Thirteen years on Mars

Just over eight years ago, on December 4th 2008, around teatime I think it was, I started this blog.

I had hummed and haah’d about it for a couple of days, not sure if I should or shouldn’t take it on; after all, I’d been covering the missions of the Mars Exploration Rovers “Spirit” and “Opportunity” on my everyday blog, “Cumbrian Sky”, perfectly well ever since their arrival on Mars back in 2004. But by December 2008, Opportunity – by then the only MER still roving Mars, after poor Spirit had got stuck in that damned dust trap next to Homeplate – had reached a milestone on Mars and, literally, a turning point in her mission: after reaching Victoria Crater 950 days after her incredible “hole in one” landing in Eagle Crater, and exploring it for around 720 days, going on a “grand tour” of her crumbling capes and sloping bays, Oppy had finally left Victoria Crater and was heading south towards another, much bigger crater – Endeavour. The appeal of Endeavour was that it was much older than Victoria, and deeper too, so exploring it would allow the scientists on the MER team to peer deeper into Mars’s past and learn a lot about how it had changed. So, the plan was to steam south and aim for a long, thin range of hills making up the crater’s rim

map

The problem – as you can see from the map above – was Endeavour was more than 20km away from Victoria, i.e. ridiculously far away, a good couple of years’ drive away at best, so far away that it had been visible from Victoria as a few bumps on the distant horizon (click on the image below to enlarge it and you’ll see the bumps of Endeavour on the skyline)…

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But Oppy was essentially done at Victoria; hanging around any longer would basically mean the rover – which was in great health – just repeating the same science over and over.  So it made sense for her to be sent somewhere else… but Endeavour? Really? Well, yes, Endeavour, because basically there was nowhere else to go, not nearby anyway. And over there, far, far away, was a crater that was almost screaming out “Come here!!! Come explore me!!!” It was a very, very ambitious move, and many  scientists, journalists and “rover huggers” had serious doubts that she would get even a small part of the way to the crater before she failed for some reason – a mechanical failure, a software fault, something else – and her mission ended.

But, again, there was nowhere else for her to go…

I had a decision to make – should I keep covering Oppy’s mission on my existing blog, or start a new one wholly dedicated to covering the rover’s “incredible journey” trek south to Endeavour? I’ll admit, as big a fan of the mission as I was, I was one of those who had real doubts about Oppy’s chances of getting to Endeavour. But it promised to be such an exciting adventure, a real “against the odds” epic, that I thought ‘What the hell!” and set up this new blog, fully expecting to be finishing it a couple of years later when Mars finally murdered Oppy and the MER mission came to an end.

So, off Opportunity set, heading south. And as she headed south Endeavour’s bumps, on the distant horizon, grew larger and larger, closer and closer. By the time she had reached Santa Maria crater we could see a lot of Endeavour’s topography on the horizon…

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Onwards Opportunity steamed, and the hills of Endeavour began to rear up ahead of her…

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And every day, every single day, those of us following the mission half-expected it to be The Day it all ended, the day we read that something had happened to Oppy to stop her in her tracks so tantalisingly close to her goal…

But, as you all know, not only did Opportunity reach Endeavour – making landfall on the end of Cape York on August 9th 2011, or Sol 2681, more than 1000 sols after leaving Victoria – she went mountain climbing once she got there, driving up onto and then along the range of hills marking her ancient rim. As she climbed she looked down on Endeavour Crater and back down along the track she had taken…

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And Oppy kept driving, along the top of the hills towards and then into a valley cut out of the crater rim…

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More than eight years later Opportunity is still roving… and this blog is still going…

Here’s one of the very latest images sent back by Oppy (actually a mosaic of two images, but you know what I mean)…

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She is now slowly but surely working her way back up the steep slopes she descended to enter Marathon Valley. Once she gets to the top of the terrain you can see on that panorama she will begin heading down the other side of the hills and then rove south with the aim of reaching and exploring a gully cut out of the crater rim by running water millennia ago.

…and this week, on Wednesday, we’ll see the 13th anniversary of Opportunity landing on Mars. Not bad for a rover that we hoped, when she landed all those years ago, would last maybe 90 days and drive a kilometre before dying.

But what does all this matter? So what if a robot has been tootling around on Mars for the past 13 years?

Well, on a very basic, very practical level it matters because it’s an amazing technical achievement. It was an amazing achievement landing Opportunity safely on Mars in the first place, but to have kept her safe and healthy and driving on Mars all these years, to keep her going through dust storms, mechanical problems and more is just a stunning achievement.

But even more important is the science. Opportunity has made countless important discoveries as she has roved Mars, hopscotching from crater to crater finding something new at every stop. She has found and studied meteorites. She has observed the weather. She has done all this, and so much more. “Curiosity”, Oppy’s bigger, sexier, more powerful nuclear-powered sister might get all the NASA headlines, and the media spotlight shines on her regularly, but Opportunity has kept working away, making discovery after discovery. To say I’m proud of her, and her team, is a huge understatement.

