What IS MSL..?

I had something of an epiphany this morning. That sounds very grand, I know, but it actually happened. No, a light didn’t shine on me from Heaven, and I didn’t hear a voice booming out from the ice blue sky as I stood at the Cenotaph in Kendal for the two minutes’ silence. I was looking at the latest “overnights” from both Opportunity and Curiosity, the latest images to be beamed back to Earth by them, and flicking between the two different websites a basic plain truth hit me, like a wet fish across the face. They’re two very, very different creatures, Oppy and Curiosity.

Opportunity is a rover. Curiosity isn’t.

I know, I know, Curiosity has been marketed as a rover, and most people think of it *as* a rover, and looking at that picture it’s got wheels, six of them, big and bad and black and, now, dented and dinged. But Curiosity isn’t a rover really. And we have to stop thinking of it as one.

I know what you’re thinking. Ok, smartarse, if it isn’t a rover, what is it then?

Well, the clue is in the name.

In “MER” the R stands for Rover, and even a casual glance at Oppy’s images, on almost any day, show the truth of that – she drives, often and far. We see her tracks in the martian dust, leading up or downhill, towards , around and past outcrops and ridges; to and around craters and faults; up to and past meteorites and gravestone-like blocks of ejecta. Look at the image gallery of Curiosity and you see lots of gorgeous images of rocks, and dust dunes, trenches and a far horizon, and dozens upon dozens of images of that ***** scoop, but what you don’t see are tracks. Curiosity hasn’t moved for weeks.

Not through laziness, or because of any problem, but because – and this will be a hard pill for some to swallow – it’s not actually her job to move. That’s not why she was sent to Mars. Her job is to do science, deep science, hard science, after finding somewhere or something interesting. Driving just gets in the way of that.

No. In “MSL” the L stands for Laboratory. And that’s exactly what Curiosity is – a big, incredibly sophisticated laboratory, that is carried briefly from place to place by six wheels, before being set down again and getting down to work.

You know, I’m starting to to think of Oppy as a young, keen field geologist, in cut-off jeans, racing around the martian landscape in scuffed trainers and with a bandana wrapped around her head, keeping *most* of her hair in place, running up and down slopes, looking at one exciting thing after another, as giddy as a kid in a zoo dashing from cage to cage. MSL on the other hand, is far more serious, far more focussed. She’s clearly senior to Oppy, with her hair scraped back in a practical and severe bun, and she wears serious canvas trousers, with lots of pockets, and heavy, thick-soled hiking boots, with steel toe caps. She doesn’t rush anywhere. She walks, slowly, from A to B, then kneels down in front of B, looks at it closely, carefully, from all angles, head tilting this way and that like a raptor sizing up Sam Neil, before formulating a plan of how best to study it with all the equipment in the heavy, neatly-packed rucksack slung over her shoulder.

MSL is a “rover” in the same way that a Swiss Army Knife is a knife. Sure, it can be used *as* a knife, but it only once in a while. The rest of the time it does other things.

And I don’t mean that unkindly, no-one should think that. I’m just seeing, probably for the first time, the truth of the situation. And actually, it’s Opportunity’s fault. We’ve been spoiled by Oppy’s rushing about over in Meridiani, running from one Amazing Place to another with her tail wagging wildly and her ears pricked up. In contrast, MSL’s lack of movement is frustrating many, and has, I’ll admit, been frustrating me too. Every day I have found myself growing more and more impatient with the rover for NOT MOVING YET!!!!!! And yes, I am, I will admit, heartily sick of seeing pictures of that bloody scoop when I go to the MSL images galleries, even though I know, as a serious and lifelong space exploration enthusiast and Mars exploration fanatic, how important it is to make sure it and all her other systems are working properly before pointing her towards the foothills of Mt Sharp and letting her off the leash.

So, time for a realignment of perception (oooh, that sounds flash, I’ll use that again!). From now on, I’m going to consider there to be two robots exploring the surface of Mars – but only one rover, and that’s Opportunity, which is driving around the rim of Endeavour Crater, showing us ‘stuff’. On the other side of Mars, having landed safely three months ago, a big, incredibly sophisticated laboratory is working patiently in Gale Crater, painstakingly surveying its surroundings and carrying out a detailed examination and analysis of the rocks, dust and gases there. It will drive off when it is absolutely ready, find another excellent location to continue its work at, and then settle down and get back to work again there, leaving Opportunity to carry on the genuine roving, running from place to place, eyes bright and tongue lolling, as the sols fly by.

And that’s fine by me. :-)

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3 thoughts on “What IS MSL..?

  1. Crazee says:

    Great article! It shows as even an insider (wich I think you are) is easily tricked by expectations.

    Go on! I enjoy your work!

    • phoenixpics says:

      Absolutely *not* an insider, no; just a spaceflight enthusiast blogging from a rain=-soaked Lake District in the UK. :-)

      • Crazee says:

        Stuart spends so much time, reading reports, watching and composing images, writing stuff…
        I think he IS an insider (even as I know he’s not working for NASA, JPL…)!

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