Catching up with Oppy…

Apologies for the lack of posts recently but I have to leave my laptop sometime! Over the weekend I was AFK (look it up, kids…!) at an astronomy camp up in Northumberland, and wasn’t really able to access images or post to the blog, well, not easily anyway. But I was, as always, following Oppy as best I could, and I enjoyed seeing her home planet shining in the sky above our tent…


Which one is Mars? Well, at the top -biggest and brightest ‘light’ in the sky – is the Moon. To its lower right, just above the trees, you’ll see that pair of fainter, smaller lights… the one on the left, the brighter of the two, is Venus, and beside it, smaller and fainter, is Mars. That’s where Oppy is. That’s her “Home planet”, as she’s been on Mars longer than she was on Earth while being built and tested and prepared for launch…

Anyway, since my last post Oppy has been slowly edging her way towards the entrance to “Marathon Valley”, and here are the latest views which I hope you will enjoy…





…and today’s view of Marathon Valley shows more features on its upper slopes than we’ve seen to date…


Wonder when she’ll head into there and start making her way down-slope towards the interesting parts?

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Closer to the Valley…

Slowly but surely, Opportunity is closing in on the entrance to Marathon Valley. The latest images to come down show she has moved closer to the edge of the valley, and is now seeing more of the slopes, boulders and layers within it. Oppy has a seriously beautiful view now, as you can see from this mosaic I made yesterday…


I mean, come on, just look at that scene… can’t you just imagine standing there, beside Oppy, drinking on that view? Here’s a crop of that scene centered on the Valley itself…


But what about the Valley itself? What awaits Oppy once she trundles down into it? I’ve use HiRISE images of the valley to make this detailed image of it, which I think gives hints of the wonderful views we’re going to be enjoying once Opportunity is exploring it… please click on it to enlarge it to see it at its best…


Glory awaits! But as is often the case it’s hard to get a sense of scale from an image like that, you can’t sense how tall the ridges are, how big the boulders are, etc. So, as I’ve done before, I’ve added a “virtual Oppy” to that image which helps provide that missing sense of scale. On the next image, Oppy is represented, to scale, by the coloured circle. Again, click to enlarge…

oppy scale MVb

As you can see, she will soon be wandering around some geological features which will look very dramatic indeed on her images. I can’t wait to see those photos, maybe by the end of next week.

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A magical place…

I’ve been writing this blog a long time… a loooooooooooooooong time… and seen, and made, a lot of Opportunity’s images of Mars in that time. Being totally honest, some days the images leave me feeling a bit “Hmmmm, ok…” and I can’t really do much with them. But every now and then I go online, bring up Midnight Planets or Exploratorium (hey, I’m a creature of habit, what can I say?) and see a set of the “raw” black and white images that I know can be turned into something special. That was the case yesterday, when these came back…


As Sam Beckett used to say…. “Oh boy…”

A little bit of processing work later, those nine black and white images had turned into these colour images…


Then it was time to stitch them together to make a single panoramic image…


When that took shape on my laptop screen I sat back in my chair and genuinely let out a deep breath. Look… at… that…. I thought, gaze sweeping over the image, moving from Marathon Valley and up the ridges on the other side, look… at… that

It’s images like that which make me fall in love with Mars all over again – the brutal geology of the ancient landscape, painted by a besotted Nature with a palette of burning cinnamons, rusts and ochres. And it’s images like that that show the absolute folly of killing Oppy before her time. How could people even think for a moment of switching off something which can send back such inspiring, exciting portraits of another world? A world it will be, at very best, several decades before any humans ever visit it? I wish I could lock all the politicians and NASA people involved in this budgetary game of chicken in a bare room, sit them around a table and tell them they’re not coming out until they grow up and find the money to ensure Oppy’s future.

Because Opportunity isn’t just a machine, blindly wandering around Mars taking pretty pictures – it’s US. It’s our eyes on Mars, and carries our hearts and souls with it too. It is often said in science articles that “The first man or woman to walk on Mars is running around a playground somewhere today”. Well, that may be true, but until they set foot on the red planet they have a helluva lot of growing up to do, and it will be a generation before they step down from their lander, plant a flag in the orange dirt and wave at all the folks back home. Until then, our robots will do the job, and an incredible eleven years after landing Opportunity must be, must be the most successful robot ever to travel to Barsoom. The thought of bean counters and politicians ending her mission with a scratch of a pen or the tap of a few computer keys makes me want to punch this screen, it really does. If she is to die, let her die at the hands of Mars, not to save money to go to other missions.