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(above: one of my “artist impressions” of sunset behind the hills of Endeavour)

But even more important, perhaps, is what Opportunity represents. The whole MER mission is a beacon of hope and light in a time when scientific ignorance is seen as acceptable, even cool.

Lots has changed since Opportunity landed on Mars. The internet was a mewling infant when Oppy boinged and bounced into Eagle Crater; now it dominates our lives (Facebook launched a couple of weeks *after* Opportunity landed, and the birth of Twitter was still two years away). No drones buzzed in the sky like angry bees back in 2004, and electric cars were still pretty much the stuff of science fiction, as was AI. At the cinema we were watching “The Incredibles”, “Shrek 2” and “Anchorman”, then curled up on our sofas back home to watch “Desperate Housewives” or the reboot of “Battlestar Galactica”.

And, generally, people loved science, and respected and believed and trusted the people who did science.

My, how things have changed. Today scientists and their work are ridiculed at best and abused at worst. Politicians challenge or ignore their climate change studies and recommendations, and scientists who dedicate decades of their lives to creating vaccines to cure terrible diseases find themselves accused of lying and being stooges for “Big Pharma”. They are even accused of concealing cures for cancer and other godawful diseases.

And it seems more and more to me like astronomy in particular is now a target rich zone for not only bad reporting but, let’s be frank here, totally made up bullshit clickbait garbage. Every new asteroid found is reported as a possible threat to Earth – and if an asteroid is predicted to pass us by several million miles, many times further away than the Moon, some “reporters” hype it up ridiculously, writing with glee that it will “skim past the Earth” so close it will ruffle our hair, and could even hit us, and wipe out all life on Earth, if it were to “change course”. Some “reporters” basically turn every astronomy story that they come across into armageddonporn, and put it out online with terrifying melodramatic click-bait headlines to increase the number of hits on their publication’s website.

Mars seems to be the GoTo planet for ridiculous stories that are just utterly impossible and so pathetically ignorant of basic science that it’s shocking. What makes it even worse is that many of the people writing these stories know, absolutely, without any doubt, that they are writing rubbish, but they carry on doing it anyway, each story more stoopid than the last. Here are some recent examples from one of the most widely-read British publications. I’ve blacked out names and links to the stories because I don’t want to add to their readership.

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Faces on martian rocks… spoons… ancient nuclear wars.. dinosaur skulls… all utter, utter rubbish, and anyone who knows the basic facts about past and present conditions on Mars knows that. And if you don’t know those basic facts, you can learn that these stories are scientifically impossible with just a couple of minutes’ research on Google. If you want to. If you actually want to know the truth.

This kind of trash used to be confined to such publications as The National Enquirer, and people viewed it as entertainment, but in recent years the “mainstream media” has started posting stories like these on their websites and more and more people are buying into it.  In fact, there’s now a whole community of people who scour images sent back from martian orbiters, landers and rovers looking for “anomalies” – and they find them, by the dozen. Faces, pyramids, towers, and more. But they only find them when they blow up parts of images so much that they become pixellated messes, and then they convince themselves that the dots, squiggles and blurs are whatever they want them to be.Again, they could learn that their “discoveries” are scientifically impossible with just a few clicks of their mouse or taps on their screen, but they choose not to do that.

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Now, some of those people are no doubt disturbed individuals who have real mental problems, and I feel sorry for them. Others are con-merchants simply out to get clicks on their websites to earn money through advertising. Still others are simply liars who love to spread disinformation. And yet others are deluded conspiracy theorists who gather in forums to share their ridiculous theories and discoveries, or write ranting blog posts in UPPER CASE, or make crappy YouTube videos spouting their nonsense.  I have no time for them and my opposition to them is well known and I make no apology for it.

As for the “reporters” who write and spread garbage about martian spoons, and dinosaur skulls and worse, well, I have nothing but contempt for them and genuinely wonder if, in their quieter moments, when they read back what they’ve just written – and wonder what happened to their young reporter dreams of writing stories that changed the world and made a difference – they’re actually ashamed of what they do.

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But they’ll keep doing it because there’s a market and a readership for it, which is sad and infuriating. If they spent half the time writing about the actual science of the mission as they do making up or reporting woowoo crap everyone would be a lot better off.

And if you’re reading this thinking “Oh, it doesn’t matter, stop taking it so seriously – it’s just rubbish and they’re just idiots!” well, yes, they are idiots, but it matters because people read their rubbish and because it’s in “the media” they take it seriously. Because we’ve tolerated this garbage for so long and just tutted disapprovingly at it, there are now people who genuinely believe that the Moon landings were faked and that the Earth is flat; because we’ve just sat back and let them write their garbage unchallenged for so long I actually stood beside the Apollo 10 Command Module at the Science Museum in London last year and heard a guy telling his girlfriend how it wasn’t real, it was just a prop, because the Moon landings were faked, it had all been filmed in a studio; because we’ve looked the other way when politicians, celebrities and nutters dismiss science I now have kids telling me at the end of my outreach work in schools that what I had said in my talk about people landing on the Moon was wrong because they had seen “a thing on TV” saying it was all a hoax.

