Captain's Log, Supplemental: A Final Word

So that's it -- that's where my life got too complicated to continue transcribing what happened each day on MER. It's been a blast to revisit MER's early days -- it all flows by so fast when it's happening, and it's been a treat to get to live it all over again.

And, of course, to contemplate how my life has changed in those years. Deaths, divorce, new beginnings -- the rovers have been there to anchor me through ups and downs. No matter how bad things got, I'd go to work, reach across a hundred million miles of emptiness, and move something on the surface of another world. It was always magic. I can't imagine what it would have been like without my twin girls, and I'm deeply grateful that I haven't had to find out.

I'll try to write another blog like this one for MSL, though of course you might have to wait five years to read it. (Discussions with JPL's media folks will begin soon.) In the meantime, whatever happens with that, you can always follow along with MER at the MER home page, and of course I'll continue spouting off from time to time at my Twitter and Google+ accounts.

As I always say, it's one thing to drive a rover around on Mars -- that would be cool, but the real fun for me is that I get to take everyone in the world along in the back seat. This blog has been another way to do that, and I'll miss it now that it's gone.

Thank you for sharing this adventure with me. Thanks for reading.

Opportunity Sol 1138 (Spirit Sol 1158)

It couldn't be a better day to be on shift with Tara and Julie, because we have a visitor. The visitor is Brenda's surgeon's daughter, Amanda. She's graduating from high school and is interested in robotics.

According to Brenda, Amanda has the silly idea that women maybe can't do robotics (even though she's into the field herself), so it's fabulous that she's here on a day when she gets to see two women drive the rover -- 35m toward the dark streak. And not just any two women -- two young, very bright women, who give her lots of terrific advice about college and grad school into the bargain.

Squyres always says this is the best thing we can do: however well we've done, we must inspire the next generation to outdo us. Do it, Amanda.


Opportunity Sol 1136 (Spirit Sol 1157)

We come in all hot to drive to the dark streak east of us -- and are sorely disappointed. We had a joint-1 stall in the IDD sequence yesterday. So today turns into a less exciting one; we just have to redo most of yesterday's sequence. But at least it's easy, and it's OK to have an easy one now and then.

Sharon makes time to shadow part of the day again, and delivers her first sequence ever!


Opportunity Sol 1131 (Spirit Sol 1152)

We had a perfect bump to the rim yestersol, and we're now ready to take the first eye of our long-baseline stereo here. Then, later thisol, we'll creep 5m along the rim to the position where we'll take the other eye.

It's rare that we drive along the rim like this; mostly, we drive up to the rim, then back away slowly and reapproach somewhere else. I muse about this out loud to Sharon, who's able to put aside a little time to shadow today, and she has a great idea: let's make a movie!

We manage to sweet-talk the science team into this. It actually doesn't take a lot of effort -- they see the outreach potential as much as we do, and, hell, they think it's a cool idea themselves. (Larry Soderblom's response is, "Five megabits, on the scale of 600 megabits for the weekend? Sure!" He pauses for a second. "Uh, but let's stop it there." He's been doing this a long time, and is wise in the ways of the world.) So we set up to take images about every meter or so, and we're off.

Since these images have no particular science or engineering value, we prioritize them pretty low. They'll probably take weeks to come down, maybe a month or more. But when we get 'em, they'll be cool.

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech. Since Blogger doesn't seem to like animated GIFs, here's our rim-crawl animation from that sol. Awesome!


Opportunity Sol 1130 (Spirit Sol 1151)

Now this is unusual. Squyres is normally the most committed, gung-ho guy in the room, after Yours Truly. But today he gently asks if we can do whatever we can do to make it possible for him to leave early.

"It's the first beautiful day here since ... forever," he sighs over the telecon. "I got my cycling gear, I'm ready to hit the road."

"You want to just do a remote sensing sol -- no bump?" Colette teases him.

"I wouldn't go that far," Steve says. "But, whatever you can do."

We work through lunch. It saves half an hour. Anything for Steve.


Opportunity Sol 1126 (Spirit Sol 1145)

... and I'm back to the other side of the planet. Today it's a drive -- a short one, but still. We're going 10m blind and another 15m on autonav, around Victoria, toward the (misnamed!) Valley Without Peril.

