Spirit Sol 581

We made OK progress, about what we expected or a little less. The bad news is, the summit's about 45m away. That's more than Spirit's been covering in a sol, so we probably won't make it thisol.

Not that that's going to keep us from trying. We have the advantage of being more or less atop the hill already, so the going is flatter and less sandy. We can do the first 20m of the drive blind, which is wicked fast (well, relatively speaking) and something Spirit probably hasn't been able to safely do since she started climbing. And that will help a lot.

"We might make it with three hours of drive time," Chris muses. "Hey, how much drive time do we have?"

"Two hours and forty-five minutes," Colette replies. Chris and I glance at each other -- and then turn back to Colette, wearing our most winning smiles. "I'll look into it," she says.

The planning meeting continues. As the scientists are winding down, Chris notices something in one of the NAVCAMs. He has Brenda project his screen on the front wall, where everyone can see it.

There in the distance is Home Plate.

Home Plate is one of the reasons we climbed Husband Hill in the first place. It's what's on the other side. From orbit it looks like a -- well, like home plate on a baseball diamond. It's a white, roughly pentagonal feature that might be an ancient Martian playa, an old lake where repeated evaporation events left an enduring salt crust. That, of course, would make it part of the "water story" of Gusev, so it's long been viewed as a high-priority science target.

It's exciting, of course, just to see our upcoming destination. What's even more exciting than that is the realization that WE CAN NOW SEE OVER THE HILL.

It's overwhelming, really. I don't know how to describe it. This isn't the summit, but it's the next best thing. When we started this project, Mars was so impossibly far away. Then we made it to Mars -- and the Columbia Hills (including Husband Hill) were so impossibly far away. Then we made it to the base of Husband Hill -- and the summit was so impossibly far away. And now we're within striking distance of the summit, proving it by looking over that hill.

Right now, Home Plate is just a whitish smear in the image. To me, it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.

And I'm not the only one who thinks so. Alicia Fallacaro keys her mike. "Uh, Ray, Diana Blaney is requesting another PANCAM image ...." No need to say of what. We all crack up.

Having seen this sight, I'm even more okay with not making it to the summit. Paradoxically, I'm also even more inspired to make it. But whether we make it is going to be up to Colette and the rest of the team -- thermal, power, and so on -- as much as to the rover drivers. Can they give us the drive time we're going to need?

They try, I'll give them that. The answer changes through the day -- they find a way to give us thirty minutes, then have to take it back, that sort of thing -- but in the end it's the same sort of story as last time. They've already squeezed out as much time as they safely can. And as eager as we are to make it to the top, the golden rule with these rovers is: safety first.

So we probably won't make it this time. Maybe we'll have to wait until next week. Well, we've waited this long.

Our imminent arrival at the summit is starting to become a reality for everyone. Jim Erickson stops by to ask Chris and me about whether -- rather, when -- he should call a press conference to announce it. "I don't want to call it prematurely," he says, "but on the other hand, if we wait too long, we're going to get scooped by the bloggers." Yet another reason I'd rather have my job than his.

Chris and I work out the drive sequence. It's the first drive sequence we've built which, if it completes (please, oh, please!), will take us to the summit. In a flash of inspiration, Chris tells the rover to drive forward for the last few meters. We mainly drive backward -- the rover climbs a little better that way -- but traction isn't as big an issue now as it has been, and, as Chris points out, we're supposed to switch drive directions periodically anyway (to distribute wear and tear on the system).

But of course, that's not the real reason to drive forward at the end. The real reason is, in a word, style. Backing up onto the summit -- well, somehow it just isn't dignified. Would you drag yourself ass-first onto the peak of Everest? If we get really lucky, we'll end up with one of the front wheels poised on a rock, lifted slightly in a sort of planting-the-flag gesture.

Or not. As it turns out, the direction we'd be facing in if we drove forward will be bad for comm. So we have to change it back.

Undignified, maybe. But ready or not, summit, here we come.

[Next post: sol 583 (Opportunity sol 562), August 23.]

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech. There it is: Home Plate, dead center, just visible in the valley beyond Husband Hill, with Von Braun Hill visible just beyond that.

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech. We were so excited that we could see Home Plate, I'm not sure we even noticed this huge dust devil at the time. We must have, surely, but hell if I remember it today.

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech. Just a little farther, girl. It's right there. You can do it.

No comments: