If you’d been standing on the crushed cinnamon sands of the vast Meridiani Planum on Mars, a dozen years ago today, your eye would have been caught by a glint of silvery light in the huge butterscotch sky above you. Looking up, shielding your eyes from the golden Sun with your hand you would have seen what looked like a tiny white flower falling from the heavens, slowly growing larger and larger as you watched. Eventually you would have realised it was a parachute, and something was hanging from it – something that suddenly cut loose and fell free, dropping towards the ground like a stone. Your breath would have caught in your throat, anticipating a shuddering crash and a plume of dust mushrooming into the sky when the falling object slammed into the ground – but instead, as it hit, it went back up into the chill, barely-there air again, like one of the famous “bouncing bombs” from the Dambusters film. After a short flight through the air it dropped and hit the ground again, only to bounce up again, leaving a cloud of dust behind it as it continued on its way, hop-scotching across the plain in slow motion, each brief landing marked by another cloud of dust. Finally it stopped bouncing, Mars’ grudging gravity holding it down, but now it rolled across the ground, bobbing and bobbling up and over the rocks and boulders until it finally dropped down into a small crater, where it finally sat still, quivering like some kind of orange-stained amoeba, dust settling around it. If you’d loped over to it, boots kicking up yet more dust, you’d have seen the visitor from the skies resembled a huge cluster of frogspawn, or several large balloons joined together. If you’d stayed there, on the crater’s edge, watching the new arrival, you would have waited what felt like a long time before anything happened but eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, you’d have jumped back in surprise as the balloons deflated, as if pricked by invisible pins, revealing what they had been protecting – a bizarre-looking machine, an alien construction of glass, metal and wires, gleaming shiny and perfectly clean against the dusty, ruddy landscape. You’d have jumped again as the machine started to unpack itself, like a Transformer toy, or an origami model unfolding, metal petals opening to reveal a small car-like object nestling inside. Then that too began to unfold, a pair of metal wings snapping open on its back, clicking into place, even as a long, slender neck rose up, lifting a head covered with cameras and instruments up to the same height as your own… a head which began to turn, slowly, slowly, until it faced you, and looked right at you…
That was how, twelve years ago today, you would have witnessed the historic arrival of the Mars Exploration Rover OPPORTUNITY at Eagle Crater on Mars.
I watched that live online, and it only seems like yesterday that it happened, not almost a quarter of my life ago (I was 51 yesterday, I know Happy Birthday to Me..!). Things were very different then, at least for me. I watched Opportunity’s landing online, but it was a very different experience than it is now when I watch Space X’s rockets launching or landing, or Tim Peake spacewalking outside the ISS. I watched Oppy’s landing on dial-up, via a chirruping modem, and on a tiny RealPlayer screen. The video stream – more of a video rivulet, or a drip actually – kept breaking up into a kaleidescopic haze of pixels, and buffered every few minutes, so it was an enormously frustrating experience… but I was there, I was there when she landed, and yes, I cried with happiness, relief and excitement. She was the second MER to land on Mars safely in the January of 2004, after Spirit’s triumphant landing in Gusev Crater at the start of the year, and sitting there, listening to the whoops and cheers as the first images came back and appeared on my screen it seemed too good to be true: there were two rovers on Mars. Two! And for the next three months – because that was how long they were expected to survive on Mars back then – I was going to be able to see new images from Mars, my favourite planet, my true “homeworld” many have said every day. If all went well, the rovers might each drive as far as a kilometre from their landing site, but few thought that realistic.
Of course, it didn’t quite work out like that.
Thanks to remarkable engineering, brilliant driving and innovative project management, both rovers survived on Mars for years. Many years. They drive not just a kilometre, but many kilometres. They crossed vast deserts, climbed hills, circled, descended into then drove back out of craters. They survived dust storms, software glitches, mechanical problems – everything and anything Mars threw at them. And we watched them, day after day, sol after sol, as they reached and went beyond one horizon after another, showing us beautiful new martian vistas every morning when we woke up, went online, and checked out the latest images. Through their unblinking electronic eyes we watched candyfloss clouds drift across the peach sky, whirling dervish dust devils waltzing across the plains, and bumps on the skyline grow to become hills and then mountains.
And we saw Earth itself as a silver sequin, shining in an alien, lavender sky.
On opposite sides of Barsoom the two rovers went about their work, “doing a science” on Mars for half a decade before hipsters had even invented the term. Sol after sol their wheels crunched across the rocky ground, leaving dark tracks snaking behind them. As they rolled on across Mars, relentlessly, exploring, discovering, revealing wonder after wonder, we began to think of them as immortal.
Spirit fell first. Mars could not kill her with its wind, or dust, or cold, so it set a trap fir her, digging a crater out of the ground in her path, filling it with dust and camouflaging it with a thin crust of icy dust, like hunters building a pit trap in a forest to catch a lion or a tiger. Spirit drove towards it blissfully unaware of the danger – and almost missed the trap. But the ground gave way beneath the one wheel which drove over the trap, and she sank into it, stuck like a baby mammoth in a tar pit. Despite valiant efforts by her team back on Earth she could not be freed, and finally fell asleep there, her dust-scoured eyes shutting for the final time on March 22, 2010, 2210 sols (martian days) after landing.
