Glorious view…

Opportunity appears to have started working her way slowly away from Marathon Valley, in preparation for her drive to “The Gully” (so we really need a name for it now, come on Mars rover team!). The latest images show Opportunity has left “Spirit Mound” behind and has rolled on to another small rocky mound called “Pompy’s Tower”, the middle “star” of an almost Orion’s belt-like trio of such hillocks…



…and here it is…


That image is cropped from a very wide panoramic mosaic I’ve stitched together from raw images, showing the landscape – and route – ahead of Opportunity. This is the terrain she will be crossing soon as she begins her journey to The Gully… Click on the image below to enlarge it… (and apologies in advance for the ugly join in the middle, I wasn’t using my best software. It’ll do for now, until higher resolution (hopefully colour!) versions of these frames come back…)


So, Opportunity is on her way! To close this post here’s a colour image I was working on last night, one of my favourites for a while. Hope you like it too.


And what’s next? This…



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Just sayin’…


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A meteorite’s tale…


A lot of fuss is being made of the news that Curiosity has found a meteorite on Mars. Regular readers of this blog will know that there’s nothing too unusual about that, of course – during her wanders across Meridiani, Opportunity has found enough of them to fill a museum display case!

But  just think about it for a moment… As was the case with all Oppy’s fallen star stones, this meteorite, a piece of solar system debris billions of years old, circled the Sun for all that time until its path intersected Mars’, then, with the whole of Mars available, it plunged through the atmosphere to land on the planet’s surface right in a crater which would, one day, countless millennia later, be visited by a nuclear-powered robot from Earth. And, purely by chance, it landed smack in the path of that robot as it trundled across the crater floor, close enough for the rover to photograph it as it drove past. Look closely at the meteorite and you’ll see six little white dots on its shiny surface…


These are the pinpoint marks of the rover’s laser beam, which flashed across the meteorite to study it after it had stood there on the surface of Mars for an incredible number of years…

One chunk of metal on Mars, probably not very different to thousands of others scattered across Barsoom, but this one was in the right place at the right time for us to find it. One day in the future it will probably be picked up by a scientist – or tourist – following Curiosity’s path across the floor of Gusev crater, dropped in a pouch and brought back to the Mars base, to be shown to people there, then either put on display at the base or sent back to Earth, for display in a museum there or sold to a collector.

What an incredible journey that little chunk of metal is on…

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Opportunity gets a neighbour…

After all these years of being alone on the Meridiani Plain, Opportunity is about to get a neighbour on Mars.


(image Copyright ESA)

Later this week a lander called Schiaparelli, built by the European Space Agency, will come down on Mars somewhere to the north and west of Endeavour Crater. As you can see from ESA’s graphic showing the lander’s landing ellipse (which I’ve cropped and labelled), here…


That’s a big oval, isn’t it? The chances are Schiaparelli will set down many miles from Opportunity, but it might… might… come down as close as 6 miles away. Not that that matters; Opportunity would never trundle down off the Endeavour rim and go find the new arrival – there’s absolutely no reason to. But that’s close enough to mean there’s a possibility Opportunity might see Schiaparelli’s arrival at Barsoom, might spot its meteoric path across the sky as it enters the atmosphere, which is why Opportunity has recently been taking photos towards the direction of the European lander’s planned landing site. If Oppy catches anything (and it’s a HUGE if!) it will just be a scratchy bright line across the sky, if that. But it’s worth a go; if it comes off it will be a very cool picture –

– which is one more “cool picture” than Schiaparelli itself will take on Mars, because it doesn’t have any cameras for taking photos of its landing site IF it lands safely.

I know what you’re thinking…


…and I’ll be honest, that was my reaction too when I heard, months ago, that Schiaparelli wouldn’t be taking any photos of its landing site once it was down on the surface. It does seem insane, doesn’t it? To go all that way, make it through the atmosphere, land safely and then NOT send back any images from the surface, not even one? When I read that I thought it was one of the dumbest things I’d ever heard, and part of me still feels that way, to be frank. It just seems wrong for a lander to not send back any images from the world it’s landed on. It feels… unnatural, like an incredibly wasted opportunity. And I wondered at the time if ESA hadn’t learned anything from the landing of the Huygens probe on Titan, which was just programmed to take a single pic with a low resolution grudging afterthought of a camera, but in the end survived long enough to have taken many more.