It's a simple drive, but it's a complicated day, because it turns out we've had uninvited guests on our Meet-Me lines for some time. For years, since shortly after the end of the nominal mission, we've been using teleconference lines to gather the far-flung ops team -- engineers mostly here, scientists here and across the country -- and coordinate our planning. And we just leave the lines open all day, so we can ask each other impromptu questions and whatnot. Well, these are the same phone numbers all the time, and they don't have any access controls for security (duh), and some dumbass included the phone numbers in a presentation that was posted on the Web several months back. (But don't blame him: some bigger dumbass in JPL's Document Review signed off on it.)

This is a huge problem for a number of reasons, the most serious of which is that we discuss all kinds of ITAR-sensitive information over these lines. Under the ITAR law -- that stands for International Trafficking in Arms Regulations -- a spacecraft is a weapons system, so exporting technical data about it is exporting technical information about a weapons system. As far as the law is concerned, discussing certain technical details about MER is exactly the same as a similar discussion about, say, the Patriot missile system. If we continue, knowing what we now know, we can get shipped to federal prison. So we have to scramble to set up new phone lines, and get the new numbers to everyone who needs them (without disseminating them over the old lines, for obvious reasons) ... oy, such a mess.

While they're setting that up -- and we're still on the old lines -- Squyres asks a bunch of obvious questions, like how long this has been going on. We don't know a lot yet. "You know what I'm gonna do?" he says. He doesn't sound mad, but he knows how serious this is, how much trouble it could bring to all of us. "Tomorrow I'm gonna call in on the old line, and start out as if I'm starting a SOWG meeting ... and then I'm gonna stop, and I'm gonna have a talk with these people."

"First you should tell them about the great alien artifacts we found, Steve ...." I pipe up.

You can just hear Steve burying his head in his hands. "Somebody smack him," he groans.

[Next post: sol 1151 (Opportunity sol 1130), March 30.]


Spirit Sol 1144

I like Torquas, mainly because for some reason it's easy to create catchy sequence names incorporating it. "Tool Change on Torquas" is today's sequence -- sounds like it oughta be an Edgar Rice Borroughs short story.

Like most tool-change sequences, it's a pretty simple one. And it was already written, yesterday, by someone else. But it's got a weird little quirk -- nothing wrong, just unusual -- and Ashitey and I are curious about it. Sometimes these little quirks don't mean anything, and sometimes they're a warning that there's something yesterday's team understood and we don't. So we call Paolo and ask him to explain it to us.

Turns out, it's nothing -- just one of the newer kids building sequences, and not quite on the same page with the rest of us. But Paolo's tickled that we asked him: "Last week, Jeff Biesiadecki asked me to review a drive sequence. Today, Ashitey asked me to review an IDD sequence. Only thing that could top that would be for Steve Squyres to ask me a science question!"


Captain's Log, Supplemental: All Good Things

Just to give y'all a heads-up ... I wrote these blog posts contemporaneously with the events they describe, five years ago as you read them. At some point, though, I simply ran out of time to keep up. That point was five years ago, early next month. So in a couple of weeks or so, a few posts from now, the entries will run out, and this blog will see no new posts after that.

Happily, of course, MER goes on ... and on and on and on. Five years after these events, we're a rover down, but Opportunity continues exploring Mars. Just today I heard a presentation on how the radio-science work she's doing over the winter (her fourth Martian winter!) is helping to pin down the internal structure of the planet she's made her home these eight years and counting. And Spirit still continues to make science news and to contribute to graduate students' Ph.D. dissertations -- and continues to inspire us all to do more and better than we ever imagined we could.

In a couple of weeks, then, I'll say some farewells. But we're not there just yet. For now, this journey continues, just as Opportunity's does.

Spirit Sol 1141

Today we're headed to a chunk of rock called Torquas -- from Edgar Rice Burroughs's Mars novels, continuing the long-overdue theme of Mars-related science fiction names. Torquas is ahead of us and to the right, so my plan is to push forward, turn to the right, and head up to it. But a short chat with Ashitey and John convinces me that I'm not using this vehicle's mobility to best effect: I should just twist around the right front wheel toward it, then push forward as far as I need.

And this way lets me name the sequence "Twisting Toward Torquas." So it's definitely a winner.

So we get everything done, and right at the end of the CAM, just as we're wrapping up, we get bad news: New Horizons stole our uplink! And this isn't the first time this sol's uplink has been stolen -- MRO stole it last week, but we were able to carve out an hour when they were occulted. But now NH is in safe mode and wants that hour.

