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Farewell Victoria… Endeavour beckons…

As you read this, the Mars Exploration Rover “Opportunity” is heading south, towards a huge impact crater called Endeavour. Some time in the last couple of days the rover team decided that Oppy’s exploration of Victoria Crater was finished, there was just nothing more to be gained from hanging around there any longer, no matter how dramatic the views across the crater were. So, after exploring Victoria’s gargoyle-like capes, steep, rubble-strewn slopes and beautiful rock layers for the best part of a year, Oppy spun her dusty wheels, turned her back on Victoria Crater, and set off into the great Meridiani Dust Sea again, aiming at a target so far to the south, so very, very far away that even her most optimistic fans and followers have to admit it’s extremely unlikely she’ll reach it before she dies…

… but somehow that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Opportunity, a rover built TO explore – a Mars EXPLORATION Rover, don’t forget – is exploring again, heading off into the unknown, reaching out for an almost-certainly unreachable target on a far horizon.

Victoria Crater was a stunning place, easily the most dramatic location we’ve seen on Mars yet. From the moment Oppy arrived, the great crater’s cliffs, promontories and bays hypnotised us, whether they were bathed in the yellow-blue light of a bright overhead Sun, or painted a dozen different shades of orange and gold in the blaze of a martian sunset. Oppy’s time in Victoria was a magical time. Through the rover’s unblinking, dust-scratched eyes we saw layers of ancient martian rock stacked up like old, dusty books in a library. We saw feathered, wind-teased clouds drifting over her like ghosts. We saw shadows shifting as the hours passed, over and over and over. We saw Mars in a way we had never seen it before.

Many people – myself included, I must be honest here – believed that Victoria would be Oppy’s final resting place. They were sure that the rover’s luck, and life, would both end in the crater, and a technical or computer fault would finally make her grind to a halt, never to move again. They were just as sure that even if she somehow managed to keep going, there was nowhere else within reach to go TO. The nearest place of interest was a ridiculously big crater 12km to the south, so far away that it would take not days, not months, but years to reach it, in fact longer than the rover had already been ON Mars! “Oppy has only explored a tenth of the crater!” we insisted to others who dared to propose heading south, “How can you consider turning her away from all those other dramatic rocky ledges and stones to set off on a fantasy trek..? It’ll never happen…”

We were wrong. It has happened. It is happening, right now, as you read this. Oppy is heading south, towards Endeavour Crater.

Why is this such a big deal? Because this is true exploration, in a time, and an age, when true exploration is dying out, if it hasn’t died altogether already. Today we have mapped all Earth’s continents in minute detail, touched the dark floors of its deepest oceans and scaled the snow-capped summits of its highest mountains. You can buy a climb to the top of Evererst, or a sightseeing trip to the deck of the Titanic or through the Amazon jungle. As far as exploration is concerned, Earth is finished. You can explore it from your living room with Google Earth.

But exploration is continuing… Out There, in space, in our solar system. Today’s explorers aren’t human beings. Their eyes are made of glass and CCDs. Their bodies are made of metal. Their brains are computers. They’re robots and spaceprobes, satellites and telescopes, and the two Mars rovers are the most accomplished explorers of all. Oppy is the closest thing we have to a Captain Cook or a Magellan we have in our computerised, online, stay-at-home-where-it’s-safe 21st century. And I think it’s only right that we should celebrate her achievements to date, and the start of her latest, and most daring, adventure.

Victoria is still visible in Oppy’s rear hazard cameras… just… but within a few days (or “sols”) it will be lost, forever. The next visitors Victoria Crater will have will be human beings, astronauts, settlers, colonists or maybe even tourists who want to see Opportunity’s famous crater for themselves. Yes, I’m sad to see Victoria shrinking and vanishing behind us, but I’m also thrilled that we’re on the road again, and heading towards a new goal, a new destination. Oppy was built to explore, to go and look at things and to discover new things, not to wander round the same place for month after month, taking photo after photo of the same views, just killing time until Mars killed her. It was right to leave.

Endeavour, Oppy’s next target, is just a couple of humps and bumps on the horizon right now, but every sol that passes will bring Oppy slightly – ever so slightly – closer to them, and if her drivers and operators can map out a clear path for her, using images taken by the fantastic HiRISE camera onboard MRO, then who knows how swift her progress will be? Yesterday Oppy drove over 130m… that’s an amazing drive, a real sprint for her… if she can keep that kind of progress up we could reach Endeavour’s rim a lot sooner than predicted, but we’ll have to wait and see; Oppy has just started her trek, and will have to travel cautiously, at least until she gets her bearings. But the trek HAS begun, and that’s the important thing.

Ahead of Oppy – and of all of us MER enthusiasts and armchair martian explorers here on Earth – lies kilometer after kilometer of wide open plain, a rippled ocean of dust dune waves stretching from one far horizon to the other. Soon, I’m sure, we’ll come to miss the towering cliffs and crumbling rim of Victoria, and we’ll ache to see stones bigger than a few centimetres high, but every sol will bring us a little bit closer to the rim of Endeavour, and one day we’ll go online and see that those bumps and humps have turned into real hills, or even mountains, with their own layers, and slopes and ridges, and we’ll begin to feel that “Almost there… almost there..!” tingle again, and wonder just what we will see if, and when, Oppy gets close enough to see past or through those hills and into the sunken interior of Endurance itself… what a day that will be…!

On the way, what will we see? Well, based on past experience, some more meteorites – fallen starstones littering the plain here and there, vacuum-polished, wind-smoothed metal nuggets glinting in the sunshine… We might see the odd small stone or boulder standing here and there, a chunk of Red Planet rock dug out of a distant part of Mars by a mighty impact and sent screaming through the thin air to land on the Meridiani Plain with a dune-flattening crump… We might see a larger boulder standing on the surface like a sentinel, carved and sculpted by the dust-saturated martian wind… We might see Earth shining in the sky like a shimmering blue and green lantern…

Might… might… might…

We just don’t know what we’ll see, but that is what makes exploring, well, exploring. It’s no exaggeration to say that Oppy is about to begin one of the most epic journeys of exploration of the Space Age so far… and we’re all lucky enough to have front row seats.

So, farewell Victoria, and thank you for all you gave us.

Endeavour beckons..!

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One Response

  1. Just a note on the colour of Martian sunsets. I’m pretty sure that when the sun is low on Mars the ambient lighting turns bluish, rather than orangey-pink as on Earth. So I imagine surfaces in direct sunlight should go a sort of steely grey, under a bluish-grey sky, with shadows appearing blood red by contrast.

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