She did it. Opportunity did it. She reached the top of Cape Tribulation, and is now looking down from the summit, with gorgeous views of the rim of Endeavour on the farside of the crater and of her tracks leading back down the hill to the great Merdiani Plain far below.
I know others will do much better – and I’ll as them nicely if I can show their images here – I stitched together a crude (and by crude I mean VERY crude!) panorama of her view from the top…
Look at that… just look at that… Just stop and think for a moment about what a truly epic journey Opportunity has had to get to this place, high above Barsoom. She landed in Eagle Crater – that famous “cosmic hole in one” – with that layer of precious bedrock exposed in the crater wall, right in front of her nose, and then she went on a glorious road trip across Meridiani, travelling farther, doing more, seeing more, than anyone dared imagine might be possible. She crossed that unforgiving dune sea to reach Victoria Crater, then drove into it to study its crumbling cliffs. Leaving Victoria, she headed for a pair of bumps on the faraway horizon – another crater, called “Endeavour”, which was so far away many thought there was no chance of her even getting halfway to it. But Oppy proved them wrong. Hopscotching between one small crater after another, slogging through dust dunes, surviving dust storms and everything Mars could throw at her she eventually reached Cape York and rolled up onto it to begin her study of Endeavour, finding there a whole treasure chest of exotic rocks and minerals, including a striking vein of gypsum which left the scientists drooling. Leaving Cape York she headed south again, trundling towards the base of the great range of hills which forms the south western rim of the crater. Eventually she rolled up onto Solander Point, and started to drove up it, climbing a little higher each day. Slowly she worked her way up the slope, studying a whole host of rocks, boulders, ridges and outcrops as she ascended, until she approached the summit…
Now she is there, standing on that summit. And I make no apology for repeating the statistics because they are jaw dropping. Opportunity would, it was hoped, survive for 90 days on the surface of Mars before the hostile environment killed her. It was hoped that in that time she might, possibly, perhaps, drive as far as a kilometre from her original landing site. Eleven years later… eleven YEARS… as you read this, on your phone, laptop, tablet or PC, this truly incredible rover is not only still working, but she has travelled almost 42 km across the Red Planet and is now standing on a rocky ledge high above the surface of Mars. If you don’t think that’s an amazing achievement, if that doesn’t leave you shaking your head on wonder, then you’re made of stone, I swear.
Yesterday the MER team released some images which showed a close-up of part of the rover’s robot arm…
I took the b&w colour filter images and combined them to make a single colour image…
“So what?” some of you might be asking. Others will look at that image and feel the hairs on the backs of their necks rising, because they know that that small piece of metal with the Stars and Stripes design on it was machined from metal recovered from the tangled and scorched wreckage of the World Trade Centre, destroyed by terrorists in 2001.
So, on one level, that image represents Opportunity following in the footsteps of generations of brave explorers and mountaineers by planting her nation’s flag on the summit of the pea she has just conquered. Which is pretty cool by itself – a robot triumphantly planting a flag on the top of a hill on another world! It will be generations before a human being does that!
But on another level, that image represents much, much more than a simple flag-raising. It shows defiance and the triumph of intellect and science over the forces of ignorance and fundamentalism. This is a very dangerous, dark time for the world, I think most people feel that. The news is full of pain, death and bloodshed every day, and it’s hard not to feel like we’re standing in the shadow of a great storm that’s advancing relentlessly towards us. But as hooded terrorists were mercilessly slaughtering people in France, and holding others hostage, spreading fear and despair, on another world, halfway across the solar system, a piece of a building destroyed by other terrorists was being proudly and defiantly held aloft by a robot, proof that these insane, mad dogs will never win. They want to plunge the world into a new Dark Age of fear, repression and ignorance, but when they look up at the sky on a clear night they’ll see the space station crossing the sky, a lantern of science and technology drifting through the heavens, and there’s nothing they can do about it. They want to drown the world in their hateful dogma, superstition and ignorance, but that picture taken by Opportunity shows them that their beliefs, their worship of violence and terror will never win, not when there are men and women in the world who dedicate their lives to furthering knowledge for the benefit of all, who built a robot, sent it to Mars, and guided it up a mountain. They want to turn off the lights of intellect and science, and plunge the world into darkness, but every fiery rocket launch, every image taken of Saturn by CASSINI, every metre driven by Opportunity, every portrait of the universe painted by the cameras of the Hubble Space Telescope pushes back that darkness. For every bullet they fire in hatred a thousand computer keyboard keys are tapped by people dedicated to helping others and advancing science and knowledge, searching for a cure for cancer, or designing a faster computer, or teaching children how to read. For every hostage they kill, a million people turn away from them, look up at the sky, and dream of a future free of their beliefs and violence.
And every time the terrorists look out across the desert in hatred, dreaming their dreams of turning a small part of the world into a scientific wilderness ruled by tyranny and fear, feeling hatred for anyone who doesn’t share their views, beliefs or vision, hundreds of miles above their heads an astronaut will be floating in the cupola of the ISS, gazing down in wonder at the whole world, burning blue and green and white in the blackness of space, feeling nothing but love and hope.
So that image doesn’t just show Oppy planting a flag on Mars, it shows the forces of good, and reason, giving the finger to the terrorists and their beliefs. Unintentionally, but that’s exactly what it does.
So, today, Opportunity stands proudly on the top of Cape Tribulation, taking a well-deserved breather after her hard climb. I’m sure the HiRISE camera of the MRO probe will take a picture of her, showing her as a little dot on the summit, which will become a classic, iconic image overnight. It will show Oppy standing there alone – but she isn’t, not really. Because although they won’t be on the photo, and she can’t see them herself, there are thousands of people standing there on that hilltop with Oppy, and their footprints run alongside Oppy’s wheeltracks all the way back down to the plains below, all the way back to Eagle crater in fact. Because Oppy is the flame burning brightly at the tip of a towering candle. Standing beside Oppy today, in spirit, are the men and women who designed and built her; the software engineers who programmed her; the people who sewed together the fabric of her balloons and airbags; the people who built the rocket which sent her from Earth to Mars; the flight team who guided her to Mars; the EDL team which landed her safely on Mars, dropping her into Eagle Crater on that wonderful day; the MER rover drivers who steered and guided her so carefully across the surface of Mars, and many, many more.
And of course, Oppy is also surrounded by countless thousands of rover enthusiasts who have followed her mission from the start.
I’m there with them, standing right next to Oppy, with my hand resting on her back, so proud of her, and all her team, past and present, that I could burst.
In a hundred years time, when humans have finally reached and begun to settle Mars, when Opportunity, brushed clean and polished until she shines, is on display in The Museum of Mars, there will be a statue of her on this very spot at the summit of Cape Tribulation, showing her looking out across the crater, back across the great Meridiani Plain, towards Eagle Crater. But she won’t be on her own then, either; standing beside her will be a statue of Steve Squyres, his hand resting on her back, smiling that wry cowboy smile of his, quietly proud of his trusty rover. Tourists visiting Endeavour, following “The Opportunity Trail”, will climb up Tribulation and have their photos taken with the pair, posing beside their statues, before continuing on south towards Marathon Valley. And for years to come the two of them, inseparable, will be the first to see the Sun rise over the crater’s rim and the last to see it set behind it.
Whatever you do today, however busy your day is, however dark and troubled you might feel after the terrible events of this past week, just take a moment to go outside, look at the sky, and remind yourself that we live in a time, and in a world, where there are people from different countries, religions and beliefs living and working together peacefully in space, where there are footprints on the Moon, and where a robot which refuses to die has climbed a mountain on Mars.