Stuart AtkinsonJul 02, 2012

Three Thousand Sols

Earlier today, unnoticed by the vast majority of the world, Opportunity reached and then silently passed a major milestone in her great adventure on Mars. At just before 3am, UK time, Opportunity began her 3000th sol, or martian day, on Mars. Yes, you read that correctly. The rover that we hoped, with fingers crossed, would last 90 days, and might, possibly, if we were lucky, drive a whole kilometre on Mars, has now been on Mars for 3000 days, or 33x longer than her nominal mission. She’s driven over 34km, putting her some 33km past her warranty.

There will be lots of headlines in the news today. Deceitful bankers, lying politicians, drug-taking sportsmen, celebrity divorces, the usual. But it should be everywhere, everywhere, how, more than eight years after arriving at Mars, the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is still on Mars, roving, taking photographs and doing fantastic science. Because that’s an incredible thing, isn’t it? That’s amazing engineering! That’s something special.

I honestly don’t know why NASA aren’t making a bigger deal of it. Ok, I suppose in the greate scheme of things it is “just a number”, and tosol will be just another sol on Mars, Oppy herself isn’t doing anything special. And maybe if the arrival of MSL “Curiosity” wasn’t imminent NASA would be honouring Opportunity more fittingly? I don’t know. But in the absence of any fanfares and fuss from NASA, this “Road to Endeavour” blog is proud to be celebrating this incredible achievement, and without a hint of shame is cheering it from the rooftops of cyberspace today, marking it with this special post, featuring interviews with not one, not two, but THREE of the MER team! (The pic at the top there probably gave you a clue as to the identity of two of them, ah, but who’s the third? You’ll have to wait and see…!)

But that’s for later. For now, let’s just look at what Oppy has achieved since landing. Here are a couple of Google Mars representations of her meandering route across the Red Planet…

Opportunity is now, as the picture above shows very well, parked at the northern tip of “Cape York”, a small ‘island’ of rugged rock sticking up out of the Meridiani desert and forming part of the rim of the mighty Endeavour Crater. Here’s her current view…

As I reported yesterday, Opportunity has been using her RAT – Rock Abrasion Tool – to drill into a rock in order to take images of its interior with her microscope. I stitched together four different views of the “RAT hole” in the rock, to make this single frame portrait…

I love that picture, I’ll admit, and I can’t wait to see some zoomed-in close-ups of its newly exposed interior…!

In the meantime, although Oppy hersef is, of course, blissfully unaware of her amazing achievement in surviving for 3000 sols on Mars, here on Earth many “Rover huggers” are celebrating by looking back at Oppy’s mission so far, and daring to look forward to what might lie ahead. I’ve already waxed lyrical several times about my own experiences with Oppy, and the memories I have (good and bad) of her epic trek across Mars, so I thought it might be a good idea to catch up with two of this blog’s most generous supporters and contributors – Paolo Bellutta and Scott Maxwell. Both rover drivers (and they’re much, much more than just that, believe me!) have answered questions for me in the past, and when I wrote to them this time I was quite prepared for them to tell me they wouldn’t be able to help, as they are presently ridiculously busy with landing preparations for MSL, now due to reach Mars in just over a month (a month! Gulp!) But, of course, both sent back long, very personal answers to my questions, for which I am exceedingly grateful. So, sit back and listen to what the MER team’s Paolo Bellutta (“PB”) and Scott Maxwell (“SM”) have to say about Oppy’s latest achievement, the journey so far, and the adventures yet to come…

So, here we are… Sol 3000… Oppy’s been on Mars for 3000 days! It’s exciting enough for all of us rover supporters out here, but as members of the MER team, if you take a moment to just sit back and think about that, how do you feel? Delighted? Exhausted?

PB: It is a mixed feeling of excitement, sometimes boredom (yes there are some boring moments on Mars), sort of like seeing your (my) favorite band after decades of success but noticing the grey hair, signs of time.

SM: Proud of past accomplishments -- and excited for new ones. With MSL about to land and join his older sister on the red planet, I don't have quite as much time to reflect right now as I'd like! I did, however, make time to sit through the tag-up and SOWG meeting for sol 3000, and I'm on my way to a brunch with the team in a few minutes. MER is as important to me as it ever was. I love this mission.