Schiaparelli isn’t designed to take photos. It is designed to just land safely on the surface of Mars, and tell its makers back here everything about how that landing went. Why? Because in a couple of years ESA is going to attempt to land its own rover on Mars, and this Schiaparelli mission is designed to help it do that. Basically, Schiaparelli is a fancy space crash test dummy, designed to help ESA learn how to land on Mars.

( Of course, ESA has actually already landed a probe on Mars… Beagle 2. Ok, it wasn’t a totally successful landing, but it did make it to the surface, and those images taken a couple of years ago now suggest it made it down pretty much in one piece. But I don’t expect you’ll hear much about Beagle 2 this week as Schiaparelli approaches and then (hopefully) lands on Mars. To ESA, Beagle 2 seems a bit like Voldemort or Macbeth – a name no-one dares speak out-loud… )

And we have to be okay with the lack of pictures, and not make it a “thing”, even though it will seem like a huge wasted opportunity on Wednesday. Not every space mission has to be about taking pretty pictures; some have to just collect data and information which will have the engineers and flight controllers jumping in their seats and rubbing their little biro-stained hands with glee, yet be of no interest to our eyes or use to our brains at all. The data sent back by Schiaparelli will be absolutely invaluable to the hard-working teams at ESA planning on landing the Exo-Mars rover in 2018. So, ok, yes, a picture of another landing site on Mars would be great… it’s always great to see a new place on Mars… but, frankly, we don’t need it, do we? Really? And obtaining and returning that landing data is much, much more important than taking and sending back a few images of the landing site, especially as it will probably look a lot like the landscape Opportunity drive through to get to Endeavour years ago.

So. Suck it up everyone. This is a mission for the scientists and engineers, not for us. And that’s ok. We’re spoiled rotten with images from Mars -they are sent back daily not just by Opportunity, but also by Curiosity and many orbiters too. And if Schiaparelli is fated to stare out blindly across the martian landscape for the three short sols of its mayfly life in order to improve the ExoMars rover to land safely on Mars then so be it.

And Schiaparelli will actually do some useful science on Mars!


(Image copyright ESA)

Its DREAMS (GREAT acronym! Well done that meeting!) package will tell us about the martian weather and properties of its dust. Details here. And you can read more about Schiaparelli itself on an ESA website here.

So, Wednesday is the big day. Will Opportunity witness and record the fiery arrival of her new neighbour? Check back and find out. 🙂

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Just a few photographs taken by Opportunity recently, worked on a bit to make them look a little more arty… 🙂




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Farewell Marathon Valley…

Yes, we’re back…!

There has been nothing published on this blog for the past 9 months, I know, and if you’re a regular reader I apologise for that. It wasn’t because I got bored with or fell out of love with Opportunity. Far from it; even tho I haven’t posted here my enthusiasm and support for the MER mission remain as strong as ever. I’ve followed Oppy faithfully, and checked out the pictures she’s sent back, every single day since the last post, way back in January. Since that post Opportunity has been exploring Marathon Valley, taking gorgeous pictures, making measurements, collecting data exactly as she has done every sol since that historic landing more than a dozen years ago. So why haven’t I covered it?

Well, as every blogger knows, sometimes life just gets in the way, you know? There are only so many hours in each day – unless you’re a Time Lord – and my hours have been filled with a lot of book writing and editing, Outreach work in schools and to community groups, “work” work and organising astronomy events. It’s just been impossible to spend as much time as I used to, and still wanted to, on this blog, so I decided to just stop for a while, let Oppy do her thing (whilst keeping an eye on her, of course) and come back when time allowed. To be honest, time doesn’t really allow now, I’m still stupidly busy, but Opportunity is entering a new phase of her incredible mission so it felt right, and necessary, to end my sabbatical, post an update and get the blog running again. So, here we are! I hope some of you are glad to see us back, and will continue to visit this blog to see what our favourite rover is doing.

Okay, let’s catch up – let’s take a look at where Opportunity was the last time I posted, and where she is now. You’ll remember that Opportunity was exploring and working her way down “Marathon Valley”, a wide ‘notch’ in the hilly wall of Endeavour Crater, which she had reached after crossing the vast Meridiani Plain and climbing up onto and then trundling along the crater’s ancient eastern wall..


You can see from that map that Opportunity has now driven out of a gap in the side of Marathon Valley and is heading down-slope, towards the crater floor. She recently parked up in front of a small, low mound, called “Spirit Mound”, and this is the view she had from there…


As you can see, she still has a fantastic view across Endeavour Crater, right over to the opposite side. But she won’t be staying here for long. NASA has selected another science target for Opportunity, almost 3km further south – a gully, or channel in the crater wall, which might have been carved out of the rick and dust by running water millennia ago ..



