Ten years on the road…

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Ten years ago – well, ten years and five days ago to be precise – I sat down to begin this blog. By that time Opportunity had already been on Mars for four years or so, and I’d walked by her every step of the way, reporting on her incredible journey across Mars now and then on my main “Cumbrian Sky” blog. As time allowed, and using images I processed myself from the “raw” images released by the MER team I wrote about her initial exploration of Eagle Crater after her amazing “cosmic hole in one” landing’; I reported on her arrival at Victoria Crater after all those months of slogging across the desert like C3PO and R2D2 crossing the desert on Tatooine; I told my readers how Opportunity found meteorites, watched sunsets and sunrises, and how she photographed the landscape like a robotic Ansel Adams.

But when Opportunity set off for Endeavour – on what many people considered to be a futile expedition across the shifting dust dunes of the Meridiani Plain – I decided that I wanted to do more than just write about her now and again; I wanted to chronicle her trek properly, in the depth and detail it deserved. As I sat down to open up WordPress and chose the fonts, layout and structure of my new blog I thought that after a couple of years, maybe three, perhaps even four, my blogging would come to an end as Oppy’s trek came to an end and she rolled slowly to a halt, her mission ended by some kind of mechanical failure, software glitch or just plain old age.

Surprise…!

Yes, to my amazement, and delight, I’m still here, writing “The Road To Endeavour” a decade after writing the first post.

I’ll be honest – I didn’t think I would be. I thought Oppy would have “gone to live on another farm” years ago by now. Mars just doesn’t like having visitors, and does its best to kill them once they’ve arrived, so as I sat down to set up this blog I had no idea that I’d still be reporting on Opportunity’s mission all these years and all these miles later. But I’m glad I am. Opportunity means a lot to me – as do her team. I followed the MER mission from the very beginning, from the initial announcement that a pair of rovers would be going to Mars, through their design and construction and on to their launches, and after each landed safely I devoured every image they sent back, and – in my heart at least – walked alongside each of them as they trundled across Barsoom, seeing new amazing things every day.

As I’ve said before, in many ways the MER mission is my Apollo. I only remember the latter crewed missions to the Moon, from 14 onwards, and by that time there was already a feeling that the Apollo adventure was coming to an end. People talked of pushing on, of sending people to Mars, but those plans all came to nothing, and instead of sending men and women to the Red Planet we sent robots in our place. By the time I was a teenager sending people to Mars was as much a fantasy again as it had been when I was starting school. Yes, beautiful snow-white space shuttles were flying, a space stsation was being designed, and robot probes were being sent out to explore the solar system with great success, but it was clear there would be no boots on Mars for a long time.

The MER mission gave me, and many like me, the chance to explore Mars virtually. Thanks to the brave decision by the MER team to release their rovers’ raw images on the internet almost as soon as they were taken, instead of hording them, we were able to see new scenes from Mars every day. We watched far horizons approach and fall behind us, replaced by new ones. The MER rovers’ unblinking cameras were our eyes staring out from oyur helmets; their wheels were our feet, crumping across the martian plains, leaving bootprints in our wake; their robot arms were our gloved hands, reaching down to pluck rocks off the ground and lift them up to see them more closely.

When Spirit became trapped and then perished I felt gutted, I honestly did. It seemed SO unfair to lose her in that way. But when she had gone I still had Opportunity, and I made it my mission to write about her for as long as she kept going. I just didn’t expect to still be doing it ten YEARS later…!

Over the past ten years Opportunity has seen, and done, a lot. Against all the odds she reached Endeavour Crater, making landfall at Spirit Point before setting off on what many saw as a whole new mission – the exploration of the hills, ridges, peaks and valleys of the rim of Endeavour, the largest crater she had encountered so far and in all likelyhood will ever visit on Mars. Since she rolled up onto Spirit Point Opportunity has driven many kilometres and made many more discoveries, and through her eyes we have seen startling sights sunrise after sunrise, sunset after sunset. Standing beside Opportunity we have all stared up at acandyfloss clouds drifting across the huge pink sky and stared out across Endeavour to the other side of the crater, at tall hills we will never draw any closer to and never climb. Endeavour has become a home for us as it has for Opportunity.