When Oppy landed, all those years ago, you can’t have had any idea what the future would bring. Travelling a kilometre and surviving for 90 days was all in our minds, and had us crossing our fingers. Now, eight years later, Opportunity is still working, still roving, 34km+ into an incredible journey across the surface of an alien world. Can you share with us a couple of your most memorable moments of the mission so far? Good and bad?

PB: We still don’t know what’s in store for us! There are people already looking beyond Cape York, Tribulation, even beyond Endeavour.

There are some moments that are etched in me like a tattoo but if you took an MRI of my brain I’m sure you would see B446, A1899 on my scans. Likely the one that would stand out the most is B1291. I remember a moment when we were planning the Sol B 1291 drive, the “toe-dip” into Victoria’s Duck Bay. The SOWG room was packed with engineers and scientist. I had worked for more than a year to find a good spot to plunge into Victoria, so I knew that area very very, well. Before blessing the planned drive Steve Squyres asked me “Paolo, are you sure? Do you know where you are going?”

SM: Well, even most of the bad ones are good ones: Purgatory Ripple, for example, where Opportunity got stuck for weeks as we worked diligently to help her escape, turned out to be quite the success story in the end. And that joins a lot of obvious positives—the first picture of Earth from the surface of another planet, our arrival at Victoria Crater, and far too many others to list.

For me, though, the great triumph of the mission will always be Spirit standing atop Husband Hill—a success story if there ever was one, a tribute to simple dogged determination against the odds when it seemed nobody believed in her. And the great loss, of course, will be coming so close to helping Spirit escape Troy—and not quite, not quite making it. Damn it.

I sometimes have to pinch myself when I think that there are kids in junior schools today who have never known a Mars without a rover on it, as they were born after Jan 2004. And with CURIOSITY due to land on Mars in a month, possibly to drive around Gale Crater for a decade or more, their kids will grow up just the same. Isn’t that amazing! When you were a kid, did Mars call to you? Did you want to be involved in its exploration?

PB: My younger son Marco was born two weeks after Pathfinder/Sojourner landed on Mars. There are “kids” on the MER team that were in high school when Spirit and Opportunity landed. There are a little older kids that were born after, way after Apollo and the Moon landing. I was blessed to be born the year of the beginning of space exploration. I remember seeing the first pictures from Viking, her arm, all those rocks. I was fascinated but never would have thought Mars was going to be part of my future.

SM: When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut. Or a science fiction writer. Preferably both. Like a lot of things in my life, it didn't turn out quite like I imagined -- but it rhymed!

What's it like being a member of the MER team? Its obvious from your Tweets and your blog entries, Scott, that you're passionate about Mars, and its exploration, but what is it like to actually drive a rover across Mars as a job? When you go into work, sit down in your chair and start tapping away, does it ever hit you that you're contributing not just to science, but to history with what you are doing?

SM: I was given that perspective by my eye doctor, of all people. A couple of years into the mission, I was telling him about what I do for a living, and he said something like, "Wow, you're literally making history -- you'll be in the history books someday." Something about that comment hit me in just the right way at just the right time, and ever since then that's the perspective I've had: this is what it feels like to be literally making history.

I'm a lot more focused on the other end of it, though: this is what it feels like to be putting together the building blocks for humans to eventually explore other planets *in person*. Because this had damn well better be what that leads to.

(I absolutely agree! – Stu)

Oppy is currently studying rocks at the northern tip of Cape York, and as we all celebrate her 3000th sol on Mars, she’s just used her RAT (“Rock Abrasion Tool”) for the first time in ages. Why? What was so interesting about that rock that had you reaching for the drill? Have you given up looking for gypsum veins – larger versions of “Homestake”?

PB: Ah, I’m not sure I can explain this correctly but this rock is part of the contact between two layers and geologists are fascinated with contacts, they want to understand the process that brought the sudden change. We have not given up on gypsum veins, we need to find one that is wide enough to cover the entire field of view of the APXS and smooth enough to possibly use the RAT brush or even be able to abrade the surface.

As we celebrate her 3000th sol on Mars, can you give us a snapshot view of the health of the rover, and tell us how driving her now is different to driving her when she landed?