They, of course, will have their own fierce supporters, and their science teams will be every bit as passionate about them as the MER team is about theirs, but I am loyal to Opportunity, and will always champion her, no matter what. So I dedicate this portrait of Mars to each and every one of the incredible men and women who has ever worked on the MER mission, everyone, from The Man, PI Steve Squyres (who, by the way, will be interviewed on this blog soon) to the rover drivers who guide Oppy, and used to guide Spirit, across Barsoom. It’s also dedicated to all the programmers, designers, engineers, and every other person who worked to get Opportunity to this magical place.


Thank you, all of you, for the adventure of my lifetime. Thank you for taking this 12 year old Mars nut to the red planet and letting him walk across its dusty deserts and plains. Thank you for letting this lifelong amateur astronomer turn the red light in his sky into a real world. Thank you for bringing to life the National Geographic “Viking Special Issue” which stole my soul as a teenager. Thank you, all, for giving me the Mars I have always seen in here, inside me.

Thank you.

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Towards Marathon Valley…

Having conquered Cape Tribulation, and looked down in triumph from its summit, Opportunity is now descending again, rolling southwards, heading for the entrance to Marathon Valley, where it’s possible some of her most rewarding and spectacular science yet might be carried out.


That is, unless she is murdered.

Because yet again Opportunity’s fate doesn’t lie in the hands of Mars, a planet which has tried its best to kill her after every sunrise for the past eleven years. Nor does it lie in the hands of its incredible engineers, drivers and support team back on Earth. No. Opportunity’s fate yet again rests in the hands of politicians, and bean counters.

The NASA FY 2016 budget document says this: “NASA plans to end Opportunity operations by FY 2016.” Yes, you read that correctly. NASA plans (not wants, we’ll come to that later…) to turn Opportunity OFF by 2016. If that meant next year it would be bad enough, but as the fiscal year ends on September 30th, that means Oppy could have only 8 months left to live.

By now I imagine many of you are shaking your heads in disbelief or balling your hands up into fists in frustration. Me too. Turn off a functioning robot exploring another planet? Are they ******** serious?? Has April Fool’s Day arrived early?

Sadly not. Because, amazingly, having survived eleven years of dust storms, computer problems, memory glitches and more, having driven across deserts of cinnamon-hued dust, having rolled into and back out of ancient craters, and having climbed a mountain and looked down on Barsoom from high, high above, Opportunity stands on Mars today with a political Sword of Damocles hanging over her. NASA’s latest budget request to the American Congress actually has Opportunity’s funding “zeroed out”, which is techno-babble for reduced-to-nothing. In effect, NASA is saying that the money they are being offered can only go so far, and unless they get more money then some things will have to go – and one of those is Opportunity. There’s lots of money, of course, for the James Webb Space Telescope – a financial black hole if ever there was one – and for other missions, and for the proposed SLS mega-rocket, but for Opportunity? For a rover which has rewritten the text books on Mars, a rover which has captured the public imagination, a rover which has taken countless millions of people around the world on a decade-long road trip across Mars, inspiring, educating and exciting them along the way – nothing.

Of course, this could all just be political posturing – NASA playing chicken with the people who hold its purse strings – because it has happened before. Last time NASA threatened to kill off our gal, the money was found to keep Opportunity roving, and commentators and experts with far more knowledge about these macho political pissing contests than I are not too worried about this latest round of handbags on the dancefloor between NASA and Congress, and believe this is just a ploy by NASA and money will be found again to keep Oppy going. I trust them and I hope they’re right. Because the alternative is almost too ridiculous, too ghastly, too stupid to think about: NASA would switch off a priceless asset – a functioning rover on Mars, when it is within touching distance of one of the most fascinating science sites on Mars.

