A magical place…

I’ve been writing this blog a long time… a loooooooooooooooong time… and seen, and made, a lot of Opportunity’s images of Mars in that time. Being totally honest, some days the images leave me feeling a bit “Hmmmm, ok…” and I can’t really do much with them. But every now and then I go online, bring up Midnight Planets or Exploratorium (hey, I’m a creature of habit, what can I say?) and see a set of the “raw” black and white images that I know can be turned into something special. That was the case yesterday, when these came back…

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As Sam Beckett used to say…. “Oh boy…”

A little bit of processing work later, those nine black and white images had turned into these colour images…

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Then it was time to stitch them together to make a single panoramic image…

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When that took shape on my laptop screen I sat back in my chair and genuinely let out a deep breath. Look… at… that…. I thought, gaze sweeping over the image, moving from Marathon Valley and up the ridges on the other side, look… at… that

It’s images like that which make me fall in love with Mars all over again – the brutal geology of the ancient landscape, painted by a besotted Nature with a palette of burning cinnamons, rusts and ochres. And it’s images like that that show the absolute folly of killing Oppy before her time. How could people even think for a moment of switching off something which can send back such inspiring, exciting portraits of another world? A world it will be, at very best, several decades before any humans ever visit it? I wish I could lock all the politicians and NASA people involved in this budgetary game of chicken in a bare room, sit them around a table and tell them they’re not coming out until they grow up and find the money to ensure Oppy’s future.

Because Opportunity isn’t just a machine, blindly wandering around Mars taking pretty pictures – it’s US. It’s our eyes on Mars, and carries our hearts and souls with it too. It is often said in science articles that “The first man or woman to walk on Mars is running around a playground somewhere today”. Well, that may be true, but until they set foot on the red planet they have a helluva lot of growing up to do, and it will be a generation before they step down from their lander, plant a flag in the orange dirt and wave at all the folks back home. Until then, our robots will do the job, and an incredible eleven years after landing Opportunity must be, must be the most successful robot ever to travel to Barsoom. The thought of bean counters and politicians ending her mission with a scratch of a pen or the tap of a few computer keys makes me want to punch this screen, it really does. If she is to die, let her die at the hands of Mars, not to save money to go to other missions.

They, of course, will have their own fierce supporters, and their science teams will be every bit as passionate about them as the MER team is about theirs, but I am loyal to Opportunity, and will always champion her, no matter what. So I dedicate this portrait of Mars to each and every one of the incredible men and women who has ever worked on the MER mission, everyone, from The Man, PI Steve Squyres (who, by the way, will be interviewed on this blog soon) to the rover drivers who guide Oppy, and used to guide Spirit, across Barsoom. It’s also dedicated to all the programmers, designers, engineers, and every other person who worked to get Opportunity to this magical place.

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Thank you, all of you, for the adventure of my lifetime. Thank you for taking this 12 year old Mars nut to the red planet and letting him walk across its dusty deserts and plains. Thank you for letting this lifelong amateur astronomer turn the red light in his sky into a real world. Thank you for bringing to life the National Geographic “Viking Special Issue” which stole my soul as a teenager. Thank you, all, for giving me the Mars I have always seen in here, inside me.

Thank you.

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