We’ll take a closer look at the gully itself shortly. To reach it, Opportunity will be going on a kind of “Grand Tour” of several different fascinating features along and on either side of the hills. How do we know this? Because there was recently a very important planning meeting to discuss Opportunity’s future, and the future direction of NASA’s Mars exploration in general, and NASA released a report on the meeting which included a very helpful route map for the next leg of Oppy’s incredible journey…


We’re just going to concern ourselves… for now… with the first part of that extended mission – the path to a gully, some 3km “down the road”…


You can see from that map section that Opportunity is now, rather than driving down onto Endeavour’s floor, head back uphill to the higher ground above her current position, then work her way south, hopscotching between various ridges and outcrops before making a sharp turn east back onto the flat plain to pay a visit to an ancient impact crater out there.


After studying that crater she will head back to the hills, to the northern end of Cape Byron, then work her way down-slope to what looks very much like a water-carved gully cut into the hillside. Here are some views I’ve made of it by viewing HiRISE images of Endeavour Crater with the HiView viewer then cropping and processing them to isolate the gully…





How long will this new adventure take? When will Opportunity reach that gully?

No idea, it’s simply impossible to say. Of course, it’s possible she won’t reach it. Remember, after she landed on Mars – in that famous “cosmic hole in one” in Eagle Crater – it was hoped Opportunity would last 90 days on Mars and travel a kilometre before being murdered by the harsh martian environment. Since then she has crossed wide open plains, driven to, around, into and back out of several craters, hunted meteorites, climbed and descended hills and mountains, and more. She’s soaked up every punch Mars has thrown at her, from global dust storms to software- and hardware failures – ad kept going. Now, more than 12 years after she arrived, and tens of kilometres from her landing site, every sol Opportunity wakes up and looks out across Endeavour crater is a bonus, and every sunrise or sunset could be the last she ever sees.

But Opportunity is a rover, that’s what she does, rove, and the science team obviously have faith that she can reach that gully, or at the very least get a good part of the way to it, so after saying farewell to Marathon Valley she’s heading south. And if she reaches the gully, and studies it, she’ll go even further, to an impact crater down on Endeavour’s floor…


And after that..? Well, let’s not get carried away! But…

It would be nice to reach Iazu Crater, wouldn’t it? After all, it’s only another 12km away 🙂


Iazu can wait. Before then, let’s see how close Opportunity can get to that gully. Will she reach it? Well, we’ll see. But as a good friend of mine has warned, several times, “Never bet against a Mars rover…”

More soon! (Honest!)


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Opportunity – Twelve Years On Mars

If you’d been standing on the crushed cinnamon sands of the vast Meridiani Planum on Mars, a dozen years ago today, your eye would have been caught by a glint of silvery light in the huge butterscotch sky above you. Looking up, shielding your eyes from the golden Sun with your hand you would have seen what looked like a tiny white flower falling from the heavens, slowly growing larger and larger as you watched. Eventually you would have realised it was a parachute, and something was hanging from it – something that suddenly cut loose and fell free, dropping towards the ground like a stone. Your breath would have caught in your throat, anticipating a shuddering crash and a plume of dust mushrooming into the sky when the falling object slammed into the ground – but instead, as it hit, it went back up into the chill, barely-there air again, like one of the famous “bouncing bombs” from the Dambusters film. After a short flight through the air it dropped and hit the ground again, only to bounce up again, leaving a cloud of dust behind it as it continued on its way, hop-scotching across the plain in slow motion, each brief landing marked by another cloud of dust. Finally it stopped bouncing, Mars’ grudging gravity holding it down, but now it rolled across the ground, bobbing and bobbling up and over the rocks and boulders until it finally dropped down into a small crater, where it finally sat still, quivering like some kind of orange-stained amoeba, dust settling around it. If you’d loped over to it, boots kicking up yet more dust, you’d have seen the visitor from the skies resembled a huge cluster of frogspawn, or several large balloons joined together. If you’d stayed there, on the crater’s edge, watching the new arrival, you would have waited what felt like a long time before anything happened but eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, you’d have jumped back in surprise as the balloons deflated, as if pricked by invisible pins, revealing what they had been protecting – a bizarre-looking machine, an alien construction of glass, metal and wires, gleaming shiny and perfectly clean against the dusty, ruddy landscape. You’d have jumped again as the machine started to unpack itself, like a Transformer toy, or an origami model unfolding, metal petals opening to reveal a small car-like object nestling inside. Then that too began to unfold, a pair of metal wings snapping open on its back, clicking into place, even as a long, slender neck rose up, lifting a head covered with cameras and instruments up to the same height as your own… a head which began to turn, slowly, slowly, until it faced you, and looked right at you…

That was how, twelve years ago today, you would have witnessed the historic arrival of the Mars Exploration Rover OPPORTUNITY at Eagle Crater on Mars.

