Postcards home…

Opportunity is continuing to work her way down and around “Nobby’s Head”, en-route to Solander Point, which we can think of as the rocky ramp up onto Cape Tribulation. As she trundles on her way she’s sending back a steady stream of images, which show this little rocky island is an interesting place in its own right, not just something in the way as she scoots south towards the high hills of Tribulation with their clay treasures. Here are some views I’ve put together from the images sent back…

3d1Untitled-4Untitled-3I like to think of these views as postcards sent back to Earth by Oppy from Mars. ( I almost typed “sent home” then, which would have been wrong, because Mars is Oppy’s home; she’s been on the Red Planet for longer than she was on Earth. Now there’s a thought…) Beautiful, aren’t they? No, I don’t mean my image processing efforts, haha! I mean the changing views, the way every day Oppy shows us something different.

And I think this is one of the main reasons why I love the MER mission so much – it really is like being there, on Mars, exploring it for ourselves isn’t it? Almost every day the view changes, the horizon shifts, features fall away behind us, others appear up ahead. It really does feel like we’re walking alongside her as she explores the ancient, eroded rim of Endeavour Crater, hearing the rocks crack and pop beneath her wheels, seeing what she sees. It feels, and has always felt, ever since Landing Day – now almost a decade ago! – that we are travelling, and exploring, and loving every moment of it.

And I think this is why I just haven’t connected to the mission of the Mars Science Laboratory rover “Curiosity” as much. Or, if I’m honest, at all. It might be unkind and unfair to say it, but it just doesn’t feel like a rover. Now, before anyone throws their arms up in indignation and tells me how it’s a totallty different mission, with different goals, different schedule etc, I KNOW ALL THAT, OK?! 🙂 I’m just trying to explain why I feel differently about it.

I fully realise and accept that MSL’s mission is to very slowly, very painstakingly, study its landing site and do serious, heavy science there. It’s a much more sophisticated vehicle than Oppy, with a state of the art scientific payload which makes Oppy’s look like a toy chemistry set by comparison. And as it’s nuclear powered rather than solar powered it can afford to be patient, it has time very much on its side. And obviously, there’s no point dashing to the beautifully layered foothills of Mt Sharp – that great whopping big mountain that’s been staring over its shoulder ever since landing day – when there’s absolutely fascinating geology right beneath and arounds its wheels.

And the clue is in the name, isn’t it? Oppy is a MER, a Mars EXPLORATION ROVER. It’s on Mars to explore, and to rove. Oppy’s a wide-eyed young geologist, fresh out of college and on her first solo field trip, dropped into the middle of a fascinating rocky landscape with a camera, a magnifying glass, a hammer, a canteen full of water and a packet of sandwiches. There’s so much to see! So much to do! So much to explore! Every day she wakes up, looks out of her tent and smiles, impatient to pull on her boots, pull down her tent and get going again, to see new rocks, see new things, reach the horizon and go over it…

Curiosity is an MSL, a Mars SCIENCE LABORATORY. She’s a professor, older, wiser, with a rucksack stuffed full of expensive, complicated equipment. Dropped into the same desert she feels no need to rush, no sense of urgency. The horizon is just the line Nature’s drawn between the land and the sky, and the rocks at her feet look interesting enough to study without having to drive miles to see others which are probably just the same anyway. She’s happy to set up her tent and live in it for weeks at a time, studying the rocks around it in minute detail, bringing some of them back to her tent to look at them in even greater detail, analysing them and looking deep inside them. She’ll move on when she’s ready, but there’s no rush, is there..?

Two rovers, two very different missions, two very different petsonalities.


Curiosity doesn’t feel like a rover. At all. Not to me, anyway. I think of Curiosity as, basically, Viking 2.0 on wheels. It’s not a rover, it’s a sophisticated science laboratory that can change position on Mars.

Which is fine, I have absolutely no problem with that, and am happy to acknowledge that Curiosity has already made some astounding discoveries, carried out spectacular science, and confirmed previous results and theories. It’s a scientific marvel, and I have nothing but praise and respect for it, its designers and science team.

