Almost there, Oppy… almost there….

After eleven long years on Mars, Opportunity is now *this* close to the summit of Cape Tribulation. Another couple of drives and she will be there, on the top of the world – well, on top of the highest point on Mars she will ever reach, anyway.

Images posted today show just how close our brave gal is to the summit of Cape Tribulation, and stitching them together and working on them shows what a wonderful view Oppy will have soon…

summit 2bf

When she finally rolls up onto the top there, well, what a day that will be, what a stunning achievement that will be. Eleven years on a planet that has tried its best to kill the rover, with dust storms, dune seas and worse. I am so proud of the rover teams, past and present, who have guided Oppy to this magical place high above the rolling, rust-hued plains of Barsoom.

More soon!

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The summit is in sight…


The story is well known by now, but never grows old. When Opportunity landed on Mars in January 2004, bouncing across the rocky surface of Barsoom cocooned in her plump orange airbags, everyone hoped she would be able to drive as far as 1km during her expected lifespan of 90 days. Some dared hope she might drive farther, live longer, but they were in a minority.

Ten years later, Opportunity is still roving Mars. After forging her way across the great Meridiani dust desert, ploughing through its endless, rippled dune sea, after driving to, into and out of Victoria Crater, and after pushing onwards to reach Endeavour Crater, she hauled herself up onto the natural ramp of Solander Point and then started to climb, working her way slowly up the huge crater’s ancient rim, climbing higher, ever higher, above the dusty plain.


The plan is for Oppy to reach the top of the hills, circled in red on that image above, then drop down the other side and head for a notch in the crater rim christened “Marathon Valley”, a place where orbiting probes have detected deposits of clay-rich minerals…


That should happen in the New Year. More recently, in advance of that – the achievement, like the rover itself, all but ignored by NASA – Opportunity rolled silently but triumphantly through the 41km mark. And as if that wasn’t remarkable enough, she is now within sight, and reach, of the very highest point on the side of the crater she is exploring. She can now see the summit of the Tribulation range up ahead…


…and it would be a very foolish person indeed who would suggest she isn’t going to roll up onto that summit some time before Christmas. It’s impossible to over-state just how big a deal this is, and what a huge achievement it will be for the rover and the magnificent team behind it. When she reaches the summit, Oppy will be at her highest possible vantage point on Mars; she will never be able to climb higher, or see farther, even if she lives long enough to drive down the other side of the hills and trek across country to another crater and climb that. Oppy will reach her summit very soon, and when she does no doubt she will, like any good walker or climber, stop, take a deep breath and look around her, drinking in the view.


She will send back images from the top of her mountain which will, when assembled into a panorama, give us all back here on Earth a bird’s eye view of Barsoom. And if NASA doesn’t make a big deal out of it – no, a HUGE deal – well, shame on them.

Keep checking back here for updates on Oppy’s progress towards the summit!

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Apologies for the lack of posts over the past few days (if anyone *was* bothered! haha!) but I’ve been busy blogging about the ROSETTA mission over on my main “Cumbrian Sky” blog. Big day tomorrow… eek…

Anyway, just time to share a couple of gorgeous new views with you. Oppy is now well on her way up Cape Tribulation, and enjoying a wonderful view of her route and the plains far below. Here’s what she saw a few days ago, looking back downhill…


She’s since moved on from there, quite a way, and has rolled up to a fascinating-looking outcrop the MER team has christened “Huntsville”..Huntsville

Some very interesting layering there… think Oppy will be here for a while…

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Opportunity makes history *again*…

Yesterday was a big day for astronomers – no, it was a HUGE day! A comet called “Siding Spring” whooshed past Mars, so close – less than 1/3 of the distance from Earth to the Moon, which is sphincter-tighteningly close in astronomical terms! – that the international fleet of space-probes currently studying and exploring the red Planet had to take cover behind it, in order to avoid what scientists feared might be a potential sand-blasting from dust hissing off the comet’s nucleus.

It was a crazy day for those of us following events here on Earth, too. Like many in the space enthusiast and amateur astronomical community I spent most of yesterday sat with my laptop on my knee, following developments on Twitter and Facebook and elsewhere. The fly-bu happened during broad daylight for those of us up here in the northern hemisphere, so we had no chance of seeing it in our sky. But as we sat drinking our cuppas and watching our computer, phone and tablet screens, way, way beneath our feet, down in the southern hemisphere, amateur astronomers in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere had front row seats for the event and were desperately trying to photograph the comet as it closed in on Mars. Many struggled to capture the faint, fuzzy light of the comet against the dazzling bright glare from Mars, but some pulled it off and took beautiful portraits of Comet Siding Spring and Mars in the same field of view, the comet looking like a tiny, tapering chalk smudge close to the brilliant beacon of Mars.

