Opportunity pauses at Pillinger Point

Opportunity is sending back some stunning images at the moment, as she drinks in the view high up on the slopes of Solander Point above Endeavour Crater. Here’s the latest mosaic I’ve put together, showing roughly the view north, back downhill towards the Meridiani Plain below and beyond… Please, I beg you, click on it to enlarge it to enjoy it in all its glory…

pano9Isn’t that something? Such a beautiful, beautiful place. And that view… imagine you’re standing there, sweeping your gaze left to right, across the ridges and outcrops, over the rippled dust dunes on the flank of the slope down there, to the hills on the horizon… just gorgeous…

You’ll recall from earlier posts that Oppy has been taking a close look at a rocky ridge which shows some fascinating detail and structure. It looks like it’s made of VERY old martian rock, judging from the amount of weathering it’s undergone, and promises to be an intriguing science target. Photos of the ridge have been coming in thick and fast over the past few days, and here’s my latest mosaic view..

pano4Just take another moment to click on that image and enlarge it and rove your eyes over all the structures there. Imagine running your gloved hands over that rock, feeling, even through their thick, insulated fabric, the bumps and ridges, knobs and nubs, sharp edges and hollows… I bet there are a dozen geologists on the MER team and around the world wishing they could do just that…!

And we now have a name for that rocky ridge, and the MER team have done a wonderful thing here. They have apparently christened it “Pillinger Point”.

If you’re one of the blog’s more, um, mature readers you’ll now be smiling and nodding and thinking to yourself “Oh, yes, very fitting, what a lovely thing to do…” because that name will have struck a chord with you. If you’re just a youngling you’re probably wondering “Why did they call it that..?”

The ridge has been named after a British planetary scientist called Colin Pillinger, who died recently, around a week or so ago actually, and back on Christmas Day in 2003 Colin Pillinger was shown on TVs around the world. Often labelled an “eccentric”, Pillinger was a larger than life figure with great mutton chop sideburns and a broad accent which many – mistakenly – thought made him seem more like a farmer or a Morris Dancer than a hugely accomplished scientist. Today when we think of him we remember him waiting anxiously to hear if the martian lander he had designed and built, “Beagle 2”, had landed safely on Mars and was about to begin its epic quest to look for life there.


I remember that thrilling, ghastly, awful time as if it was yesterday. Here in the UK, Beagle 2 had generated huge excitement. In contrast to the big, bulky Mars Exploration Rovers – due to arrive at and land on Mars at roughly the same time – Beagle 2 was an exquisitely-built pocket watch of a spacecraft…


Designed to unfurl itself from a kind of flying saucer after a landing cushioned by airbags, Beagle’s mission was to use a robot mole to burrow down beneath the surface of Mars and use a suite of sophisticated instruments to test the soil down there for life. To get the probe funded and built, and then taken to Mars, Pillinger had had to fight and fight and fight, but in the end he managed to get it done, and when the Beagle 2 probe finally drifted away from the Mars Express probe on December 19th countless thousands of space fans and astronomers in the UK, and around the world, began to hold their breath, counting d0wn the hours remaining until the landing in the early hours of Christmas Day…


On Christmas Day I – like many other space enthusiasts, I’m sure – watched every TV new bulletin and tuned into every radio news update, hoping to hear that Beagle 2 had phoned home.  I remember sitting on my mum’s stairs between news programmes, with my laptop on my knee, scouring websites for news, ANY news, before returning to the TV, only to be greeted with the sight of Colin Pillinger’s frowning face, telling me in a moment that there was still no word from Mars from “Britain’s plucky little space probe”…

We all went to bed on Christmas night deeply disappointed, but reassured by Pillinger’s optimism. After all, in the days ahead there would be many more opportunities for Beagle to contact Earth.

But as the days passed it became clear that Beagle 2 would not be phoning home. The team, supported by radio telescopes and groups around the world, tried everything they could to hear any whisper from the spaceprobe but the silence was deafening, and eventually the Beagle team had to admit that the probe had been lost. Desperately disappointing for us, but a cruel, crushing blow for Pillinger who had sweated blood and tears to make his dream a reality, and land a British probe on Mars, a probe that could have found life there, if it was there to be found.

Today we still don’t know for sure what happened to Beagle 2. Some think it came in too fast and at the wrong angle and burned up in a fireball way above the surface. Others think its parachutes or airbags failed and it crashed into the surface at high speed, shattering into a million pieces which are now scattered across a wide area, covered in martian dust. Others wonder if it landed perfectly, and unfolded itself from its protective shell, but its radio failed. That would be desperately cruel… to think Beagle 2 landed safely but couldn’t let us know, and couldn’t complete its mission, is heartbreaking, isn’t it..?


So, for the MER team to name this fascinating and beautiful little part of Mars in Pillinger’s honour is a wonderfully fitting and generous thing to do, I think. He’d have liked that.


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1 Response to Opportunity pauses at Pillinger Point

  1. Pingback: Allgemeines Live-Blog ab dem 18. Mai 2014 | Skyweek Zwei Punkt Null

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