Now, you can choose to either ignore ignorance and stupidity like that, or stand up against it. I choose to do the latter.

Erm… what’s this got to do with Opportunity?

Well, at a time when many people believe there could be spoons and dinosaur skulls and yetis on Mars, and chemtrails drip poison from the sky, and the LHC opens up portals to alien universes every time it fires up its coils, and idiots can be elected President of the United States even when they think climate change is “made up”, I believe Opportunity’s continuing success shines like a lighthouse beam, cutting through the darkness.

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(above: one of my “artist impressions” of sunset behind the hills of Endeavour)

And that’s one reason why I believe marking this anniversary is so important. Opportunity represents the very best of science, and shows what can be achieved when we reach out into the darkness in search of knowledge. If Opportunity had only lasted 90 days on Mars, and if it had only driven a kilometre in that time it would have been a great achievement. But it has survived for thirteen years and driven more than 40 kilometres. Along the way it has revolutionised our view of Mars, and sent back thousands of breathtaking images which have brought Mars to life for us, and allowed us to walk alongside her as she rolls across the dusty, rusted ground. I think that is an amazing thing, and it deserves to be celebrated.

I also wanted to mark this important anniversary with a new poem, and here it is…

————————————————————————–

13

Each night, before I go to sleep,

The dusty rocks around my feet

Roll up to me and whisper gently

“Don’t you miss the Earth?”

No, little ones, I smile, how can I miss

Somewhere I have never been?

Or pine for sights and colours

That I have never seen?

For my “Earth” was an alien world of metal, steel and glass,

Where I could never feel sunlight sting my back.

My high-Spirited twin and I were made on screaming lathes,

Bathed in floodlights’ brutal glare.

Our limbs slotted together perfectly like a puzzle’s pieces

To make restless creatures with cameras for eyes

And wheels instead of feet – but we knew no freedom.

We grew up in a pristine prison, within walls white, cream and high;

Shark cages, gantries and cranes crowding in on all sides.

Tested, tested, then tested again,

We prowled a floor scattered with spinning lamps,

Rolled up and down powder blue ramps

Beneath humming lightsabre Suns

As our proud parents watched, white as snowmen, their young

Faces peering out at us through gaps in rustling paper suits.

So, you see, no warm Pasadenan breeze ever wafted over me;

I never looked up to see birds flapping their wings in the swaying trees,

Never saw JPL’s famous deer munching on Spring’s tasty leaves.

And when I finally was set free I left in darkness,

Cocooned inside the petals of a metal flower,

Showered with praise but not the sweet raindrops or the warm honey rays

Of the summer Sun I so longed for –

I felt rocking, heard knocking, then a savage kick from below –

– and woke up… here, 13 of Their years ago.

Here, where the frigid air carries the taste of faraway ice…

Here, where two bone fragment moons drift silently through a lavender sky…

Here, where the so-called Homeworld is just a magnesium-blue spark

Twinkling in the darkening purple dusk…

Here, where every grain of rust-stained dust

Remembers fairy tale thunder and rain…

Here, where phantom rivers and lakes

Haunt Barsoom’s corpse-dry plains…

Here, where blood would flash freeze

Into lifeless rock pools of garnets and rubies…

Here, where Vikings, Sojourner and Spirit come to me in my dreams

As the whispering winds sing me to sleep…

Here, where cold starlight reveals the ghostly outlines

Of martians with eyes of gold, their guns thrumming with bees

As they sail their noble ships over endless cinnamon seas …

No, I tell the drowsy stones – this is my home, more than Earth ever was.

There is nothing there to miss.

© Stuart Atkinson 2017

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I don’t know if NASA itself has any plans to mark the anniversary, but I wanted to. And I’m glad you were able to join me as I did. Thanks for stopping by!

And if anyone on the MER team gets to read this – thank you. Thank you for the past 13 years of science exploration and discovery, and for allowing us to be a part of the adventure.

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2 Responses to Thirteen years on Mars

  1. Eric Hahn says:

    Bravo! Very well-done!

  2. Chris Martin says:

    I just kept reading and reading this blog Stu. You are so close to my heart and you present my feelings entirely to the letter. It’s so frustrating. We are really up against the fools who would rather believe anecdotal evidence than real science. My brother-in-law is one of these Moon-Hoax believers and when I asked him why the Russians cancelled their Moon Missions in 1969, he said it was because they had already been there! Don’t forget to subscribe to the Skeptics Guide to the Universe. They tear these people apart! Keep up the good work!

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