Opportunity Climbs On…

sunrise

Apologies for the lack of updates recently – if you’re a regular reader who’s bothered by their absence, that is. It’s always nice to be missed, but some people take a real huff if I don’t add posts for a while, so I hope they haven’t been too inconvenienced, but occasionally real life takes over and I have to do real life stuff, you know, holidays, writing for publishers, WORK, etc… – but back now with an update on what our favourite plucky martian rover has been up to.

Over the past few days Oppy has actually reached a major milestone in her mission, which is now over a decade long don’t forget. When we last looked in on her, Oppy was making steady progress up the slope of Solander Point, just rolling slowly but surely on her way, up and away from the crater floor scrunching across the rocky ground towards a high point in the local landscape. She has just reached that high point, and the view is… well, I’ll come to that shortly. Time for a quick recap, I think…

Let’s go back a in time, almost exactly three years ago to mid April 2011, to when Oppy was just approaching Endeavour Crater, having successfully crossed the great Meridiani Desert after her exhaustive survey of Victoria Crater, a journey many (including me, sometimes) thought she would never complete. On the horizon, up ahead, she could see these hills…

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Those hills marked the rim of Endeavour Crater, and at that time they still seemed impossibly far away. How wonderful, we all thought, it would be to see them up closer! But never mind…

Well, as history shows, not only did Oppy reach those hills just four months later, but she drove past them before beginning her exploration of Endeavour Crater on the small rocky “island” of Cape York, and looking south as she rolled up onto Spirit Point, Oppy sent back views of those hills – now to her south instead of up ahead! – which were just spectacular…

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Oppy then spent a good – a very good! – year trundling around Cape York, studying its rocks, craters and ledges, and trashing gypsum veins, then rolled off it again and headed south, for those beckoning hills. It was a big ask of a little rover which had already achieved so much, surviving dust storms, computer glitches and technical gremlins, but the potential discoveries to be made up in those hills – large deposits of clay-bearing minerals had been detected there by orbiting spacecraft – meant it was the obvious thing to do. So, off Oppy set, heading south, and after rounding “Knobby’s Head” she rolled triumphantly up onto the gentle ramp marking the base of the hills – “Solander Point”. Since then she has climbed up that slope, slowly, steadily, surely, and with each week the view around, behind and ahead of her has grown more and more beautiful. A couple of weeks ago, this is what she was seeing…

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Look at that… in the distance, on the horizon, that’s the OTHER SIDE of Endeavour Crater, more than 20km away, and in the foreground a wealth of weathered slabs, plates, chunks and outcrops of ancient martian rock glows in the martian sunlight… And looking over her shoulder, back to where she had come from, Oppy saw this…

up

… her own wheel tracks leading down Solander, back to The World Below…

Since then as Oppy’s height has increased her view has improved accordingly, and at the beginning of last week she was approaching that aforementioned high point in the local terrain. This was the scene which now lay ahead of her…

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…and many rover watchers looking at those photos spotted that there was something very dramatic and important coming into view. Not much to look at yet, admittedly, just a “something else” poking its head up from behind the summit of the hill up ahead, but that something else was… incredible…

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That, circled, is the closest part of Cape Tribulation, the rover’s Promised Land, where we think those clay-bearing minerals are waiting for her. After all the months of slogging, all the years of driving wearily across the desert, she’s almost there, almost there, and that’s an amazing achievement.

Take a look at where Oppy is now (roughly, this is just my best guess)…

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But it’s only when you look at the bigger picture it becomes clear just what an achievement this is…

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So what Oppy was seeing, poking over the horizon at the top of the hill, was the northern slope of Cape Tribulation, beckoning to her…

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Over the next couple of days the view opened up even more. Unfortunately I couldn’t enjoy the grand unveiling properly because I was only able to access the rover’s images on my phone whilst on holiday, away from WiFi, but they looked tantalising enough even on my Samsung’s screen. Now I’m home I can enjoy them properly, and make them into panoramas like this one (which is a BIG pic, so click on it to enlarge and explore it properly) showing what Oppy herself was seeing…

