Opportunity on Sol 5000

Well… it was a safe bet that the MER team would mark Opportunity’s 5000th sol on Mars with something special, but we had no idea just how special a trick they had up their sleeves until late yesterday evening, when a batch of images taken on that historic day were released. This is what we saw online…


First thought: what is THAT??

But when we looked at the rest of the images in the download the penny dropped, and our pulses started to quicken…


Was that..? Could it be..? Had they really tried to..?

This was the giveaway…


That’s Opportunity’s robot arm, and its “hand” was orientated in such a way that the “Microscopic Imager” camera on it was facing the rover. Just get that image in your mind… that is a photo of Opportunity’s smallest camera, taken by one of its other cameras. That’s the equivalent of you doing this…


…and that meant it looked very much like Opportunity had been commanded by the MER team to take a whole bunch of little “selfies”, so they could make a proper “self portrait” to mark the special day with.

Now, it’s important to make a personal distinction here. Opportunity has taken photos of itself before, on many occasions. We’ve grown used to seeing images like this over the years…


Images like that beautiful one are self-portraits of a kind because they are made by Opportunity tilting down its cameras and taking lots of photos which are then assembled into a single image. They are useful for checking how dusty she is. But what you can’t see on that image is Opportunity’s “face”, the front of the box at the top of the camera mast that her cameras are housed in and stick out of. Personally – and I’m fully aware this isn’t a convention – I’ve always believed a true self portrait has to show the subject’s face, so for me images like the one above don’t fully qualify as self portraits. But if the Sol 5000 images included ones of Opportunity’s cameras, the “eyes” in her “face” then that would mean a proper self portrait was there, just waiting to be made… and when I downloaded one of the images and turned it on its head, there it was…


Oh yes…!

So, I quickly downloaded the rest images and imported them into the program I use to make my mosaics. I couldn’t wait to see what the stitched-together self portrait would look like. I clicked the button and with a thumping heart sat back and waited to see the mosaic appear on my screen –


What?? “Failed to align images”??? NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!

It seemed the images were of such a low resolution that my image processing software couldn’t work out what went where. A disappointment, yes, but it just meant going ti Plan B: doing it the old-fashioned way.

Stitching them together manually, one at a time.

So I began to do that. It seemed to take forever, but it worked…


And slowly the self portrait began to take shape…

Eventually I had managed to turn those separate images into this very crude, Frankenstein’s Monster of a mosaic…

oppy portrait jpg b

Now, because of my limited processing skills and budget-level software, that’s pretty rubbish really. But looking at it I filled up. There she was, Opportunity. Not seen from above, not just a flat expanse of solar panels, but her, standing there, looking right into the camera, with the martian horizon behind her, the martian sky above her and the martian Sun shining on her back. Opportunity. On Mars.

Yes, I had a bit of a “moment” when that appeared on my screen. I’ll admit it. I never saw Opportunity at JPL, and in all the 14 years since she landed I’ve never truly felt like any of the images showing the shadow of her camera mast on the ground, or one corner of her solar array, or her wheels, have showed her. But this… this was her.

And I wondered, if seeing that was affecting me, a mere “fan” in such a way, what on Earth were the MER team feeling like at that moment?

I wanted to post my image online, on Twitter and Facebook, right away. Not to grab any personal glory, or to beat anyone else, but just because I wanted to share with others the incredible achievement the image represented. But what if the MER team was about to release their own self-portrait? I hated the idea of stealing their thunder, so I checked with a couple of the team if it would be okay for me to share my image. Absolutely, I was told; after all the images had been released publicly already, so there was no problem. That’s what I thought they’d say, but out of consideration and respect for the team I wanted to check. Approval given, I posted my image onto Twitter and then Facebook…

And to say it created a stir is a bit of an understatement… 🙂

I’m often told that there’s no interest in space exploration any more, that the public think other things are more important. Well, the response to that hodgepodge image of mine – and to my previous Sol 4999 image – is anything to go by, that’s simply not true. People are still fascinated by space, and the exploration of space, and as my rubbishy image was retweeted and retweeted, not just by space enthusiasts but by scientists and people involved in the MER mission itself, past and present, it was wonderful to be able to show people just what an incredible machine Opportunity is, and how amazing the people involved in the mission are, and have been, to guide her safely to Sol 5000.

I worked a bit more on my image, and eventually coaxed a little more detail out of it, but not much…

oppy portrait jpg b2 L2

It’s still a cobbled-together monstrosity, but I don’t care, that image means the world to me, it really does. It’s a personal thank you to the MER team.

And I have to give a shout-out to two special people here – Doug Ellison and Keri Bean. Keri was responsible for sending the commands up to Opportunity to take those images, and Doug was responsible for *taking* them, for making Opportunity’s robot arm move and position the MI camera accurately enough to take the photos. It’s because of Doug that I have been able to follow the MER mission so closely over all these years. He set up the unmannedspaceflight.com forum a the start of the mission, to give rover fans and space enthusiasts a place to hang out and share their images, thoughts and experiences. I applied to join, was accepted, and that was it, my life changed.

And all those years ago Doug was thinking about how Opportunity could take a “self portrait”. It was a dream then, of course. He was “just” a space enthusiast, an amateur image processor, albeit a hugely-talented one, looking in on JPL through the window like the rest of us. Today, thanks to hard work and sheer determination Doug doesn’t just work at JPL, he works on the MER mission, he’s a member of the team, and yesterday he was on shift to watch the images he’d dreamed of taking for so long return to Earth and appear on a screen in front of him. I can’t even begin to imagine how that felt. But I’m so pleased for him, and I know how much yesterday will have meant to him.

Later on, JPL released their own official version of the Sol 5000 self portrait…


So much better than mine! Mind you, they have rather better computers and software than me, and are, you know, genuine rocket scientists (ish) so you’d expect them to make something better 😉 But look at that picture… you can see things I couldn’t get to work on my image, such as the arm of the robot arm and even a wheel over on the lower left. Unbelievable.

I finally got to bed at around 02.30, still buzzing from the events of the night. I set my alarm for 5.30am, wanting to go outside and see Mars shining in the pre-dawn sky, so I could take a photo of it and put that next to my mosaic, but when I looked outside it was cloudy, so I was cheated of that. But a quick check of my phone showed that at least one more image processor had been working on the images sent back by Opportunity. Here is what the brilliant processor James Sorenson produced from them…


Now come on, that’s sorcery or wizardry of some kind, surely!!!

It’s now Saturday morning here in the UK, and as I write this blog post it’s 07.55 on Sol 5001. The historic Sol 5000 has come and gone. Opportunity is now working away on exploring more of Perseverance Valley, blissfully unaware of the craziness and emotion back on Earth yesterday. But looking at those images – mine, JPL’s and James’ – I feel so proud of her, and all the people behind her, I can’t really explain it.

So I’ll just have to hope you can imagine it for yourselves.



I’d just finished writing all of the above when I received a message from James, with a picture attachment… He and space artist Don Davis have worked together – using witchcraft or sorcery or some kind of supernatural power – to add realistic colour to James’ original image, to create something I think is quite magical…

Sorenson Davis

Sorry,  have to go, I’ve got something in my eye…



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1 Response to Opportunity on Sol 5000

  1. B. Remmers says:

    Wow! Thanks to everyone!

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