I watched that live online, and it only seems like yesterday that it happened, not almost a quarter of my life ago (I was 51 yesterday, I know Happy Birthday to Me..!). Things were very different then, at least for me. I watched Opportunity’s landing online, but it was a very different experience than it is now when I watch Space X’s rockets launching or landing, or Tim Peake spacewalking outside the ISS. I watched Oppy’s landing on dial-up, via a chirruping modem, and on a tiny RealPlayer screen. The video stream – more of a video rivulet, or a drip actually – kept breaking up into a kaleidescopic haze of pixels, and buffered every few minutes, so it was an enormously frustrating experience… but I was there, I was there when she landed, and yes, I cried with happiness, relief and excitement. She was the second MER to land on Mars safely in the January of 2004, after Spirit’s triumphant landing in Gusev Crater at the start of the year, and sitting there, listening to the whoops and cheers as the first images came back and appeared on my screen it seemed too good to be true: there were two rovers on Mars. Two! And for the next three months – because that was how long they were expected to survive on Mars back then – I was going to be able to see new images from Mars, my favourite planet, my true “homeworld” many have said every day. If all went well, the rovers might each drive as far as a kilometre from their landing site, but few thought that realistic.

Of course, it didn’t quite work out like that.

Thanks to remarkable engineering, brilliant driving and innovative project management, both rovers survived on Mars for years. Many years. They drive not just a kilometre, but many kilometres. They crossed vast deserts, climbed hills, circled, descended into then drove back out of craters. They survived dust storms, software glitches, mechanical problems – everything and anything Mars threw at them. And we watched them, day after day, sol after sol, as they reached and went beyond one horizon after another, showing us beautiful new martian vistas every morning when we woke up, went online, and checked out the latest images. Through their unblinking electronic eyes we watched candyfloss clouds drift across the peach sky, whirling dervish dust devils waltzing across the plains, and bumps on the skyline grow to become hills and then mountains.

And we saw Earth itself as a silver sequin, shining in an alien, lavender sky.

On opposite sides of Barsoom the two rovers went about their work, “doing a science” on Mars for half a decade before hipsters had even invented the term. Sol after sol their wheels crunched across the rocky ground, leaving dark tracks snaking behind them. As they rolled on across Mars, relentlessly, exploring, discovering, revealing wonder after wonder, we began to think of them as immortal.

Spirit fell first. Mars could not kill her with its wind, or dust, or cold, so it set a trap fir her, digging a crater out of the ground in her path, filling it with dust and camouflaging it with a thin crust of icy dust, like hunters building a pit trap in a forest to catch a lion or a tiger. Spirit drove towards it blissfully unaware of the danger – and almost missed the trap. But the ground gave way beneath the one wheel which drove over the trap, and she sank into it, stuck like a baby mammoth in a tar pit. Despite valiant efforts by her team back on Earth she could not be freed, and finally fell asleep there, her dust-scoured eyes shutting for the final time on March 22, 2010, 2210 sols (martian days) after landing.

On the other side of Mars, slogging across Meridiani Planum, Opportunity – maybe after pausing for a moment, sensing the loss of her sister due to a disturbance in the Mars Rover Force – carried on, heading for an impossibly-far-away mountain range on her horizon…


Today, 4,266 sols after landing, Opportunity marks her twelfth landing anniversary on the summit of those mountains, high above the Meridiani Plain, looking down on Endeavour Crater.


Today she will continue her work, studying the rocks, dust and dirt of “Marathon Valley” a notch in the mountain side named in honour of her incredible achievement of driving the length of a marathon – 26.2 miles (42.195 kilometers) – across the surface of Mars.