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And then, suddenly, a couple of days ago, the ground ahead of Oppy dropped away and there it was, inviting Oppy to explore a whole new geological wonderland of ledges, outcrops and more – Cape Tribulation…

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A closer look…

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Would you like to see that in colour? Of course you would… here, let me show you…

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Isn’t that something? Isn’t that incredible! Opportunity was famously sent to Mars in the hope of lasting 90 days on the surface, and driving for a kilometre, before dying. Ten years – ten YEARS!!!! – and more than 30km later, she’s still going strong, still roving Mars, still exploring, still sending us back stunning sights like these to enjoy.

Opportunity is now up on the tops of the hills she saw on the horizon three years ago. Just think about that for a moment. This little rover is climbing a mountain on Mars, something she was never designed to do.

And this is why, after all these years, after all the kilometres, I still love Opportunity and her mission the way I do. The “other rover” on Mars, the nuclear-powered Curiosity rover, gets way more press attention and praise and support than little Opportunity, which strikes me as grossly unfair. I’m not saying MSL’s isn’t an amazing mission, because it is: Gale Crater is a magnificent place, and the images Curiosity is sending back every day are stunning. But Opportunity has done literally incredible things on Mars, and continues to do so, and WILL continue to do so as long as she survives. ( Unbelievably, her survival isn’t just a matter of how long she lasts physically, but how long she is *allowed to last* by the politicians and bean counters who control her funding. There’s actually a possibility that Oppy could be switched off, while still working perfectly, just to save money… doesn’t the thought of her being turned off while still capable of roving and doing great science, and making more amazing discoveries, just make you feel sick and mad and more? I know it does me…)

For me, these pictures capture the sheer romance and adventure of Oppy’s epic, wheel-torturing trek across Barsoom. I am so proud of that rover, and the teams of men and women behind it, some of whom I have been lucky enough to correspond with and even meet, that I could burst.

Having followed Oppy from construction through to her launch, and having walked virtually alongside her every step of the way every day for the past ten years, I feel a very strong personal connection to her and the teams behind her, much more than I do, and probably ever will, for Curiosity to be honest. I don’t feel the same connection with her. It’s not the rover’s fault – it’s a technological marvel, and has already made some outstanding discoveries, and every day sends back images more stunning than the day before – and it’s nothing to do with her landing site either, which is simply stunning. To be honest, my passion for Curiosity’s mission was snuffed out very early in the mission, and some people know how. I stopped writing my blog about Curiosity, haven’t touched it since, and now, while I still follow Curiosity daily, and marvel at her pictures, the mission itself just leaves me feeling cold and unmoved. Which is wrong, I know, and probably stupid too, some people reading this will think, and it’s not a big deal to or for anyone else, but it’s the way I feel. The MSL mission was essentially ruined for me soon after landing, and for me when I hear the words “the Mars rover” I think of Opportunity, not Curiosity.

But that’s not a bad thing! To me Oppy will never be second best, will never be in Curiosity’s bizarrely-shaped shadow. Nobody puts Oppy in a corner! She’s more of a robot heroine than Curiosity will ever be, and I’ll continue to walk alongside her every sol, with one hand resting on her back as she trundles on uphill and down valley, seeking out new discoveries and new science, as long as she possibly can.

If it’s clear tonight where you are, go outside after dark and look for Mars, shining in the sky like an orange-red star. And think, just for a moment, about Oppy, standing there on her lonely, windswept, frozen hilltop, high up on the edge of a huge impact crater, still roving, still taking and sending back beautiful photos ten years after she should have died.

And if you feel moved to do so, whisper a gentle “Thank you…” to her across all those millions of miles of space. It’s the least you can do.

 

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3 Responses to Opportunity Climbs On…

  1. Reblogged this on goodenoughmarc and commented:
    Thank you

  2. tdlam says:

    Fantastic Stu!
    Nicely written and good to see you back again.

    All the best

  3. Pingback: Allgemeines Live-Blog ab dem 23. April 2014 | Skyweek Zwei Punkt Null

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