PB: Driving is definitely more structured, we have incorporated many improvements from all of our lessons learned over the years and we have a more capable software on board. All these things makes driving less of an art, more like a frozen TV dinner than a dish made from scratch. The use of the IDD is a bit more creative given the loss of the shoulder azimuth actuator. The use of the RAT in open-loop is very, very convoluted and has been scripted. Even with a less capable software, less knowledge of Mars we were doing more back at the beginning of the mission. I miss those times.

SM: Amazingly, eight years into our 90-day mission, I can say this: if we landed Opportunity today, in the shape she's in now, she'd still be able to do her entire originally planned 90-day mission. The MB spectrometer and the Mini-TES instrument no longer work, and her arm no longer moves left and right, and we have to drive her almost exclusively backward in order to keep the current draw on her right front wheel under control. But there's nothing about that that impairs her fundamental ability to do science.

Of course, when you get to be 33 times *your* design lifetime -- let's say 2300 years old or so -- and all you have to complain about is a little ache and pain in your shoulder, you'd think *you* were doing pretty well, too!

It’s a great tribute to her designers and builders – and drivers! – that Opportunity is still working at all after eight years in the distinctly rover-unfriendly martian environment, but just how ‘fit’ is she?

PB: She in much better shape than I am!
Her wheels are just fine. The RF steering actuator is the only loss we have so far. She gets less tired if we drive her backwards but otherwise she is doing great. Her arm is not in very good shape. Her shoulder azimuth actuator no longer works reliably so we cannot move the IDD left to right. All of the encoders on the RAT are gone, likely the wires connecting them are broken but we can still operate it. The MB radioactive source is almost completely gone. The MiniTES no longer works, likely a casualty of the 2007 dust storm. But the power source, the processor, all of the electronics still works. What is the piece of technology you have in your house that still works and was built before 2003?

… and you Tweeted with great relish about a sudden surge in her power levels recently, Paolo…?

PB: Since April, I think, we had a series of small cleaning events and tau has come down from 0.6 to 0.33 or thereabouts. Of course that will have some significant impact on what we can do. RAT Grinds take a really long time now, for the shallow grind we are doing on 2998 we need more than two hours! I don’t think we are going to do many long drives in this area, so we will be doing lots of in-situ and remote sensing science. Hopefully ODY will still provide a good relay. She is kind of the unsung hero of MER, just as MRO is for MSL.

What are you looking forward to happening after this milestone has been passed – an ascent of Tribulation, perhaps? Tracking down some more gypsum veins?

PB: We will be going around Cape York first and explore the eastern side. Gypsum veins for sure, Tribulation will have to wait. Unfortunately I will not get to see all of this. My days (Sols!) on MER are numbered as I will be transitioning full time to MSL shortly
SM: Yeah, definitely climbing Tribulation. And beating MSL to the clay minerals would be nice. Because MER is just that important to me.

And finally, if you had the power, and time, to get Oppy to take a picture just for you, what would it be?

PB: Actually I did get my image! When planning sol 3000 they had scheduled only a PANCAM Tau (measurement of atmospheric opacity) and complained that a Sol 3000 plan should have more. So on Sol 3000 we will be taking P2143, a 2×1 PANCAM L456 of the RAT bits in a frame that should include the NASA and JPL logos. It is lower priority for downlink, so I don’t think we will be getting that on Monday.

SM: I'm trying to talk people into taking a picture of the Milky Way. It's likely too faint, but maybe I can figure something out. That would be glorious.

Thank you both – and congratulations on getting Oppy to her 3,000th Sol!

When I read what Scott wrote about wanting to photograph the Milky Way from Mars, I thought I should do something abiout it, so here Scott…


Just as I was putting the finishing touches to this post, an email came in from a very special person, answering some of the same questions posed to Paolo and Scott above, and I couldn’t think of not including his answers here, seeing as, despite what he says, he is really the person who made the MER mission possible and drives it forwards today, with his passion, commitment and belief.

So, here then, is what Steve Squyres (pictured below, posing beside a full size modelm of a MER with Stella and I when we visited JPL a few tyears ago… fanTASTIC day!) had to say when I asked him about this amazing milestone…

So, here we are… Sol 3000… Oppy’s been on Mars for 3000 days! It’s exciting enough for all of us rover supporters out here, but as the guy who made all this happen in the first place, if you take a moment to just sit back and think about that, how do you feel? Delighted? Proud? Exhausted?