But even though they couldn’t see Mars and its cometary visitor shining in their sky, northern hemisphere astronomers were still able to “see” and even image the pair using the many remote telescopes now available. Simon White,  member of my own astronomical society, the Eddington Astronomical Society, just managed to grab this beautiful image before the remote telescope he was using was unable to follow the comet any further…

s white

Simon told me more about his excellent image in an email:

I was settling in to a day of keeping up with my voluntary job of managing the photos that were pouring into the CIOC Siding Spring page  when I realised it was still night time in Australia.  Just on a whim, I logged on to and chose telescope T9, a massive 12.5 inch Ritchey-Chretien beast used for deep sky imaging.
Normally out of my price range, I knew I would only be paying for a few minutes of use.  My subscription of 40 points per month costs me 40 Australian dollars or about £22, and this scope costs 132 points per hour of imaging!
I grabbed the comet ephemeris from the Minor Planet Centre’s website and set the scope to take 3 frames of 60 seconds and 3 of 120 seconds through the luminance filter only (black and white – no time to mess about with colour!).
After just two frames of 60 seconds, the telescope hit its safety stop because the comet was so low in the sky that it was below the wall of the observatory.  Phew!  Just 2 frames of 60 seconds which I have stacked together here.  The stars are slightly blurred because the comet moved even in those two minutes.
The field of view is 13.6 x 20.4 arc minutes.  That’s a third of a degree along the long edge, which puts the comet very close indeed to Mars – which is about 10,000 times brighter.
So my 2 minutes of imaging cost me 4 points, or about £2.  Pretty good value eh?

Absolutely, Simon!

The best image I saw was taken by Nick Howes and Ron Wodask , and soon after he had posted it online it was, quite rightly, spreading around the world, Shared and reTweeted on Facebook and Twitter countless thousands of times. Here it is…


Details: Images of Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring and Mars taken by N.Howes/R.Wodaski/Tzen Muan Foundation from the Tzec Muan E180/FSQ106 and TOA150 telescopes at Siding Spring Australia on 19th Oct 2014

As I said, Nick and Ron’s photo – which they only managed to take after overcoming a series of potentially devastating technical problems – spread around the world faster than a picture of a kitten sleeping on Kim Kardashian’s backside, and was featured on websites, blogs, and news broadcasts too many times to count! But the images everyone was waiting to see were the ones being taken from Mars itself – by the orbiters waltzing around it, and the rovers down on its surface.

Many months ago, soon after calculations showed that Siding Spring would pass close to Mars (early calculations suggested it might even hit Mars!) NASA realised that it had an opportunity to study the comet with many instruments and cameras already at Mars, i.e. the hardware being carried by its orbiters and rovers. It was like having a comet mission handed to them for free! So by the time SS flew past Mars yesterday NASA was ready, and cameras in orbit high above and down on the surface of Mars turned towards Siding Spring. While we watched from here on Earth, the science teams behind each probe were hoping their beloved spacecraft would take a genuine “once in a lifetime” image of a comet passing the Red Planet. And, I think it’s fair to say, although they’d never admit it, each one was secretly hoping to be the first to get their images out…

So when I got up this morning at just before 6am, and went online, the first thing I did was check for any overnight news about the success, or failure, of The Terran Exploration Fleet to capture images of Comet Siding Spring. There was nothing. But it was still early, after all, so I set about doing other stuff. And then, around eleven o’clock, I saw it…


There it is, look! The comet, photographed from the surface of Mars! They did it! A rover took an image of Comet Siding Spring from the surface of Mars!

But which rover?

Well, I think most people were expecting that out of the two rovers currently exploring Mars, Curiosity would be the only one to photograph the comet. After all, it is a nuclear-powered, tractor-wheeled, laser-toting, Hellboy-armed beast of a machine, with kick ass cameras and computers. And it may yet turn out that MSL did manage to get photos. But that image was taken by our gal, Opportunity.


Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that just fantastic?? After roving across Mars for more than ten years – on an epic, history-making journey which has seen her drive to, into and back out of craters, climb and descend hills, discover and study meteorites and much, much more –  from high up on the rim of Endeavour Crater, her wheels weary, her shoulder stiff and her computers straining, Oppy lifted her tired eyes off the ground and looked to the sky, seeking out a comet in the pre-dawn sky. And took its picture.

comet b crop

My admiration for Oppy and the men and women who keep her roving across Mars is well known (the fact that this blog is still going after all these years is a bit of a clue!) but really they’ve excelled themselves this time, and Oppy has shown again what a remarkable machine she is. And shows we, ourselves, aren’t that bad either, when we put our minds to it. When we’re not being stupid apes.

The world has a lot of problems at the moment. The Middle East is a big, fat barrel of gunpowder that is rolls relentlessly between one fire and the next by murderers and madmen; terrible disease is ravaging Africa, and is just one torn rubber glove or one unmonitored airplane journey away from spreading wider; poverty and famine mean many millions of people go to bed and wake up starving and in misery; religious fundamentalism is spreading like a filthy, bloody tsunami across large parts of the world; in dusty cellars in countless countries, working in the shadows, people are hunched over benches building bombs, desperate to turn innocent men, women and children into splashes of lasagne spattered across pavements and walls. Any aliens monitoring us from above would be forgiven for thinking that we’re a savage, ignorant, bloodthirsty species not worth making First Contact with – and our planet might actually be worth quarantining for the next million years, just in case we’re tempted to spread our savagery to the stars.

But as stupid as we are, we are, at heart, a good and kind race. For every murderous, wire-twisting bomb-maker hiding in a cellar there are a million exhausted doctors or nurses fighting to save lives; for every black-masked and -hooded religious lunatic ready to saw the head off an innocent hostage, there is a volunteer handing out food and water to strangers in need, far away from their own home; for every science-fearing fundamentalist determined to stop young girls from going to school, there is a young teacher standing at the front of a bullet-riddled classroom, even more determined to teach those same young girls physics, maths and astronomy.

And we are capable of greatness too. Those same aliens looking down on us from high above will have seen an example of that today. They’ll have seen that, after hundreds – thousands – of years of fearing the arrival of a comet in our sky, of blaming them for the wars, disasters and murders we ourselves were responsible for, we swallowed our fear and, using one of our incredible machines, took a picture of one from our neighbouring world as it dashed by. That’s an incredible thing.

That’s a great thing.


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Rock on, Oppy!

Opportunity has recently been edging her way towards Ulysses crater, and now she is parked up on its rim, surrounded by some pretty gorgeous looking rocks. Well, gorgeous looking if you’re into geology. If you’re not I guess they’re just, well, rocks…

Anyway, take a look at my latest colourisations…

big rock





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Adding the missing piece…

Here you go, the complete panorama of Oppy’s latest view, with that annoying missing piece added in…


Loving this view… :-)

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Higher and higher…

There were big celebrations at NASA last week when the Mars Science Laboratory team announced to the world that, depsite having wheels which look like they’ve been clawed by a whole family of martian white apes,  their “Curiosity” rover had reached the base of Mt Sharp, the hill/mountain at the centre of Gale Crater.

Meanwhile, halfway around Mars, without fanfare, and largely forgotten/ignored by NASA, the Mars Exploration Rover “Opportunity” – having reached the base of Cape Tribulation months ago – has reached a frankly fabulous viewpoint on the upper slopes of Endeavour Crater’s ancient rim, and is sending back some of the most stunning images of her ten year mission to date.

Here’s one of them, looking back down the slopes towards the plains, far, far below…


See that feature top right, like a pancake? That’s Cape York (I think), where Oppy was YEARS ago!!! Hard to believe that Oppy was once way down there, on the Meridiani Plains, looking UP at where she is now…


And what’s her view like now..? Feast your eyes on this… you might want to sit down first, though…


Oh, imagine that in colour! Well, I can show you *part* of it in colour, most of it in fact, but one section of the image can’t be “coloured in” yet because when the sequence of images was taken one of them suffered a data drop out, so the panorama is incomplete for the moment… Here’s the most complete part of it…


That’s beautiful, isn’t it? Shame about that missing section, cos when it’s complete that’s going to be a killer view…!


So, there you go… while MSL gets cheered and high-fived for reaching the foot of its hill, more than a decade after landing on Mars Oppy is slowly but surely scaling hers, doing amazing science, seeing incredible sights. If I was her, I’d be sending this…



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