Opportunity and the 2018 Dust Storm

Typical. TYPICAL. I go away for a week – up to the beautiful Isle of Skye to take in some museums, castles and white sandy beaches – and after virtually ignoring her for years and years the rest of the world suddenly goes crazy about Opportunity! No-one (ok, almost no-one) has cared about her for ages, no-one has been interested in her slow, steady, scientific survey of the rim of Endeavour Crater and, more recently, Perseverance Valley. But when it became clear that the dust storm was putting the rover’s mission in danger suddenly Opportunity was big news; she was all over the internet and all around the world, and every science and space journalist, online and print was suddenly writing about the “brave martian rover struggling to survive on the red planet”. I must admit I couldn’t help thinking “Oi! Where have you all been? Some of us have been following and supporting this incredible mission and the people behind it for a decade and a half…”

While there has been a lot of media support for Opportunity and her team, of course a few reporters have taken the – ahem – opportunity to be snarky about the situation. Well done the New Scientist editor who self-righteously Tweeted their screeching disapproval for people calling Opportunity “Oppy” (listen mate, for a start you don’t get to tell anyone what we can and can’t call things, and also if the MER team itself is happy to use the nickname ‘Oppy’ it’s good enough for us and for anyone, ok?) and the reliably-miserable online commentators who moaned that they were uncomfortable with people referring to space probes as “she”.

It has been great, though, to see such an outpouring of public support and love for Opportunity and her team online. The team has received so many messages of support and encouragement on social media, they must really have been boosted by that at this difficult time.

And it will be a difficult time for them. Because although it’s true that Opportunity is only a machine – a collection of parts made out of metal and glass, wire and plastic – and she has no heart or eyes, no hands or feet, no feelings, no soul, she was designed, built, launched and for the past 14 years driven across Mars by incredible people who have all those things, who have poured their hearts and souls into her for a huge portion of their lives, and those people are hurting a lot right now and you have to be pretty damned heartless not to feel for them.

Also, this is a big deal because Opportunity’s mission has been – and is continuing to be – incredibly successful. For almost a decade and a half she has driven into and out of craters, crossed vast plains of dust, found and studied meteorites, and is now exploring a fascinating valley on the slopes of a huge crater. She has done fantastic science every place she has visited, and was ready to do more, much more, before this dust storm enveloped her. If her mission ends this way it will be tragic, and we will have been cheated out of a lot more discoveries.

So, no, Opportunity is not alive. But she was built with dreams and hope as much as she was built with spanners and lathes, and although she has no heart beating inside her she thrums with the heartbeats of the many thousands of people who put her together, guide her and follow her. It will be a long time beforw people stride across the ruddy surface of Mars, and until then robots will be our astronauts. Opportunity’s wheels are our boots, crumping across the Martian desert; her camera are our eyes, scanning the horizon, awed by Mars’ beauty; her robot arm’s instruments are our hands, reaching down to trail our fingers through the dust.

For the past 14 years this little rover has been our Martian Ansell Adams, roaming the Martian wilderness, stopping here and there to drink in the scenery and take photographs showing the raw, rugged beauty of Mars, which will be, whatever some people say, the next frontier.

Many of us have huge respect for her and, yes I suppose, love for her too. To think of losing her in this way is genuinely upsetting. I can’t imagine how helpless and useless the rover team must be feeling.

So, Opportunity is a machine, yes, but not just a machine. She is one of us, if you’re ‘into’ space or not. And that’s why this is ‘a big deal’.

Anyway, the latest news is that Opportunity is currently still asleep on Mars, or the next best thing to it. Not because – as some breathless reports are claiming, wrongly – she is covered or blanketed with dust. She isn’t. At a NASA teleconference held last week senior experts on the MER team made it very clear that Opportunity has only a very light dusting of dust, she isn’t smothered by it. The problem is the sky. It is so choked with dust that the Sun – which powers her – is hidden from her view so she can’t recharge her batteries. To save what energy she has left she has shut down almost all her systems to save power, apart from her internal clock.

But those senior experts said in that teleconference last week that they are confident Opportunity will get through this. They hve calculated that the dust blocking the sunlight will actually help stop Opportunity getting so cold that she can’t wake up, and it’s really just a matter of time, a case of waiting out the dust storm and then waking Opportunity up and getting her fighting fit again. There’s an easy way of doing that, and a much harder way, but the team are not weeping wailing, there’s no gnashing of teeth or tearing of hair. It’s just a “wait and see what happens” situation at the moment. The team is helpless, we’re helpless, and Oppy herself is helpless. As the dust storm grows and grows – it’s now covering much of the planet, and has darkened Curiosity’s sky too (but that rover is nuclear powered, not solar powered, so it’s not such a big deal for it or its team) – all we can do is wait for nature to run its course and for the storm to blow itself out. And it will. Eventually Opportunity’s sky will start to brighten, the Sun will reappear, and then the team will do what they do best, what they have done for the past 14 years: get Opportunity roving again.

If you want a really – and I mean really – comprehensive update on Opportunity’s current situation you have to read this excellent report by space journalist AJS Rayl, who has been chronicling Opportunity’s mission on a blog on the Planetary Society website for a long time.

Wow, that’s a lot of writing! Let’s look at some photos…

Firstly, here’s the last image Opportunity sent back before she shut down. It’s a pancam image taken on June 10th, but the scene around Oppy was so dark, the sky so clogged with dust, that it is just blank, apart from some electronic noise – in fact, the whole image wasn’t transmitted, hence the black area at the bottom…

1P581919922EFFD2FCP2682L8M1 june 10 2018

I think that’s a really sad and quite powerful image, don’t you? I’m sure it won’t be the last image ever taken on Mars by Opportunity though.

And here’s my (probably totally inaccurate) artistic impression of what Opportunity might have been seeing as the sky clogged up with dust as the storm rolled over Endeavour crater…

Screenshot_20180614-003530b

Now, here’s a very special treat. I am hugely indebted to image processor extraordinaire Sean Doran who has been creating breathtaking images of Mars (and other planets) for  a long time, with levels of skill, accuracy and artistic flair I will never, ever come close to having myself. Sean regularly posts his work on social media, and he has very generously sent me high resolution versions of some of his latest images. These show very accurately exactly where Opportunity is in relation to Endeavour crater, and really show how tiny she is in such a huge, epic landscape… You’ll want to click on these to enlarge them, trust me…

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Oppy Sol 5100 context B

Thanks Sean!

So… here we are… waiting. Waiting for a new image, or just a bleep, or an uptick of a trace on a graph on a screen… We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

Keep checking back for more news.

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