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5 Years of Walking on Mars…

mer-walk

Five years ago this month, two wheeled robots landed on Mars, and my life – and the lives of countless thousands of scientists, writers, spaceflight enthusiasts and armchair explorers – changed forever.

It’s one of the oldest cliches in the book, but it is true: I really do remember it as if it was yesterday. Five years ago – after six months of (im)patient waiting and fingernail-chewing – I sat at my old computer, cooling cup of coffee in hand and pack of chocolate biscuits on the tabletop, staring at a tiny RealPlayer screen on my huge CRT monitor, following the landings of the Mars Exploration Rovers “Spirit” and “Opportunity” live, as they happened. In those days I was on dial-up, so when the NASA TV coverage wasn’t freezing and re-buffering it was breaking up into a psychedelic haze of fractured pixels, and probably a dozen times I was unable to get back on to the site after losing the feed, and had to try to reconnect frantically, hoping to somehow squeeze my way into a gap in the data pipe which was already as stuffed full as a snake eating a tennis ball. I was, frankly, terrified during those landings, imagining every little thing that could go wrong. And those fears were well-founded. Mars had recently killed yet another spaceprobe sent to study it, and there was a voice in my head telling me that there was no way – No Way – Mars would allow both rovers to survive their landings. Sitting there looking at that screen I was still desperately disappointed after the failure of the British “Beagle 2” probe to broadcast back from the surface of Mars after its Christmas Day landing…

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Everyone was wondering what had happened to it – had it broken-up high in what passes for Mars’ atmosphere? Had it got tangled up in its parachute and smashed into the ground at a gazillion miles an hour? Or, even more cruelly, had it survived its entry and descent and landed safely, in one piece, only for a failure of its communications system to leave it mute? Even today we don’t know. But back in January 2004 we were all terrified that one or both of “the rovers” would meet the same fate on the Red Planet.

So I sat there, in the wee small hours of January 4th, 2004, sipping coffee, munching choccy biccies and staring at that coming-and-going RealPlayer screen, feeling a little bit weak from lack of sleep, but buzzed by the thought that I was actually… finally… watching space exploration history being made. I “missed” the Viking landings – and the actual missions themselves, I suppose – because they took place before I was really “into” Mars; I only caught up with them, and appreciated their significance, years later. In contrast I had followed the Beagle 2 mission almost from the very start. Fascinated by its simple, honest goal – to try and find life on Mars – I had followed every stage of its construction, watched the launch live, and then  looked forward to the landing and subsequent scientific adventure. I had, of course, followed the “Rover” mission too, and been fascinated by its goal – to roam across Mars for a few months and do geology there – but as a proud Brit I had thought of Beagle as MY mission. But with Beagle’s glittering prize cruelly ripped away from me I turned my attention to the Rovers, and as their landing approached became more and more nervous…

Finally, as history now records, Spirit landed safely, boing-boinging across the dusty floor of Gusev Crater, followed a mere handful of weeks later by her sister rover, Opportunity, which landed on Meridiani Planum, on the other side of Mars. On both occasions I stayed up into the wee small hours of the day, absolutely determined to see the first images come back from the rovers live, online, as the rest of the watching world saw them, and not “catch up” with them later. When they appeared on my screen it was as if a small nuke detonated in my head. We were on Mars! I was on Mars! Probes I’d watched be designed, built and launched had actually landed on Mars and were returning pictures, and even if they only lived for a few days, even if they only roved a hundred metres or so, even if they only sent back a handful of images, I would be part of it. I went to bed with a ridiculous Cheshire Cat smile on my face, feeling very relieved and, if I’m honest, pretty damned smug too, for some reason, even though I’d obviously had absolutely no role in the MER mission and no part in the landings myself.

And I can remember so, so vividly how, after finally succumbing to sleep,  I woke up a few hours after the landing of Spirit, went back online and found the first detailed colour images waiting for me. There, on my screen, was a whole new, achingly-beautiful (to my eyes, anyway) martian landscape, littered with rocks, dwarfed beneath an enormous, orange-pink sky…

gusev

And I can honestly say that after watching the rovers’ landings, and seeing those first colour images, my life Changed.

How? well, over the past 5 years – and, you know, I still want to shake my head in disbelief and whistle when I type or read that! – it’s no exaggeration to say that following the journeys of Spirit and Opportunity has become part of my everyday life. I get up and the first thing I do (after washing, etc!) is turn on the computer, go online, and see what came back from the rovers while I slept, and when I get back from work… yep, I go online and check the latest from the rovers. Usually there’s something new to see each day – some days the rovers fairly scoot along, so when I go online I notice quite a big diffence in the view from the previous day, but usually the rovers have only moved a little, so their view has changed only very subtly. But it doesn’t matter; what matters is that the rivers ARE roving, they’re moving, they’re genuinely exploring, and I’m – virtually – walking alongside them as they trundle their way slowly, so, so slowly across my beloved Barsoom.

