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When the roving stops…

As I write this, at 7.25pm on a(nother) bitterly cold evening in the Lake District, both Mars Exploration Rovers – suffering rather lower temperatures than I am here! – are moving, or are at least able to move, on Mars. Oppy has been having a bit of a well-earned breather after scooting south towards Endeavour Crater, and Spirit has finally started to edge her way down from Homeplate, ready to move towards more interesting features in the landscape nearby. So, as they begin their 6th terran year on Mars, both rovers are still very much alive and kicking, and seem to be trying their best to convince us they’re immortal.

But they’re not, and one day one – or both – of them will stop roving, and this grand adventure we’ve all enjoyed for these past five years will come to an end. What then?

Well, that rather depends on what actually happens. If the rover just drops off the radar, if it vanishes like a ship that’s strayed into the Bermuda Triangle, if it falls silent without so much as a flutter of a distress call or a plaintive farewell beep, there’ll be nothing the Mars rover drivers and the rest of the MER team can do except sit and stare at their screens and wonder What Happened, before breaking the bad news to the rest of us. But if the rover starts to slow down, if it slowly grinds to a halt, then the story needn’t be over. The adventure will continue. The rover will have stopped being a rover and will have become a scientific platform – another Phoenix, if you like.

I can’t help feeling sad at the thought of Spirit or Oppy just standing there, on Mars,  unable to reach out and touch anything except the very closest of the surrounding rocks, or grind away the weathered surfaces of the stones at its stalled wheels, or take photographs through its high-powered microscope. After all its years of joyous wandering it will be hobbled – the one fate a true explorer dreads and lives in fear of…

But even becalmed in the middle of that rock-strewn sea of dust, the rover will still be able to do very valuable science. It will be able to conduct detailed studies of the martian weather at its final resting place. It will be able to watch for dust devils and the effects of wind on the landscape. It will be able to monitor the build up of dust on its own solar panels. It will become a Watcher rather than a rover.

And of course it will take more photographs. Lots and lots more photographs.

This is what Spirit did at Homeplate – sit still and take a great number of very detailed images which can then be combined to make a single, OMG!-resolution panoramic portrait. Wherever Spirit and Oppy grind to a halt, assuming their cameras are still working I’m sure they’ll be commanded to take the mother of all panoramas there and squeeze every last drop of science out of that image. Which is fair enough. They’re priceless resources, the only eyes we’ll have on the surface Mars until MSL lands in 20…um… whenever.

But I’d like to see them do something else with their remaining time.

Be photographers.

I know what you’re thinking: “What’s he talking about? They’re already photographers! They’ve taken thousands of pictures!” That’s true, yes. But I’m not just talking about pictures. I’m talking about beautiful pictures. Amazing pictures. Gorgeous pictures. Pictures that aren’t taken for scientific reasons, to gather data and learn something about the composition of a rock or the structure of a wind-blown dust dune, but are taken simply because they’re there, because they are worth taking to capture and immortalise a beautiful scene and share it with the people of the world.

Why? Why waste some of the rover’s precious remaining time taking what many people call, sneeringly, “pretty pictures”? Because for all the amazing science missions like MER and Phoenix and Cassini do, and as useful as the garishly-coloured charts and graphs and diagrams their data are turned into are, it’s the pictures that people love and are inspired by.

That centuries old cliche about a picture being worth a thousand words is even more true today, because we live in such a visual age. We are bombarded with images daily – on the pages of newspapers and magazines, on the TV, and online too, of course. As the recent furre over the so-called “Martian Bigfoot” proved, thanks to the internet noteworthy pictures take on a life of their own now, and can be flashed around the world in less than an hour, flashed up on a gazillion different websites at the same time. Just think back to the day the picture of the “martian avalanche” was released by the MRO team. Within a few hours that was on probably thousands – if not tens of thousands – of websites, both professional and amateur. It was covered by news agencies and bloggers alike. Within a matter of days it must have spread through the internet with all the speed of a virus written by a bored kid in Poland, and had been seen by a truly huge number of people…

So, today people are hungry for good pictures, and they devour them when they appear. But pictures don’t just feed our modern hunger for visual stimulation, they inspire us, too. Although it’s probably true to say that most people will just see a pretty picture of Saturn or Mars or Jupiter and think “Hmm, nice”, then turn the page, I think certain images – the really classy, artistic ones, the ones that have that extra ‘something’ – have the potential to really get in people’s heads and inspire them. They have to be very special tho, something really different, or they’re just another picture.

