Taking a breather…

Opportunity is still hanging around at the entrance to Marathon Valley, like a shy kid nervous about walking into a party… but the view she’s enjoying is nothing short of spectacular… Click on the image below to enlarge it and see what I mean…


Isn’t that something? Just look at all those gorgeous rocks and boulders scattered everywhere! Imagine wandering around that place… “Spirit of St Louis” crater… imagine stopping, reaching down to pick up a rock, hefting it in your gloved hand, holding it up to your helmet faceplate so you can see the lines and markings etched into its surface by aeons of martian wind…

Imagine that scene in colour…?

Imagine no longer…

SoSL Cairn

This must be one of the most impressive places Opportunity has been to in the whole of her time on Mars. Just look…


You can almost taste the dust in the back of your throat, can’t you? You can almost feel the grit as you rub it between your fingers…

Yes, a wonderful place… but I can’t wait for Opportunity to head into that valley and see all those layers… :-)

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A fascinating place…

Having completed her FIRST marathon on Mars, Opportunity hasn’t started the drive towards Marathon Valley just yet. It seems the geology around the valley entrance is just too interesting to ignore. Oppy is now parked next to a raised outcrop of light rock which has been christened “Athens” by the MER team, and she’s taking a good, close look at it.




And over there – no, not there, over there – is a very interesting boulder indeed…


Ok, everyone, synchronise watches, it’s countdown time… T minus four hours until the tin foil hat-wearing nutters declare Opportunity has found – and NASA is hiding – a Standing Stone on Mars…  MARK…


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Opportunity Completes Her First Marathon


Well, she did it. And why did we ever doubt she would? After a lot of very careful and intense measuring and number-crunching, it has been confirmed by NASA that two days ago, on day 3,968 of her proposed 90 day mission, more than eleven years after bouncing to a halt inside Eagle Crater in that much celebrated “cosmic hole in one”, Opportunity made history by reaching a point on Mars some 26.219 miles from her landing site. That means that a rover we all hoped would survive on Mars long enough to drive a kilometre has now driven more than 42 kilometres – the equivalent distance of a marathon.



This rather nice graphic from NASA, released yesterday to mark the occasion, shows very well what an incredible achievement this is…


That really brings it home, doesn’t it? Look how far she’s come! Look at that long and winding road from Eagle Crater to where she is now, high up on the rim of Endeavour Crater…

Follow that track and cast your minds back to all the incredible things Oppy has seen and done along it… and remember how, thanks to the generosity and vision of the MER team, especially Steve Squyres and Jim Bell, who decided right at the start of the mission that MER images should be shared openly and quickly, we’ve all been able to walk alongside Oppy on her epic trek across Barsoom. Again, a huge thank you to them.

It really is hard to over-state how incredible an achievement Opportunity’s completion of the first ever extraterrestrial marathon is, both for the rover itself and the team behind her – all those thousands of men and women who designed her, built her, wrote her software, got her to Mars and have kept her busy and healthy ever since. Because remember, as she has shown us time and time again, Mars hates having Terran visitors. It loathes them. It detests them. It takes a wicked, perverse delight in killing machines sent from Earth to try and uncover its secrets. So when Oppy landed, all those years ago, the chances were that sooner rather than later she would be murdered by Mars too, either subtly – with a small mechanical failure, or a software glitch – or more dramatically, with her wheels left whirring helplessly in a dust trap, an axle snapped by an ancient, unyielding rock, or some other calamity.

But she prevailed. After leaving Eagle Crater and heading towards the far horizon in pursuit of knowledge and discoveries, she survived lengthy desert crossings that would have made a Spice-eyed Fremen think twice, dust storms and more, to finally roll up onto the slopes of Cape York in triumph. Along the way she found meteorites that will one day be displayed in martian museums, drove around and into craters, and bathed in the gun metal blue light of thousands of sunsets and sunrises. No wonder the MER team became so attached to her, so loyal to her. I am lucky and honoured to know a handful of them personally, and know many more from media stories and the like, so if I’m feeling proud to bursting point of them, and of Opportunity, I can only imagine how proud they must be feeling.