But in the past couple of years I’ve become more than just an “armchair supporter”. I’m now able – after receiving advice and guidance from people on unmannedspaceflight.com, my online “home” I think it’s fair to say! More about that later – to take the “raw” black and white images sent back by the rovers and turn them into amazing colour images. I can also “stitch” several small images together to make a single large panorama, and I can also combine two different images – one taken through a rover’s “left eye” and the other through its “right eye” – to make an anaglyph, or 3D image, which looks just incredible when viewed through a pair of those red and blue 3D glasses, it really can be just like standing there on Mars if I get the adjustments just right: you can see the layers in the rocks, the ripples and waves in the dust dunes, every little detail stands out, and it’s very tempting to do that child-like thing of reaching into the screen to try and wrap your fingers around the rock there…

The MER missions have been a godsend for my Outreach work too. I spend a lot of what I laughingly call my “spare time” giving lectures and presentations about astronomy and space exploration. I talk to charity groups, community organisations and astronomy societies, usually in a drafty old church hall or a Community Centre. I also spend a lot of time in junior schools here in Cumbria, talking to classes of 6-12 year olds about space. All my presentations are Powerpoint based, and feature the very best and the very latest images returned by the Mars rovers. I think it’s safe to say that since the rovers landed I have shown their images to many thousands of people, young and old, they have been a fantastic Outreach and education resource. Not just because they are so crisp and clear, but because they are so beautiful and artistic. As scientifically valuable and informative as the rovers’ images are, they are also simply great photographs, and it’s true, the old saying, a picture really IS worth a thousand words, and whenever I show one of my audiences that beautiful image of the view from the top of Husband Hill taken by Spirit – looking down at the stunning Big Country wide open plain of Gusev Crater’s floor, complete with whorling dust devils – they’re captivated by it. And I have yet to show that classic, iconic image of the Earth shining in Mars’ dawn sky – looking like a chip of blue ice, or a tiny blue star – without several people in the audience letting out an appreciative “Wow…!”

Over the past 5 years I’ve shown thousands of MER images to dozens of groups. Farmers and housewives, scientists and pensioners, I’ve talked to them all. I’ve stood at the front of hundreds classes of kids and seen their eyes go wide when they’ve seen Opportunity’s breathtaking view of Victoria Crater. I’ve given Powerpoint presentations to countless astronomy groups and smiled with satisfaction when they’ve let out exclamations of surprise and disbelief when I’ve shown that amazing picture of Oppy’s shadow thrown onto the sloping wall of Endurance Crater. And I’ve stood in front of  family groups in museums, libraries and church halls and delighted in their stunned reactions to Oppy’s pictures of clouds scudding across the martian sky… but if the MER team hadn’t taken the decision to be so generous with their images, if they’d horded them and kept them to themselves instead of posting them online for the world to see almost as soon as they were received baxck on Earth then none of that would have been possible. So, thank you to them! 🙂

But my “MER experience” would not have been a tenth as exciting or enjoyable without the Unmannedspaceflight.com forum to follow the mission on. For those readers who don’t know, unmannedspaceflight,com (or “UMSF” as it’s usually abbreviated to) is one of the most respected space exploration-related forums on the internet. There are many such forums of course, as a Google search would reveal, but UMSF is different for two very important reasons. Firstly, because it has a strict – and strictly enforced – policy of not tolerating “off topic” posts about such things as politics, manned spaceflight, alien babies or Bigfoots on Mars and things like that. UMSF is, as its name suggests, a forum for discussing unmanned spaceflight – spaceprobes, basically, and if anyone comes along trying to flame, or cause trouble, or claim they’ve found a piece of wood or an alien skull in a zoomed-in-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life section of a Mars rover image then they’re in the wrong place. The other thing that makes it so special is the membership itself. Become a member of UMSF and you’ll find yourselves rubbing virtual shoulders with many of the men and women who actually work ON the missions… Mars Rover drivers, Deep Space Network operators, Mars geologists and climatologists, they’re all members of UMSF, and clearly love being able to take part in discussions about their work. Put those two aspects of UMSF together and you can see why many of its members consider it to be a lush oasis of calm and civility in the brutal Wild West of the Internet. ( Myself, I like to think of it as that saloon that Mal and the rest of the crew of the Serenity go into in the series FIREFLY… guns are left at the door, everyone gets on and is respectful to everyone else, and as long as you don’t make a prat of yourself or start knocking other people’s pints over then you’re welcome!)