But I think that the MERs have the potential to take truly beautiful pictures if used as dedicated artistic photo platforms with some thought given to aesthetics and composition, and this is the role I’d like them to have if, and when, it becomes clear that the martian sand is really starting to pour down through the hourglasses of their lives and the End really is Nigh. 

Obviously science comes first, and if there’s an opportunity – any opportunity at all- for a hobbled rover to add to our scientific knowledge of Mars then it should be taken. But surely the time will come when the MER team will know the mission is drawing to an end and they’ll feel a need to go out in style, and leave their mark. When that time comes, I say let the science go, you’re done, and start thinking about the MERs’ “Apollo 8 shot”  – the one that will define the mission in the years, decades and even centuries ahead. 

Again, why? Well, just think how many posters, t-shirts, books and magazines the “Earthrise” pic has been used on, how many CD covers it has been used on, how many times it’s shown on TV. If a MER pic of the same dramatic quality and content was taken, it would also have a huge impact. It would be used everywhere, and would come to represent everything the mission stood for and achieved.

Is there a need for such a picture? I think so, yes. There have been several “iconic” images taken during the MER mission – the “Guesv Sunset” pic, the “Columbia Summit” pic and others – but to my mind there’s not yet been a single image taken that will immortalise the rovers and the people behind them. The closest we’ve come, I think, is that image showing Earth shining in the dawn sky, taken by Spirit, early in the mission. But – and this might be considered heresy by some, I know – unless you KNOW that the little blue speck… thing… in the middle of the picture IS Earth, unless you’re a space enthusiast who knows the story behind the picture, then, truth be told, it’s not actually that impressive.

No. What’s needed is a killer image, an image that will literally make people feel the same way they feel when they see a photo of Yosemite Valley taken by Ansell Adams…


It wouldn’t be hard to take such a picture, surely? All you’d have to do would be combine the computing power of JPL with the enthusiasm and skill of the amateur imaging community and you’d be able to plan it all in advance. How hard would it be for such a group of people, working together, to calculate where to point Spirit or Oppy’s cameras to take advantage of a picturesque sunset or sunrise over a lovely arrangement of rocks or beyond some distant hills? How much time would it take for them to plan to photograph a cloudy sky, or one of Mars’ twin moons hanging above the Columbia Hills, or Earth shining in the sky above Meridiani Planum?

The answer is “Not hard at all”, because it’s already been done. A couple of years ago the NEW HORIZONS team put out a call for space exploration enthusiasts and image makers to suggest some photographs theat might be taken as the probe passed Jupiter. The pictures they wanted didn’t need to have any scientific value, just look… well… beautiful. And they were: the image of Europa rising up from behind Jupiter’s limb taken by NH has since been hailed as a classic, and rightly so. That could work again, surely? Surely we could figure out when a hobbled rover could take an image of a gorgeous sunset with Earth glowing in the lavendar-tinted twilight? Couldn’t we work out when to take a picture showing Mars in all its glory, with long, dark shadows being cast behind each rock and stone and the landscape alive with light?

I say yes, we could. And I say we should.

So, imagine… just imagine… it’s some time in the future (hopefully a long time!) and after all its adventures and travels, one of the rovers is finally dying. We know it is, there’s no escaping the fact. It’s almost Game Over. How do we say goodbye to the rover? Do we let it run down and wear itself out taking one last “because it’s there” scientific measurement after another, or do we use it to create and leave behind something special, something magical, an image that would be reproduced in magazines and newspapers all over the world, and shown on TV and websites everywhere? A MER “Earthrise”?

Something like this


… which was created by UMSF members Nix and AstroO a couple of years ago. You can find – and drool over – the full size version here.

That is obviously a “fake” picture, in that it has been enhanced and tweaked to within an inch of its life, but I think a MER could take an image like that for real. All it would need would be for people to get together and talk to each other, for Outreachers to provide input on what kind of pictures the public like, for landscape photographers to provide advice on composition and lighting, and for scientists to calculate the optimum conditions and circumstances. If that all came together the end result would be a picture, or a series of pictures, that would make a real impact on the public, and be a fitting legacy for the MER mission to leave behind. I truly believe that.

Come to think of it, we could do it now, while the rovers are still healthy.

Let’s put Ansell Adams on Mars, just for a week… just for a sol… and see what he can do. 🙂


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