Let’s just remind ourselves, with another NASA-provided image, of how far Opportunity has come on Mars. Click on the image below to enlarge it and then follow the yellow line from Eagle Crater, up at the top, to Oppy’s current position, at the mouth of Marathon Valley, high up on the rim of Endeavour Crater…


To put that into context, I began writing this blog on December 4th 2008, or Sol 1729, when Opportunity had just driven away from Victoria Crater and was starting to cross the Great Meridiani Desert which stretched between Victoria and Endeavour, stalking across an area of light-toned, flat rocky plates nicknamed “Conjunction Road”, having just found this small meteorite called “Santorini”…

santorini c

All around her, the scenery looked like this…


At that time the prospects of her actually reaching Endeavour were not considered to be good – it was ridiculously far away, years away for a rover that had already survived on Mars way longer than even its greatest, most optimistic fans had dared hope it would. And yes, I’ll be honest, when I started this blog I really did not think Oppy would reach Endeavour, I was sure she’d get a fair part of the way to it, more than halfway, but it seemed such a huge ask, such a huge challenge it seemed just too optimistic, even for a self-confessed rover hugger and MER cheerleader like myself.

But Oppy kept driving, kept her weary wheels whirring, and showed us one fantastic sight after another before arriving at Cape York, rolling up onto it, and beginning her exploration of Endeavour. So, as a tribute to Oppy’s achievement, here, in no particular order, are some of my favourite pics I have made and posted here on “Road to Endeavour” since that first post back in December 2008…














It’s been a true privilege to be able to walk alongside Oppy here on this blog for the past seven years.

then now

So, Oppy has finally completed her marathon! As President Bartlett was so fond of asking on The West Wing – what’s next?

Well, in terms of science, as you read this Opportunity is studying an area of bright rock just away from the edge of Spirit of St Louis crater, at the entrance to Marathon Valley. I’ve made this image showing the area, and put a ‘virtual’ Opportunity – to scale – on the picture. Click to enlarge it, then look for the arrow, bottom left…


And Oppy’s view at the moment..? This…



Here is “Athens”, the light, rocky outcrop the rover is investigating…


More pictures of that soon, no doubt. :-)

Obviously Opportunity completing her marathon on Mars is a cause to celebrate, but this might be a time to worry, too. Even as I sit here grinning like a Cheshire Cat, I can’t help wondering… will the politicians in control of NASA’s budget – and NASA’s own Administrator, who seems decidedly cool about NASA’s most successful ever Mars mission, a rover which outperformed every other current Mars mission in a recent independent review – decide that Opportunity’s historic crossing of the finishing line would be a fitting time to declare the end of her mission? Will they consider it a milestone marking the end of her martian journey? Surely not, not when she is poised to enter the Valley she has worked so hard to reach? Let’s hope this really is just another game of political Chicken being played by NASA and its political masters, and that common sense prevails. Or they all just grow up. Whichever happens first.

In the meantime, on Mars a robot has just finished a marathon, the first off-Earth marathon in history. And who knows, maybe she’ll complete another one before her wheels turn for the last time! But for now, just take a moment to think about that and say a silent Thank You to all the people, famous or unknown, who made it happen.

Now, Oppy…onwards- Marathon Valley awaits! :-)


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Just a pile of rocks…

…is how someone described the following picture to me when I showed it to them. “So…? It’s just a pile of rocks…”


And I suppose, to be fair, that is just what it looks like, right? Just a big old pile of rocks.

Except these aren’t just any rocks. These are Mars rocks. These rocks are high on the edge of an ancient crater on the Red Planet, and are being photographed and studied by an incredible machine, a robot rover called “Opportunity”, which landed on that world 11 long years ago.

Let’s add some colour and take a closer look at those “just” rocks…

sosl debrius pile 2b

Now you get a hint of the history behind this pile of “just” rocks. They all used to be one big rock, I think, a boulder that, probably many thousands of years ago, smashed into the ground here, and shattered into thousands of smaller shards, rocks and stones after being flung through the air by a shuddering impact most likely many, many miles away…

If you zoom out from this rock pile and look at the surrounding landscape you can see just what a beautiful spot this is…


I know… that’s something special, isn’t it?

It looks like Opportunity is now on her final approach to the entrance of Marathon Valley… Expect some very dramatic pictures as soon as she turns and heads towards the Valley itself. We’re going to see some mouth-wateringly beautiful geology then…! :-)

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Has Opportunity’s “time passed”? Hell no.


I’m not getting much shut eye at the moment – combination of lots of editing work to do, a huge partial solar eclipse public viewing event to plan, and a cat that seems to take a cruel delight in jumping on me at 4am and doing a Riverdance on my head, demanding to be fed and played with – so I might be a little sleep-deprived. In fact I must be, because that’s the only explanation I can come up with for the ridiculous dream I had the other day.

I dreamed – and you’re going to laugh at this, I know – that the NASA Administrator, an ex-astronaut and the guy who is supposed to champion the Administration and its achievements, actually told a bunch of politicians, during a discussion about the space agency’s budget, that he wasn’t going to support funding Opportunity’s mission for the coming year because… and this is the most insane part, I’m not making this up… “We cannot continue to operate instruments and missions whose time has passed.”

