Thirteen years on Mars

Just over eight years ago, on December 4th 2008, around teatime I think it was, I started this blog.

I had hummed and haah’d about it for a couple of days, not sure if I should or shouldn’t take it on; after all, I’d been covering the missions of the Mars Exploration Rovers “Spirit” and “Opportunity” on my everyday blog, “Cumbrian Sky”, perfectly well ever since their arrival on Mars back in 2004. But by December 2008, Opportunity – by then the only MER still roving Mars, after poor Spirit had got stuck in that damned dust trap next to Homeplate – had reached a milestone on Mars and, literally, a turning point in her mission: after reaching Victoria Crater 950 days after her incredible “hole in one” landing in Eagle Crater, and exploring it for around 720 days, going on a “grand tour” of her crumbling capes and sloping bays, Oppy had finally left Victoria Crater and was heading south towards another, much bigger crater – Endeavour. The appeal of Endeavour was that it was much older than Victoria, and deeper too, so exploring it would allow the scientists on the MER team to peer deeper into Mars’s past and learn a lot about how it had changed. So, the plan was to steam south and aim for a long, thin range of hills making up the crater’s rim

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The problem – as you can see from the map above – was Endeavour was more than 20km away from Victoria, i.e. ridiculously far away, a good couple of years’ drive away at best, so far away that it had been visible from Victoria as a few bumps on the distant horizon (click on the image below to enlarge it and you’ll see the bumps of Endeavour on the skyline)…

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But Oppy was essentially done at Victoria; hanging around any longer would basically mean the rover – which was in great health – just repeating the same science over and over.  So it made sense for her to be sent somewhere else… but Endeavour? Really? Well, yes, Endeavour, because basically there was nowhere else to go, not nearby anyway. And over there, far, far away, was a crater that was almost screaming out “Come here!!! Come explore me!!!” It was a very, very ambitious move, and many  scientists, journalists and “rover huggers” had serious doubts that she would get even a small part of the way to the crater before she failed for some reason – a mechanical failure, a software fault, something else – and her mission ended.

But, again, there was nowhere else for her to go…

I had a decision to make – should I keep covering Oppy’s mission on my existing blog, or start a new one wholly dedicated to covering the rover’s “incredible journey” trek south to Endeavour? I’ll admit, as big a fan of the mission as I was, I was one of those who had real doubts about Oppy’s chances of getting to Endeavour. But it promised to be such an exciting adventure, a real “against the odds” epic, that I thought ‘What the hell!” and set up this new blog, fully expecting to be finishing it a couple of years later when Mars finally murdered Oppy and the MER mission came to an end.

So, off Opportunity set, heading south. And as she headed south Endeavour’s bumps, on the distant horizon, grew larger and larger, closer and closer. By the time she had reached Santa Maria crater we could see a lot of Endeavour’s topography on the horizon…

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Onwards Opportunity steamed, and the hills of Endeavour began to rear up ahead of her…

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And every day, every single day, those of us following the mission half-expected it to be The Day it all ended, the day we read that something had happened to Oppy to stop her in her tracks so tantalisingly close to her goal…

But, as you all know, not only did Opportunity reach Endeavour – making landfall on the end of Cape York on August 9th 2011, or Sol 2681, more than 1000 sols after leaving Victoria – she went mountain climbing once she got there, driving up onto and then along the range of hills marking her ancient rim. As she climbed she looked down on Endeavour Crater and back down along the track she had taken…

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And Oppy kept driving, along the top of the hills towards and then into a valley cut out of the crater rim…

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More than eight years later Opportunity is still roving… and this blog is still going…

Here’s one of the very latest images sent back by Oppy (actually a mosaic of two images, but you know what I mean)…

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She is now slowly but surely working her way back up the steep slopes she descended to enter Marathon Valley. Once she gets to the top of the terrain you can see on that panorama she will begin heading down the other side of the hills and then rove south with the aim of reaching and exploring a gully cut out of the crater rim by running water millennia ago.

…and this week, on Wednesday, we’ll see the 13th anniversary of Opportunity landing on Mars. Not bad for a rover that we hoped, when she landed all those years ago, would last maybe 90 days and drive a kilometre before dying.