Being a member of UMSF during the 5 years of the MER mission has given me so many amazing things it’s impossible to list them all, but in the past half decade I’ve been able to see unique and wonderful panoramas, mosaics and colourisations made by its members, many of them so good they’ve been featured in astronomy and space exploration magazines and also on the Astronomy Picture of the Day website; I’ve been able to learn about the “science behind the images” thanks to the informed postings of members who know about geology and engineering; I’ve enjoyed “behind the scenes” reports from people involved in the mission. But best of all, I’ve shared the good times and the bad times of the mission, every one of its triumphs, failures and near disasters, with hundreds of people all around the world who feel exactly the same way about the rovers that I do. And at the risk of sounding too sappy here, sometimes I wonder how – as a self-confessed spaceflight geek – I’d cope in the Real World without the Forum, I really do…! 🙂

There can be no doubt that the MER mission has been staggeringly successful, in many ways. In terms of Outreach alone it has been a triumph, with countless thousands of images returned and shared with the world and almost certainly millions of hits on the websites covering the mission. Scientifically the MER rovers have been triumphs, too. They’ve told us that the theories were right – Mars really was a warmer, wetter place long ago. They’ve sent back a wealth of scientific data about Mars’ weather, geology and history that will take possibly a generation to analyse fully and properly; they’ve essentially carried out field surveys of two areas of Mars.

Yes, five years after arriving on Mars I think it’s fair to say that Spirit and Oppy have revolutionised our view of Mars in the same way that Mariner 9 and the Vikings did before them.

Technically, of course, the MER mission has been a triumph too: on those historic heady days when the rovers landed, who would have dared to imagine they would still be roving half a decade later? It’s insane when you think about it! Everyone knows now that they were “designed to last 90 days” (bit misleading that, but long story and not enough time to go into all that here) but have you ever stopped to think just how many things could have gone wrong – and ended the rovers’ missions – during the past 5 years? Every day since they landed the rovers could have fallen foul of a computer glitch, a suspension failure, a software problem or a technical fault that at best becalmed them and turned them into landers, or, at worst, killed them altogether, snuffing out their lives without a moment’s notice. During the past 5 years literally every sunset could have been their last.

Half a decade after arriving on Mars the only thing certain about the rovers is their death. One day they will die, there’s no getting around that. But perhaps that’s what makes the MER mission so exciting and inspiring, in a bizarre, almost perverse kind of way: we know that this adventure IS coming to an end, it CAN’T last forever, we just don’t know exactly when all the fun will stop. We don’t know which rover will fail first, and which will struggle on alone, like that poor drone in SILENT RUNNING…

 mer-j

There’s an element of suspense about the MER missions that is quite intoxicating – but terrifying too. They’ve become a kind of interplanetary version of “Big Brother”, a cross-solar-system reality show. Every day brings the possibility for new drama! During the past 5 years I’ve felt a little giddy with excitement every time I’ve gone online, wondering what the latest pictures would show… But I’ve also experienced a moment of heart-in-my-mouth fear every single time I’ve gone online too, wondering if this would be the time I would read in a sad message on Twitter, a despairing, mournful posting on UMSF or in a cold and unemotional NASA email that finally, one of the rovers had died, all those millions of miles away, on the ruddy surface of Mars. So far so good. But that moment will come, that’s absolutely guaranteed, and when it does come I’ll be gutted. At this moment I genuinely can’t imagine what it would be like without the MER rovers to follow day by day. Their passing will leave a huge hole in my life, and if that sounds silly, too “rover huggy”, then I make no apologies for it. You either feel this way about them, or you don’t. I do.

But enough talk of the rovers dying! At the moment all seems to be going well for them! 🙂 Spirit – oh, poor, power-starved, limping, dust-coated, had-to-fight-for-everything-it-ever-got Spirit! – is getting ready to start moving again, after being parked up for what seems like a billion years. Power permitting she’ll start to make her way over to a feature on the landscape called “Von Braun” soon, then we’ll see pictures of something else other than the rock-scattered top of Homeplate (which was fascinating for the first few months but now, well, to be honest I’m sick of the sight of the bloody place! I want some new scenery!!!). Opportunity, on the other hand, is shiny clean, positively bursting with life, and well into her “epic trek south”, towards the huge crater, Endeavour. It helps that Oppy now has a kind of “SatNav” in the form of the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter; MRO’s high-resolution camera is being used to take very detailed photos of the terrain ahead of Oppy as she heads south, allowing her to avoid obstacles and find the best driving ground.