SS: Well, there were a whole bunch of us who made it happen. Anyway, I guess my answer would be “all of the above”… plus surprised, of course! There were times I thought we’d never make it to Cape Canaveral, let alone Sol 3000. At some level 3000 is just another number, but when the really round numbers roll around you do realize that this has been going on for awhile.

When Oppy landed, all those years ago, you can’t have had any idea what the future bring. Travelling a kilometre and surviving for 90 days was all in our minds, as we crossed our fingers. Now, eight years later, Opportunity is still working, still roving, 34km+ into an incredible journey across the surface of an alien world. Can you share with us a couple of your most memorable moments of the mission so far? Good and bad?

SS: To me the most special moment was, and probably always will be, Sol 12 for Spirit. That was the day we rolled off the lander and finally had a rover on Mars with six wheels in the dirt, ready to explore… it was the culmination of 16 years of effort. Others that stand out are those “oh wow” moments when we first rolled up to the rims of Endurance and Victoria with Opportunity… coming across a spectacular view so suddenly like that was a thrill.

What are your hopes now for Oppy?

SS: That we make it to Sol 3001.

What are you looking forward to happening after this milestone has been passed – an ascent of Tribulation, perhaps?

SS: Yeah, climbing Cape Tribulation would be cool… I’m a mountaineer at heart, and that would be a lot of fun. There’s good science up there, too, we think. We’ll see.

And finally, if Opportunity had the power, and time, to take a picture just for you, to hang on your wall and look at in years to come, what would it be?

SS: Well, it’s never just for me, nor should it be… these rovers are for everyone. But I do remember one image in particular that I just felt we >had< to have, regardless of whether it made scientific sense or not. It’s the one we called the “Everest Pan”, taken by Spirit at the very summit of Husband Hill. We had gotten to a meter or so below the summit, at an outcrop called Hillary, and gotten all the science we had come for. Scientifically, the sensible thing to do next would have been to head down the hill. But I was damned if we were going to get that close to the summit of a mountain and not finish the job. So we spent several sols climbing that last meter and getting a big panorama from the top. When you step off the elevator on our floor of the Space Sciences Building at Cornell, that’s the panorama you see. So if there was ever one that I just felt like we had to have, I guess that one was it.

Steve Squyres, thank you!


So here we are, with Opportunity about to begin her 3000th sol, or day, on Mars. There can’t be a single person reading this who thought, after landing, that we’d still be here, still tracing the route and enjoying the images of this amazing machine, I refuse to believe that. To mark the celebration properly – and according to tradition, you might say! – my great friend AstroO from UMSF has taken a poem I wrote just for today, and turned it into another of his quite beautiful “poemsters”. Here is is, for you to enlarge and read, or if you’d rather download your own version for whatever reason, I’ll paste in AstroO’s website too.

Sol 3000… an incredible thing. And I think it’s about time Opportunity started being treated with the honour and respect she deserves (and by “Opportunity” I mean the mission, and its people, not just the actual rover herself). Having journeyed many, many miles, survived storms and tribulations, discovered new and incredible things, and shown us fantastic new landscapes, alien and strange, she now deserves, I think, to have her name spoken in the same reverent way as those great ships of exploration Victoria (Magellan’s ship), Nina (Columbus’ flagship), Endeavour (Cook’s ship) and, of course, Enterprise.

Because although she has no physical crew onboard, no figures clinging to rigging or leaning over her sides to spy faraway islands, she carries the hopes and dreams of many thousands of engineers and scientists, and is their eyes and ears on Mars. And although no photographs taken by her many cameras show them, she is accompanied on her journey by countless thousands, perhaps millions by now, of men, women and children who all follow her mission, walking alongside her virtually, through the images released onto the internet. We see what she sees. When she stops, we stop, sit down beside her, and keep her company through the frigid martian night, waking when she does, with the cold martian sunlight in our eyes at the start of another day of discovery, exploration and science.

So, from today, let’s start thinking of Opportunity as one of Mankind’s greatest, most successful ships of exploration, and not just a wheeled robot trundling across Mars. She’s much, much more than that.

Thanks to all of you for continuing to read “Road to Endeavour”, and, of course, a very special THANK YOU to all the people on and behind the MER mission, who keep this wonderful machine working on and exploring Mars, and share its wonders with us so freely and joyously.

- Stuart Atkinson

This post was originally published at and reprinted here with permission of the author.

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