! So… Opportunity is about to move again! That’s great news after being parked up at Greeley Haven for so long. I know that was essential, and allowed Oppy to do some great science, but I think many people will be happy our rover is actually roving again. What’s it been like, being a rover driver, but unable to drive anywhere?
Since it is our responsability to place the instruments attached to the robotic arm on various rocks and soils we spent the Martian Winter exploring the bedrock that was in front of the rover. Much like the human arm, the robotic arm has five joints, but the joint that allows the arm to move left to right has stopped working a long time ago. Now we can only place our instruments over a narrow strip of terrain in front of the rover. The uneven surface we had to deal with over Winter made for some seriously challenging activities with some surprises as well.
Before Oppy parked up at Greeley Haven, what were your impressions of Cape York as she headed north, up the spine, from Odyssey Crater? Did it really feel like “a brand new mission”?
The journey from Victoria to Endeavour had a completely different feel but it was mostly because we wanted to get here as soon as possible. The terrain is definitely different but I have my eyes on Cape Tribulation. That will be quite a climb and can’t wait for the beautiful pictures Oppy will take.
When Oppy finally does move again, what are the immediate plans? I gather there’s going to be a small “bump” before she hits the road properly. Where will this bump take her?
The first bump, which should be taking place as I type his, is mostly West to climb off the site we spent Winter. Then we will be heading north/NE to analyze the composition of the soil there. It is often the case that scientists see something unique and plans need to be changed so we need to be flexible so it is possible plans will change.
It’s clear now, from interviews given by senior MER people such as Steve Squyres and John Callas, that after leaving Greeley Haven, Oppy will head north, in search of larger versions of the gypsum vein, “Homestake”. Were you involved in the study of the original “Homestake”? And if so, how? (and be honest, was it fun driving over it like that, and absolutely wrecking it?)
I was involved in lots of driving but I think I missed that part. I was (and am) involved in MSL landing and I had to give up lots of driving shifts.
Ever since we saw that prominent “notch” cut into the NE edge of Cape York, many rover enthusiasts have wanted to get a closer look at it. Is that being planned?
After leaving Cape York, and taking a look at Botany Bay and maybe Nobby’s Head too, Oppy will head for Solander Point and Cape Tribulation. What’s the feeling on the MER team about Oppy’s chances of gaining some real altitude down there? Do you think she can take a leaf out of Spirit’s history book and go climbing?
The DEM (digital elevation model) shows that there should be areas where Oppy could climb but it all depends on the material properties of the terrain. During the years we have traversed varied terrain types and if I learned something is that you need to be constantly on the lookout for trouble.
Curiosity is now closing in on Mars, and her August landing is now just a few months away. Are you going to be involved in that mission? And if so, will you be working on MSL and Oppy at the same time, or will you have to concentrate on Curiosity?
For the past three years I worked on MSL for landing site selection. I was asked to determine the traversability of each of the four final candidate sites (Eberswalde, Gale, Holden, Mawrth) and now I am doing a more detailed analysis to finalize the exact center of the landing ellipse for our next TCM (trajectory correction maneuver).
I was also selected as one of the RPs for MSL. Since part of the prime mission will follow Mars Time this will make it very difficult to switch between rovers and expect to have to abandon Oppy for some time.
Update: Judging from the latest images, which have just come in as I write this, it looks like Oppy has driven away from Greeley Haven. How did it go? And how does it feel to be ‘on the road again’?
I have not looked at everything but what I see is 3.77meters, no errors, the FHAZ and RHAZ show no indication of troublesome terrain. The FHAZ has a new set of tracks, nice and crisp. The RF wheel drive currents are in and are OK for a forward drive. The accels show we are mostly on sand and we still have more than 7 deg of Northerly Tilt. All in all a good drive. Short, but good.
It is good to be on the road. I just hope nobody asks “are we there yet?” Steve said many many times we will work these rovers until the wheels come off.
Thanks for talking to “Road to Endeavour” Paolo!
As a special thank you to Paolo for taking the time to talk to us, here’s one of his favourite photos… in fact Paolo was in charge of guiding Oppy into, and back out of, Victoria Crater…