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

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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”???

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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..?

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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.

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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…

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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..?

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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.

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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…

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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…

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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…

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It deserves the colour treatment…!

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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…

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…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…

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

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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…

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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…

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

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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…

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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…

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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…

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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…

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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…

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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…

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

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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…

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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…

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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…

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(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…

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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…

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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…

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…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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