But you probably won’t hear much about this. Opportunity is the forgotten Mars rover. NASA now concentrates its attention on her bigger, sexier, more high tech cousin CURIOSITY, the Mars Science Laboratory which is exploring Gale Crater. Curiosity is doing great work on Mars, re-writing the textbooks with her discoveries, it’s true… but, largely ignored by NASA, her ancestor, Opportunity is still there, on Mars, still exploring, still discovering, still being amazing.

I sometimes wonder – probably quite unfairly – if NASA would be happier if Opportunity finally died, surrendering Mars, and the media’s attention, to Curiosity. It seems that every year Opportunity is threatened with being switched off to save money, which would be a crime, it really would; every day she sends back new images from Mars, from high up on the summit of Endeavour Crater, and every image is a reminder of how incredibly successful the MER mission has been – and continues to be. They should drive Oppy until her wheels seize up, or fall off. They should squeeze every last drop of science out of her. They should just let her keep being what she is – an explorer – until she can go on no more. Then, and only then, should her mission end.

To pay tribute to this amazing machine, and the legion of incredible men and women who stand unseen behind her up there on the summit of Endeavour – the people who designed, built her and landed her safely on Mars; the people who have driven her across Mars for all these years; the people who have fixed her software glitches, hauled her out of dust-dunes and helped her survive all these thousands of freezing cold nights – I am going to post some of my favourite Opportunity images. And I mean MY images; these are all images I have made myself, with art packages and photo processing software, from the original images sent back to Earth by Oppy, and posted here on this blog.

Having posted many hundreds of such images here I can only scratch the surface, I know, but I want to at least try to give a feeling of how much the rover, and the people behind it, means to me. I have walked beside Opportunity across the surface of Mars every day since she landed, a dozen years ago. Big changes have happened to me, and to the world, in that time.

The world of 2016 is a very, very different place to the world of 2004 when Oppy bounced across Meridiani and landed in that incredible “cosmic hole in one” in Eagle Crater. Today the world is under threat in so many different ways – global warming, disease, political unrest, and I have no doubt that terrorist horrors lay ahead of us, over our horizon, which will make those we have endured so far seem like arguments in a school playground. we also live at a time when ignorance about science, and distrust and fear of it, are stronger and more widespread than ever before, and getting worse. If you had told me back in January 2004, as I sat there at my desk in the early hours of that morning, watching Opportunity land, that when I was 50 there would be people insisting that NASA faked the Moon landings, that global warming is a scam, that airplanes paint the sky with poisonous chemtrails to cull the world’s population, that there are ancient cities and statues on Mars, and that the International Space Station is fake too, I would have slapped you across the face for thinking me so stupid as to even sit there and listen to you. And if you had tried to tell me that in 2016 there would be crazy, dribbling idiots tapping away on their computers, writing bullshit on Facebook and Twitter and blogs, and creating crappy YouTube videos insisting that the Earth was flat, I would have thought you were the insane one. But we actually live in that world, the same world in which black flag-waving psychopaths burn people alive in cages, demolish priceless ancient temples and turn innocent men and women into splashes of lasagne with their bombs, all in the name of their god. It’s tempting to just go curl up in a dark corner, wrap your arms around your knees, and hide, convinced that the world is either going insane or is there already.

But look at these pictures. Each one of these images is proof that when we set our minds to it, we can achieve great things. Each image was made possible because smart men and women lifted their weary eyes from the litter-strewn, filthy streets and looked to the heavens, imagining more, wanting more. While evil people elsewhere used their technical skills and knowledge to create bombs to slaughter people, they joined together the same materials – wire, glass, metal – to create a machine that travelled across the gulf of space to land on another planet and explore it in the name of science, and the pursuit of knowledge. That’s an amazing thing. An incredible thing.

Look at these pictures and just think that right now, as you read this, a dusty, tired robot is standing on the floor of an ancient valley, high up on the side of a mountain on Mars… on Mars… and tell yourself that while we still do things like this, evil and terror and fear cannot and WILL not win. Because our urge to create and explore is far, far stronger than our urge to destroy. And one day, maybe in half a century’s time, maybe a lot further into the future than that, men and women will walk across Meridiani Planum, hike up that mountain and find Opportunity, standing wherever she eventually came to rest, and rest their gloved hands on her back, by then thick with dust, and gratefully whisper…

“Thank you.”

















pano final


one day


eastern hills 2b




Thank you Opportunity – and all the men and women who got you to Barsoom – for a dozen wonderful years, for the thousands of alien sunrises and sunsets you showed me, for the meteorites you discovered, for everything.

And keep roving. Because the best is yet to come.

collage 12 yrs s

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