OPPORTUNITY: 14 Years On Mars

Apologies for not writing this important post on the actual anniversary of Opportunity’s landing, but I’ve recently had knee surgery and the laptop was just too heavy to put on my lap. Much better now tho, so time to catch up…

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Three days ago, with no fanfare whatsoever from NASA, and only passing mentions from the highest profile members of the “space community”, the Mars Exploration Rover OPPORTUNITY reached a historic and magnificent anniversary: it is now 14 years since she arrived on Mars, making that amazing “cosmic hole in one” golf shot landing in tiny Eagle Crater. I think most people with even a passing interest in space exploration now know that the hope was that the twin Mars Exploration Rovers (or “MERs”), Spirit and Opportunity, would survive for at least 90 days on Mars after landing, and might drive as far as a kilometre across the surface of Mars before they conked out.

Of course, its now recorded in the history books that both rovers reached those targets and rolled right past them. Sadly, Spirit, the first of the pair to land, froze to death in 2010 after getting stuck in a dust-filled crater in the shadow of the Columbia Hills. But after climbing up out of Eagle Crater Opportunity kept going… and going… and going. In the past 14 years she has driven to, into and back out of numerous fascinating impact craters, large and small; she has discovered and studied enough meteorites to fill a museum gallery; she has seen the Earth glinting in the martian sky, and seen shooting stars skip across it. Through all this Mars has tried to kill her, but Opportunity has survived every dust storm, mechanical failure and computer glitch the planet has thrown at her, and she has fought her way through one bitter, circuit-chilling martian winter after another. Mars murdered Spirit, but Opportunity is still very much alive.

As you read this, as we all celebrate the 14th anniversary of her landing, Opportunity is doing what she has always done best – being a geologist. She is driving patiently along the floor of a meandering martian channel called “Peresverance Valley”, a scientifically important feature cut out of the side of an enormous crater, called “Endeavour”. She is now more than a marathon’s length from her original landing site in Eagle Crater, and shows no sign of rolling to a juddering halt yet. Shes not in perfect condition – how could she be after more than a decade in such an inhospitable environment? Her camera lens eyes are cloudy and spotted with dust, and she is not as quick or nimble as she used to be. Her body, once as shiny and clean as a car driven straight out of the factory doors, is now covered with a layer of talcum-fine, windblown martian dust, which is not good news for a solar-powered rover that needs sunlight to charge its batteries, but on many occasions Opportunity’s dusty back has been cleaned by gusts of martian wind, and no doubt they will be again.

Like many people I have been with Opportunity (as I was with Spirit) from the start – from the very start. I was here when the MER mission was given the go-ahead, and then followed the rovers’ progress as they were built, then tested, and eventually readied for launch. I watched the launches live online, with my heart in my mouth. In those days watching something live online was reserved for masochists; there was no superfast live-streaming video back then, no fibre optics, no dizzyingly-fast broadband connections; I watched the rovers launch on tiny 2″ by 2″ RealPlayer screens OVER A DIAL UP CONNECTION. There was no high quality Ustreaming then, no 4K quality live video; the  poor quality NASA TV broadcasts kept stalling and re-buffering, and required constant refreshing, and even then they video feed was prone to shattering into a million glittering pixels like a dropped kaleidescope without warning. But somehow, somehow, I managed to watch both launches, and, months later, both landings too, and almost every day since then – with only a handful of gaps thanks to lack of internet connection whilst on holiday – I have gazed in wonder and awe at the breathtaking images sent back by the rovers.

That too has changed. When the rovers were launched in 2004 I couldn’t DREAM of owning a laptop computer. They were heavy, huge and hugely expensive machines. No, I did my image browsing – still on dial-up – on my space age 386 Windows 3.1 desktop computer. Now it’s a different world. Now I rarely use my desktop computer, it’s really only there as a back-up in case this laptop – my every day computer – breaks down. But I’m not tied to my laptop as I was tied to my desktop machine. Today I keep up to date with Opportunity via apps on my tablet, and even on my phone. I am still amazed that I can lie on my camp bed in our tent, in the middle of some field or forest somewhere many miles away from civilisation, and use my phone to look at and swoon over beautiful images of Mars taken barely a handful of hours earlier, that’s wonderfully ridiculous…

