Record-breaking Oppy on the road again..!


You might be forgiven for thinking that there’s only one “Mars rover” on the Red Planet at the moment. The Mars Science Laboratory rover “Curiosity”has been grabbing the headlines over the past few months, and making some fantastic discoveries, even though it isn’t actually roving much – and I honestly think of it as a mobile laboratory now rather than an actual rover. But MSL isn’t alone on Mars. On the other side of the planet, a smaller, less advanced but much more plucky robot, “Opportunity”, has just driven over and crunched into the cold martian dust a record that has stood for more than three decades. And with a week or so she should smash another record, and go down in the history books as the Most Travelled Rover In Spaceflight History. But more of that later.

Back in August 2011, after a multi-year drive south from Victoria Crater, Opportunity (“Oppy” to her friends!) arrived at Cape York, a small, rocky “island” on the eroded, ancient rim of a much larger crater called Endeavour. Here’s a high resolution view of Cape York, made from images taken by the HiRISE camera onboard the MRO orbiter. South is at the top of the image, and Oppy arrived at this “end” of the Cape, at an area christened “Spirit Point”. She then rolled up onto the Cape and began heading north, exploring as she went…

cy bwIf you have a pair of those old-fashioned red and blue 3D glasses handy, you can put them on now and take a 3D tour of the Cape…  click on the image to enlarge it, as usual…

Cape York in 3D low res

And that’s where Oppy has been for the past couple of years. She’s driven here, there and everywhere on the Cape, as excited as a kid in a zoo,desperate to see and photograph everything. She’s spent all these months studying individual stones, layers of rock, veins of minerals altered by ancient martian water, and more… Here’s where she is today  – driving down the eastern flank of the Cape, and quickly, too…

landfall to may 17Cape York has been a geological treasure trove for Oppy and her team – but it’s time to move on. South of Cape York is an even more intriguing and even more science rich feature of the martian landscape – Cape Tribulation, a range of rolling hills which forms another part of the crater’s ancient rim. Oppy is now heading back down Cape York because she’s going to roll off the Cape, steam south, and drive to and then up onto Cape Tribulation at “Solander Point”…

wideOn her way to Solander Point she might stop briefly at another feature…


…but we’ll have to wait and see. Solander Point is the main prize, and possibly always has been, because MRO’s instruments have detected higher concentrations of clay-rich minerals high up on its slopes than they have found anywhere else on Endeavour’s rugged rim, so that’s where Oppy’s future, and destiny, lays. That’s where she’s heading for as you read this…

pano col5How long will it take her to get there? A few weeks, I think. The rate she’s going  it seems like the drivers have all been to see the latest FAST AND FURIOUS film and are gunning the little rover and putting the proverbial pedal to the metal. So, for the next few weeks we can probably expect to see Oppy racing towards Solander, with the slopes of Cape Tribulation growing closer, and larger up ahead, every day…

And if she gets there – and there’s no guarantee she will, as Mars loves nothing better than killing space probes – then she’ll start to climb, just as her long lost but never-forgotten sister, Spirit, climbed the Columbia Hills of Gusev Crater. How high will she get? We don’t know. But if she gets even just a few hundred metres up those slopes she’ll be able to look out across Endeavour, and down on Cape York, and send us back quite beautiful views…

But back to that record I mentioned. As Oppy began heading south she passed an incredible martian milestone. Sometime on Thursday, Oppy’s total odometry since landing on Mars reached 22.2 miles, or 35.7 km. S0 what? I hear you ask. Well, that broke a long-standing interplanetary distance record, set not by a robot rover but a rover driven by astronauts…

When Apollo 17 landed on the Moon in December 1972 on the final Apollo mission it carried with it the last of the lunar rovers. These spindly looking vehicles looked like a ramshackle arrangement of boxes and wheels held together by some bits of wire and string, but they were very hardy and hard working, and carried their astronaut passengers across the barren lunar landscape for miles and miles…

rover_apollo17During their stay on the Moon, the Apollo 17 LRV carried astronauts Cernan and Schmitt for over 35km, setting a record for the greatest distance travelled by a NASA vehicle on another world. So, when Oppy made her drive on Thursday she broke the Apollo 17 record – an amazing achievement, and one which has been rightly marked and celebrated by NASA with a flurry of press releases and stories online.

But Oppy is now closing in another record – THE record..