But what does all this matter? So what if a robot has been tootling around on Mars for the past 13 years?

Well, on a very basic, very practical level it matters because it’s an amazing technical achievement. It was an amazing achievement landing Opportunity safely on Mars in the first place, but to have kept her safe and healthy and driving on Mars all these years, to keep her going through dust storms, mechanical problems and more is just a stunning achievement.

But even more important is the science. Opportunity has made countless important discoveries as she has roved Mars, hopscotching from crater to crater finding something new at every stop. She has found and studied meteorites. She has observed the weather. She has done all this, and so much more. “Curiosity”, Oppy’s bigger, sexier, more powerful nuclear-powered sister might get all the NASA headlines, and the media spotlight shines on her regularly, but Opportunity has kept working away, making discovery after discovery. To say I’m proud of her, and her team, is a huge understatement.

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(above: one of my “artist impressions” of sunset behind the hills of Endeavour)

But even more important, perhaps, is what Opportunity represents. The whole MER mission is a beacon of hope and light in a time when scientific ignorance is seen as acceptable, even cool.

Lots has changed since Opportunity landed on Mars. The internet was a mewling infant when Oppy boinged and bounced into Eagle Crater; now it dominates our lives (Facebook launched a couple of weeks *after* Opportunity landed, and the birth of Twitter was still two years away). No drones buzzed in the sky like angry bees back in 2004, and electric cars were still pretty much the stuff of science fiction, as was AI. At the cinema we were watching “The Incredibles”, “Shrek 2” and “Anchorman”, then curled up on our sofas back home to watch “Desperate Housewives” or the reboot of “Battlestar Galactica”.

And, generally, people loved science, and respected and believed and trusted the people who did science.

My, how things have changed. Today scientists and their work are ridiculed at best and abused at worst. Politicians challenge or ignore their climate change studies and recommendations, and scientists who dedicate decades of their lives to creating vaccines to cure terrible diseases find themselves accused of lying and being stooges for “Big Pharma”. They are even accused of concealing cures for cancer and other godawful diseases.

And it seems more and more to me like astronomy in particular is now a target rich zone for not only bad reporting but, let’s be frank here, totally made up bullshit clickbait garbage. Every new asteroid found is reported as a possible threat to Earth – and if an asteroid is predicted to pass us by several million miles, many times further away than the Moon, some “reporters” hype it up ridiculously, writing with glee that it will “skim past the Earth” so close it will ruffle our hair, and could even hit us, and wipe out all life on Earth, if it were to “change course”. Some “reporters” basically turn every astronomy story that they come across into armageddonporn, and put it out online with terrifying melodramatic click-bait headlines to increase the number of hits on their publication’s website.

Mars seems to be the GoTo planet for ridiculous stories that are just utterly impossible and so pathetically ignorant of basic science that it’s shocking. What makes it even worse is that many of the people writing these stories know, absolutely, without any doubt, that they are writing rubbish, but they carry on doing it anyway, each story more stoopid than the last. Here are some recent examples from one of the most widely-read British publications. I’ve blacked out names and links to the stories because I don’t want to add to their readership.

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Faces on martian rocks… spoons… ancient nuclear wars.. dinosaur skulls… all utter, utter rubbish, and anyone who knows the basic facts about past and present conditions on Mars knows that. And if you don’t know those basic facts, you can learn that these stories are scientifically impossible with just a couple of minutes’ research on Google. If you want to. If you actually want to know the truth.

This kind of trash used to be confined to such publications as The National Enquirer, and people viewed it as entertainment, but in recent years the “mainstream media” has started posting stories like these on their websites and more and more people are buying into it.  In fact, there’s now a whole community of people who scour images sent back from martian orbiters, landers and rovers looking for “anomalies” – and they find them, by the dozen. Faces, pyramids, towers, and more. But they only find them when they blow up parts of images so much that they become pixellated messes, and then they convince themselves that the dots, squiggles and blurs are whatever they want them to be.Again, they could learn that their “discoveries” are scientifically impossible with just a few clicks of their mouse or taps on their screen, but they choose not to do that.

