Eleven Years On Mars

Eleven years ago today, having already celebrated the arrival of the MER rover “Spirit” on Mars, countless thousands of people around the world held their breath as they followed the landing of her sister rover. I remember it like it was yesterday, sitting in front of my PC, watching events unfold over a dial-up connection on a tiny RealPlayer window, which kept freezing and rebuffering and breaking up into a kaleidescope of pixels before steadying again. I sat there, a nervous wreck, imagining Opportunity plunging through the thin martian air beneath a parachute, then bouncing and boinging across the rocky surface before coming to a halt, and when news came through that she had landed safely, and mission control erupted in howls of celebration and too many hugs and high fives to count, I’m not ashamed to say I blubbed with relief and delight. Two rovers on Mars! In my lifetime! TWO!

When the first pictures came in they were initially baffling…

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What the..? We know now, of course, that in an amazing cosmic “hole in one” Opportunity had landed inside a small crater, Eagle Crater, and when she opened her eyes and turned hear head around she found, unbelievably, impossibly, wonderfully, an outcrop of ancient martian bedrock right in front of her!

In the heady days which followed, Oppy explored that outcrop and then drove out of the crater. As she emerged from it we all wondered what the future would bring for her. We hoped that Opportunity and Spirit might last several months on the Red Planet, and in that time manage to drive a kilometre or so from their landing sites. Ok, it was optimistic, but we were on a post-landing high…

Eleven years later Spirit is, alas, no longer with us. But Opportunity is still roving Mars, still exploring, still making discoveries. Eleven years after landing, the rover which was “doing a science” on Mars long before that annoying hipster term was even thought up is, as you read this, having crossed deserts, explored craters, survived dust storms and computer glitches, descending from the summit of a mountain, heading towards a valley cut into the side of Endeavour crater which many think will turn out to be a scientific wonderland, possibly the most exciting and important place she will ever visit. The valley has been christened “Marathon Valley” because it lies a marathon’s distance from the rover’s landing site.

Opportunity has come such a long way, and her view has changed so much in eleven years…

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We’re all busy, we all have crazy busy lives, and everyone reading this will have a million things to do today. But if you can, take a moment during the day to just stop and think about what a magnificent achievement this is, for the rover itself and the incredible team of men and women behind her.And if you get the chance, go out after sunset, look to the west and look for Mars shining there in the twilight, an orange spark of light to the upper left of beautifully brilliant Venus…

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…and give Opportunity a nod and a smile, and congratulate her, and her team, on a magnificent achievement. I know I will.

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One Response to Eleven Years On Mars

  1. Tom says:

    Amazing….
    (and thanks for the continuing coverage!) 🙂

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