The Journey to Whim Creek

As the great, much-missed Sam Beckett used to say after each Quantum Leap…

Oh Boy

We’re there. We’re finally there. Unbelievable. Just… fantastic!

Where are we? Where have we finally reached? Whim Creek, the bizarre, what-the-hell-is-THAT? v-shaped wound in the north eastern edge of Cape York. And it’s been worth the wait. Oh yes!

Whim Creek has called out to rover fans and MER scientists alike for YEARS now. Way back all those years ago, when Opportunity turned her back on the bays, cliffs and layers of Victoria Crater and headed off into the great Meridiani Desert, driving south into that great expanse of dust dunes, with rocky outcrops weeks and sometimes months apart, we knew where she was heading: Endeavour Crater, a multi-year drive away. Many people following the mission thought it was a brave but ultimately doomed effort. After all, Endeavour was ridiculously far away from Victoria, and reaching it would mean many months of hard slog across the unforgiving desert, with Death always just a few feet behind the rover, waiting, biding its time, ready to slash through Oppy with its scythe without a moment’s notice. Many thought that before she got even halfway to Endeavour Oppy would die, the victim of a software failure, a mechanical problem or the sheer hostile nature of the martian environment. But, ever the optimists, and with their confidence in Opportunity as strong as ever, the MER team pointed her towards Endeavour and told her to get going. They even selected a place on the crater’s ancient, eroded rim where she’d make ‘landfall’ at the end of her journey – a small ‘island’ of rock christened “Cape York”. If – when – she reached the Cape, Oppy would drive to the southern end of the island and make landfall at a place called “Spirit Point”, named in honour of her sister rover.

With a landfall site selected, we all started researching Cape York, zooming in on HiRISE images of Endeavour’s rim to take a closer look at where we were headed. And Cape York looked fascinating..!

Even a quick look at Cape York shows several eye-catching features…

And right from the start that strange… notch…thing… at the top of the Cape got many of us excited. For one thing, the size of it was intriguing. Here you can see it shown at the same scale as Kendal Castle and Trafalgar Square…

On colour HiRISE images it stood out even more…

What WAS that? A geological fracture, a sign of some weakness in the rock beneath the surface of Cape York? A small valley? The impact site of a meteorite that came in at a low angle and scraped and rolled and barrelled across Cape York before coming to a stop? Soon it had various nicknames – “The Notch”, “The Dagger”, “The Wound”, and as Opportunity worked her way south, Victoria Crater shrinking behind her and then vanishing beneath the horizon, we kept going back to the strange feature, again and again, hoping with crossed fingers that one day we would get to see it from the edge.

Why? Why did we find it so fascinating? Why was it calling out to us so loudly? Because it’s different, I think that’s the reason. This part of Mars is very… smooth… very eroded. There are lots of curves, and circles, nothing much that’s jagged or straight. But this… thing… this was like nothing else we’d seen before. It really did look like some giant axe had slammed down on Cape York’s edge, digging into the rock and hacking out a wedge of the stone, leaving behind a dark, deep wound…

Whatever it was, eventually it was given a name -“Whim Creek” – and we looked at it on new HiRISE images of the Cape, hoping against hope that one day Oppy would drive up to it and show us what the hell it was…

Well, yesterday Oppy did just that. Having crossed the dust dune desert, and driven up the spine of Cape York to its very northern edge, she has now dropped down to the Cape’s lower ground again and has reached “Whim Creek”. In fact, not content to just reach it, she’s now driven across it, to the other side..!

But let’s backtrack a little, just a couple of days. Before reaching the Creek, Oppy drove close to a crater called Sao Gabriel, and took some colour filter images of it. Here’s a colour view I made, out of those images…

Having taken that close look at SG, Oppy then swivelled around and headed for Whim Creek, which had been visible over to the left of the crater while those images were being taken.

Now, bear in mind that at this point we – and by “we” I mean the unashamed rover-hugging community, the most rabid followers of the MER mission – had been hoping to see Whim Creek for the best part of three years, so we were really, really impatient and excited to see what it would actually look like “from the ground”. From orbit it had looked like a steep-sided, sharp v-shaped valley cut out of the Cape’s rocky edge. What would it look like from right up beside it???


…and in 3D, well, just remarkable… (click on it to enlarge it then just spend a while wandering around it…)

So, we were finally there! Had it been worth the wait? Worth the lon drive? Absolutely! Ok, so it’s *not* a deep, sharp-edged crack or fissure, but it is an intriguing feature, and a very picturesque one, and I’m sure the MER geologists, and geologists around the world, are looking at these images and smiling from ear to ear. I look forward to reading soon just what Whim Creek *is* – once they’ve figured it out…

We learned at the end of last week that Oppy was going to be commanded to drive across Whim Creek, but I thought that would be after a few days – at least – of studying it from the edge. But going online an hour ago I saw images which showed that Oppy has *already* driven across the Creek…

…and is now on the other side, enjoying this beautiful view right down the eastern flank of the Cape, to the higher hills further south…

You know, this is one of the reasons why I love the MER mission so much. It really is a journey across the surface of an alien world, a journey which takes us to new places and shows us new things again and again. Like any good adventurer or traveller, Opportunity always has one eye on the landscape around her, delighting in the scenery, and the other eye on the horizon, impatient to be on her way again and seeing the *next* wonderful, strange, new thing.

As Curiosity closes in on Mars, and the world’s media and spaceflight enthusiasts turn their attention to her, and look forward to her landing, and the dramatic arrival of a rover on Mars, these beautiful images of a strangely familiar place on Mars are a timely reminder that there is already a rover on Mars, and she’s doing just fine, thank you…! 🙂

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2 Responses to The Journey to Whim Creek

  1. earl weidner says:

    thanks for your presentations…they are quality indeed.

  2. Astro0 says:

    Stu, will you start a Road to Mt Sharp blog? That would be awesome!!!!

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