Of course, this is a dark time for followers of Opportunity. It’s now 183 long, lonely, silent days since she last phoned home. When a global dust storm curdled her sky and blotted out the Sun Oppy’s power levels plummeted and eventually she fell asleep – and despite the best recovery efforts of her team she has been asleep ever since. Will she wake? No-one knows. The MER team are still calling out to her and listening for her reply, day after day, but so far all they have heard is silence. She may be dead. She might have gone. But we have hope, all of us, and we will not lose that hope until it is clear there is no chance of Opportunity coming back to us.

It was tempting to write a 10th anniversary post looking back at my special memories of Opportunity’s mission, but I thought “What’s the point? They’re all on the blog already, people can find them if they want.” So instead I invited members of the MER team, past and present, to tell me – and you – about their special memories. As usual, many responded with great generosity and enthusiasm.

Here’s what they told me…

My most memorable moment was Sol 5000 and the rover selfie. It’s not everyday we get to 5000 days of operations for a vehicle, especially this one with only a 90 day mission design. The team had been planning for about a month on something special we could do for that day, and we ended up on talking a sunrise image on Sol 4999 and then the selfie on Sol 5000. Doug Ellison had previously modeled the selfie sequence and he and Ashley Stroupe had it built and ready to go that morning. It was one of those really fun sequencing days, and I remember when the data was schedule to come down, I had Keri Bean and Doug Ellison sitting in my office watching the data as it started hitting the ground, then all of us running over to the SMSA when Hallie Gengl called that she had the images and a partial mosaic already built.

20180418_sol_5000_only_f840

Needless to say, it worked out spectacularly, and the team had a really neat outreach image to share with the public, and we all got to see the rover for the first time on Mars … really special moment after 14 years of operations.Michael Staab, Spacecraft Systems Engineer, Lead Dust-Storm Systems Engineer, and Flight Director.

It is SO hard to pick any one memory! One that stands out is when we were all at our team meeting in January 2014, it was in Washington DC at the Smithsonian that year. Then in the science planning meeting someone pointed out that there was a rock in our work volume that hadn’t been there before! That was the so-called “jelly doughnut” that we named Pinnacle Island.

Sol3541B_P2595_1_True_RAD

That incident was noteworthy both because it was so odd to have a rock just turn up like that, but also because it was one of those rare instances that most of the science team was together in person. That rock was also very interesting in terms of its multispectral properties and in terms of its chemistry with a manganese oxide coating and sulfate-rich materials. Of course, we later figured out that it was flipped over by a turn-in-place maneuver, but there was some wacky speculation on the internet. In terms of my role on the team, I am an Athena science team member (got on as a Participating Scientist in 2002). I have contributed as a member of the Mineralogy/Geochemistry science theme group and as a Pancam Payload Downlink Lead. I’ve also been the principal author of several peer-reviewed publications on Pancam multispectral imaging results.Bill Farrand (“I am an Athena science team member (got on as a Participating Scientist in 2002). I have contributed as a member of the Mineralogy/Geochemistry science theme group and as a Pancam Payload Downlink Lead. I’ve also been the principal author of several peer-reviewed publications on Pancam multispectral imaging results.”)

You know, the first image that comes to mind isn’t one *from* Opportunity, it’s an image *of* Opportunity: that first HiRISE of Opportunity sitting on the edge of Victoria crater still gives me chills. When we launched her, we never thought we’d see her again — and then suddenly, there she was. I was there when we got an advance preview of the image from Squyres in the middle of a planning day, and for all of us it was a startling new perspective on a rover we already knew so well.

3 oct 2006 b

But for images *from* Opportunity … oh, there are so many to choose from. But I’ll be selfish: I’d choose any of the NAVCAMs we took of her tracks after we started doing backward autonav, the ones with the characteristic little “notches” that you yourself referred to as our footprints on Mars. (As you know but some of your readers might not, the “notches” came from small turns in place Opportunity had to do when looking back over her own shoulder to take the autonav images. If she didn’t turn, her own low-gain antenna would block her view.) I invented that technique and I’m absurdly proud of it; it helped us reach Endeavour Crater weeks or months earlier, so that there was time to do the research that turned into a Science paper they specifically crowed about when asking for another mission extension. Needless to say, they got the extension. 🙂 And I’m sure they would have gotten it even without that paper, but I’m proud of my role just the same. – — Scott Maxwell, Mars Rover Driver Team Lead (Emeritus).