Of course, Opportunity isn’t the sprightly young thing she was, and that’s why I carefully didn’t call her a “fully functioning rover”. Recent problems with her Flash memory are troubling, and might be a sign that her days are numbered. Indeed, NASA itself acknowledges this in its budget document: “After a long, productive mission life, Opportunity has started to show signs of age, including recent problems with its flash memory,” it says.

Actually, when I read that my eyebrow lifted like Spock’s. “Hang on… does NASA actually *want* to switch off Oppy?” I wondered, because that line there talks about Oppy in the past tense, like a kindly vet telling a dog owner that their beloved pet has “lived a good life” and it’s time to let it go. Could that be the case? Are the NASA Powers That Be actually thinking that Opportunity should be switched off instead of fought for? Are there people high up in NASA who are actually considering killing Opportunity, one of their most successful missions ever? Surely not. Why would they even think such a thing? Could they be embarrassed by Oppy’s continuing successes and popularity with the media and the public and want the spotlight focussed solely on Curiosity, the rover with disintegrating wheels but without a real mission?

If she died today, through some kind of mechanical, structural or software failure, it would be a tragedy for science and Mars enthusiasts, but it would be an acceptable way to go. But to think of Opportunity being turned off by NASA, to think of someone sending a command to Mars that actually killed her, well, it’s too terrible to contemplate. One day Opportunity will die. Mars will finally succeed in killing her as it has tried to every sol since she landed. And that will be a sad day, the end of an incredible adventure on Mars. But that’s how she should go, doing science, driving, doing her job. Not switched off by someone on Earth because money couldn’t be found to keep her going.

And that’s what it comes down to – money. Opportunity’s time on Mars is not free and it has to be paid for. But really, the cost of keeping Oppy a’roving is peanuts compared to the money being spent elsewhere. How much did the recent Superbowl cost to stage, I wonder? I read on a website that the highest paid American Footballer, Matt Ryan, earned – wait for this – $43.8m last year. That must be almost what it cost to keep Oppy roving on Mars in the same time? And how much is spent each day by the military? On dog food? On cosmetics?

Also in the news yesterday, a record amount was paid for a painting. Gaugin’s “When Will You Marry?” was bought by a Quatari museum for – wait for this – $300m. Yes, you read that correctly…


And there’s no money to keep Opportunity roving on Mars?

Do me a favour.

If Congress call’s NASA’s bluff – and they will do eventually – I hope someone there has the guts to stand up for the rover and find the money from somewhere else. Of course, every mission is precious to the people who operate it, who live and breathe it every bit as much as the MER team do their mission, but seriously, to even consider switching off a working rover on another planet is folly. Someone, somewhere, just find the damned money and keep Opportunity roving. Like Spirit, when she’s gone, she’ll be gone forever, and the MER mission will go down in history as one of the most successful and inspiring missions of this (first) space age.

I mean, look where she is now, as she drives down from the summit of Cape Tribulation. This is her latest view…


She can now see the entrance to Marathon Valley. Soon she will roll up to it and start to drive down into it. What’s waiting for here there? Why is it such a big deal? We’ll have to wait and see, but in a her most recent (and brilliant) “Opportunity Mission Update” on the Planetary Society blog,  AJS Rayl wrote this…

The MER mission was drawn to Marathon Valley by orbital data that indicate there are phyllosilicates there, multiple kinds of clay minerals there, signs of past water. Among whatever surprises and new mysteries Mars may offer up, the scientists are hoping to find more of the deepest stratigraphic unit that Opportunity uncovered at Matijevic Hill on Cape York back in 2012-2013 and is now known as Matijevic Formation. “We spent months exploring Matijevic Hill and Marathon Valley looks bigger and better,” said Squyres. “There’s a chance that we will see similarly old rocks there.”

So, exciting times ahead then! She’s close now, so close…


And although it might be wildly optimistic, it seems some on the MER team are even starting to wonder about life AFTER Endeavour. Not openly, of course, not in any big, public way, but this paper suggests that maybe, just maybe, some are wondering if Oppy might one day leave Endeavour and travel on to another crater beyond…


(Hmmm…. might there one day be a “Road To Iazu” blog…?)

