Spirit might still have interesting science to report. And, oh, yeah, Opportunity is still driving.
Back to my favorite space topic– the Spirit rover. I’m fascinated by the meticulous science and engineering effort going into an obvious obstacle: a robot stuck in the sand. The only problem? The robot and the sand are millions of miles away.
So far, even though it’s been 8 months, Spirit’s still stuck. But scientists have built animations of how the robot got stuck. They’re working with a model and similar conditions on Earth to figure out how to get Spirit rolling again. [Check out NASA’s video.] At the same time, they note, the nearby soil is rich with minerals that could indicate a watery early Martian history. So in some ways, being stuck is “like your car breaking down at Disneyland.”
But as a science communicator, I’m also glad to highlight the process of science and engineering before we know the outcome. When we tell these problem-solving stories, it’s often in hindsight. New discoveries typically involve years of hard work and months– sometimes years– to finish various steps along the way.
Ultimately, patience and problem-solving often go hand-in-hand.
Keep tabs on Spirit’s progress through NASA’s Free Spirit page.
The rovers are still my favorite NASA mission, for reasons I’ve already written about. Even if the rovers quit tomorrow, the rover science team of Steve Squyres of Cornell and company would still have decades of data to comb through and analyze. Last Friday, they published more of the Opportunity data in the journal Science (requires subscription) that documents the role that salty, acidic water and wind have played in sculpting the magnificent rock formations in the craters of Meridiani Planum.
But I still have my soft spot for Spirit, even though that robot is stuck in the sand with another gimpy wheel. The pictures from rover missions are amazing, the science is spectacular, but I’m still floored by the engineering and troubleshooting involved in maneuvering a robot in a harsh environment on a planet 100 million miles away. The mission engineers have managed these problems remotely for more than 5 years– I know my car would need a hand-on tune-up long before that.
That’s not to say that there isn’t hands-on testing involved, and apparently, those steps are underway on the ground at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to find a way out of the sand.
I’m not a gambling woman, but my (Monopoly) money is on the rover and the engineers.
Check out these news reports for more details:
The New York Times article from May 25
And an article by the San Francisco Chronicle‘s veteran science reporter, David Perlman
The Mars rovers may not make the news as much as they once did, but Spirit and Opportunity are still the little Mars missions that could. Spirit bounced its way through a successful landing on Mars 5 years ago, on January 3, 2004.
The rovers feel like old dear work colleagues that I revisit from time to time. Early in my journalism career, I interviewed Steve Squyres of Cornell about the rovers’ longevity in August 2004, just 8 months after they landed. He’s still talking about being exhausted, but he still sounds just as excited now as he did then.
Squyres is dynamic, engaging and decidedly unpretentious. The first time I interviewed him, he munched on a sandwich while he talked to me by phone. Later, when I interviewed him for an Astronomy feature about Spirit, he described that rover’s “personality quirks” and the real risks that the rover team took in deciding to drive Spirit kilometers– eventually towing a lame wheel, sometimes backwards– toward the Columbia Hills. In 2005 and 2006, I pored over Spirit’s photos and traverse maps for a Mars exhibit (that sadly didn’t make it into production) , marking rocks and distances in photographs. Among the Himalayan scale of Mars rover data, I’ve studied a few boulders around the edges.
The new JPL video makes the connection between the rovers and their prescient names: Spirit, the scrappy robot that had to work for everything and Opportunity, who capitalized on landing in the right place.
I feel a certain sisterhood with Spirit, holding on through Martian winters, weathering dust storms, but discovering salty soil and examining bedrock. As she was beginning her climb in the Columbia Hills, I made my own trek from Indiana to New York City, from chemistry to journalism. It’s been a rewarding trip, but it hasn’t been easy. I’ve drug my own gimpy wheel at times, sometimes feeling like I was looking over my own shoulder. But nearly 5 years on my own journey, I have a Squyres-esque smile on my face, and I’m saluting an inspiring road warrior, on a planet 100 million miles or so away.