I’ve been writing this blog for quite a while now, since Opportunity set off from Victoria Crater and started her epic trek across the Meridiani desert to Endeavour Crater, and I’ll keep writing it as long as she is roving – no, even when she stops roving, I’ll keep writing it as long as she is talking to us, and probably for some time beyond that too. Why? Because I am proud to bursting of Opportunity and all the amazing people behind her, and to stop chronicling her adventures on Barsoom now would be a betrayal of her and all of them, too. I’ve walked alongside Opportunity every single day of the past 14 years, with my hand on her back, keeping her company, and I’m not going to stop now.

It’s a shame that a bigger fuss wasn’t made of Opportunity’s big anniversary by NASA itself, but not really that surprising. While there are people in NASA who remain excited by and loyal to Opportunity, the agency itself seems much more interested in promoting and supporting her “Big Sister”, the more advanced Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity”. It’s hard to shake the feeling that Opportunity is seen as the inferior of the two, an antique buggy juddering and shuddering across Mars while the far sexier Curiosity, with her rock-zapping laser and instrument-laden robot arm, is seen as far more worthy of the agency’s interest and support. I’ve often thought that the two rovers are thought of like these two very different robots from the Disney film “The Black Hole”…

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But as long as there is something to write about I will keep this blog going, I promise.

So… 14 years… how to mark such an anniversary? Well, I thought it might be fun to go right back to the start of the Opportunity’s time on Mars and take another look at some of the images she was sending back in the days, weeks and months after her landing, and process them as I would do if they were fresh from Mars today. Here, then, is a gallery of images sent back by Opportunity all those years ago, when she was a fresh-faced, wide-eyed, squeaky-clean explorer setting off on her travels…

NOTE: All images in this post – original image credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/USGS, additional processing by Stuart Atkinson.

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As I said, those are all old images… time for some new ones now…

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So we can do some Old vs New comparisons… you can click on these to enlarge them, by the way…

When Opportunity opened her eyes after landing her team back on Earth soon realised that she had landed inside a crater, and that it was so small, and its slopes so close to the rover, that all she could see was a “curb” of ancient rocks and very little of the world beyond the crater. Today Opportunity is in another crater, but this one is so huge that Opportunity can look out of it and see for miles… and miles… and miles…

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When Opportunity opened her eyes after landing she found an outcrop of ancient rocks right in front of her nose. 14 years and more than 45km later, she is exploring “Perseverance Valley”, a meandering channel carved out of the inner rim of the huge Endeavour Crater…

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And finally for now, these two views show how far Opportunity has come since she landed. As soon as she opened her eyes she saw that the dusty floor of Eagle Crater was marked with the imprints of her airbags, showing how she had bounced down the crater’s slopes and across its floor before coming to rest… The latest images show Opportunity’s own wheel tracks in the dust on the inner slope of Endeavour, tracks which, if you could follow them, would lead more than 45km back to Eagle Crater…

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Actually I have one more image to finish off this post… this is – I’ll admit myself before anyone else says it! – horrible. There are big dust spots in the sky, the two halves didn’t stitch properly, there’s a big black wedge in the middle, and I couldn’t get the colour right… but it’s the best I can do with the images available right now, and, actually, I kind of like it 🙂

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…and that’s all folks! I hope some of you like the pictures in this special anniversary post, and might even feel moved to leave a comment letting me, and other readers, know what Opportunity means to you. And if you would like to share some of your favourite Opportunity memories with everyone else too, that would be a lovely way to celebrate this anniversary.

Thanks everyone!

– Stuart Atkinson 27/1/2018

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2 Responses to OPPORTUNITY: 14 Years On Mars

  1. Thank you Stu for keeping the Oppy torch alight.
    I, like you, am full of admiration for the dusty old girl up there.
    Please carry on, we can stand the pauses and the breaks, and I read everyone of your posts.
    I hope your knee is on the mend!
    Marc

  2. requalls2015 says:

    I second what goodenoughmark said plus thank you for your posts. Get well!

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