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Now, some of those people are no doubt disturbed individuals who have real mental problems, and I feel sorry for them. Others are con-merchants simply out to get clicks on their websites to earn money through advertising. Still others are simply liars who love to spread disinformation. And yet others are deluded conspiracy theorists who gather in forums to share their ridiculous theories and discoveries, or write ranting blog posts in UPPER CASE, or make crappy YouTube videos spouting their nonsense.  I have no time for them and my opposition to them is well known and I make no apology for it.

As for the “reporters” who write and spread garbage about martian spoons, and dinosaur skulls and worse, well, I have nothing but contempt for them and genuinely wonder if, in their quieter moments, when they read back what they’ve just written – and wonder what happened to their young reporter dreams of writing stories that changed the world and made a difference – they’re actually ashamed of what they do.

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But they’ll keep doing it because there’s a market and a readership for it, which is sad and infuriating. If they spent half the time writing about the actual science of the mission as they do making up or reporting woowoo crap everyone would be a lot better off.

And if you’re reading this thinking “Oh, it doesn’t matter, stop taking it so seriously – it’s just rubbish and they’re just idiots!” well, yes, they are idiots, but it matters because people read their rubbish and because it’s in “the media” they take it seriously. Because we’ve tolerated this garbage for so long and just tutted disapprovingly at it, there are now people who genuinely believe that the Moon landings were faked and that the Earth is flat; because we’ve just sat back and let them write their garbage unchallenged for so long I actually stood beside the Apollo 10 Command Module at the Science Museum in London last year and heard a guy telling his girlfriend how it wasn’t real, it was just a prop, because the Moon landings were faked, it had all been filmed in a studio; because we’ve looked the other way when politicians, celebrities and nutters dismiss science I now have kids telling me at the end of my outreach work in schools that what I had said in my talk about people landing on the Moon was wrong because they had seen “a thing on TV” saying it was all a hoax.

Now, you can choose to either ignore ignorance and stupidity like that, or stand up against it. I choose to do the latter.

Erm… what’s this got to do with Opportunity?

Well, at a time when many people believe there could be spoons and dinosaur skulls and yetis on Mars, and chemtrails drip poison from the sky, and the LHC opens up portals to alien universes every time it fires up its coils, and idiots can be elected President of the United States even when they think climate change is “made up”, I believe Opportunity’s continuing success shines like a lighthouse beam, cutting through the darkness.

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(above: one of my “artist impressions” of sunset behind the hills of Endeavour)

And that’s one reason why I believe marking this anniversary is so important. Opportunity represents the very best of science, and shows what can be achieved when we reach out into the darkness in search of knowledge. If Opportunity had only lasted 90 days on Mars, and if it had only driven a kilometre in that time it would have been a great achievement. But it has survived for thirteen years and driven more than 40 kilometres. Along the way it has revolutionised our view of Mars, and sent back thousands of breathtaking images which have brought Mars to life for us, and allowed us to walk alongside her as she rolls across the dusty, rusted ground. I think that is an amazing thing, and it deserves to be celebrated.

I also wanted to mark this important anniversary with a new poem, and here it is…

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Each night, before I go to sleep,

The dusty rocks around my feet

Roll up to me and whisper gently

“Don’t you miss the Earth?”

No, little ones, I smile, how can I miss

Somewhere I have never been?

Or pine for sights and colours

That I have never seen?

For my “Earth” was an alien world of metal, steel and glass,

Where I could never feel sunlight sting my back.

My high-Spirited twin and I were made on screaming lathes,

Bathed in floodlights’ brutal glare.

Our limbs slotted together perfectly like a puzzle’s pieces

To make restless creatures with cameras for eyes

And wheels instead of feet – but we knew no freedom.

We grew up in a pristine prison, within walls white, cream and high;

Shark cages, gantries and cranes crowding in on all sides.

Tested, tested, then tested again,

We prowled a floor scattered with spinning lamps,

Rolled up and down powder blue ramps

Beneath humming lightsabre Suns

As our proud parents watched, white as snowmen, their young

Faces peering out at us through gaps in rustling paper suits.

