Rolling towards Sol 5000

The latest images to come back from Opportunity are from Sol 4997. Now, I’m rubbish at maths but even I can work out that that means she is now just three days from reaching a HUGE milestone – her 5000th sol on Mars. Sol 5000. Sol FIVE THOUSAND. Of a mission we hoped would last 90 days.

NASA had better make a bloody big deal about this amazing achievement. There had better be special press releases, tributes all over social media, the works. If they don’t pay Oppportunity, her designers, drivers and engineers the proper respect they all deserve it will be a huge insult to the mission and all the people who have worked so hard on it over the years.

I guess we’ll see… πŸ™‚

In the meantime, Opportunity – unconcerned with milestones or anniversaries herself – continues to quietly explore Perseverance Valley on the inner slope of Endeavour Crater. Here are my latest processed images…

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Three days to go… Sol 5000 is on the horizon…

 

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Have fun, Keri!

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Today is a very special day for a very special person, who I know reads this blog. Today, after years and years of unbelievably hard work, JPL’s Keri Bean will become a Mars rover driver, and will take Opportunity’s wheel as she explores Perseverance Valley.

I’ve been friends with Keri online, via Twitter, for quite a while now, and it’s been fascinating – and humbling – to follow her career progress. I think I can honestly say I know how much today will mean to her when NASA hands her Oppy’s keys. She has worked so hard for this she will be shining (and possibly shaking, too!) when she sits down and gets down to work. Keri is a huge Star Wars fan – actually “huge” doesn’t even come close! – so no doubt she will be surrounded by photos of Rey and Leia and a cuddly Porg or two. And I’m pretty sure there’ll be an R2D2 or two close by too…

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I’m not going to wish Keri luck, because she won’t need it. She got where she is today because of her dedication, hard work and determination, and she’ll only be more dedicated, work harder and be more determined now she’s in that driver’s seat. Instead, I’ll wish Keri – on behalf of all this blog’s readers – the very, very best of days, and great success for the future. I’m sure that in the weeks, months and hopefully years to come Keri will help steer our amazing girl safely down Perseverance Valley and to wonderful places further along the road.

So, Keri, have a fantastic day – and this post, and the following images of your new workplace, are dedicated to you!

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Go get ’em, Keri!

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Oi! NASA! Not EVERYONE wants a global dust storm, thank you…!

I must admit I was more than a little narked the other day when I saw this rather breathless NASA post on Twitter…

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I read that and my first thought was “…but what about Opportunity????

( You remember Opportunity, NASA? That rover you landed on Mars 14 years ago? The one that is STILL working? The one that is SOLAR-POWERED and would probably DIE if a global storm darkened the martian sky and dumped a great load of dust on its SOLAR PANELS? Ah, yes. That one… )

I’m sure that “experts” who find dust storms and martian meteorology fascinating would love to see the Red Planet temporarily turned into the Featureless Ochre Planet, because then they could see how the atmosphere behaves when it’s choked with martian dust, and how that dust eventually settles out onto the surface again. Such a storm wouldn’t affect nuclear-powered Curiosity very much. It would slow her down, yes, and darken her skies, probably stop her taking images and force her to hunker down while the dust swirled and whirled around her, but when the storm had blown itself out she’d just trundle on and continue dustily on her way. Opportunity, on the other hand, would probably not make it out of such a global event alive. With her solar arrays covered with dust her power levels would drop like a stone and she would find it very hard to keep functioning. She too would have to hunker down, and all we could do here on Earth would be to watch the skies in her images get darker and darker until the sky itself vanished, and then cross our fingers that she came out the other side…

So, NASA, please try and remember that you have another rover on Mars and that it needs sunlight to keep doing amazing science and taking, and sending back, beautiful images. Not everyone would welcome Barsoom being smothered in dust, thank you…

Here are my latest colourisations and mosaics…

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  • Please note this is an affectionate, tongue-in-cheek post, so don’t fire-off any snarky comments… I know NASA loves Opportunity really…Β  Well, some people at NASA do… πŸ˜‰
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Coming up on Sol 5000…

When Opportunity was being designed, and then built, and as she was mounted on top of her rocket and then blasted from Earth, exiled to Mars, it was hoped that she would land safely and then survive for up to 90 days on the surface before failing in some way. As she flew to Mars we all pondered what might happen to her, what might end her mission. Maybe a computer glitch would claim her, or a piece of her would fail mechanically? Maybe Mars itself would kill her, by smothering her solar panels with dust, or breaking a wheel with a jagged rock? When she landed we watched her drive off her landing platform and trundle enthusiastically over to a band of finely-layered rocks, protruding from the crater wall like the fossilised bones of some ancient martian dinosaur, and celebrated when they turned out to be rocks altered by water – exactly what she had come to Mars to search for, and there they were, right in front of her nose!

