Space Sunday: the little rover that could

MER Opportunity: the modest rover that cast a huge shadow to fit its larger-than-life perseverance. Credit: NASA/JPL / MSSS

It is therefore that I am standing here with a sense of deep appreciation and gratitude, that I declare the Opportunity mission as complete. For more than a decade, Opportunity has been an icon in the field of planetary exploration, teaching us about Mars’ ancient past as a wet, potentially habitable planet, and revealing uncharted Martian landscapes.

– Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate

These words, spoken on February 13th, 2019, marked the official end of the longest running rover mission thus far to another planet.

Designed to last just 90 Martian days and travel 1,000 metres (1,100 yards), the Mars Exploration Rover (REM) Opportunity vastly surpassed all expectations in its endurance, scientific value and longevity. In addition to exceeding its life expectancy by 60 times, it travelled more than 45 km (28 mi) by the time it reached its most appropriate final resting spot on Mars – Perseverance Valley.

Across a decade and half, Opportunity – or “Oppy” to its fans – captivated people’s imaginations around the globe, and while it  became somewhat overshadowed by its much bigger cousin, Curiosity, from 2012 onwards, “Oppy” nevertheless broke the ground for the surface exploration of Mars, together (for a time, at least), with its sibling rover, Spirit.

The MER rovers, Spirit and Opportunity and their instruments

From the outset, the MER programme was a daring one: to place two vehicles on the surface of Mars, capable of self-driving across the surface and carrying out a range of scientific tasks. At the time it was conceived, Mars was known to be a notoriously difficult target to reach: for some reason over one-third of the missions intended to reach the Red Planet failed. Some were lost shortly after launch; others failed whilst en route; other experienced upset or failure on arrival. Indeed this Hence why the MER project had two rovers: if one fell afoul of the Great Galactic Ghoul, the other would survive.

To pave the way for the rovers, NASA undertook the Pathfinder mission in the late 1990s. This comprised a Mars lander complete with a very small-scale (just 65 cm / 2.2ft in length) rover called Sojourner. While both the lander and the rover carried science instruments and carried out worthwhile science, a major element of the mission was to test the entry, descent and landing system the MER mission would use: a completely loopy sounding mix of parachutes and a cocoon of air bags designed to rapidly inflate around a payload just before it reached the surface of Mars and protect it and it bounced its way to a resting position before deflating, the payload automatically righting itself in the process.

The Pathfinder airbag system, very similar to the system used by the MER programme, on test at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, June 1995. Credit: NASA/JPL

In many respects, the Pathfinder mission (the lander from which are later renamed the Carl Sagan Memorial Station, in honour of the great planetary scientist, humanitarian, global thinker and Mars exploration advocate, Carl Sagan) was the MER’s mission lucky charm.

Not only did the mission prove the landing system, necessary because “conventional” retro-rocket landing systems would have massively increased the complexity and cost of sending large rovers to Mars, both lander and rover operated far beyond their anticipated life spans: the lander for 9 months (compared to an anticipated 85 days) and the rover for 85 days (rather than the anticipated 7 days. Incidentally, it Sojourner was the first Mars mission to employ a form of VR: the “driver” on Earth would wear a set of 3D goggles that visualised the rover’s surroundings digitally, so a path to be mapped using a special “driving” system. The driving commands would be saved and later transmitted to Mars as a batch of commands the rover would then execute).

April 15th, 2003: Opportunity, with solar panel already folded and drive system collapsed, is prepared for enclosure within the petals of its landing system. Credit: NASA/JPL

The MER rovers were launched in June (Spirit) and July (Opportunity) of 2003, and arrived on Mars on January 4th and January 25th, 2004, respectively, just after Europe’s Mars Express mission had arrived in Martian orbit at Christmas, 2003. The landings were fraught with concerns: the UK’s Beagle 2 lander, delivered to Mars by Mars Express, had arrived on the planet on Christmas Day 2003, but all attempts to communicate with it had failed.

Obviously, the EDL systems for both landers worked perfectly. Spirit landed in Gusev crater, originally thought to be a dry lake bed. However, the rover’s findings disproved this, revealing the crater to be largely filled with natural debris. In all, Spirit operated on a mobile basis for almost 5 years and 4 months before it became bogged down in a “sand trap” on May 1st, 2009. When attempts to free it failed, the rover became a static station until it stopped communicating in March 2010. NASA then spent 14 months attempting to re-established contact before declaring Spirit’s, mission was at an end on May 24th, 2011.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: the little rover that could”

Of men, mice, morgues and the wild

Seanchai Library

It’s time to highlight another week of storytelling in Voice by the staff and volunteers at the Seanchai Library. As always, all times SLT, and events are held at the Library’s home at Holly Kai Park, unless otherwise indicated.