This bizarre looking vehicle is the Russian LUNOKHOD 2, a robot rover which landed on the Moon in 1973…


It travelled for 37 kilometres before rolling to a stop. Oppy is now just a couple of drives away from crashing through that record, and when she does there will be much rejoicing, I can tell you! 🙂 And with Solander Point just 2.2km away from where Oppy is now, it surely won’t be long before the champagne bottles are popping at JPL and throughout NASA.

This is further proof, if any were needed, that Opportunity is a remarkable machine, designed, built, launched, landed and driven by remarkable people. This is a machine that has survived for 9 years – 9 years!!! – on a hostile alien world, battling through dust storms, frigid, computer-murdering temperatures, and worse. I have no doubt that in years to come Opportunity’s trek will be celebrated by space historians here on Earth, and by people living on Mars. I’m also sure that in a couple of centuries she will be on display in a museum on Mars, lovingly cleaned of dust and dirt and restored to her shiny fresh-from-the-JPL-clean-room glory, seen by thousands of visitors each long martian year. I’d like to think that some of my astropoetry written about her, and Spirit, will be on display nearby too!

And if that sounds a bit cheesy, a bit over sentimental, well, that’s the way I feel about the two MERs. I genuinely do miss Spirit, and I love following Oppy’s ongoing journey. It seems very real to me, as if I’m there walking alongside her, and I know many people feel the same. I feel just as excited about Oppy’s martian marathon as I did when she landed all those years ago, far more excited and passionate than I do about Curiosity. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because Curioisty isn’t actually, you know, *roving* as I thought she would. I know she’s doing fascinating and historic science, and making discoveries that are re-writing the text books, etc etc, but there’s a nagging voice at the back of my mind that is saying that she should be doing more, seeing more, driving more, because as we all know Mars **hates** visitors from Earth, and tries its best to break and destroy them. Curiosity needs to get a move on, and see new places, study new rocks, DO more. She needs to rove. There’s a ****** great MOUNTAIN behind her, with layers and layers of geological goodness, and between it and Curiosity there are countless fascinating features, but she’s shuffling in place and ignoring them. There are valid scientific reasons I’m sure, but as an “armchair enthusiast” and as someone fascinated by Mars, this lack of activity has meant I haven’t engaged with or embraced MSL as I’d expected and hoped to. Hate to say it, but MSL is boring me. I’m sick of seeing the same horizon, the same rocks, the same dunes.”Been here too long, seen these stones for too long…” I think when I go to the images page and see the same views as yesterday, and the day before, and the day before… Selfish of me I know, and certainly unfair on the hard working and dedicated MSL team, but Curiosity was designed as a *rover*, and so far, let’s be honest, it hasn’t been, it’s been a mobile, second generation Viking lander. It’s leaving me rather cold, I’m afraid. I wish they’d just MOVE the ****** thing, you know? There’s so much more to see at the landing site, so many more fascinating locations to drive to and study.

And behind them, looming over the landing site, is that huge ******* mountain!!!! Get UP there Curiosity!! Just GO!! Ignore your orders from Earth to stay where you are, to take your time, to be cautious and slow, and just start rolling!

I know… they will, eventually. They’ll turn her around and head up into the hills, and we’ll all see those “amazing landscapes” we were told about before launch and landing, then I’ll eat my words. I look forward to that!

But Oppy… Oppy is like a terrier isn’t she? Dashing from place to place, tail wagging, panting “Look at this! Look at this!” excitedly with her first sight of each new view. I can’t wait for her to roll down off Cape York and begin to hare across Botany Bay, preparing for her assault on Cape Tribulation at Solander Point! It’s going to be like a whole new mission! (Again..!)

I hope you’ll follow that new mission with me as it unfolds here. 🙂

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3 Responses to Record-breaking Oppy on the road again..!

  1. Birgit says:

    Well, Stu , a wonderfull Articel over our “Girlfriend ” Oppy——Go, Oppy, go….to shoot off Solander Point !!!!

  2. I’m with you…can’t let Oppy out of my sight now. No, sir. I’m with her to the triumphant end…if she ever has an end to operations. At this rate, I’ll expire before Oppy does! Heheh.

    Thanks again for this blog, Stu. Keep up the great work.


  3. earl weidner says:

    I have a car…that just keeps going…who knows…maybe this vehicle has one or two more large craters in its life line. earl

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