I know! I know!! Man, I really have to try to get some quality sleep and stop eating that cheese before I go to bed –

What? Really? He actually said that? It wasn’t a dream? The NASA Administrator actually thinks that Opportunity’s “time has passed”???


Er, sorry, Charles, I’m a bit confused. Because I could have sworn that an independent review panel recently judged Opportunity to be the best performing mission of ALL your Mars missions, ranking above every other piece of hardware you have driving on or whizzing around the planet. I could have sworn that eleven years… eleven years!! … after landing on Mars, Opportunity – which, you’ll all recall, we hoped would last 90 days and drive a kilometre before Mars murdered her – is still working well, and has driven more than 40 kilometres. I was sure that after crossing dozens kilometres of desert, exploring many craters and studying a museum gallery’s worth of meteorites, Opportunity is now exploring fascinating geology on the top of a mountain, which she scaled against all the odds, proving many people wrong. I could be mistaken, but I was absolutely convinced that having done all that, Opportunity is now preparing to enter a beautiful Barsoomian Big Country valley, which orbital studies have shown contains a remarkable amount of clay-bearing minerals, one of the things she was sent to Barsoom to look for in the first place..?


If I didn’t dream that then what the hell is going on?

Officially the background to this bizarre situation – the possibility that a functioning, efficient, popular Mars rover, set to carry out some of its most exciting scientific studies yet, might be abandoned – is, of course, money-related. Bolden says that he can’t afford to keep Opportunity (and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, another mission which ranked very highly in that aforementioned independent review) running and fund other missions too, namely the next Mars lander, INSIGHT. On the face of it that might make sense, there’s only so much money to go around, but Planetary Society writer and space advocate Casey Drier has done a fantastic job of demolishing that claim in a brilliant piece on the Planetary Society’s blog, which you can read here.

To quote from his piece, “The vast majority of the money that will ever be spent on InSight has already been spent. For the entirety of InSight’s development, from 2012 to now, Opportunity continued to explore the martian surface. It’s clearly not a choice between Opportunity and InSight, they’ve coexisted happily during the most expensive period of InSight’s life cycle.”

So that’s basically rubbish, dodgy, scaremongering then.

So what’s the real reason?

Well, lots of people are suggesting that this is just a ploy to squeeze more money out of Congress by threatening to axe a good, solid mission which is still returning good, solid science.


They point out that this crazy game of Politics vs Science Chicken has been played by NASA before and NASA has won previous rounds, thus cleverly securing further funding for the missions that were under budgetary pressure. And I was prepared to believe that myself – until I read what Bolden had actually said. If he had told that Committee “Well, after all these years on Mars Opportunity is still a wonderful machine, and still has the potential to do great science and make more discoveries, but as much as we want to we can’t afford to keep her working with the budget on the table…” and then looked up at the Committee with big, sad eyes I would have believed those saying this is all just a ploy, crossed my fingers and wished him luck…


But that’s not what he said. What he said was this:

We cannot continue to operate instruments and missions whose time has passed…”

That’s not what you say if you personally support a mission and want to fight for it and its teams, is it? That’s not what you say if you actually want, in your heart, to see it continue. It really does seem as if Bolden is happy to see Opportunity switched off – or rather, taken out and dumped on a highway like an unwanted dog, because, as I understand it, the rover can’t be “switched off”; it has no On/Off switch. Ending Opportunity’s mission would basically just mean NASA turning its back on the rover and letting it die on Mars, as its power runs down and its systems fail.

Why would he want to do that? Why is the NASA Administrator, a champion of science, prepared to sign the death warrant for the best performing Mars mission of the moment, which is arguably the most successful and most popular NASA Mars mission ever? A mission sending back views like this..?

pano Mar 14

Well, I have a theory, and it’s not a pretty one. Not everyone will agree with it, and it will probably mean I get a lot of critical or abusive responses, but that’s ok, it shows people are reading.

You see, I’ve thought for a while now that NASA, as an agency, is frustrated by Opportunity’s refusal to die. She wasn’t meant to live this long, or drive this far. And let’s be honest, really she should have died years ago, long before she even reached Endeavour Crater, never mind scaled Cape Tribulation to stand triumphantly on its summit. By now the media spotlight should have been shining on Curiosity and Curiosity alone. By now the public should have forgotten all about the plucky little Mars Exploration Rovers and should have been hopelessly in love with the bigger, badder, sexier Mars Science Laboratory as it works its way up the gateau-layered slopes of Mt Sharp. But while Curiosity crawls across Mars on its ragged wheels – still some way from the base of Mt Sharp, no matter what NASA announced some time ago – Opportunity is still there, still roving, still taking and sending home staggeringly-beautiful images of the martian landscape and still carrying out valuable, textbook-revising science.

