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5 Years…

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On January 4th, 2004, ago a rover called “Spirit”, a fragile-looking 6-wheeled robot carrying a payload of cameras and incredibly sophisticated scientific instruments, plummeted through the almost-not-there atmosphere of Mars, slammed into its rock-strewn surface, bounced into the vacuum-thin air again… and again… and again… before finally coming to rest. After being checked-out by its operators back on Earth, Spirit drove off its ramp and down ono the dusty surface of Mars, to begin what even the most optimistic space enthusiasts thought might be a stay of several months.

Five years later, weary and worn, coated with power-starving martian dust, dragging a broken wheel like a lame but defiant dog, Spirit is still roving Mars, still doing science, and still sending back images which enthrall and fascinate scientists and amchair astronauts alike all around the world.

To call this an “amazing achievement” is understatement on a grand scale. In engineering terms alone, it’s close to a miracle – for the rover’s electronics, motors and software to have survived 5 years of Mars’ brutally low temperatures, scouring, stinging dust storms and faint sunlight is remarkable. But it’s the journey that has been the most amazing thing. For the past half decade millions of people around the world have followed Spirit’s Lewis and Clark-like trek across the rugged floor of Gusev Crater, walking alongside her as she approached and then climbed a range of hills… walking alongside her as she rolled down the other side of those hills and up onto a wide, flat plateau of ancient, weathered rock… stood beside her for over a year as she rested, drinking in the view of Gusev’s Big Country wide open plain, with its dust devils, distant mountains and huge pink sky…

The rover has sent back countless thousands of images, many of which have been hailed as “iconic images of the Space Age”: the Sun setting behind the hills on the far horizon… Earth shining in the dawn sky like a speck of light… shadows cast behind jagged, ancient rocks and boulders at dusk… Spirit, and her twin “Opportunity” – which arrived on Mars just a few weeks later, and has had, some say, an even more succesful mission – have done nothing less than revolutionise our understanding and appreciation of Mars. They’ve given us a New Mars – the Mars that people will eventually travel to, settle on, and colonise. When the first human beings set foot on Mars, and leave their historic bootprints in that crushed-strawberry coloured dust, they’ll be there because of what Spirit and Opportunity achieved, in the MER Years.

Regular readers will know that I write “astro-poetry” – that’s poetry inspired by spaceflight and astronomy, and the wonders of the universe we live in. During the past five years I’ve written quite a few poems about the rovers and their mission, so it’ll come as no surprise, I’m sure, to learn that I’ve written a new poem to commemorate and celebrate the 5th anniversary of Spirit landing on Mars. You can find it here:

“5 Years”

And I’m thrilled that one of y very good friends over at UMSF has worked his graphic design magic and put my poem onto a pair of beautiful posters. You can find – and download – them here:

http://astro0.wordpress.com/mer5

Thanks Glen! 🙂

I’m not the only “rover fan” on the internet, of course. A quick Google will bring up dozens if not hundreds of blogs, websites and pages dedicated to and celebrating their achievements. Here are some of the ones I have in my Favourites list…

At UNIVERSE TODAY Nancy Atkinson (no relation!) has been looking back at the rovers’ mission…

On The Planetary Society’s blog, Emily Lakdawalla – one of the best writers on the internet – reflects on what it was like to be there when Spirit landed, 5 years ago…

… also on The Planetary Society’s website, another fantastic writer – a genuinely gifted space journalist, I think – A.J.S. Rayl has written a tremendous piece on the past five years of roving

If you want to know what it was REALLY like to be there when Spirit landed, and during the days that followed, then you should read the blog of one of the actual rover drivers, Scott Maxwell. Scott is an amazing guy – I had the pleasure of meeting him when I visited JPL last year, and being shown around the MER “nerve centres” by him, and he’s every bit as much of a martian as I am, but he actually explores Mars for real, as his job, whereas I just do it in my head and on this blog! Haha! He has a genuine, bubbling, boiling passion for Mars, and for the rovers, that is almost a force of nature. Check out his blog Mars and Me and you’ll get a real feeling for what it was like to be there on The Big Day…

Over in a dedicated thread on the Unmannedspaceflight.com forum you can read the personal thoughts and reflections of the forum members who have followed the mission from the start. It’s been a heck of a ride!

So… 5 years… how many of us thought we’d still be following Spirit half a decade after she landed? I was sure she’d have failed in some mechanical way by now, that her computer would have crashed, or a crucial system would have broken, but no, she just keeps going and going. She will die one day, of course, and what a sad, sad day that will be. But until then we can ALL rejoice in her success so far, and congratulate everyone involved in the mission, and count ourselves lucky that we were here in the early years of the 21st century, when Earth was a very troubled planet, when the world economy seemed to stand wavering on the edge of an abyss, when the globe was wracked by war and strife, when murder, death and destruction seemed to be everywhere, and the smell of blood was in the very air itself…  but amidst all the chaos and pain it was possible to look up at the sky and see a point of light shining there, ruby red, and know that two robots were on it, roaming across the rocky plains of Mars, carrying us, and our hopes and dreams, with them.

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