Sunday, February 17th,

13:30: Tea Time with The Saint

Adventure came to him not so much because he sought it as because he brazenly expected it. He believed that life was full of adventure, and he went forward in full blaze and surge of that believe…

So reads The Man Who Was Clever, billed as the first graphic novel about Simon Templar, aka The Saint, aka The Robin Hood of Crime, as it describes the man himself.

The creation of Leslie Charteris, Templar first arrived in literature in 1928, his career in print spanning almost six decades, with later books and stories being written in collaboration with other writers. Templar’s career in other media started in 1938 with the release of the motion picture The Saint in New York, and in radio in 1940 – with none other than Vincent Price most famously providing him with a voice from 1947 to 1951, on no fewer than three US radio networks.

However, it is probably as personified by the late Sir Roger Moore on television between 1962 and 1969 that Simon Templar is familiar to most. This series actually added to the library of The Saint’s literature, with a number of original scripts for the series – with Charteris’ approval – becoming short stories using his name as the author.

The Man Who Was Clever first appeared in 1930 as a part of the first collection of short stories about The Saint published under the title Enter The Saint. In it, Templar, the man who robs from the evil and heartless rich, and gives to the wronged and deserving poor, entered the world of graphic novels thanks to a story adaptation by Mark Ellis with David Bryant serving as illustrator. It marks the start of a new series of Tea Time adventures for Seanchai Library, with David Abbot, Corwyn Allen, Kayden Oconnell, and Caledonia Skytower.

18:00 Magicland Storytime

Caledonia shares selected tales from the Classic Fairytale past: Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, live on stream at the Golden Horseshoe in Magicland Park.

Monday, February 18th 19:00: Hanta Yo: An American Saga

Gyro Muggins reads Ruth Beebe Hill’s extraordinary novel that is either loved or hated – and has certainly proven controversial since its first publication.

Lyrically written, the story is, at its core, a multi-generational saga follows the lives of two Indian families, members of the Mahto band of the Teton Sioux, before and during their first contact with the white man and his “manifest destiny.” Within its sweeping story, Hill attempted to fashion an epic, Native American version of Alex Haley’s Roots.

Allegedly based in part on writings translated from a Lakota Sioux winter account translated by a First Nation Sioux, the story is certainly cohesive and vivid. For those unfamiliar with the lives and rituals of the Plains Indians of North America, it makes for a fascinating and enlightening read.

However, to some in the Lakota, the book is seen as demeaning and misrepresentative – a fact Hill herself finds baffling. Whilst she fully acknowledges the story is a “documented novel” – a fictional story based on actual events – she also notes that she spent some 20 or more years researching Hanta Yo and carrying out hundreds of interviews with representatives of the Sioux, Kiowa, Omaha, Cheyenne, and Navajo tribes, including allowing them access to her manuscript to verify the historical elements from their standpoint.

Event today, in the year of the 40th anniversary since its first publication, Hanta Yo divides opinions. So why not settle down with Gyro to hear the tale first hand?

Tuesday, February 19th 19:00: The Mouse of Amherst

Faerie Maven-Pralou reads Elizabeth Spires’ inspired tale designed to introduce young readers to the works of Emily Dickenson. Regarded as one of America’s most prolific and significant poets of the 19th Century, Dickenson’s work only gained public recognition following her death, as she was very private about her writing.

Mouse of AmherstIn Spires’ tale, a mouse finds s a place to live behind the wainscoting of Emily Dickinson’s bedroom. however, Ms. Dickenson’s constant writing at her desk becomes a source of fascination for her new “lodger”. Venturing forth when it is safe, the mouse – Emmaline – make her way to the writing desk and discovers Emily’s poetry.

Inspired by what she reads, Emmaline writes a poem of her own, leaving it on Emily’s desk. On finding it, Emily replies, and thus a poetic correspondence between the two is established.

Featuring eight of Dickenson’s actual poems, together with seven “replies” from Emmaline, Elizabeth Spires gently draws young readers through a charming story into the power of poetry to express our deepest feelings, and perhaps start them writing poems of their own.

Wednesday, February 20th 19:00: The Jennifer Morgue

Corwyn Allen reads the second volume in the Laundry Files by Charles Stross.

Bob Howard is an IT expert and occasional field agent for the Laundry, the branch of Her Majesty’s Secret Service that deals with occult threats. In this second outing, Bob Howard finds himself dragged into the machinations and conspiracies of megalomaniac multi-billionaire Ellis Billington, The Black Chamber and The Laundry…

Dressed in a tuxedo (what else for a globe-trotting British Secret Agent?) and sent to the Caribbean, Bob must infiltrate Billington’s inner circle via his luxurious yacht. His mission? Prevent the Billington from violating a treaty that will bring down the wrath of an ancient underwater race upon humanity’s head.

