Opportunity Completes Her First Marathon

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Well, she did it. And why did we ever doubt she would? After a lot of very careful and intense measuring and number-crunching, it has been confirmed by NASA that two days ago, on day 3,968 of her proposed 90 day mission, more than eleven years after bouncing to a halt inside Eagle Crater in that much celebrated “cosmic hole in one”, Opportunity made history by reaching a point on Mars some 26.219 miles from her landing site. That means that a rover we all hoped would survive on Mars long enough to drive a kilometre has now driven more than 42 kilometres – the equivalent distance of a marathon.

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CONGRATULATIONS OPPORTUNITY AND THE WHOLE MER TEAM!!!!!!

This rather nice graphic from NASA, released yesterday to mark the occasion, shows very well what an incredible achievement this is…

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That really brings it home, doesn’t it? Look how far she’s come! Look at that long and winding road from Eagle Crater to where she is now, high up on the rim of Endeavour Crater…

Follow that track and cast your minds back to all the incredible things Oppy has seen and done along it… and remember how, thanks to the generosity and vision of the MER team, especially Steve Squyres and Jim Bell, who decided right at the start of the mission that MER images should be shared openly and quickly, we’ve all been able to walk alongside Oppy on her epic trek across Barsoom. Again, a huge thank you to them.

It really is hard to over-state how incredible an achievement Opportunity’s completion of the first ever extraterrestrial marathon is, both for the rover itself and the team behind her – all those thousands of men and women who designed her, built her, wrote her software, got her to Mars and have kept her busy and healthy ever since. Because remember, as she has shown us time and time again, Mars hates having Terran visitors. It loathes them. It detests them. It takes a wicked, perverse delight in killing machines sent from Earth to try and uncover its secrets. So when Oppy landed, all those years ago, the chances were that sooner rather than later she would be murdered by Mars too, either subtly – with a small mechanical failure, or a software glitch – or more dramatically, with her wheels left whirring helplessly in a dust trap, an axle snapped by an ancient, unyielding rock, or some other calamity.

But she prevailed. After leaving Eagle Crater and heading towards the far horizon in pursuit of knowledge and discoveries, she survived lengthy desert crossings that would have made a Spice-eyed Fremen think twice, dust storms and more, to finally roll up onto the slopes of Cape York in triumph. Along the way she found meteorites that will one day be displayed in martian museums, drove around and into craters, and bathed in the gun metal blue light of thousands of sunsets and sunrises. No wonder the MER team became so attached to her, so loyal to her. I am lucky and honoured to know a handful of them personally, and know many more from media stories and the like, so if I’m feeling proud to bursting point of them, and of Opportunity, I can only imagine how proud they must be feeling.

Let’s just remind ourselves, with another NASA-provided image, of how far Opportunity has come on Mars. Click on the image below to enlarge it and then follow the yellow line from Eagle Crater, up at the top, to Oppy’s current position, at the mouth of Marathon Valley, high up on the rim of Endeavour Crater…

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To put that into context, I began writing this blog on December 4th 2008, or Sol 1729, when Opportunity had just driven away from Victoria Crater and was starting to cross the Great Meridiani Desert which stretched between Victoria and Endeavour, stalking across an area of light-toned, flat rocky plates nicknamed “Conjunction Road”, having just found this small meteorite called “Santorini”…

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All around her, the scenery looked like this…

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At that time the prospects of her actually reaching Endeavour were not considered to be good – it was ridiculously far away, years away for a rover that had already survived on Mars way longer than even its greatest, most optimistic fans had dared hope it would. And yes, I’ll be honest, when I started this blog I really did not think Oppy would reach Endeavour, I was sure she’d get a fair part of the way to it, more than halfway, but it seemed such a huge ask, such a huge challenge it seemed just too optimistic, even for a self-confessed rover hugger and MER cheerleader like myself.

But Oppy kept driving, kept her weary wheels whirring, and showed us one fantastic sight after another before arriving at Cape York, rolling up onto it, and beginning her exploration of Endeavour. So, as a tribute to Oppy’s achievement, here, in no particular order, are some of my favourite pics I have made and posted here on “Road to Endeavour” since that first post back in December 2008…

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It’s been a true privilege to be able to walk alongside Oppy here on this blog for the past seven years.

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So, Oppy has finally completed her marathon! As President Bartlett was so fond of asking on The West Wing – what’s next?

Well, in terms of science, as you read this Opportunity is studying an area of bright rock just away from the edge of Spirit of St Louis crater, at the entrance to Marathon Valley. I’ve made this image showing the area, and put a ‘virtual’ Opportunity – to scale – on the picture. Click to enlarge it, then look for the arrow, bottom left…

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And Oppy’s view at the moment..? This…

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Here is “Athens”, the light, rocky outcrop the rover is investigating…

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More pictures of that soon, no doubt. šŸ™‚

Obviously Opportunity completing her marathon on Mars is a cause to celebrate, but this might be a time to worry, too. Even as I sit here grinning like a Cheshire Cat, I can’t help wondering… will the politicians in control of NASA’s budget – and NASA’s own Administrator, who seems decidedly cool about NASA’s most successful ever Mars mission, a rover which outperformed every other current Mars mission in a recent independent review – decide that Opportunity’s historic crossing of the finishing line would be a fitting time to declare the end of her mission? Will they consider it a milestone marking the end of her martian journey? Surely not, not when she is poised to enter the Valley she has worked so hard to reach? Let’s hope this really is just another game of political Chicken being played by NASA and its political masters, and that common sense prevails. Or they all just grow up. Whichever happens first.

In the meantime, on Mars a robot has just finished a marathon, the first off-Earth marathon in history. And who knows, maybe she’ll complete another one before her wheels turn for the last time! But for now, just take a moment to think about that and say a silent Thank You to all the people, famous or unknown, who made it happen.

Now, Oppy…onwards- Marathon Valley awaits! šŸ™‚

 

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