December 11, 2007

Spirit: The Little Rover That Could

Nasa_mer_marvin.jpgIt's not our wars or our endlessly silly elections that prove this planet isn't big enough for man, but the small dramas going on "out there." One of these is currently playing out 36 million miles away on Mars. On those red dust plains a small artifact of man is struggling to stay -- some people would say "functional" -- alive. The Mars rover "Spirit" that has been doggedly trundling around the surface of Mars for almost 4 years is in trouble.

Spirit has about two weeks left to reach a sun-facing slope on the northern edge of a plateau known as Home Plate in Gusev Crater. So much dust blankets its solar panels however, that the rover needs to spend a day charging its batteries just to crawl for an hour. Even if Spirit reaches its winter resting spot, surviving its third Martian winter will be tough, Callas said. Engineers estimate Spirit's power levels will be reduced to 30 percent -- about what is needed just to keep its equipment from freezing.
The winter temperature on Mars can vary between -52 and -125 degrees below zero. For months. Martian months. The only hope to extend the life of Spirit, already truckin' along at 15 times the projected mission length, is to get it hunkered down in a "sunny" spot called "Winter Haven:"
NASA's Spirit rover is approaching the northern edge of a low plateau called "Home Plate." The rover's operators selected an area with north-facing slope there as a destination where Spirit would have its best chance of surviving the oncoming winter. The yellow line indicates Spirit's route from early February 2006. Labels indicate the area intended for Spirit to spend many months spanning the rover's third Martian winter, the site where it spent about seven months, and the site where it lost use of the drive motor for one of its six wheels.
spirit-540x540.jpg Full-Camo jacket: Spirit's self-portrait against the surface of Mars.

It might seem easy, but nothing manmade has an easy time on Mars. Spirit moves at a top speed of about 2 inches per second on a flat, unobstructed surface, but Mars is anything but unobstructed to the 5x5x7.5 foot rover. Even thought it was originally programmed and expected to only function for 90 days, at four years out it has gone barely 12 miles in total distance.

But still it persists, a moving testament to great engineering and luck. Covered in a dusty shroud that makes it seem almost one with the Martian surface, and gimpy with one of its six wheels broken, the aptly named Spirit still moves about its small parcel of an alien world, sending back data and pictures that amaze, inform, and tantalize.

The latest area of interest for Spirit is a small glassy patch the rover spotted in May... "a patch of nearly pure silica -- the main ingredient of window glass.... It could have come from either a hot-spring environment or an environment called a fumarole, in which acidic steam rises through cracks. On Earth, both of these types of settings teem with microbial life."

Wisps of water and shadows of life have been the most tantalizing things discovered by the Rover missions. So far inconclusive, but very, very interesting. Why? Because we posit that life most likely exists on almost infinite planets in the infinite universe. Why? Because it seems the most likely idea to have. Signs and portents point that way. Because it just "stands to reason." At the same time, the only place that we know life exists for an absolute fact, at this time, is on Earth. To know, for a fact, that life exists, or has existed, elsewhere in the universe would have a profound effect on science, philosophy, and metaphysics that would be impossible to calibrate.

"Is this all of life that there is or is there more?" is one of the very big questions that we may, just may, through our little rover that could, be on the edge of answering.

I, for one, am hoping that this winter on Mars will be unseasonably warm.

[Below, a small Keatsian poem I wrote on the day that Spirit landed on Mars.]

JANUARY 4, 2004

On First Looking Out of NASA's Rover

Much have I imagined the arcing vaults of space,
And many fiery launches and cold orbits seen;
Round the darksided moon have I been
And raised a flag above Tranquility base.
Oft on one Red Planet would I place
Dreams of deep-brow'd Bradbury's Morning Green
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I saw Spirit gaze upon our brother's face:
Then felt I like some sentinel in strange skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like those at NASA, when the Spirit's eyes
Delivered them an image through the stars,
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise--
"All green" upon the dusty plains of Mars.

(Apologies to Keats. who would understand)

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Posted by Vanderleun at December 11, 2007 6:43 PM | TrackBack
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