So, you see, no warm Pasadenan breeze ever wafted over me;

I never looked up to see birds flapping their wings in the swaying trees,

Never saw JPL’s famous deer munching on Spring’s tasty leaves.

And when I finally was set free I left in darkness,

Cocooned inside the petals of a metal flower,

Showered with praise but not the sweet raindrops or the warm honey rays

Of the summer Sun I so longed for –

I felt rocking, heard knocking, then a savage kick from below –

– and woke up… here, 13 of Their years ago.

Here, where the frigid air carries the taste of faraway ice…

Here, where two bone fragment moons drift silently through a lavender sky…

Here, where the so-called Homeworld is just a magnesium-blue spark

Twinkling in the darkening purple dusk…

Here, where every grain of rust-stained dust

Remembers fairy tale thunder and rain…

Here, where phantom rivers and lakes

Haunt Barsoom’s corpse-dry plains…

Here, where blood would flash freeze

Into lifeless rock pools of garnets and rubies…

Here, where Vikings, Sojourner and Spirit come to me in my dreams

As the whispering winds sing me to sleep…

Here, where cold starlight reveals the ghostly outlines

Of martians with eyes of gold, their guns thrumming with bees

As they sail their noble ships over endless cinnamon seas …

No, I tell the drowsy stones – this is my home, more than Earth ever was.

There is nothing there to miss.

© Stuart Atkinson 2017

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I don’t know if NASA itself has any plans to mark the anniversary, but I wanted to. And I’m glad you were able to join me as I did. Thanks for stopping by!

And if anyone on the MER team gets to read this – thank you. Thank you for the past 13 years of science exploration and discovery, and for allowing us to be a part of the adventure.

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The rocks of Mars…

Not an Opportunity-related post this time (but there’s a big anniversary coming up soon, obviously, so hang on for that, ok?) I just wanted to share with all of you some stunning views of martian rocks that came back from Curiosity today. Both these panoramas are stitched together mosaics I’ve made out of several different images taken by Curiosity, and I really want you to click on them to enlarge them and the just enjoy wandering around them at your leisure, scrolling around, seeing the different shapes, sizes and textures of the rocks.. then imagine actually being there, on Mars, and picking up those rocks, lifting them up to your visor, turning the around in your hand and feeling the weight of them…

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Have fun!

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Earth from Mars…

Ok, I should make this clear from the start that this is NOT a post about Opportunity, or even Curiosity, taking an image of Earth from the surface of Mars. It’s inspired by an image NASA released a few days ago showing the Earth and Moon as seen from Mars, but from orbit, not from the surface. The image was taken by the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter. Here it is…

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Here’s how the NASA website described the image:

The image combines two separate exposures taken on Nov. 20, 2016, by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The images were taken to calibrate HiRISE data, since the reflectance of the moon’s Earth-facing side is well known. For presentation, the exposures were processed separately to optimize detail visible on both Earth and the moon. The moon is much darker than Earth and would barely be visible if shown at the same brightness scale as Earth.

The combined view retains the correct positions and sizes of the two bodies relative to each other. The distance between Earth and the moon is about 30 times the diameter of Earth. Earth and the moon appear closer than they actually are in this image because the observation was planned for a time at which the moon was almost directly behind Earth, from Mars’ point of view, to see the Earth-facing side of the moon.

So, it’s not actually one image, its two, combined, and it has been tweaked to make the Moon brighter than it would actually appear. That’s ok, we tweak space images all the time; as long as we explain what we’re doing, and why, it’s fine.

Seeing that image – and you couldn’t avoid seeing it; it was everywhere online within hours of NASA releasing it – got me thinking about were Earth would have been in Opportunity’s sky when it was being taken by the orbiter high above it. Firing up Stellarium I found that Earth would have been a bright “Morning Star” in the east, shining to the lower left of Mars’ moon Deimos, which would have been much brighter…

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Let’s put some labels on that…

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I love the idea that Opportunity could have seen Earth shining in the sky as a bright blue “star” as HiRISE was taking that image. But what I love even more is the idea that one day people will stand on Mars and see Earth shining in the sky like a star, and if they have a telescope will be able to see views just like the one in the HiRISE image. It’ll be a curiosity for the first explorers, sure, but eventually there will be settlers and colonists on Mars, families, with children, native-born martians, and no doubt their science teachers will take them outside and show them Earth through a telescope, looking like this…

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“Wow…!” some will gasp, “Earth… look how blue it is… it’s beautiful… !”