Oh, how have the mighty fallen! We used to beat up other projects and take their uplinks, as well as their lunch money, and now look at us. Well, I suppose we're merely getting our just deserts. But, as so often with this project, the team's rapid and highly capable response saves the day: Cindy, Byron, and others start running through possibilities, and end up working out a way for us to use a different station for the uplink. This window's only five minutes, but we're able to squeeze our sequences into it without modification. Go, team!

[Next post: sol 1144, March 23.]


Spirit Sol 1136

Let's see, we're back on Spirit now, so we're driving around ... oh, yeah, Home Plate! Or, rather, Mitcheltree Ridge, where the science team thinks outliers of Home Plate material are to be found. Today Terry and I are driving her over there.

And we're doing that a little more carefully than usual. The original path we'd planned for her would have taken us through a scattering of 10cm rocks, which we're nervous about dragging her anchor through. But then we spot an alternate destination that requires less turning and offers a clear path -- so there we head.

We're also nervous about something else. Yesterday's drive ended in some softer soil, and we found that she's turning more sluggishly in this stuff. With shades of the rover-eating Tyrone soil expanse haunting our memories, we make some very conservative choices. The soil seems to change back to a friendlier consistency a couple of meters away -- but it's so hard to be sure of these things, when all you have are visual cues. The absence of little ripples is our hint that the soil turns firmer.[1] It's just an educated guess, but sometimes that's all you have. So we argue a bunch, make some tweaks to the sequence, cross our fingers, and send the sequence to Mars.

[Next post: sol 1141, March 20.]

[1] This hypothesis was later confirmed by the science team. We'd noticed the pattern, but at this time we hadn't thought to ask them.


Opportunity Sol 1107 (Spirit Sol 1128)

The bump to the rim of Cabo Corrientes went well. The drive currents on the RF wheel were a little high, so Paolo recommends we do this bump backward. I believe the concern about Opportunity's RF wheel is overstated; we're seeing higher currents when we drive because the stuck steering actuator makes that wheel fight the others, and this is marginally detectable on outcrop or very hard-packed soil such as we have under us now.[1]

But we like erring on the side of caution, and anyway driving backward is natural thisol: the turn is shorter in that direction, and counterclockwise (and hence won't scoop material into the RF wheel) to boot.

All in all, it's a laid-back day. I can certainly say that the 4m Opportunity is driving today pales in comparison to the more than 42km -- that's right, km -- Ashitey ran the other day. 42km is about 26 miles to you and me, a marathon. He's not exactly trying to hide it; he's actually walking around wearing his medal. Well, hell, if I were Ashitey, I'd be doing the same thing.

The only thing that could make today better would be if Frank were back from paternity leave. And he is! Even though he won't be driving the rovers again for a while -- maybe never again -- he's going to stay connected via strategic work. And, heck, he's a great guy; it's just nice to have him back.[2]

[Next post: sol 1136, March 15.]


[1] Nope. As usual, Paolo was right: this was a very early sign of what developed into fairly significant trouble with that wheel. To this day, we don't know what's wrong with it, but as long as we drive Opportunity almost exclusively backward, the problem stays under control. Once again, let us all bow to Paolo!

[2] Happily, Frank eventually made time for MER again in his schedule -- and for MSL. He's the Endeavour exploration lead for Opportunity, and he'll join me on MSL as a rover driver as well. Life just keeps getting better!


Opportunity Sol 1105 (Spirit Sol 1125)

It's a straightforward day in the Land of Opportunity as we bump all of about 8m to the rim of Cabo Corrientes, setting ourselves up to take the first eye of our long-baseline stereo image here. It's kind of a yawner, as these things go, since I have a shadow (Tara) doing all the real work. I kinda miss the days when I actually got to drive the damn rover once in a while.

I do have one clever idea that makes me feel glad I showed up. Our post-drive imaging is a 3x1 NCAM, which is way more than we really need to support the 4m bump we'll do next. We pretty much know where it'll go, since it has to be perpendicular to the wide-baseline stereo images, so we don't have as much uncertainty about the drive direction as a 3x1 NCAM provides for. My moderately clever idea is to take a 2x1 in the likely direction and a 1x1 in the opposite direction, just in case we realize there's not enough room one way and we'll have to go the other way instead. Both directions are perpendicular to the imaging direction, so either one could potentially serve the purpose.

OK, maybe "clever" is overstating the case. I'm just trying to justify my existence, okay? Work with me, here.

[Next post: sol 1128 (Opportunity sol 1107), March 6.]