So, there you go… Oppy under threat, again… maybe… Will be interesting to see how this story unfolds and then concludes in the weeks and months ahead. In the meantime, check back soon to see where Oppy goes next. :-)

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Eleven Years On Mars

Eleven years ago today, having already celebrated the arrival of the MER rover “Spirit” on Mars, countless thousands of people around the world held their breath as they followed the landing of her sister rover. I remember it like it was yesterday, sitting in front of my PC, watching events unfold over a dial-up connection on a tiny RealPlayer window, which kept freezing and rebuffering and breaking up into a kaleidescope of pixels before steadying again. I sat there, a nervous wreck, imagining Opportunity plunging through the thin martian air beneath a parachute, then bouncing and boinging across the rocky surface before coming to a halt, and when news came through that she had landed safely, and mission control erupted in howls of celebration and too many hugs and high fives to count, I’m not ashamed to say I blubbed with relief and delight. Two rovers on Mars! In my lifetime! TWO!

When the first pictures came in they were initially baffling…


What the..? We know now, of course, that in an amazing cosmic “hole in one” Opportunity had landed inside a small crater, Eagle Crater, and when she opened her eyes and turned hear head around she found, unbelievably, impossibly, wonderfully, an outcrop of ancient martian bedrock right in front of her!

In the heady days which followed, Oppy explored that outcrop and then drove out of the crater. As she emerged from it we all wondered what the future would bring for her. We hoped that Opportunity and Spirit might last several months on the Red Planet, and in that time manage to drive a kilometre or so from their landing sites. Ok, it was optimistic, but we were on a post-landing high…

Eleven years later Spirit is, alas, no longer with us. But Opportunity is still roving Mars, still exploring, still making discoveries. Eleven years after landing, the rover which was “doing a science” on Mars long before that annoying hipster term was even thought up is, as you read this, having crossed deserts, explored craters, survived dust storms and computer glitches, descending from the summit of a mountain, heading towards a valley cut into the side of Endeavour crater which many think will turn out to be a scientific wonderland, possibly the most exciting and important place she will ever visit. The valley has been christened “Marathon Valley” because it lies a marathon’s distance from the rover’s landing site.

Opportunity has come such a long way, and her view has changed so much in eleven years…


We’re all busy, we all have crazy busy lives, and everyone reading this will have a million things to do today. But if you can, take a moment during the day to just stop and think about what a magnificent achievement this is, for the rover itself and the incredible team of men and women behind her.And if you get the chance, go out after sunset, look to the west and look for Mars shining there in the twilight, an orange spark of light to the upper left of beautifully brilliant Venus…

jan 25

…and give Opportunity a nod and a smile, and congratulate her, and her team, on a magnificent achievement. I know I will.


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Onwards, Oppy, onwards…

Opportunity didn’t stay to catch her breath at the summit of Cape Tribulation for long. She’s already driven a little further onwards, heading south towards Marathon Valley. But before she set off, like any good hiker would, she took some pictures of the view from the top, and I’ve been spending some time assembling them into a proper, colourised portrait of the landscape she saw, as my own tribute to Opportunity and all the people behind her.

Now, it’s important to note here that many people “do” colourisations, it’s nothing new. Some people do it by simply tinting the MER black and white images of Mars what they consider to be a “martian” shade, by running them through Photoshop or some other image processing software until they have a red/brown/tan tinge to them. some of these “colourisations” are ok, but others, some very high profile, are, to be perfectly frank, ******* hideous, they’re absolute monstrosities, and the martian landscapes they show are ghastly bile- and diarrhoea-hued abominations which really should not be used by the websites and publications they are used by, especially when so many good, more realistic colour views are available. Other people, like me, do a bit more work. We take the black and white MER raw images, shot through different coloured filters, and then recombine them using image processing software to make a single, colour image. We all have our different ways, our own techniques and quirks, and use different software, but we’re all after the same thing – a colour image of Mars. What kind of image we’re after is much more subjective. Some people go for ultra realistic views, and work incredibly hard to make sure every channel is balanced and every curve is just right to make the landscape they show as realistic as possible, the view you would have if you were there, on Mars, looking at the landscape through your visor.

