Lindbergh looms large…

Opportunity is slowly making her way around the “Spirit of St Louis” crater, on her way towards the entrance to Marathon Valley. At the centre of the crater is a tall pile of rocks, “Lindbergh”, which looks a lot like one of the cairns found at the summits of many Lake District fells. Here’s the view from a few days ago…

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And here’s the latest view…

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…and my colourised view…

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Opportunity has been taking a closer look at some of the rocks in this area too…

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All this, of course, as Opportunity passed a major – a HUGE – milestone. A couple of days ago, Opportunity celebrated her 4000th sol on Mars. I was planning a big blog post about that, as you would expect, but when the big day arrived and Oppy’s clock ticked towards and then past 4000 sols I really didn’t know what to say.

I tried; I sat down to write my long-anticipated “4000 sols on Mars!” post several times, but staring at the screen I just didn’t know what to write. Not because I was unmoved by the occasion, far from it, I just found myself struggling to put into words how proud I was of the rover and the team behind her.

As regular readers will know I have followed this mission since Day 1, actually since the rovers began to take shape in their assembly room at JPL, and I am proud to say that – like many – I have walked every mile alongside Spirit and Opportunity since their dramatic landings. I followed Spirit on her trek across the floor of Gusev Crater, up the slopes of Husband Hill and down the other side again, and was with her as she struggled to free herself from that wicked dust trap on the edge of Home Plate. When she was declared dead I mourned – in a way – for her, but continued to walk alongside her sister, Opportunity, keeping her company as she headed to and then skirted around Victoria Crater…

And then I began this blog as she took off on her Impossible Journey to Endeavour…

Now, 4000 days after landing on Mars, after crossing all those miles and miles of desert, after exploring craters, studying meteorites and climbing hills, Opportunity is standing proudly on the rim of Endeavour, high above the crater, looking down on the world. It’s a genuinely magnificent achievement for the rover itself and every single one of the remarkable men and women who have ever worked on the mission, and work on it now. And even now, writing this , I’m struggling to express how I feel about it.

I suppose my overwhelming feeling is one of gratitude – gratitude that I have been allowed to “go to” Mars through the images taken and returned to Earth during the missions of Spirit and Opportunity. Almost every day for the past eleven years I’ve gone online and checked out the latest pictures taken by them, and it really has felt like walking alongside them. Through their unblinking electronic eyes I’ve truly seen Mars.

And that means a lot to me because, confession time, I’ve never really seen Mars, not personally – at least, not at its best, at its most impressive. Of course I’ve *seen* it lots of times through telescopes, including my own, but thanks to basically just bad timing I’ve never managed to see Mars through a big telescope when it has been at its closest to Earth. As an amateur astronomer on a very limited budget I’ve only ever seen the red planet as a small red disc through my small telescopes, like a faraway orange button with a hint of a bright ice cap at one pole and even more subtle hints of vague, dusky markings on its disc. I know that through a big telescope it would look impressive, and I’d see so  much more detail, but that just hasn’t happened, not yet. Maybe I’ll have a bigger telescope – or be in the right place at the right time – in May 2016 when Mars is next at opposition. I hope so.

Until then, I have the Mars rovers to show me Mars, and I’m very grateful for that! So, just as I have done for the past 4000, I’ll continue to walk alongside Oppy every day until she eventually stops roving. That sad day will dawn, it’s inevitable, but I don’t think we’re anywhere near it. Opportunity has great discoveries to make inside Marathon Valley yet!

And in the future? I have absolutely no doubt that once there are settlements on Mars Spirit and Opportunity will be plucked off the martian surface and carried away to be put on display in a museum, dusted off and restored to their original shining glory for people to see. Full size, diamond-coated statues of the rovers will be erected at their final resting places, for tourists, historians and native martians to make pilgrimages to, and have their pictures taken beside after following the “Spirit Trail” across the floor of Gusev Crater, and the “Opportunity Trail” across Meridiani. Along the way, tall, slim-limbed Marsborn children will run shrieking around the standing stones of the “Rock Garden” of ejecta on the edge of Cape York’s Odyssey crater,  and young couples will stand on the edge of Victoria Crater at sunset, holding hands as they watch the achingly-beautiful sapphire spark of Earth setting across the crater, bathing the landscape in a silvery-purple light.

And beyond that, in the far future, when restless Marsborn explorers are crumping across the snows of Europa, sloshing through the sucking tholin lakes of Titan, and standing on the edge of Miranda’s Verona Rupes cliffs, they will still speak the names “Spirit” and “Opportunity”  with reverence and awe, honouring their achievements.

And I have no doubt at all that one day, when men and women from Earth, the Moon, Mars, Ganymede and all the other settled worlds of Sol’s system are building their homes on the fields and lakesides of worlds orbiting distant stars, unable to find the faraway Sun in their star-crowded night skies, they will still speak the names “Spirit” and “Opportunity” with pride.

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One Response to Lindbergh looms large…

  1. Paul McCarthy says:

    Re “my overwhelming feeling is one of gratitude – gratitude that I have been allowed to “go to” Mars through the images”:

    Yeah, that’s my response. The way I always feel it is this: imagine what Newton, Galileo, Kepler, and SO MANY other titans of the past, would have given for this dazzling privilege! Some of our forebears were so committed to, and passionate about, Science that I seriously believe that, had someone or some being been able to, in some magical, fully-authenticated, guaranteed way, been able to say to them: “I can offer you tens of thousands of views of the Martian land surface, including down to magnified levels of detail, and I can run it together into a moving image to provide the sense that you’re walking the other planet”, I do (seriously) believe that some of them would have literally signed a contract to give their right arm in exchange!!

    So how privileged are we mere pygmies that we can just log in from home to fresh daily views of the surface of Mars!!!! It is almost beyond belief that we mere plebs have this opportunity when so many colossal, ultra-deserving giants did not!

    And it is (actually) beyond belief that the immense majority do not take advantage of it — so distracted by the priorities of crass modern media, and so lacking in the measly bit of science education that would make it all so meaningful, that they cannot appreciate the true wonder of our age that has been set before them.

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