 

I was wondering what to tell you, because obviously being TUL for sol 5000 and our first selfie was amazing and my first shift where I got to do the RP job was amazing even if I accidentally started the global dust storm with that RAT brush.  But honestly it’s more about working with the team. And our team mascots, the porgs! – Keri Bean, Rover Driver

There are two images that stand out: There was a navcam of the tracks right after egressing Victoria Crater. Paolo had driven Opportunity out right over the ingress tracks. Due to the soft dust at the edge, it looked like ski tracks. My dad really liked the image so there is a print of it hanging in the den at my parents house. The second is the image of the RAT and US flag atop Cape Tribulation. It took many many kilometers to reach the Eastern summit of Endeavour. I was lucky to be on shift the day we imaged the RAT. Thankfully I had paid attention to how Scott Maxwell and Julie Townsend sequenced the imaging of the RAT for Sept. 11, 2011. It is extremely likely this will be as close to raising the stars and stripes on another planet as I will get in my lifetime. It was amazing to be part of the effort to get Opportunity to that point, even more so to be in the RP seat that day (I was shadowing RP1). A few days later when tweeted the RAT image from ISS I was astounded. Something we had worked on for so long was noticed by folks actually flying in space. – Mike Seibert Former Lead Flight Director for Opportunity. Responsible for the health and safety of the rover and for training and leading the mission’s flight directors in doing the same. Former Senior Rover Driver. Commanded 2175m of driving with Opportunity (per Paolo who maintains the list)

My favorite Opportunity image is the deck pan showing the solar panels before and after dust cleaning. I can’t remember the sols…do you remember that split screen image? I had just started working at JPL when Mars Pathfinder landed. I remember jealously watching the EDL engineers happily hugging and crying their success. I wanted to have a happy hug and cry moment too! I thought I would have my chance with the Mars Polar Lander, but that hugging and crying was missing the “happy”. Years later I joined MER, but not until a year after EDL. In 2007, we were so nervous about losing Opportunity in the planet encircling dust storm that we had planned 4 sols between downlinks. The array energy was getting worse as the storm intensified. The four sols was a very long wait. Then we received telemetry and the storm was abating! I finally had my happy hug and cry!Jennifer Herman, MER Power subsystem operations team lead.

Can I cheat and say ‘see the Sol 5000 selfie story I wrote for TPS’? http://www.planetary.org/blogs/guest-blogs/2018/20180420-opportunity-selfie-5000.htmlDoug Ellison

Some wonderful memories there. Thanks to everyone who sent me their contributions, I really appreciate it.

As for my own special memories, well, two spring to mind. Firstly, when Opportunity was approaching Victoria Crater. At first all we could see was a dark line on the horizon, up ahead, and then suddenly that line opened up and became a hole, a gaping chasm in the ground – we had made it, we had reached Victoria Crater and it was more incredible and beautiful than we’d dared hope…

1500px-Victoria_Crater,_Cape_Verde-Mars

And the other? That night when I sat there watching the small, fuzzy MI frames of the “Sol 5000 Selfie” come down. My heart was pounding in my chest when I saw them appear, and I downloaded them as quickly as I could and set about stitching them into the self portrait. My efforts were very crude, incredibly crude compared to the images that would be produced later by more skilled image processors, but it didn’t matter, I knew I had to try… and then suddenly the last tiny frame slotted into place and there she was: Opportunity, my brave, weary girl, standing on the surface of Mars, the first time I – or anyone else – had really seen her properly since she had been folded up inside the clean room at JPL.

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I’ll admit I got very emotional when I saw that. In my head, and in my heart, I’d walked alongside Oppy for every one of the previous 5000 sols, and now I was standing in front of here, there, on Mars, on that historic day.

What happens next we cannot know. Opportunity will either wake up, or she won’t. If she does, she will hopefully stretch, yawn, open her gritty eyes and after a suitable period of rest roll on to make more discoveries over new horizons. If she doesn’t, well, we will be sad, heartbroken even, but we will have all these years of memories. And if we hear soon that all hope is lost, that there is just nothing more anyone can do, then I’ll go outside, seek out Mars shining in the night sky, and wish her the fondest of farewells.

And whatever age I live to, I will always remember the decade and a half when I walked across the cinnamon sands of Mars with a rover called Opportunity.

 

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4 Responses to Ten years on the road…

  1. And I’ve walked beside you for these ten years!
    Thank you so much for this blog.

  2. Rick Qualls says:

    Thank you so much for your hard work over the years! I will miss your blog.

  3. Timo van Buuren says:

    cinnamon sands. I like that.

  4. Xabrueira says:

    I will miss too your blog and our beloved rover, of couse!

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