12 December 2007

a strange little hero

At birth, she was given just three months to live.

Four years later, half-blinded and weakened to the point that she requires two days rest in order to have just one hour of waking usefulness, she still soldiers on, forced to move backwards due to a gimpy inoperative leg that she drags behind her in the dirt.

Experts cannot explain how it is she's even still alive.

Winter is coming on now, and her best shelter for these coming chill months will be a rocky outcropping in the lee of the frigid winds. If all goes well, she will somehow continue to beat the odds and waken in the spring to resume her slow meandering backward crawl.


Her name is Spirit, and she is one of the twin Mars rover probes NASA sent to the Red Planet in 2003.

She is a tiny lunchbox sized robotic exploration probe -- a six wheeled rolling set of eyes and fingers and taste buds for NASA researchers, armed with a tiny but resilient computer mind which can take simple instructions from NASA and somehow translate them into a course of action for the day.

When she landed on Mars in 2003, the expectation was that she would roll around, sample and photograph rocks and soil in the surrounding area, but that the extreme conditions on Mars would soon cripple or kill her. "Three months, more or less," the experts projected. Winds, dust storms, antarctic winters, darkness which would deny her tiny solar panels the energy needed to power up her tiny motors and communications devices. She was designed as a a proof-of-concept test -- a pile of off-the-shelf parts thrown together on the cheap just to see if the basic principle of a low-cost research mission could work. She was just short term disposable asset and not much more.

But somewhere along the way, she and her twin brother, Opportunity, just didn't quite get that memo.


Sometime during the last few months -- three years past the point where the best experts were sure she'd have long since stopped functioning -- Spirit caught some grit in her right front wheel, one of six such small rubber tires "borrowed" from a stock remote control toy of the kind sold at most any large store in America. The wheel seized up and has not rolled since.

So Spirit just decided to drive in reverse and drag the useless wheel behind her, leaving a long lazy skid mark in the sand as she happily putters around the surface of another planet.

Now, when she receives orders from NASA to "go check out that rocky outcropping to the east" or "sample the dust in that bright area 13 yards due north," she waits for a day or two until her solar cells soak up enough of the sun's far dimmer light (maybe half as bright as on Earth), then limps over without complaint and keeps doing what she was designed to do: push back the veil of ignorance and push forward the bounds of what our species knows, what our species suspects, what our species dreams.

Go. Seek. Explore.


Sometime this past few months NASA scientists happened to glance back at that skid mark trail now stretching hundreds of yards behind the pugnacious little probe. Someone noticed the sand turned over in the trail seemed brighter-- whiter, shinier -- than the neighboring sand. So someone told Spirt to turn around and test that bright dirt in her own trail.

No problem, she muttered to herself, and rotated back, extended her tiny spoon-like digger and tasted the Martian dirt.

Silica. Nearly pure. Trace but elevated amounts of titanium, she reported back as soon as she soaked enough sunlight to make the test and the transmission.

Silica, with traces of titanium. Exactly the residue found on Earth around fumeroles, volcanic water features such as geysers and steam vents. Water features. Of a sort long known as a habitat for an insane variety of extremely tough primitive life forms.

Exactly the sort of place where life might first start on a cold hostile planet.

Like Mars.

"[T]his concentration of silica is probably the most significant discovery by Spirit for revealing a habitable niche that existed on Mars in the past," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., principal investigator for the rovers' science payload. "The evidence is pointing most strongly toward fumarolic conditions, like you might see in Hawaii and in Iceland. Compared with deposits formed at hot springs, we know less about how well fumarolic deposits can preserve microbial fossils. That's something needing more study here on Earth." [see entire NASA release HERE]

Now the concern is for Spirit's safety and continued improbable survival. Her solar panels are coated with dust from bad storms earlier this year, and it's not as if she can just swing past a car wash and get hosed off. The dust-covered cells already transfer less power than designed, and if Spirit powers down into sleep mode for the winter, she might well not have enough power to wake up come spring, when the temps on Mars climb back to a "balmy" 0˚F.

But still, she was never supposed to be here in the first place. She was just a test. A gimmick. A toy.

Who has defied the experts and chugged on for 1400 days, alone under a strange pink sky on an cold and windy alien planet, sending every scrap of information and science she can manage back to that bright point of blue-white light in the sky, a point which which marks the home of those six billion humans she represents and serves.

And now -- crippled, weakened, and maybe finally doomed -- she's made "probably the most significant discovery" of her entire amazing mission.

I dunno. Perhaps it's a little dramatic, but for my money, that's pretty damned heroic.
astrogeek 2000 B


Elver said...

Man, that was beautiful. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Sic 'em Bears.

Teddy said...

That was an amazing bit of writing. No wonder Nicholl came calling. Thanks and keep it up.

Shawna said...


Be in L.A. in May -- JPL has an open house. Having just been on a tour (like, a week and a half ago) at their facility, it was beyond cool to hear how proud they are of their rovers. Lunchbox size? Little larger than that. The one they are building now will be the size of a golf cart. And yes, I got to see people working in a clean room beginning to assemble the beast.

The scientists are hopeful that the winds which in the last two years blew most of the dust off the solar panels, will return and Spirit/Opportunity will keep rollin' along just fine.

They do fear the day they stop working though. Apparently the JPL folks are like very proud parents, watching their children overcome so many obstacles to become better than ever imagined. When the day comes that there are no more signals from the twins, it will be a day of great mourning in the hills of Pasadena.

MoviePen said...

Wow. Nicely written.

Kinda resonates with my career.

aggiebrett said...

-- thx

-- uh... no.

-- Thx also

-- "really BIG lunchbox sized" 8^p

-- again, thx


I was reading a release on the rovers and suddenly found myself cheering for a little bundle of wires and servos and circuits as it creeps around the red dirt of Mars, and then it hit me that the damned rover had taken on something like a personality in my mind.

Funny how things work.