Offering a wonderful pastiche on both the world of James Bond and a wonderful mimicking of Ian Fleming’s style of writing, Stross produces a novel that also evokes Lovecraftian overtones that is delightfully entertaining to read. In true Bond style, Bob is (reluctantly) partnered with an American agent – in this case a stunningly beautiful woman who also just happens to be a soul-sucking succubus from another dimension. Which, being the case, marks Bob’s mission somewhat differently to those of Bond: not only must he stop the bad guys and come through this at best shaken, he must totally avoid being stirred towards getting the girl…

Thursday, February 21st:

19:00: The Call of the Wild, Part 1

First published in 1903, The Call of the Wild is regarded as Jack London’s masterpiece.

Based on London’s experiences as a gold prospector in the Canadian wilderness and his ideas about nature and the struggle for existence, The Call of the Wild is a tale about unbreakable spirit and the fight for survival in the frozen Alaskan Klondike.

With Shandon Loring. (Also in Kitely grid.kitely.com:8002:SEANCHAI).

21:00: Seanchai Late Night

Contemporary science fiction and fantasy with Finn Zeddmore.

The Missing Whale in Second Life

The Missing Whale; Inara Pey, February 2019, on FlickrThe Missing Whale – click any image for full size

Note: Missing Whales is now closed. SLurls have been removed from this article.

We were recently passed the landmark to The Missing Whale by Shakespeare, and decided to pay it a visit. Designed by Lotus Mastroianni and Fred Hamilton (frecoi), it’s a homestead region with a touch of the wild side about it, complete with an eclectic mix that adds to its depth.

Backing directly onto a lush green sim surround, the region presents a feeling of being somewhere in a rain forest; a place built on the edge of a modest lake that feeds into a river that meanders away westward into the hills, and which is in turn fed by the broad falls that tumble from the hills to the east.

The Missing Whale; Inara Pey, February 2019, on FlickrThe Missing Whale

The landing point is in a small fishing shanty built out over the water. Music drifts through the air, the tunes and quality of which might suggest we’re caught in the 1930s; however, the televisions inside the huts of the shanty suggest a much later period. Perhaps the music is from a record player and innocent enough; but the contrast between the music and the presence of the televisions (and surfboards!) is the first in a series of mixes that make the Missing Whale such an interesting curio awaiting exploration.

Raised board walks links the various huts and buildings of the village, and provide a route up onto dry land in one direction and, by way of a river crossing to the local store in another. The store is stacked with a range of produce, western meats and cheeses, oriental beer – and the opportunity for a game of pool. It appears to sit as the Last Friendly Store where explorers can gather supplies before delving into the interior.

The Missing Whale; Inara Pey, February 2019, on FlickrThe Missing Whale

Beyond the little village, the landscape becomes more rugged  – and wet. Rain falls over a bamboo forest, water flows down over rocks and through pools to a broad channel cutting the land. Ruins lie close to this river, watched over by a tiger, offering a suggestion that perhaps we’re in the rain forests between India and Myanmar. But then, up on the rocky foothills beyond, African elephants bathe in the waters of the large, waterfall-fed pool. Thus we have another anachronism (although admittedly, it might simply be the result of Indian elephants being a little less popular with creators than their African cousins).

Even so, whether deliberate or forced by circumstance, the clash between tiger and elephant adds further mystery to the region. The Asian influences can be found elsewhere as well; there is more than one tiger in the region awaiting discovery, while stone and copper Buddha heads can be found as well. Similarly, the region has a number of oriental / Japanese style structures waiting to be discovered, both down among the trees and up on rocky plateaus, mixing things further.

The Missing Whale; Inara Pey, February 2019, on FlickrThe Missing Whale

There is also an edge of danger to the region – as evidenced by the wreckage of two downed aeroplanes in the hills and a boat driven against the rocks in one of the river channels. This channel holds within it a little beach; although the path to it is not entirely obvious, even if it is signposted when you find it 🙂 . As an alternative, the daring could scramble down from the high rocks holding the beach in their curve.

If I’m totally honest, I’m not sure the selected region windlight shows the setting to its best advantage, and I would suggest playing with options for photography. Also, there are one or two areas where the is a lot going on which can impact viewer performance (depending on your system & settings, obviously). I found the walk through the bamboo forest in the rain pretty heavy going thanks to the rain, the motion of all the bamboo in the breeze and the atmospherics; hence again why playing with windlights can help.

The Missing Whale; Inara Pey, February 2019, on FlickrThe Missing Whale

But, this shouldn’t deflect you from a visit; the Missing Whale makes for an attractive visit.