“Yes, that’s it,” the teacher will nod, “the Homeworld…”

“Not mine,” one child will say defiantly, staying away from the queue to look into the eyepiece. “Mars is my Homeworld…”

And it will be.

 

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Opportunity roves on…

As she approaches the 13th – yes, 13th – anniversary of her landing on Mars, Opportunity is still going strong. As you can see from the following images, she’s now slowly but surely working her way back uphill, across terrain strewn with boulders, rocks and stones, ready to drive back out onto the plain around Endeavour Crater before heading for that gully further south along the crater’s rim. When will she get there? No way of knowing; that depends on how many things distract her on her way to the gully…

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Remembering Spirit…

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Thirteen years ago an incredible adventure – and an incredible journey – began on Mars, as the Mars Exploration Rover “Spirit” fell out of a salmon pink sky and bounced to a standstill on the surface of the Red Planet.

I watched it happen – not on TV but online, sitting in front of my PC monitor, watching a live NASA TV broadcast on a tiny RealPlayer screen. I was on chirruping dial-up in those days – “broadband” was still thought of as some kind of sorcery or wizardry – so the picture kept stopping and buffering, or, worse, shattering altogether in a kaleidescopic haze of pixels and static. But I was able to follow what was going on, and it was obvious to me and everyone watching when the rover was down safely on Barsoom because the control room exploded with joy, engineers and scientists leaping into the air, grabbing each other, patting backs, hugging, punching the air.

And then when the first images appeared – far sooner than we had been expecting – well, then it went really crazy…

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As a martian in exile and a British space enthusiast it was an enormous relief and a joy to have a working space probe on the planet’s surface; a week or so earlier the Beagle 2 lander had failed to phone home after landing on Mars, so to sit there and know that we were going to be able to explore Mars through Spirit’s eyes was a fantastic feeling.

Not that Spirit was going to see much, or get very far. The expectation was that before the harsh martian environment killed her, Spirit might just drive up to a kilometre on Mars, and survive as long as 90 sols, or martian days…

Of course, Spirit had other ideas. And before her roving ended – prematurely – on May 1st 2009 she had travelled over 7km across Mars, on an incredible journey that took her across a vast dusty desert on an ancient crater’s floor, up a range of hills and down their other side and past a stunningly beautiful “pool” of glittering black dust blown into ebony crests and waves by the Red Planet’s softly sighing winds.

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Every sol Spirit sent back new, stunning images. and as she rolled over one horizon after another it seemed that nothing could stop her.

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And then…

After spending months exploring a flat cap of layered rock dubbed “Homeplate”, like R2D2 rolling down that canyon on Tattooine, Spirit trundled down an innocent-looking path en-route to “Von Braun”, a rock-covered mound. What she had no way of knowing was that Mars had laid a trap for her, and as her wheel rolled over a small crater, filled with dust, she sank into it.

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And, despite valiant efforts by amazing people back on Earth to find a way to free her, there she stayed, trapped like a baby mammoth in a tar pit. On March 22nd 2010 Spirit sent her final message back to Earth – and then fell silent, never to be heard from again. Her mission was over.

Many of us who followed Spirit’s incredible journey across Mars – and there were many, many thousands of us who checked her progress every day, waking up and looking at her latest images before we had even had our first cup of tea, or were properly awake – still feel her loss like an open wound. Of course, even as we celebrated Spirit’s successful landing on that magical January day in 2004 we all knew the sol would come when she ended her roving, but we thought she would succumb to a technical failure of some kind – a stuck wheel, a software failure, a computer glitch, something like that. So to have her taken  out in such a sneaky, underhand way hurt… it really hurt. It was wrong, just wrong. She should have gone on to explore Von Braun, damnit,  and then gone further still, to discover – well, we’ll never know what she would have discovered.