NASA is making a big deal out of Curiosity approaching a mountain, while Opportunity has already climbed one, danced on its summit, took pictures of the view to send back home, and is now working her way along the top, as happy as Kanye West with a new Beyonce album.

Although, really, unless you’re a “rover hugger” like me you wouldn’t know that. NASA seems to have quietly turned its back on Opportunity, and now reports on her adventures and discoveries are largely conveyed to the public by bloggers and science journalists. The public are still fascinated by the rover, and a loyal and enthusiastic community of rover fans continues to follow her mission avidly, devouring each new panorama, straining to see over and beyond each new horizon she sees. To a large number of people Opportunity is still an inspiration, and her ongoing adventure is full of romance, discovery and excitement.

Meanwhile, despite its best efforts, NASA’s “star” rover, Curiosity, crawling across Mars on its wrecked wheels, has largely failed to capture the public’s or the media’s hearts. I remember how, before its launch, MSL was promoted heavily as an astrobiology mission; it was going to Mars to hunt for evidence of past life, of at least to see if conditions on Mars long ago had been supportive of life. But that side of the mission has been lost, and now MSL is yet another martian field geologist, very, very slowly conducting a thorough but unexciting ground survey. Her landing site, in Gale Crater, might be a scientific wonderland, covered in rocks and layers which make geology-savvy scientists squeee like Serenity fans coming face to face with Nathan Dillon at ComicCon,  but compared to Opportunity’s views from the top of Cape Tribulation it looks deadly dull on photos, at least to the public who don’t realise how amazing its crystal clear images of parchment-thin layers and wiggly bright mineral veins are.


I think it’s fair to say that the public simply hasn’t engaged with MSL as it did with MER. I know, from my discussions with members of the public during my own Outreach activities that they haven’t embraced the mission in the same way, they don’t feel part of it. Why? Maybe it’s because it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Maybe it’s because its science team doesn’t engage with the public in the same way the MER team does, and doesn’t promote their mission’s successes and achievements as well. Maybe it’s because MSL doesn’t have a passionate, enthusiastic figurehead like Steve Squyres to put across just how amazing the mission is. Maybe it’s all those things, or none of them. But I know, personally, that Out There there’s no real love for Curiosity.

And to be absolutely clear before anyone has a go at me, I don’t mean any disrespect to Curiosity or her science teams when I say that. I’m not trying to pitch one rover, or one team, against the other. MSL is a magnificent machine and is conducting valuable science. Her science teams are every bit as passionate about Mars as the MER teams, I’m sure, and they deserve to have their hard work acknowledged and rewarded just as every other science team working on these cutting edge of technology projects does. But for various reasons MSL has not exactly set the world beyond its science team’s office doors alight with its mission so far, has it?

And Curiosity has been criticised by scientists and the scientific media too, quite badly in fact, especially after it came far below Opportunity in that recent review. How that must have rankled the NASA higher ups, to have had old, clanky, dust-covered Opportunity outrank their shiny, big beast, nuclear-powered Curiosity.

With all that in mind it’s not hard to imagine a red-faced Bolden sitting in his office, holding a model of Opportunity in his shaking hand and sticking pins in it, hissing “Why don’t you just DIE?????”

Melodramatic, I know. But with Opportunity showing no signs of dying any time soon, the question has to be asked – has it been decided that the rover which refuses to die should be put to sleep, to allow the other rover to have the spotlight and the glory all to itself?

I hope not. Oh, I hope not. I don’t want to believe that. I really, really want to be wrong, and for Someone Who Knows to reassure me that this is not the case, to tell me that I’ve grabbed the wrong end of the stick here and that this really is just a ploy to get more money.

But… but… I keep going back to what Bolden actually said, in public, to the people in control of that money. You read it again: “We cannot continue to operate instruments and missions whose time has passed.” Not “…and missions without some more money“, but “…whose time has passed.”

No. I’m not having that. Sorry, Mr Bolden, I have huge respect for you, for your career and achievements, but you are just wrong. Let’s be clear here – Opportunity’s “time” has NOT passed. Yes, she is old. Yes, she is tired. Yes, parts of her are not working as well as they were. But she is not falling apart. She is not a space age clown car with wheels and fenders flying away in all directions. To hear Bolden speak you would think that she was a weary old family pet dog that should be put out of its misery because it can’t control its bowels any more, and has to drag itself across the floor on its bony backside because its legs don’t work, instead of an incredibly productive scientific laboratory which is standing proudly at the mouth of a martian valley which might turn out to be the scientific Narnia her science teams have been dreaming of.

