The story is well known by now, but never grows old. When Opportunity landed on Mars in January 2004, bouncing across the rocky surface of Barsoom cocooned in her plump orange airbags, everyone hoped she would be able to drive as far as 1km during her expected lifespan of 90 days. Some dared hope she might drive farther, live longer, but they were in a minority.
Ten years later, Opportunity is still roving Mars. After forging her way across the great Meridiani dust desert, ploughing through its endless, rippled dune sea, after driving to, into and out of Victoria Crater, and after pushing onwards to reach Endeavour Crater, she hauled herself up onto the natural ramp of Solander Point and then started to climb, working her way slowly up the huge crater’s ancient rim, climbing higher, ever higher, above the dusty plain.
The plan is for Oppy to reach the top of the hills, circled in red on that image above, then drop down the other side and head for a notch in the crater rim christened “Marathon Valley”, a place where orbiting probes have detected deposits of clay-rich minerals…
That should happen in the New Year. More recently, in advance of that – the achievement, like the rover itself, all but ignored by NASA – Opportunity rolled silently but triumphantly through the 41km mark. And as if that wasn’t remarkable enough, she is now within sight, and reach, of the very highest point on the side of the crater she is exploring. She can now see the summit of the Tribulation range up ahead…
…and it would be a very foolish person indeed who would suggest she isn’t going to roll up onto that summit some time before Christmas. It’s impossible to over-state just how big a deal this is, and what a huge achievement it will be for the rover and the magnificent team behind it. When she reaches the summit, Oppy will be at her highest possible vantage point on Mars; she will never be able to climb higher, or see farther, even if she lives long enough to drive down the other side of the hills and trek across country to another crater and climb that. Oppy will reach her summit very soon, and when she does no doubt she will, like any good walker or climber, stop, take a deep breath and look around her, drinking in the view.
She will send back images from the top of her mountain which will, when assembled into a panorama, give us all back here on Earth a bird’s eye view of Barsoom. And if NASA doesn’t make a big deal out of it – no, a HUGE deal – well, shame on them.
Keep checking back here for updates on Oppy’s progress towards the summit!