I wrote this astro-poem to mark/celebrate/mourn Spirit’s passing, after NASA released a remarkable image of the rover taken by a spacecraft orbiting Mars…

“Freeing Spirit”

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Above: a crop from a colourised image I made using the image taken by the HiRISE camera

Spirit’s sister, “Opportunity”, which landed on Mars a couple of weeks after Spirit, is still roving. Having survived dust storms, technical faults, computer spasms and everything else Mars could throw at her, as she begins her 13th (terrestrial) year on Mars she is now exploring the high rim of an ancient crater, and shows no signs of stopping or even slowing down. We “rover huggers” are all immensely proud of her, and of the amazing men and women who continue to guide her across Mars.

And yet…

In our quiet moments, and on anniversary days like this, we remember Spirit, the rover which had to fight for every kilometer she drove, and brought Mars to life for the generation of armchair astronauts too old to remember the heady days of the Viking missions, and too young to expect to be around when the first crewed expeditions set off for Barsoom. And on some mission after that, who knows how any years from now, people will fly out to Homeplate, land beside it, and go over to where Spirit stands, coated in a layer of dust, looking like a statue. They’ll dust her off a little, then reverently carry her back into their shuttle, to fly her back to the Museum at their colony. And there, after being lovingly cleaned and restored, she’ll be put on display for everyone to see. Historians from Earth will jostle at the barriers with tall, pale-skinned native martian kids for the best view of the famous robot “Spirit”, and they’ll all shake their heads in wonder as they see just how small, how fragile-looking but noble the ancient rover looks.

But that’s for the future. Right now, as you read this, Spirit stands silent and still on Mars, covered with dust and sparkling crystals of ice. She could have done so much more if she’d been given the chance. Her adventure ended far too early.

Sleep well, Spirit. It might take us a while to get there, but we’re coming for you.

 

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Rovers Rocking On…

Quick update about what Oppy is up to…

Opportunity has now left Marathon Valley behind, and is working her way back up-slope en-route to The Still Unnamed Gully, which is her next major science destination. No doubt on the way to that feature she will stop a few times to look at something shiny and interesting, scientific magpie that she is, but her next long stop will be at that gully. When will she reach it? No idea. Just enjoy the journey.

Here’s her latest panoramic view, anyway… as ever, feel free to click on it to enlarge it…

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Another recent view…

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Meanwhile, on the other side of Mars, Curiosity is taking some beautiful images of martian rocks too… Here’s a mosaic I put together from around half a dozen individual frames, and then processed a little to bring out textures and structures of some very intriguing geology Curiosity is studying… you’ll definitely want to enlarge this one..

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A zoom-in of one part of that image is in order I think…

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Love those spindly stalks sticking out of the rock…

But my favourite image of the past few weeks is this one…

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Do you know what that is? You’re probably thinking “Yes… it’s a rock…” and okay it is, yes, just a rock, one of countless gazillions of rocks scattered across the dusty surface of Mars. But that rock is something else – that rock is a book. On one level it’s a science book,  a geological record of martian history. On another level it’s an epic tale the equal of anything created by Tolkien – the saga of a noble, beautiful world that once knew whispering, warm winds and soft, gentle rain, and perhaps life too, all written on pages of ancient stone…

As you look at that image, imagine being there beside that rock, kneeling down next to it, seeing all the layers in the sunlight…imagine running your gloved hand down it, your fingertips passing over and feeling the layers, one after another, each one a record of Mars’ past, like the rings in a tree…

One day people will do that for real. I think, sadly, that day is still a long way off, and I do sometimes wonder if  will actually live to see it myself, but one day people will go to Mars and see rocks like that – maybe even that very rock, if they go to Gale Crater  to follow up on Curiosity’s work – and touch them with an even greater sense of wonder than we feel when looking at these photos.

