Not everything we do as a nation is an open door for Mr. Cockup. While the U.S. might go awry in a lot of areas, one place we still kick ass is in space exploration. Both of the Voyager spacecraft we launched way back in the summer of 1977 (remember 1977? When we were still in Bicentennial hangover?) are still going, decades after their primary mission has been completed.
The other mission that has met and exceeded all reasonable expectations is the Mars Rover mission. Spirit and Opportunity were launched in 2003. The little golf cart sized probes were sent to Mars on a three month mission to look for signs of water on the surface of the Red Planet.
They arrived in 2004 and completed their primary science mission three months later. But instead of succumbing to the very harsh Martian environment, as expected, these two little and relatively cheap probes continued to function. Since they were already there, and NASA is not an agency that wastes anything that is still working their mission was expanded, and expanded again.
Tonight the Opportunity rover is completing a two year-long trek to its final investigation site. I say final because the Endeavour Crater is huge, and as strong as the performance from Opportunity has been, it is unreasonable to expect it to actually survey the whole crater. This new site is 25 times the size of the crater it was originally sent to explore.
The picture at the top of this post was taken by Opportunity today. It is at a place called Spirit point, named after the Spirit Rover that finally succumbed to failing wheels and the dust covering the surface of its solar panel array this past May.
Why go to Endeavour in the first place? I’ll let the NASA guy’s say it:
“We’re soon going to get the opportunity to sample a rock type the rovers haven’t seen yet,” said Matthew Golombek, Mars Exploration Rover science team member, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “Clay minerals form in wet conditions so we may learn about a potentially habitable environment that appears to have been very different from those responsible for the rocks comprising the plains.”
Now if you are not a Space Cadet like I am you might not think this is such a big deal. After all we’re just talking about a probe lasting longer than it was designed for, what’s the hubbub about? Let me give you a little run down of what it is like on the surface of Mars.
In general it is cold. Mars has a very, very thin atmosphere. Even if it mostly oxygen, you’d still have a hell of time telling it from vacuum if you were standing on the surface. This means the sunlight that falls the planet has almost nothing to trap the heat. The average temperature on the surface is -87 degrees F (-63 C if your among the metrically inclined).
Another problem is that the Red Planet does not have a magnetic field. This means almost all of the nasty radiation that our local star puts out makes it to the surface. Not only would you get a hell of a tan standing on the surface, you’d also be a candidate for radiation sickness in pretty short order.
Then there is the fact of its long and dark winters. You see, while the atmosphere is very thin it is not so thin that huge dust storms don’t whip across the surface of the planet for weeks at a time.
Given all that, I can only stand in awe of the engineering that went into a probe designed to operate for only three months but exceeded that life time by (so far) 2,700 percent.
At Endeavor Crater we may very well find out if there was a time when there was enough atmosphere on Mars to allow liquid water to persist. This would be another huge step in trying to find out if there was life on Mars at any time in the past, or if we here on Earth are still the only oasis in a very barren Solar System.
The floor is yours.