But that’s not what I’m after. What I try to create with my images is a vision of Mars, something that puts across – hopefully – the beauty of the planet and its landscapes. So my images are not photo-realistic, and I don’t claim them to be, but they, I hope, one person’s depiction of Mars which reflect the planet’s incredible raw beauty and nobility. My images are the images I see in my mind as I think about Mars, or write about it or look at it through my telescope. So the picture I’ve created of the view from the summit of Tribulation isn’t scientifically accurate, but it is emotionally and aesthetically accurate, at least for me.

Here, then, is what I see in my mind’s eye as I imagine standing there beside Opportunity, high on the summit of Cape Tribulation, looking south at the road ahead. Click on it to enlarge it, and I hope you like it. :-)

summit view 3

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Tribulation Conquered

She did it. Opportunity did it. She reached the top of Cape Tribulation, and is now looking down from the summit, with gorgeous views of the rim of Endeavour on the farside of the crater and of her tracks leading back down the hill to the great Merdiani Plain far below.

I know others will do much better – and I’ll as them nicely if I can show their images here – I stitched together a crude (and by crude I mean VERY crude!) panorama of her view from the top…


Look at that… just look at that… Just stop and think for a moment about what a truly epic journey Opportunity has had to get to this place, high above Barsoom. She landed in Eagle Crater – that famous “cosmic hole in one” – with that layer of precious bedrock exposed in the crater wall, right in front of her nose, and then she went on a glorious road trip across Meridiani, travelling farther, doing more, seeing more, than anyone dared imagine might be possible. She crossed that unforgiving dune sea to reach Victoria Crater, then drove into it to study its crumbling cliffs. Leaving Victoria, she headed for a pair of bumps on the faraway horizon – another crater, called “Endeavour”, which was so far away many thought there was no chance of her even getting halfway to it. But Oppy proved them wrong. Hopscotching between one small crater after another, slogging through dust dunes, surviving dust storms and everything Mars could throw at her she eventually reached Cape York and rolled up onto it to begin her study of Endeavour, finding there a whole treasure chest of exotic rocks and minerals, including a striking vein of gypsum which left the scientists drooling. Leaving Cape York she headed south again, trundling towards the base of the great range of hills which forms the south western rim of the crater. Eventually she rolled up onto Solander Point, and started to drove up it, climbing a little higher each day. Slowly she worked her way up the slope, studying a whole host of rocks, boulders, ridges and outcrops as she ascended, until she approached the summit…

Now she is there, standing on that summit. And I make no apology for repeating the statistics because they are jaw dropping. Opportunity would, it was hoped, survive for 90 days on the surface of Mars before the hostile environment killed her. It was hoped that in that time she might, possibly, perhaps, drive as far as a kilometre from her original landing site. Eleven years later… eleven YEARS… as you read this, on your phone, laptop, tablet or PC, this truly incredible rover is not only still working, but she has travelled almost 42 km across the Red Planet and is now standing on a rocky ledge high above the surface of Mars. If you don’t think that’s an amazing achievement, if that doesn’t leave you shaking your head on wonder, then you’re made of stone, I swear.

Yesterday the MER team released some images which showed a close-up of part of the rover’s robot arm…


I took the b&w colour filter images and combined them to make a single colour image…

flag f

“So what?” some of you might be asking. Others will look at that image and feel the hairs on the backs of their necks rising, because they know that that small piece of metal with the Stars and Stripes design on it was machined from metal recovered from the tangled and scorched wreckage of the World Trade Centre, destroyed by terrorists in 2001.

So, on one level, that image represents Opportunity following in the footsteps of generations of brave explorers and mountaineers by planting her nation’s flag on the summit of the pea she has just conquered. Which is pretty cool by itself – a robot triumphantly planting a flag on the top of a hill on another world! It will be generations before a human being does that!