Yes, as the 5th anniversary of their arrival draws near, both rovers are still moving, still learning, still exploring. Still roving. And as a troubled world enters a new year that’s one thing to celebrate, at least.

When the rovers do eventually stop working, what will be their lasting legacy? Well, the science that will come out of the mission will be invaluable, of course; Mars is already a whole new planet thanks to them, and who knows what discoveries will be made when the data returned has been fully trawled and analysed? We’ll have learned a lot about how to make machines that can fly to, land on and then operate on Mars, too, knowledge that will be invaluable when it comes to building future unmanned rovers and landers, and eventually manned spacecraft, too. And in the years and centuries to come, when Mars is settled and colonised, men, women and children born on Mars – the first ‘martians’ – will follow the “Spirit Trail” and the “Opportunity Track”, retracing their epic journeys, stopping along the way to have their photograps taken beside the rocks, landscape features and viewpoints made famous in their images.

But their greatest legacy I think will be the inspiration they’ve given to a whole generation of people – not just space enthusiasts like myself, who devour this stuff, but people who simply have a curiosity about the universe and our place in it. How many of the fabled Men and Women In The Street have seen a MER picture in a newspaper or magazine, or on a TV news report, and thought “That’s cool!” or “That’s interesting?” How many of them have been turned on to science by a National Geographic or Discovery Channel special about the rovers, even for just a day? How many people have been inspired by that image of Earth shining in Mars’ sky to make them think a little deeper about our place in the cosmos? How many people have gone to an Outreach talk, like the ones I give, and been so fascinated by what they saw on the screen there that they’ve joined their town’s astronomy club, or just gone out and bought a book on astronomy? I think it will be hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

When I give one of my Outreach talks, in a school or some other venue, I’m usually asked when I think people will eventually go to Mars. It’s a fair and natural question, and one I have asked myself countless times. After all, roving robots are very useful, and they’re very slow;  oh my god, compared to a human being – even a human being in a bulky, presurised spacesuit – they’re painfully slow, covering maybe a hundred metres on a good day, a distance you or I could cover in just a few minutes. They’re great photographers, that can’t be taken away from them, but they’re only ever going to be pale and poor imitations of people. They’re not very versatile or adaptable, they can’t decide that this rock looks more interesting or more unusual than that rock. They have no gut feelings, no instincts. They’re robots.

I used to tell my Outreach audiences that people will land on Mars “around 2030, maybe later”, which is the date NASA seems to have in mind. But in the last few days it struck me, quite forcefully, that that date’s way out.

You see, people are on Mars already. They’re there NOW.

No, there’s been no secret manned mission launched to Mars by the Americans, Russians or Chinese. But there are people on Mars today, millions of them, as you read this, in a way, because every centimetre Spirit and Opportunity crawl across Mars they’re accompanied by the men, women and children who follow their progress on websites and TV and in magazines. HiRISE will never photograph them from orbit, but great crowds of people are walking alongside each rover, keeping them company, sharing their continuing adventure. I know feel like I’m there with Oppy, walking alongside her, my hand resting on her camera mast…

I spent the last 5 years walking on Mars. I climbed Husband Hill. I went down into Endurance Crater. I saw the Sun setting behind the mountainous rim of Gusev Crater, and gazed up at the Earth shining in the sky. I walked around the crumbling edge of Victoria Crater then walked down into it, staring at the beautifully layered rocks along the way. My footprints are right there alongside Oppy’s tracks…

MARS ROVER OPPORTUNITY

And you know what? I can’t help thinking that the best is yet to come…

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7 Responses

  1. My first thought when Spirit landed was “Oh no not again”. I had been promised lake bed deposits but what I saw was boulders seemingly identical to those at the Viking 1, Viking 2 and Pathfinder landing sites.

    150 SOLs later Spirit had driven off these relatively recent broken Basalt lava flows and onto the older and more interesting rocks of the Columbia Hills.

    Having said this I think that the rocks that Spirit sampled in its first 150 SOLs were some of the most important rocks that it investigated because they are typical Mars rocks.

  2. Hey, that last pic is a shop! Isnt it? er..

    Congrats on a nice article..

  3. […] There’s a very nice reflection at Cumbrian Sky. […]

  4. Thanks for this wonderful piece. I’ve been one of those in the crowd, walking alongside the rovers for the last five years and you have captured my own feelings perfectly.

  5. Love the modern look. I enjoyed this article. Thanks for the excellent writing.

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