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And then, as Opportunity got down to work, we waited. Like schoolkids repeatedly staring at the clock as they sit an exam, or patients nervously checking their watches as they sit in a dentist’s waiting room we watched the sols tick by… ten… Twenty… Fifty…

We watched through our fingers as Opportunity approached the 90 sols line… and then crossed it. Nothing bad happened. She didn’t fall apart like a clown car. No wheels popped off to cartwheel across the martian desert, bouncing and boinging from rock to rock. Her camera mast didn’t sway and topple like the mast of a Royal navy warship hit by a cannonball during a great sea battle. She didn’t grind to a halt as her computer failed, sending her into an endless hibernation, like some martian Sleeping Beauty. She just kept going, and going, and going. She headed for, reached and explored one crater after another. She found meteorites sitting on the dusty ground like martian sculptures. She survived dust storms, harsh winters, and everything Mars could throw at her. And the sols ticked by…

But every time we went online to check out her latest images, and to see how far she had driven since the last time we’d checked, we wondered “Is today the day? Is today the day the images are blurry, or on their side, showing something has gone badly wrong, or there are no images at all? Is today the Today NASA announces that Opportunity has perished through the night, and that’s it, game over?”

Today is “Sol 4,984” for Opportunity. That means she has been on Mars for 4,984 martian days, because martian days are referred to as “sols”.

Just look at that number again… 4,984.Β  4… 9… 8… 4.Β  Opportunity has been working – driving, studying, exploring, doing amazing science – for four THOUSAND, nine HUNDRED and EIGHTY FOUR days on Mars. And before we know it, barring any catastrophes, Opportunity will have been on Mars for FIVE THOUSAND DAYS.

It’s easy to put this down to Opportunity being “an incredible machine”, a technological marvel that has, like some charismatic Star Wars droid, totally independant and reliant on itself, faced and beaten the odds to survive this long in a hostile environment. That’s a lovely, romantic image, and one I have in my own head, I’ll admit. Time and time again in this blog, and in my writings and Outreach talks elsewhere over the years I have given Opportunity human qualities, feelings and resilience, and I’m okay with that; it helps non-astronomers and the general public to identify with the mission, feel involved with it, and generally “get it”.

But Opportunity is not alive. She is a machine, a construction of metal, wires and glass. Although she has some capacity for making decisions about where to drive, to she is no angst-ridden, poetry-writing AI. She is no martian Roy Batty. She has no free will, no sense of stubbornness or defiance. She has no more sense of identity or mortality, no more sense of pride or shame, no more sense of fear or bravery than the laptop, computer, phone or tablet you are reading this blog post on.

Sometimes, when reflecting on Opportunity’s ongoing success, praising her apparent immortality, we need to remind ourselves that Opportunity has only reached Sol 4,984 because of people back on Earth. She has been kept alive by the incredible work, dedication and professionalism of men and women at JPL, and elsewhere, who have worked hard all these years to drive her safely across Mars, to steer her around obstacles and between wonders. She is still sending back images only because people here on Earth work hard daily to keep her computers healthy and to maintain her communications link with Earth. She is now within touching distance of Sol 5000 only because people have fought tooth and nail for the funding needed to keep her driving across the cinnamon-sands of Mars.

Opportunity has been on Mars for fourteen years now, operated, nurtured and protected for all that time by incredible people. Out here we just see the photos of martian rocks, crater floors and pink skies take by Opportunity as she trundles about, ancient martian stones popping and scrunching beneath her wheels. What we don’t see are all the human stories behind them. Not just the years of study and exams needed to get to a position where you can even apply to join such an incredible project, but the subsequent years of training needed to learn how to do the job properly and then better. And outside of work, all the personal and family sacrifices endured over the years: the missed birthday parties and holidays, the missed school plays, music recitals, and more.