 

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Ten Years Ago…

This blog has just celebrated a rather special anniversary. The first “Road To Endeavour” post appeared on December 4th, 2008, eight years ago. A the time I didn’t really think Opportunity would make it through another two or three years, and I expected to be writing this blog for only that long. Eight years later, both Oppy and “Road To Endeavour” are still going strong. So, if you’re a regular reader, thank you for your visits! And if you’re a new reader, thank you for stopping by – I hope you’ll stay. The best really is yet to come, I think…

Speaking of anniversaries…

It occurred to me yesterday that we have a much more important and quite incredible anniversary coming up soon. In January next year Opportunity will have been on Mars for thirteen years (Earth years, not Mars years before anyone comments!). T H I R T E E N   Y E AR S !!! Not bad for a rover its team hoped would last for 90 days on the Red Planet and drive up to a kilometre from its landing site before its wheels stopped and it died. In those 13 years Oppy has seen and done amazing things. She’s driven to, into and back out of craters; she’s discovered and studied shiny metal meteorites; she’s crossed vast stretches of dusty desert; she’s found – then gleefully crushed – deposits of gypsum; she’s climbed a mountain; she’s done everything asked of her, and more. And she shows no signs of stopping.

Realising that set me wondering… where was she ten years ago? What was she doing? What was she seeing?

Turns out she was seeing this incredible view, as she explored Victoria Crater…

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Yes, that was ten years ago. Unbelievable, isn’t it?

Thinking back to Oppy’s arrival at Victoria Crater still gives me goosebumps after all these years. And as fascinating as her exploration of Endeavour Crater is, I still consider the Victoria phase of her mission to be its most exciting. I remember how we watched Victoria Crater “open up” ahead of Oppy as she rolled towards it, first becoming visible as a dark line in the terrain ahead before opening up and being revealed as that huge, deep pit, with its scalloped edge, gorgeous, crumbling cliffs and dust-rippled floor…

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I remember that time very fondly. I’d get up in the morning and check the “overnights” from Oppy with my first cup of the day, and there would (almost) always be some stunning new images to drool over. And if there weren’t I knew that when I got back from work later that day there would be. And the views were spectacular… Victoria’s ancient, crumbling cliffs were majestic in their raw geology. I couldn’t help but wonder what the mission’s geologists were thinking, looking at those same images, desperate to BE there, studying the naked stone, running their gloved hands over it, feeling its texture and seeing it with their own eyes.

I thought I’d go back to those images and re-process some of them in the way I process the images Oppy is taking now…

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If you look closely at that second image there you’ll see Oppy’s own tracks on the ground, leading away from the horizon. I love that view!

And a colour view of the base of one of the cliffs, too…

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As Oppy looked out across Victoria she could see a few bumps on the far horizon – look at the centre of the skyline on the following image and you’ll see them too…

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Let’s zoom in on those bumps a little…

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At the time we didn’t pay much attention to them; they were features 16km away, parts of the rim of another crater more than 16km away – a curiosity, nothing more. But as Oppy finished her tour of Victoria her team had to decide where to send her next.. and they chose those bumps. Because those distant humps are the hills which form the rim of Endeavour Crater, were Oppy is now.

As Oppy set off for the hills of Endeavour I’m pretty sure very few people thought she;d actually reach them. I know I didn’t. I hoped that she’d get a fair part of the way before she died, and find some more interesting things before then, but they were so ridculously, impossibly, stupidly far away that she would never reach them, surely?

Well, not only did she reach those hills, but she climbed them, sending back stunning views like this…

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And now she’s exploring those hills, trundling along the side of one of the slopes heading towards an ancient, water-carved gully, seeing views like this…

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So… just think about that for a moment, just think about Oppy’s incredible journey…

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Where will Oppy be in ten years’ time? Will she still be on the hills of Endeavour, having rolled to a stop years before? Or will she be exploring Iazu Crater, the “next one along” in the chain of craters in this region of Mars? That might sound like a ridiculous dream, but ten years ago reaching Endeavour was that, so who’s to say? If I’ve learned one thing during the past 12, almost 13 years it’s that you should never think a Mars Exploration Rover can’t do something because it will swivel its camera-covered head towards you, laugh at you, then trundle off and do it.

Keep going Oppy, keep going for as long as you can. And we’ll walk beside you all ythe way.

Won’t we? 🙂

 

 

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