On the other side of Mars, slogging across Meridiani Planum, Opportunity – maybe after pausing for a moment, sensing the loss of her sister due to a disturbance in the Mars Rover Force – carried on, heading for an impossibly-far-away mountain range on her horizon…
Today, 4,266 sols after landing, Opportunity marks her twelfth landing anniversary on the summit of those mountains, high above the Meridiani Plain, looking down on Endeavour Crater.
Today she will continue her work, studying the rocks, dust and dirt of “Marathon Valley” a notch in the mountain side named in honour of her incredible achievement of driving the length of a marathon – 26.2 miles (42.195 kilometers) – across the surface of Mars.
But you probably won’t hear much about this. Opportunity is the forgotten Mars rover. NASA now concentrates its attention on her bigger, sexier, more high tech cousin CURIOSITY, the Mars Science Laboratory which is exploring Gale Crater. Curiosity is doing great work on Mars, re-writing the textbooks with her discoveries, it’s true… but, largely ignored by NASA, her ancestor, Opportunity is still there, on Mars, still exploring, still discovering, still being amazing.
I sometimes wonder – probably quite unfairly – if NASA would be happier if Opportunity finally died, surrendering Mars, and the media’s attention, to Curiosity. It seems that every year Opportunity is threatened with being switched off to save money, which would be a crime, it really would; every day she sends back new images from Mars, from high up on the summit of Endeavour Crater, and every image is a reminder of how incredibly successful the MER mission has been – and continues to be. They should drive Oppy until her wheels seize up, or fall off. They should squeeze every last drop of science out of her. They should just let her keep being what she is – an explorer – until she can go on no more. Then, and only then, should her mission end.
To pay tribute to this amazing machine, and the legion of incredible men and women who stand unseen behind her up there on the summit of Endeavour – the people who designed, built her and landed her safely on Mars; the people who have driven her across Mars for all these years; the people who have fixed her software glitches, hauled her out of dust-dunes and helped her survive all these thousands of freezing cold nights – I am going to post some of my favourite Opportunity images. And I mean MY images; these are all images I have made myself, with art packages and photo processing software, from the original images sent back to Earth by Oppy, and posted here on this blog.
Having posted many hundreds of such images here I can only scratch the surface, I know, but I want to at least try to give a feeling of how much the rover, and the people behind it, means to me. I have walked beside Opportunity across the surface of Mars every day since she landed, a dozen years ago. Big changes have happened to me, and to the world, in that time.
The world of 2016 is a very, very different place to the world of 2004 when Oppy bounced across Meridiani and landed in that incredible “cosmic hole in one” in Eagle Crater. Today the world is under threat in so many different ways – global warming, disease, political unrest, and I have no doubt that terrorist horrors lay ahead of us, over our horizon, which will make those we have endured so far seem like arguments in a school playground. we also live at a time when ignorance about science, and distrust and fear of it, are stronger and more widespread than ever before, and getting worse. If you had told me back in January 2004, as I sat there at my desk in the early hours of that morning, watching Opportunity land, that when I was 50 there would be people insisting that NASA faked the Moon landings, that global warming is a scam, that airplanes paint the sky with poisonous chemtrails to cull the world’s population, that there are ancient cities and statues on Mars, and that the International Space Station is fake too, I would have slapped you across the face for thinking me so stupid as to even sit there and listen to you. And if you had tried to tell me that in 2016 there would be crazy, dribbling idiots tapping away on their computers, writing bullshit on Facebook and Twitter and blogs, and creating crappy YouTube videos insisting that the Earth was flat, I would have thought you were the insane one. But we actually live in that world, the same world in which black flag-waving psychopaths burn people alive in cages, demolish priceless ancient temples and turn innocent men and women into splashes of lasagne with their bombs, all in the name of their god. It’s tempting to just go curl up in a dark corner, wrap your arms around your knees, and hide, convinced that the world is either going insane or is there already.
But look at these pictures. Each one of these images is proof that when we set our minds to it, we can achieve great things. Each image was made possible because smart men and women lifted their weary eyes from the litter-strewn, filthy streets and looked to the heavens, imagining more, wanting more. While evil people elsewhere used their technical skills and knowledge to create bombs to slaughter people, they joined together the same materials – wire, glass, metal – to create a machine that travelled across the gulf of space to land on another planet and explore it in the name of science, and the pursuit of knowledge. That’s an amazing thing. An incredible thing.
Look at these pictures and just think that right now, as you read this, a dusty, tired robot is standing on the floor of an ancient valley, high up on the side of a mountain on Mars… on Mars… and tell yourself that while we still do things like this, evil and terror and fear cannot and WILL not win. Because our urge to create and explore is far, far stronger than our urge to destroy. And one day, maybe in half a century’s time, maybe a lot further into the future than that, men and women will walk across Meridiani Planum, hike up that mountain and find Opportunity, standing wherever she eventually came to rest, and rest their gloved hands on her back, by then thick with dust, and gratefully whisper…
Thank you Opportunity – and all the men and women who got you to Barsoom – for a dozen wonderful years, for the thousands of alien sunrises and sunsets you showed me, for the meteorites you discovered, for everything.
And keep roving. Because the best is yet to come.