But… it’s just not moving me, it’s just not grabbed my heart, it’s just not inspired me as much as Oppy continues to do so, that’s all I’m saying.

It’s not that I’m bored by it – I could never feel bored by new pictures of Mars! – but I have something of a feeling of indifference towards it. I think it’s the lack of movement, the lack of any sense of exploration that’s turned me off it. Everything Curiosity has done it’s done in almost painfully slow motion – necessary, I realise, to ensure its science is sound and everything works as it needs to – and that’s been less than inspiring. Curiosity didn’t bloody move for AGES, just showed us the same rocks, the same dust dunes and the same skyline for weeks, and that meant I just didn’t become engaged with the mission. Maybe that’s a personal failing, perhaps I’m too impatient. Or maybe being such a devout follower of Oppy has spoiled me – I’ve grown used to the scenery changing almost every day as Oppy rolls around Meridiani. If Oppy’s view is a bit yawnsome one day, it doesn’t matter because it’s a pretty safe bet that her view will be much more exciting the next. With Curiosity, the view hasn’t changed much, really, since her landing day. And yeah, hand on heart, that’s left me feeling a bit cold.

No doubt when Curiosity finally lifts her eyes up from the ground at Gale Crater, and heads in earnest for the foothills of Mt Sharp, and the view starts changing, my interest levels will climb (shallow, I know!) and when she starts trundling up and through those twisting, winding canyons, and driving into and out of the long shadows of those towering, crumbling buttes up there on the mountain’s flank – which NASA went to great pains to point out to us and drool over in the first post-landing images – I’ll be checking for new images hourly. But at the moment I’m just not into Curiosity. My heart belongs to Oppy.

And that’s why I’m still writing this blog, all these years after starting it. I almost feel an obligation to Oppy, and her team, past, present and future. While she’s got electricity running through her, while her wheels are turning and her cameras are clicking I’ll walk alongside her, hand on her side, keeping her company. What else can I do? She’s shown me such amazing, beautiful sights on Mars. Thanks to her, looking through her eyes, I’ve seen the crumbling cliffs of Victoria Crater burning orange at sunset. I’ve seen candyfloss peach-coloured clouds drifting silently through the butterscotch-hued sky. I’ve watched dust devils whirl and twirl like dervishes across the far horizon. I’ve seen Barsoom’s twin moons skate across the heavens.

Oppy has taken me to Mars, a place I’ve ached to go to ever since I was an awkward, quiet, shy seven year old kid, hiding in a shadowy corner of the school library at playtime, silently devouring science books instead of going outside and playing football with everyone else.

I owe her.

Far behind us now – Eagle Crater, Victoria Crater and Cape York. Up ahead – Solander Point and Cape Tribulation. The adventure continues. New horizons and new discoveries await.

And all we have to do is keep walking.


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5 Responses to Postcards home…

  1. mkg says:

    Thanks for that!
    I am scientist and nevertheless feel like you, it is the emotional bit which strikes me.
    Keep your blog going, I will follow!

  2. Birgit says:

    Yes, Stu, do you speak from my Heart…….

  3. Paul McCarthy says:

    Yeah, you really nail it with some of this stuff mate. A great, honest, there-in-the-flesh, first-person style that very-much encapsulates what some of us privileged illuminati feel about this (these) odyssey(s). I’m a geologist – and you’re dead right about that sense of experiencing virtually the crunch of the rocks beneath one’s feet – on another planet! Truly amazing. What a pity the masses can’t understand, better, what an absolute miracle they’re missing out on; probably the most inspiring and impressive thing in their lifetime. What a shame.

  4. J.L. says:

    What you said is probably a reason why you stopped writing on The Gale Gazette, and you know that Curiosity is already exploring Mount Sharp at this moment.

    • phoenixpics says:

      Partly that, and partly, to be honest, I got bored with it, and disillusioned too; after all the astrobiology build-up, suddenly that aspect of the mission was being totally swept under the carpet and it became another geology mission. I love Mars, as you’ll know from my writing, but really, we need to stop doing geology and start doing astrobiology on there. I still keep an eye on MSL, some beautiful landscapes pop into view now and again, but it just doesn’t grab me.

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