This is what really puzzles me, what I really am struggling to get my head around. Instead of counting his blessings, instead of trumpeting the fact that NASA has not one but *two* brilliant rovers on the surface of another planet, and fighting for both, Bolden appears to be happy to sacrifice one and halve – halve – NASA’s science capability on and returns from the rocky plains and mountaintops of the Red Planet without a fight. That’s crazy. That’s bizarre. That’s foolish.

As I said, my theory might be way off the mark, and I honestly hope it is. This might all be in my head, which is an amusement park at the best of times, as regular readers will know. But I still can’t shake this sneaking suspicion that Opportunity has become something of a burden, even an embarrassment to certain people or groups at NASA and they wish it would just go away. I can’t help wondering if, instead of working with the MSL team to improve the mission’s PR, and improve its science return, and help it climb up that league table of missions, they are going to use the imminent “crossing the Marathon finishing line” moment – which should be a cause for celebration – as an opportunity to declare Opportunity’s mission is over, thank her for her service, pin a virtual medal on her chest, and then abandon her to her fate on Barsoom.

Reading that back I actually want to scold myself. That’s ridiculous, surely. Fantasy! It must be!

Then I read this quote again…

We cannot continue to operate instruments and missions whose time has passed…

…and my heart sinks.

And my blood boils.

If they do this, if they give up on Opportunity – for whatever reason, either because they want to boost the profile of MSL or because they haven’t the will to fight for more money, or they simply can’t be bothered to keep her going any more – then it will be folly of the grandest order, and we should not let them get away with it.

In this time of budget restraints and tough choices, Opportunity is one of the best ambassadors NASA has, her team one of NASA’s greatest weapons in this worsening war against science. At a time when the black-clad, science-fearing lunatics of ISIS are demolishing temples and statues which have stood for a thousand years, anyone, anywhere in the world, with an internet connection, can go online and see new, beautiful images from Opportunity every day, of landscapes taken from high up on the rim of an ancient crater ON MARS. To lose that would be nothing short of disgraceful scientific vandalism, and a huge mistake on NASA’s part.

Mars itself should be the one to end Opportunity’s mission. She deserves that much.

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Around the rugged rocks the restless rover ran…

In the past few days Opportunity has been scooching up closer, ever closer, to the entrance to Marathon Valley, pausing briefly to take a close-up look of some of the rocks she’s found bordering the valley, piled up on the ridges at its edge. Opportunity is really seeing some stunning-looking scenery now, and is wisely taking her time studying it properly before heading into the valley itself. Here are the latest postcards home…

Image2b Imageb1


That’s a really nice view (click on it to enlarge it) and it shows one of the most interesting rocks Oppy has come across in a long time – this one, at the lower right…


See that cone-shaped rock up at the top there? That looked, at first, to many people, an awful lot like a “shatter cone”, which would have been very exciting! Why? Well, to really simplify it, shatter cones are structures formed when shock waves pass through rock, so if that was a shatter cone perched up there it was exciting to think it might have been formed during the impact which formed Endeavour, or it might have been formed during a completely different impact somewhere far away from Endeavour, and it landed here after being blasted out of the ground by a later impact. But following discussions on Twitter today between members of the MER team and others, it seems it’s very unlikely to be a shatter cone after all, and is more likely a “ventifact” – a rock which has been shaped and worn away by the action of the wind. These are everywhere on Mars, we’ve seen them in other rover photos, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that we’ve seen a big one just sitting there on the rim of Endeavour. Oh well, never mind. Ventifacts are still cool! (And I probably wanted it to be a shatter cone just because I have a small one from an impact crater in Germany…)

Anyway, just look at it, it’s beautiful…


It deserves the colour treatment…!


This morning some more image sets came in, and I had a lot of fun turning them into a new colour panorama. Well, I say fun. What I really mean is THEY WERE A PAIN TO PUT TOGETHER!!!! I just couldn’t get the colours to match all across the panorama, but it’s such a lovely view I didn’t give up, and after a lot of  infuriating faffing about with skilfully and patiently working with levels and curves, etc,eventually this half-respectable view appeared on my screen…


…which is nowhere near as good as I wanted it to be, and when James Canvin gets cracking with that he’ll no doubt turn it into a masterpiece, but it’ll do for me, for now. A couple of sections of it rather cried out to be cropped and have a little more time spent on them…

rocky slope 3c


…but again, they’re not brilliant. So, to close, a sweeping black and white panorama, which I hope some of you enjoy!

pano bw b

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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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