But on another level, that image represents much, much more than a simple flag-raising. It shows defiance and the triumph of intellect and science over the forces of ignorance and fundamentalism. This is a very dangerous, dark time for the world, I think most people feel that. The news is full of pain, death and bloodshed every day, and it’s hard not to feel like we’re standing in the shadow of a great storm that’s advancing relentlessly towards us. But as hooded terrorists were mercilessly slaughtering people in France, and holding others hostage, spreading fear and despair, on another world, halfway across the solar system, a piece of a building destroyed by other terrorists was being proudly and defiantly held aloft by a robot, proof that these insane, mad dogs will never win. They want to plunge the world into a new Dark Age of fear, repression and ignorance, but when they look up at the sky on a clear night they’ll see the space station crossing the sky, a lantern of science and technology drifting through the heavens, and there’s nothing they can do about it. They want to drown the world in their hateful dogma, superstition and ignorance, but that picture taken by Opportunity shows them that their beliefs, their worship of violence and terror will never win, not when there are men and women in the world who dedicate their lives to furthering knowledge for the benefit of all, who built a robot, sent it to Mars, and guided it up a mountain. They want to turn off the lights of intellect and science, and plunge the world into darkness, but every fiery rocket launch, every image taken of Saturn by CASSINI, every metre driven by Opportunity, every portrait of the universe painted by the cameras of the Hubble Space Telescope pushes back that darkness. For every bullet they fire in hatred a thousand computer keyboard keys are tapped by people dedicated to helping others and advancing science and knowledge, searching for a cure for cancer, or designing a faster computer, or teaching children how to read. For every hostage they kill, a million people turn away from them, look up at the sky, and dream of a future free of their beliefs and violence.

And every time the terrorists look out across the desert in hatred, dreaming their dreams of turning a small part of the world into a scientific wilderness ruled by tyranny and fear, feeling hatred for anyone who doesn’t share their views, beliefs or vision, hundreds of miles above their heads an astronaut will be floating in the cupola of the ISS, gazing down in wonder at the whole world, burning blue and green and white in the blackness of space, feeling nothing but love and hope.

So that image doesn’t just show Oppy planting a flag on Mars, it shows the forces of good, and reason, giving the finger to the terrorists and their beliefs. Unintentionally, but that’s exactly what it does.

So, today, Opportunity stands proudly on the top of Cape Tribulation, taking a well-deserved breather after her hard climb. I’m sure the HiRISE camera of the MRO probe will take a picture of her, showing her as a little dot on the summit, which will become a classic, iconic image overnight. It will show Oppy standing there alone – but she isn’t, not really. Because although they won’t be on the photo, and she can’t see them herself, there are thousands of people standing there on that hilltop with Oppy, and their footprints run alongside Oppy’s wheeltracks all the way back down to the plains below, all the way back to Eagle crater in fact. Because Oppy is the flame burning brightly at the tip of a towering candle. Standing beside Oppy today, in spirit, are the men and women who designed and built her; the software engineers who programmed her; the people who sewed together the fabric of her balloons and airbags; the people who built the rocket which sent her from Earth to Mars; the flight team who guided her to Mars; the EDL team which landed her safely on Mars, dropping her into Eagle Crater on that wonderful day; the MER rover drivers who steered and guided her so carefully across the surface of Mars, and many, many more.

And of course, Oppy is also surrounded by countless thousands of rover enthusiasts who have followed her mission from the start.

I’m there with them, standing right next to Oppy, with my hand resting on her back, so proud of her, and all her team, past and present, that I could burst.

In a hundred years time, when humans have finally reached and begun to settle Mars, when Opportunity, brushed clean and polished until she shines, is on display in The Museum of Mars, there will be a statue of her on this very spot at the summit of Cape Tribulation, showing her looking out across the crater, back across the great Meridiani Plain, towards Eagle Crater. But she won’t be on her own then, either;  standing beside her will be a statue of Steve Squyres, his hand resting on her back, smiling that wry cowboy smile of his, quietly proud of his trusty rover. Tourists visiting Endeavour, following “The Opportunity Trail”, will climb up Tribulation and have their photos taken with the pair, posing beside their statues, before continuing on south towards Marathon Valley. And for years to come the two of them, inseparable, will be the first to see the Sun rise over the crater’s rim and the last to see it set behind it.

Whatever you do today, however busy your day is, however dark and troubled you might feel after the terrible events of this past week, just take a moment to go outside, look at the sky, and remind yourself that we live in a time, and in a world, where there are people from different countries, religions and beliefs living and working together peacefully in space, where there are footprints on the Moon, and where a robot which refuses to die has climbed a mountain on Mars.



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