Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Little Robots That Could

The rovers Spirit and Opportunity* were successfully delivered to Mars five years ago today. Designed to last just three months, after surviving dust storms and hibernating through five winters of freezing temperatures and low sunlight the solar-powered robot explorers are still going strong (although thanks to a faulty wheel Spirit is now forced to forge on backwards). As NASA proudly reports:
The rovers have made important discoveries about wet and violent environments on ancient Mars. They also have returned a quarter-million images, driven more than 21 kilometers (13 miles), climbed a mountain, descended into craters, struggled with sand traps and aging hardware, survived dust storms, and relayed more than 36 gigabytes of data via NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. To date, the rovers remain operational for new campaigns the team has planned for them.
It's a fantastic achievement. And let's not forget that while the two little robots have been climbing mountains and descending into craters and crossing sand dunes, the Mars Odyssey spacecraft is still working away in orbit, on its third two-year extension of its original mission, ESA's Mars Express has just celebrated its fifth year, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has recently completed its primary, two-year science mission, taking high-resolution photographs of Mars's surface (including shots of Spirit and Opportunity, and a great photograph of the descent of this year's lander, Phoenix).

Yeah, it would wonderful to see the first astronaut (or taikonaut) stepping onto the surface of Mars. And I hope I'll be around to see it, despite arguments that NASA should focus on the Moon rather than Mars in the near future. Meanwhile, the two brave little rovers and their robot companions are doing some wonderful science, and have helped immeasurably in turning Mars from a remote blood-red dot in the sky to a real world crammed with real wonders.

UPDATE: Well, Spirit landed on January 4. Opportunity followed three weeks later on January 25.


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