There will be people who joined the MER team as young, starry-eyed students who are now adults, married, with children. Experienced engineers, technicians and analysts who joined the mission after launch will now have grand-kids running around their legs when they visit their own children.

To the public space missions are short. A rocket goes up, and sends a probe to somewhere else. The probe then goes about its business, and eventually stops working, end of story. But to the people involved in those missions, they are like the generation ships beloved in science fiction. The people – the crew – that set off on the mission – the ship – will almost certainly not be the ones who see its end. People come and go during the lifetime of a space mission, and MER has been no different. Only one of the drivers skilfully guiding Opportunity down the channels of Perseverance Valley today was at the wheel to drive her off the ramp after she landed in Eagle Crater, almost a decade and a half ago; they are not all the same team who steered her to and then into Victoria Crater, before she set off on her long trek across the great Meridiani desert to Endeavour Crater, where she is now, sending back beautiful views like this…

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So, this blog post is a personal THANK YOU to all the people involved in the MER missions, past and present, who have looked after our brave girl all these years. She is a fine rover, and is now essentially a martian, seeing as she has been on Mars far longer than she was on Earth. She might not have a physical heart of her own, but she carries the hearts of the hundreds, probably thousands of people who have made her the success she is.

Thank you.

 

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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; theΒ  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 πŸ™‚

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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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The anniversary approaches…

Not long to go now until the 14th anniversary of Opportunity’s landing on Mars, and obviously there’ll be a big post here then to celebrate that. In the meantime, here’s another round-up of my latest processed images, showing the channels and rocks of Perseverance Valley.

All images Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell / Stuart Atkinson

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At Year’s End…

So, here we are, the last day of 2017… and Opportunity is still with us, still exploring, still roving on Mars. In January it will be 14 years since she landed on the Red Planet… 14 years… amazing… For a rover that we hoped would survive for 90 days on Mars, she’s done pretty well… πŸ™‚

Opportunity ends 2017 in good shape, slowly but carefully surveying Perseverance Valley in the inner slope of Endeavour Crater. As I thought might be the case, the Valley has turned out to be more of a series of quite visually-unexciting shallow, meandering channels rather than steep-walled gullies. But that’s ok. The appeal of the Valley is scientific, not aesthetic; Opportunity is there for the science, not the sight-seeing. Perseverance Valley is full of questions – how old is it? What sculpted it? What different kinds of rocks does it contain? Opportunity is answering those questions by carefully conducting a survey of the area, as any human geologist would. So, although the landscape isn’t the most thrilling she has visited and trundled through, it’s a very important location, and in the months and years ahead the Valley will come to life via scientific papers, talks and presentations. Which is, basically, how science works…

So, to end the year, a “catch up” of images I’ve been making recently, which show what the Valley is really like. I hope you find them interesting.

And 2018? What will that bring for Opportunity? More exploring of Perseverance Valley, definitely, before moving on down to the crater floor and heading south for new features, new views and new scientific discoveries within and around Endeavour, all of which I’ll cover here, of course. Maybe 2018 will also see NASA treating Opportunity with more respect, covering her mission in more detail and paying as much attention to her as they do to her big sister, Curiosity? Maybe, after ignoring her for many, many months, the HiRISE camera team will finally take another image of her, and we’ll see her there in Perseverance Valley?

Well, we live in hope…

Maybe 2018 will be the year we finally lose Opportunity? As much as we want her to, she can’t last forever; Mars will eventually claim her, just as it did Spirit and all the landers and rovers before her. Perhaps at some point next year I’ll go on to Twitter or Facebook – bleary-eyed, first thing in the morning, before going to work, or during the evening when I’m back home and should be doing something more constructive – and will read that contact has been lost with Opportunity? Maybe there will then follow several anxious days when her controllers try desperately to contact her, without success… and then, at a hastily-arranged press conference, we’ll hear an announcement from NASA that her mission has ended..?

Maybe. But I don’t think so. I think Opportunity’s best days are still ahead of her.

And so 2017 ends… I’d like to thank all of my regular visitors for supporting the blog by coming here, and for showing your support for Opportunity by simply reading the posts. This blog has been going for over 9 YEARS now, which must make it one of the longest-running MER-related blogs on the internet..? I hope you all have a wonderful 2018 – and keep stopping by to see how Opportunity is doing. I don’t think any of us are ready to say goodbye to her yet… πŸ™‚

Thanks everyone!

Stuart Atkinson

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